German cycleways and the right to the road

This article was originally published on my German blog, but it may well be of interest to my English readers, so here it is.

It concerns the obsession that many German cycle campaigners have with the law which makes many cycleways mandatory to use. It’s known in German as ‘Benutzungspflicht’ – don’t try to pronounce it – but I’ll refer to it as the ‘Pflicht’ in this English version, because “usage obligation” sounds rather cumbersome.

There’s a lot of noise made about the Pflicht here, a bit like how liability legislation or the effectiveness of vehicular cycling is hyped up out of all proportion in the UK. Campaigners would achieve far better results if they focussed instead on what actually works.

Unfortunately the comments on the German post are largely divided into people who believe the Pflicht is a terrible thing for cycling which must be removed immediately, and people who believe the Pflicht is the only thing which is keeping the German cycleways from being ripped out altogether. Few seem to agree with my suggestion that it’s largely irrelevant and that we should concentrate on demanding great cycling infrastructure.

By the way, I’ve got permission to translate lots of great English-language blog posts, so if you know German (no need to be perfect, we can clean it up before publishing) and have the time and inclination to do some translating, then please do get in touch.


The Pflicht (German law making most cycleways mandatory to use) is not what holds back cycling in Germany. Bad cycling infrastructure is the cause of Germany’s lacklustre cycling rate.

Firstly, let me say that I understand why so many hate the Pflicht, and why many also oppose the concept of cycleways. Most cycleways in my city of Berlin are awful, truly dire – narrow, bumpy strips squeezed onto the edge of the footway. That’s not a cycleway, it’s an insult, and it’s unreasonable to compel people to use such rubbish.

But the oft-suggested solution to this problem – to demand an end to cycleways and to gain the right to ride on the carriageway – isn’t really a solution at all. It merely swaps one set of problems for another.

Even for fast, confident cyclists, removing the Pflicht will not suddenly make drivers behave nicely, just as plenty of other rules are ignored by people using any mode of transport. Taking down that round blue sign won’t change attitudes towards cyclists on the road, and it’s not a step towards safer cycling for all.

It’s also very exclusionary: there are huge numbers of people for whom cycling amongst motor vehicles simply can’t work. Children, seniors, people with disabilities – they all have the right to fast, efficient transport too. On-road cycling is clearly not a mass transport solution.

A wide, busy road in Berlin with fast-moving motor vehicles and no cycling infrastructure. A lone person riding a bike is on the wide footway.

Lifting the compulsory use regulation will not change this busy road into a comfortable or safe cycling environment.

Could the Pflicht even be a good thing?

The two most successful cycling countries on the planet have a Pflicht. That’s right: our neighbours the Netherlands and Denmark both have compulsory-use cycleways.

And nobody in those countries questions it. Why would you want to cycle on the road amongst dangerous, pollution-spewing cars and vans, when you can use smooth, wide cycleways instead? (The key point here being that they’re good quality.)

Conversely, my home country of Great Britain has no Pflicht at all. It never has done.

That’s right, it’s a dream come true for German cycling activists – British cyclists have the legal right to use the road, just as the driver of a car does. Surely Britain must be a cycling paradise! Surely cars are outnumbered by bikes even more than in Dutch towns!

Well the answer is no, not even close.

Cycling in the UK is almost without exception awful. It’s considered to be stressful and dangerous, something that only a fit, healthy and slightly eccentric few actually bother doing. The very concept of cycling has been reduced to an extreme sport that only enthusiasts bother with, and it’s generally spoken of in derisive terms. It’s hard to express how low the status of cycling is in the UK. Cycling for practical reasons almost doesn’t exist in most of the country.

The diagram shows that the Netherlands has very high levels of safety and very good infrastructure, while the UK is the exact opposte. Denmark and Germany are in the middle.

The Netherlands is clearly the success story, and the UK isn’t. So why would we want to copy what the UK has done?

The graph above is based on this graph which showed more countries, but I’ve simplified it to show only the countries I’m familiar with.

The Pflicht clearly correlates with a higher cycling rate and lower death rate. Of course other factors also play a role, but it could be argued that the Pflicht actually increases the cycling rate, and makes cycling safer. That’s not my contention, however the Pflicht clearly doesn’t harm cycling rates.

