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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.

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Infrastructure vs Helmets

Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht, hier.

This article was originally published here on my new German-language blog. It was written in response to the German government’s hateful helmet promotion campaign, but still contains points relevant elsewhere.

The safest country in the world for cycling is the Netherlands. There you’ll also find the widest spectrum of people cycling: from young children (the average age at which children begin to cycle independently is about 8 years old) to elderly people (those over 65 cycle for over 25% of journeys).

So, the Netherlands is the safest country for cycling at any age, yet helmet use is only 0.5% – and it’s likely that the 1-in-200 helmet-wearing cyclists are riding for sport. Cycling safety is clearly something more than wearing a styrofoam hat – and yet the German government’s ministry for transport is gung-ho for helmets.

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.

All ages and physical abilities, cycling without helmets – yet the safest in the world.

Helmets are no answer to dangers on the street. In the UK wearing a helmet when cycling is common, yet cycling there is six times more dangerous than in the Netherlands (and that figure ignores the fact that hardly any children or elderly people cycle in the UK).

If we genuinely want to make cycling safer, more helmets aren’t the solution. They are really a good indicator that the streets aren’t safe. When people don’t feel safe when cycling, they will wear a helmet – and hi-vis vest – with or without advertising.

Cyclists in London waiting at traffic lights, surrounded by cars. All of the cyclists are wearing helmets, most are wearing hi-vis even though it's bright daylight.

Cyclists in London, where helmets and hi-vis are the norm, not because of advertising but because people don’t feel that cycling is safe.

Higher helmet use shouldn’t be a goal, it should be seen as a failure of policy, an embarrassing statistic. An increase in helmets is a sign that the government has failed miserably in their duty to provide safe streets.

The real solution is better infrastructure. The government must invest in cycling infrastructure, so that everyone can feel safe and comfortable cycling at any time, without difficulty fear. Helmet promotion campaigns are a way for the government to avoid their responsibilities.

On main roads we need wide, smooth cycleways, with good visibility at junctions, optimised for safety (not the narrow, bumpy cycleways with dangerously-planned junctions which are usual in Germany).

A young woman rides on a wide red-asphalt cycleway in Utrecht. There is room for four people to cycle side-by-side.

Smooth, wide, clearly-defined: a Dutch cycleway. Well-proven safety.

In residential streets we need filtering, so that driving through those streets as a rat-run is impossible, but residents and visitors still have access.

Four bollards placed across Warren Street in London prevent motor vehicles from being driven through, but allows cycles.

Filtering turns a rat-run into a quiet street. (Photo: CEoGB)

Long-term planning goals should be to unravel routes (1, 2, 3), to separate cycles and motor vehicles as much as possible. Cycling infrastructure should be a high priority for transport planners and local councils. Because when the conditions are right, cycling will be the easiest and most obvious way for people to travel through the city.

Helmet promotion is just an easy way for the government to absolve themselves of any responsibility for safety, by pushing it onto the people themselves. They’re saying “if you get hurt, you’ve only yourself to blame” – rather than accepting responsibility for their poorly-designed roads.

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Pretend infrastructure

Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.
This article has also been published on my German blog.

Bicycle streets! Don’t you just love them? Put up a few signs, a bit of paint, and voilà – instant Groningen.

Except it doesn’t work like that at all, though not everyone has figured that out yet.

For a bicycle street to work, it needs to have very, very low levels of motor traffic. It needs to form no useful through route for motor vehicles. Bikes needs to greatly outnumber cars and vans.

In Berlin, the highly-paid experts responsible for the roads think that signs and paint are enough to create a great cycle network. Just put up signs to tell drivers that a road is a bicycle street – or a home zone, or no entry – and they’ll behave differently, right? They’ll stop using that street as a rat-run, no?

Here’s Choriner Straße in Prenzlauer Berg:

Funny, the signs and paint don’t seem to be working.

Does it look like bicycles dominate there? Does that look suitable for young children? (And don’t be fooled by the low speeds, drivers are going slow because a double-parked car has narrowed the carriageway just off-camera to the left.)

This is pretend infrastructure – something which makes it look like the authorities are considering cycling, while they’re actually doing nothing. Other modes of transport don’t have this (with the possible exception of walking). There’s no airports without runways, or motorways with grazing sheep designed-in.

It’s not just Berlin that does this. When I lived in London, Lambeth Council painted bike symbols on Hercules Road to try and pretend it wasn’t an awful rat-run. That particular street is soon to be part of London’s forthcoming network patchwork of Quietways, so the green blobs of paint which taxis speed over will instead be purple blobs of paint which taxis speed over – more pretend infrastructure.