What the graph definitely does show is that the Pflicht is, at worst, an irrelevance with regards to more and safer cycling. The two lead nations for cycling both have a Pflicht, but as they also have good cycling infrastructure, it’s not an issue. You’ll search long and hard to find many Dutch or Danish cycle campaigners demanding the right to cycle on the road. (They do campaign for improvements to cycleways, however.)

The UK, conversely, has no real cycling infrastructure to speak of, except for painted cycle lanes on the road, which are ubiquitous. The right to cycle on the road hasn’t aided cycling in the UK one bit. Quite the opposite, in fact: once cycling on the road is the design goal, traffic engineers can effectively ignore cycling altogether. It becomes obsolete, a historic footnote.

A busy junction in London. Lots of vans, taxis, buses and cars sweep around the corner.

Yes, everyone – children, the elderly, and everyone in between – has the right to cycle here. Funny, that so few people choose to exercise that right.

And that’s exactly what will happen here too, if Germany’s cycle campaigns get their wish and cycling on the carriageway becomes the norm. Most people who use a bike for transport simply don’t want to cycle amongst motor traffic (most Germans choose to use even very poor quality cycleways rather than ride amongst motor traffic).

Cycling is never made more pleasant, safer or more convenient by the addition of motor vehicles. If the only option is to mix with motor traffic, then people will vote with their feet and abandon cycling, as happened in Britain.

The oil and motor industries must be rubbing their hands with glee when they see how so many cycle campaigners are asking for the very thing that will kill cycling off.

Cycling is too good for the carriageway

Cycling is a great mode of transport, especially in cities. It’s clean and fast, it goes directly from starting point to destination, takes just seconds to set off and to park. It’s egalitarian, suitable for people of all types, ages and abilities. It presents very little danger to the user, and compared to motoring it presents very little danger to others.

Cycling is far too important a mode of transport to be mixed in with motoring. Motor vehicles are polluting and dangerous, their queues hold everyone up, and they take ages to manoeuvre and park. How does cycling benefit from being mixed up with all that? Cycling has inherently positive qualities, which are negated by both poor-quality cycleways and by on-road cycling.

A road in London, with parked cars on the left and a queue of traffic in the nearside lane. A bus is closest to the camera. There is no space for a person cycling to get through.

Cycling deserves much better than to be mixed up with motor traffic. The queues which are an inherent problem of motor vehicles do nothing to benefit cycling.

Cycling shouldn’t merely be provided for. It solves or alleviates so many problems in cities that it deserves to be prioritised and favoured, to play to its strengths, and to make it the most convenient and obvious choice for those journeys to which it is suited. It needs be treated as a distinct mode of transport, important enough for its own place in the street – not something to be squeezed on to the footway, nor thrown in amongst the motor vehicles.

More cycling benefits everyone (except the oil companies) so journeys by bike should be a top transport priority for the authorities responsible for transport. Even people not cycling benefit from increased cycling, as there’s fewer traffic jams, cleaner air, fewer fatal crashes and less crowding on public transport. Conversely, more driving harms everyone – more pollution, more queues, more crashes, injuries and deaths.

The only proven way to genuinely promote cycling is to campaign for real space for cycling. This means real cycleways – call them cycle-roads if you want – along main roads. Back streets should all be mode-filtered to prevent them being used as through-routes by motor vehicle (bollards and/or one-way restrictions achieve this). This needs network-level planning, not disjointed bits and pieces.

Lots of people on bikes, all in casual clothes and riding in both directions at a busy junction in the Netherlands.

Cycling must be treated as a real, important, and distinct mode of transport. It mustn’t be treated merely as fast walking or slow driving.

Cycling should be a key part of public transport policy. Merely asking for it to be treated like driving – awkwardly thrown into sharing space with cumbersome, dangerous machinery – will only lead to less cycling, as the UK has so clearly demonstrated.

We must follow the leader, look to the Netherlands for the best examples (and keep a critical eye on the poorer stuff). We should talk about cycling like the great mode of transport it really is, and demand that it be treated with the priority it deserves.

If cycling advocates won’t demand the best, who will?

A montage of six Dutch cycling scenes: two young ladies, an older man, a woman with a child in a box-bike and another child riding alongside, a group of teenagers, an older woman, and two young children.

When cycling is treated properly, then all sections of society have access to this fast, healthy and cheap form of transportation.


Filed under Uncategorized

17 responses to “German cycleways and the right to the road

  1. hi, like you I’m a British living abroad and I totally agree with what you said in your post.
    I can say in Italy things are -if possible- even worse that in Germany.
    Cycle lanes do exist, but, as per most Italian laws, you can use them or not as you wish. Mostly are unsafe to use anyway, and people tend to ride on the pavement, more often than not uncaring of pedestrian traffic.
    I’ve been a cycling commuter for a long time and I always tend to use dedicated lanes when available, but sometimes it is safer on the road with other traffic. what’s more, many times such cycle lanes are obstructed by delivery vans or uncaring motorists who think they found the solution to lack of parking space…
    here, too, the main fault is the lack of a decent traffic plans, but I came to the conclusion that health and safety are just some nice words to fill your mouth with before the local elections, then all that matters is that the automobile gets its way, now and always. pretty sad…
    (alec, posting from Turin, Italy)

  2. You write: “It’s hard to express how low the status of cycling is in the UK. Cycling for practical reasons almost doesn’t exist in most of the country.”

    Here in the UK, then, we’re trying to move forwards from what is effectively a standing start. We don’t have much in the way of momentum, in other words.

    You also write: “The only proven way to genuinely promote cycling is to campaign for real space for cycling.”

    If you’re right, there must be mountains of evidence to support this claim. The only proven way? Gosh. Curious you never quoted anyone, however.

    And finally: “If cycling advocates won’t demand the best, who will?”

    I regard this way of thinking as a problem, not a solution. For further discussion of this, please see here and here.

  3. The “Pflicht” is similar to the “Share the Road” in North America, which is nothing more than a euphemism by Government to placate the cyclists to “think” they have the Right of the Road, while they offer no safe and proper cycling infrastructure. And worst of all is,
    that naive cyclists think they won the battle when they got nothing to call their own on safety or rights, because the car is the king and the benefactor to Government coffers.

  4. In the 1970s, when the Dutch started developing their cycling infrastructure, modal share across the country was approximately 25%. It had come down from over 50% in the previous 20 years. So, there was a massive voting population of active and recently active cyclists who could see the benefit of, and vote for, improvements in facilities (source). Comparatively, in this country, with a population of 50m +, we couldn’t even get 100,000 signatures in support of a campaign led by a national newspaper.

    When the Dutch started developing their cycling infrastructure, they didn’t begin by creating real space for cycling; they began by developing networks. Those cities which didn’t develop networks, but which built a few sparse high quality paths instead (notably Den Haag and Tilburg), didn’t register any significant increase in the number of trips made by bike (source).

    You write: “The only proven way to genuinely promote cycling is to campaign for real space for cycling” (my italics). I don’t believe you. In fact, I am convinced that this approach is more of a hindrance than a help.

    Remember, the five main requirements for bicycle-friendly infrastructures are:

    improved traffic safety;
    directness: short, fast routes from origin to destination;
    comfort: good surfaces, generous space and little hindrance from other road users;
    attractiveness: a pleasant, socially safe environment, without smell or noise nuisance;
    cohesion: logical, cohesive routes.

    Two of the above can be provided for now; the remaining three are likely to take some time. It’s just incredible the way that we are going about things.

    • USbike

      I’m curious about the modal share values I see around various blogs about cycling levels in the Netherlands back in the 70’s, and how it ultimately compares to what they have today. I’ve never actually seen citations to back up the values. But regardless, does it mean that only 25% of the population still used a bike ever, or that that was the daily percentage of trips by bicycle. If it’s the latter, that is barely lower than where they are at right now. Yet conditions for cycling now compared to 40 years ago are vastly different and footage from that period paint a very different picture of how people moved about in the urban core and surrounding areas. It certainly helps a lot when most people in Holland are both cyclists and motorists, but it’s not 100% (though estimates show that it’s around 80-90% of the population). And then what about tourists or people who immigrate there from countries that aren’t bike friendly? They may not automatically be use to or even respect the needs of vulnerable road users if in a situation that would mix them together.