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road



Here’s another bit of pretend infra, a moment’s walk away from the first video, at the junction with Oderberger Straße (look at it on a map and you’ll see it’s clearly a rat-run to cut the corner of Eberswalder Straße and Schönhauser Allee – no traffic lights, either).

This junction is signposted “no vehicles, except bikes and emergency vehicles” yet there’s nothing at all to stop anyone driving through here. So what happens?

More pretend infra. There’s even a “no through route” sign at the end of the street, but the local drivers all know this is nonsense!

The most profitable form of pretend infrastructure at the moment is shared space. If you’ve strolled along London’s famous Exhibition Road recently, you’ll be aware of the magnitude of bullshit at work here.

Lots has been written about the failure of Exhibition Road and other examples of shared space so I won’t go into detail here, but unfortunately the on-trend placemaking street architects’ marketing teams are still busy selling snake-oil, as can be seen here on Hackney’s lovely new Leonard Circus, where white van drivers share safely with anyone lucky enough not to be in the way:

Would you want your loved ones wandering around there when he speeds through this pretend infrastructure again, or would you prefer some tried-and-tested, proven-to-work sustainable safety?

 

(If you have any examples of pretend infrastructure, please leave a comment!)

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Berlin does not have a cycle network

This article has also been published on my German blog.
Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.

I often hear great things about cycling in Berlin.

Apparently there are “ubiquitous grade-separated cycle tracks, bicycle boulevards, and other facilities“, which mean that “you can get round most of Berlin on segregated bike paths“.

According to this Lonely Planet guide book I have here, “the biking infrastructure is fantastic“, and Stephen Evans of the BBC found “endless cycle tracks” (where are they, Steve?).

I really wish all this was true, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. Berlin is definitely second-rate for cycling.

I often find myself wanting to go somewhere within cycling distance but having to choose to use a different mode of transport, because the conditions for cycling there are too unpleasant for me or the people I’m with.

So with this in mind, I made a map of Berlin’s cycleways. And I’ve been extremely generous in my definition of “cycleway” here. Nothing comes close to the criteria set out in this article.

A map showing roads in central/north/east Berlin which have protected cycleways along them. It's very sparse and disconnected.

This is not a cycle network. (Click for full-size.)

I may have missed a few little bits off, but I think I got all of it.

The green lines are the not-too-bad cycleways, and the grey lines show the absolute rubbish, such as this…

A very narrow, bumpy, neglected cycleway on Luxemburger Strasse in Berlin

Only people with mountain bikes may overtake here.

…and this…

pathetic narrow cycleway right up against the edge of a wide, fast busy road in Berlin. There are parked cars on the footway beyond the cycleway. I have added an arrow to point out the cycleway, it is that bad.

I’ve added an arrow to point out the cycleway, otherwise you might miss it. (Photo: Google Maps)

…so don’t go thinking that I’m being harsh on Berlin here. If anything, I’m being too kind for including those on the map.

In the interests of balance, here’s a typical example of one of the relatively better (but still nowhere near good enough) cycleways denoted by the green lines:

One of Berlin's better cycleways. Not too narrow, but a tiled surface and a low fence which pedals could hit. Also right next to parked cars with only a tiny buffer.

One of Berlin’s better (but still not good enough) cycleways. Just enough room to squeeze past in the door-zone. Keep alert at junctions!

Everything else is either a painted lane on the road or nothing at all, and like most people I’m not willing to mix with motor vehicles along fast, wide, busy roads.

The map covers the part of Berlin where I live and spend most time – the central north and east areas – but the picture is pretty much the same elsewhere in the city. Some areas are better than others, but not much.

I was considering adding some of the back streets on this map too, but I couldn’t think of any that were really suitable. On the whole they’re either too busy with traffic to be serious contenders for being part of a cycle network, or they’re surfaced in the rough cobbled “Kopfstein” that make cycling a pain in both the physical and metaphorical sense of the word.

(I’ll cover some of the back streets in a later post, such as Stargarder Strasse which should be great but is a busy rat-run, and Choriner Strasse which is designated as a “Bicycle Street” but has nothing beyond a few signs to back this up.)

At least there are no buses around here, just trams, though bad street design means that they can be dangerous too (the subject of yet another post to come). But as you can see from the map, travelling by bike in Berlin can be a real pain unless you’re happy to mix with cars, vans and lorries on multi-lane roads.

Photograph of Danziger Strasse in Berlin, showing a painted cycle lane on the carriage-way side of the parked cars, with a lorry thundering past.

Be my guest. I’ll walk.

 

And how should it look? My dream cycleway..

 

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