      I think what Schrödinger’s Cat was getting at with “real space for cycling” is one that is an all-inclusive, complete network. And this would achieve each of the points that you listed as being essential for achieving a bicycle-friendly system. He never limited it to separated cycle tracks, though the importance of those on arterials cannot be overstated. Cycle streets, Woonerfs, pedestrianized urban cores, contraflow streets, filtered permeability, parking, other amenities, etc. are all part of what makes getting around in a bicycle so effortlessly and safe in Holland. In some cities of the US, like Portland, they try to take the path of least resistance and encourage and paint sharrow symbols on quiet neighbor streets, and avoid building proper infrastructure on arterials. That approach is only going to go so far for so many people.

      • In 1949, in London, 37% of all journeys were made by bike, so it certainly wouldn’t surprise me that 50% of all journeys were made by bike in the Netherlands at around the same time. Given the topography of the Netherlands, it also wouldn’t surprise me that 25% of all journeys were being made by bike in 1973. Even today, 20% of all journeys in Cambridge, England, are made by bike. The only way to rationalise this is because Cambridge is flat. Places like York (12%), Portsmouth (10%) and Dublin (7%) also have this natural advantage.

        I understand the advantages of an all-inclusive, complete network. But this is our destination, and given our starting point, the question is how best to get there? My preference would be for direct and coherent *now*, and comfortable and attractive over time. The key here, of course, is sustained investment.

        I can appreciate why bloggers such as S.C. are reluctant to trust in this approach, but that’s what the Dutch and the Danes did (and are still doing). It is, therefore, “the only proven way to genuinely promote cycling”. S.C. is suggesting otherwise, but he is not able to provide any evidence to support his claim. That’s not compelling. As one of your countrymen explained, “No way of thinking should be trusted without proof.”

        With regards to Portland, it is a shame that, having developed a “bare bones” network, they seem unwilling to push on. Even so, I think they are on the right track. Why steal from an orchard from over the wall before the fruit is ripe? Put the essentials in place first, and then, with a solid foundation in place, build upwards from there.

        • andreengels

          I’d say the big reason for the relatively high cycling percentage in Cambridge is demographics, not natural geography. Students are among the groups with highest cyclist percentage, and there are many of those in Cambridge.
          As for the how to get there: Coherence is not something that can be done directly. One can only go to a coherent network from a near-coherent one, from nowhere one can only get there with a long breath. You can create cycle routes which are direct, comfortable, safe and attractive at once. You cannot build them everywhere at once. My choice in a path to get there would be to start with direct, attractive main routes, at a high quality, then go the secondary and tertiary routes later.

          • You’re certainly right that students constitute a high proportion of the cycling population in Cambridge.

            You say, “Coherence is not something which can be done directly.” Why not?

            There is only one publication which answers the question How to start?, and that is Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities. It says that “introducing” the network to a minimum level of functioning is “a prudent course to follow.”

            If the network is made to work through simply-engineered changes to the existing infrastructure, why is coherence not something which can be done within a short period of time?

            You also write: “You can create cycle routes which are direct, comfortable, safe and attractive at once.” Yes, except the thing is …

            In 2008, David Hembrow reported on some research carried out in the Netherlands, the purpose of which was to find out which interventions for cycling were effective (here). One of the conclusions reached is that good quality cycle routes are of almost no use if they are not close together.

            In 2012, the LCC reported how Seville had Gone Dutch (here).They quote Ricardo Marques Sillero, who said: “Isolated cycle paths are almost usless if they’re not connected, making a network from the beginning.”

            Finally, the National Institute for Transportation and Communities in Portland, Oregon, undertook a landmark study of protected cycle lanes in 2014 (here). It notes that the most important goal of protected cycle lanes is to get a load of people riding who aren’t. However, it says that protected cycle lanes on their own can’t do this.

            So that’s three different pieces of research, from three different countries, all basically saying the same thing: isolated cycle routes, no matter how high the quality, are not effective. Not just that, they are incredibly controversial and bloody expensive. Far better would be to get the network up and running, and then, when a road gets dug up, put it back differently. As Cycling: the way ahead explains: “Most of the time, the additional expenditure needed to meet the requirements of cyclists is comparatively minimal.”

            • andreengels

              What I mean by not being able to do coherence in a short time, is that one can only work on so many roads in a city within a certain time frame. Adding those up, it costs years to get a full network ready. But when one does work on some street, it’s not that much more work to do it right.

        • USbike

          I’m going to try and search around to see if any official statistics about bicycle usage are available from the 60’s/70’s in Holland. While modal share is an important number, I’m even more interested about the total proportion of the population that used the bicycle to get around. There’s a very big different between having a modal share of 25% and where only 25% of the population bicycles vs. 25% modal share and 85% of the population still riding pretty regularly, which seems to be the current situation in the Holland).

          My impression from reading about Portland is that there isn’t strong leadership or campaigning to get bicycle infrastructure like separated cycle tracks, protected intersections and so on. and that much of what’s done is to cater to the existing cycling demographic (young, fit, etc.). If anything, they continue to put bike lanes between the parking lane and traveling lane rather than the other way around. Sometimes they’ll consider putting in a buffer, but that still does not eliminate the problem of cars pulling across to get in and out of the parking lane.

        • I can’t believe you brought Cambridge into it, such a tired old trope. A city where around one-third of driving-age residents are prohibited from owning a car. Perhaps that might have something to do with it?

          If flatness really is such a great thing for cycling, perhaps you can explain why Norwich’s cycle rate is no higher than the UK average?

          I agree 100% that we need direct and coherent networks – you keep making this point, and I don’t dispute it. But the one thing you’ve never clarified is what this network looks like – are you talking about back-street routes? Bike symbols on main roads? Those things have failed.

          Surely you’re talking about filtering back-streets and creating cycleways on main routes? What else could you possibly mean?

          • I can’t believe I brought Cambridge into it either. What was I thinking? The point I was trying to make was that when the Dutch started developing their cycling environment they were in a very different place to where we are now. As you say, “It’s hard to express how low the status of cycling is in the UK. Cycling for practical reasons almost doesn’t exist in most of the country.” For whatever reason, things never got to that point in the Netherlands.

            With regards to Norwich, I presume you’ve read what Freewheeler has to say about it (here). Never mind poor subjective safety, cycling within the inner ringroad is made desperately difficult because of all the one-ways.

            As you know, the thing I am most interested in is networks. You agree 100% that we need direct and coherent networks. It’s worth emphasising that no town or city in the UK has ever had a direct and coherent network. (By coherent I mean naturally or logically connected, forming a unified whole.) Given that direct and coherent networks are “a basic precondition of mass cycling” (to quote ECF), this is indeed a remarkable state of affairs.

            To give you an idea of what the network would look like, I can show you a map of the existing and planned infrastructure in South London (here). This network is made up almost entirely of officially-recognised routes.

            The non-functioning sections are marked in purple. As you can see from this map (here), most of the non-functioning sections are due to be treated soon. (The sections which I am proposing are marked as “Other”.)

            Once the network has been established and made to work, it should then be much easier to begin the process of filtering back-streets and creating cycleways on main routes.

  5. Pingback: Die Benutzungspflicht ist irrelevant | Das andere Bundesministerium für Verkehr

  6. HivemindX

    If the cycle infrastructure is good then there would be no need for a law for force people to use it. From personal experience I can assure you that some motorists feel empowered to endanger you with their cars based on the idea that you are breaking the rules by not using the unfit for purpose cycle lane (or ‘perfectly good’ as they are universally described by people who never have to use them). Perhaps these people, and I use that term loosely, would overtake too close screaming out the passenger window for the cyclist to ‘get off the road’ anyway, but why give them even the veil of correctness.

    Surely you don’t suggest that if only the UK had a mandatory usage law cycling would be better? Or that if the Dutch or Danes did not have one then people would abandon the cycle lanes and their modal share would plummet?

    I agree that mandatory use laws are mostly irrelevant to cycle usage but they do have some effects and those effects are all negative. I can see no valid argument for having these laws in place. If you want cyclists to use the cycle lane make the cycle lanes good. Implementing a law to force them to use a path that is inferior to the road right alongside is reprehensible.

    • I think you’re summing up the article here – I’m not suggesting that crap cycleways should be compulsory! But the problem in Germany was that cycle campaigners were spending huge amounts of political capital in demaning the right to the road – i.e. the status quo in the UK and US. This doesn’t help anyone but the 2% or so who are happy to ride amongst the cars and buses and trucks.

      Instead, energy is better spent on creating conditions which are proven to work for cycling, to increase safety, convenience and desirability. Campaigning for the right to the road would achieve none of that.

  7. Pingback: From … – Site Title

Leave a reply...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s