Could intercity cycle freeways revolutionise the daily commute?

Germany is constructing the worlds biggest bicycle autobahn to connect 10 cities and remove 50,000 vehicles from the road every day. With the popularity of e-bikes growing too, is Europe about to see a new epoch of long-distance cycle commuting?

In 2010, when the motorway between the German cities of Duisburg and Dortmund was shut as part of a culture project, three million people walked, skated or cycled along the road. For the working day only it had been transformed into a gigantic city boulevard.

Spatial planner Martin Tnnes took the opportunity to cycle from Essen to Dortmund. There were so many people that, for the first time in my life, I experienced a bicycle traffic jam! he recollects. But that was when we started thinking about build a highway for motorcycles through the Ruhr Area. When we saw this mass of people cycling down the motorway, we understood there was a real demand.

Five years later, in December 2015, the first Radschnellweg ( bicycle highway) in Germany was opened, between the western the two cities of Mlheim an der Ruhr and Essen. It is just the first stretching of what is going to be the biggest bicycle freeway in the world: 62 -miles long, connecting 10 cities and four universities.

When complete, the network will remove a staggering 50,000 autoes from the road each day with an related daily reduced to 16,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions according to the Regional Assocation Ruhr, where Tnnes is head of planning.

This new bicycle highway is very different from the narrow, painted strips which cyclists have to make do with in German cities, often risking collisions with motorised traffic. It is fully segregated from cars, a comfy 13 -ft broad, and equipped with flyovers and passageways to avoid intersections( a footpath runs parallel to it ). It is also fully lit, and will be cleared of snow in winter.

Germanys
Germanys first bike superhighway, RS1, was opened in late 2015. Photo: Alamy

Together with the booming popularity of the electric motorcycle, the road could lead to a new epoch of cycle commuting in Germany. In the Ruhr, the distance between cities varies from six to 10 miles, which stimulates this industrial area ideal for commuting by motorcycle, explains Tnnes.

There are 1.6 million people living within 1.25 miles of the bicycle highways route; there are 150,000 students and 430,000 jobs. So I am not in the least worried about demand for it. The bicycle freeway will persuade many people to start commuting by motorcycle with electric bikes making this selection even easier and faster.

Bicycle roads are not a modern invention: the first was opened back in 1900 in California, with the opening stretching connecting the Green and the Raymond hotels, both in Pasadena. This segregated freeway for cyclists was a wooden building for which users paid a toll of 10 pennies but its success was short-lived. At the time, the number of cyclists was declining, and it was dismantled before the end of the decade.

When it comes constructing serious bicycle highways, the Danes and the Dutch were the great pioneers. While the Danish supercykelstiers are concentrated in and around Copenhagen, the Netherlands boasts a network of about 20 fietssnelwegen throughout the country.

The Netherlands started constructing bicycle highways in 2006 as a means to combat traffic jam. The first stretches were situated alongside busy motorways to offer thwarted motorists a visible alternative.

Pasadena
The short-lived elevated cycleway in Pasadena, California, 1900. Photograph: Southern Pacific Railroad Company/ Dobbins Collection, Pasadena Museum of History

The term bicycle highway sounds very luxurious, so we prefer to talk of fast cycle connections, says Ineke Spap, a Dutch traffic planner and bicycle professor at Breda University of Applied Science. In the Netherlands, they are not always 13 -ft wide with expensive overpasses and underpasses. Sometimes theres no space; sometimes its more practical to simply improve existing cycle paths and connects. And its cheaper to give cyclists priority at a intersect than to build a flyover or a tunnel.

Spap is often consulted by traffic planners from other European countries, and her message is always: dont spend too much period on feasibility studies and dont aims to achieve perfection. For example, the Germans have guidelines that require footpaths parallel to their bicycle roads. When this is not possible, dont cancel the plan: be pragmatic. What you want is to get people on their bikes because the bike really is the future.

Many big German cities such as Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Nuremberg share this view, and are now analyzing the prospects for Radschnellwege to suburbs and surrounding cities.

Our population is growing fast, and that means traffic will increase and modes of public transport will be under pressure, says Birgit Kastrup from the Planning Association of Greater Munich. We have to think of intelligent solutions for these problems.

Munich is now considering to build a cycle freeway to its northern suburbiums of Garching and Unterschleissheim. We believe the bike is the answer to traffic and environmental problems, Kastrup says. Bicycle highways are also a style to promote a healthier lifestyle.

There remains one problem to be solved: finance. Cycle highways are not cheap, the costs vary between 500,000 and 2m per kilometre( 400,000 to 1.7 m ). In total, the Ruhr bicycle highway is predicted to cost1 83.7 m.

The
The first part of Germanys planned 62 -mile long bike expressway. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Whereas the Dutch central government subsidises the building of its bicycle highways, in Germany bicycle infrastructure is solely the responsibility of municipal and federal governments. The German minister of transport, Alexander Donbrindt, has made it clear that cities eager to build bicycle roads should expect nothing from him.

He has been much criticised for a lack of vision, Tnnes says. Luckily, our federal government[ of Northrhine-Westfalia] understands the importance of bicycle highways, and is changing the law to be able to finance the entire project.

Other federal states “re not so” generous, which entails cities such as Munich are still groping in the dark when it comes to financing their first project. It will be exciting to watch what comes out of this discussion, Kastrup says. But the political will is surely there, so I am sure we will find the means.

In Berlin, a city that fights with huge debt, the idea was put forward to finance bicycle freeways through advertising along the route. The proposal is in stark contrast to the Norwegian governments recently announced plan to invest 700 m in bicycle roads in and around nine of its biggest cities. The super-sykkelveier are considered an important means to combat CO2 emissions a remarkable step for a mountainous country where winters are long and very cold, and cycling not as common as in other Scandinavian states.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands is working on 30 new projects, including an 18 -mile bicycle highway to connect the northern cities of Assen and Groningen. And for the initiator of this project, a bicycle highway alone is not enough: We want to offer an exceptional experience to the people whore going to use the road, says politician Henk Brink.

Five different bureaus have been asked to come up with innovative notions. There are plans for artworks along the highway that change with the weather conditions, and for a multifunctional highway where people can practise all kinds of sports when the rush hour is done not to mention a highway with Wi-Fi hotspots and it is possible to charge your electric bike along the way. Theres also a plan for a canopied road to keep cyclists out of the rain or one that shelters cyclists from crosswinds by screens that rotate with the wind direction.

These are just notions, we dont know what were are going to decide eventually, Brink says. But we believe that if you want people to start commuting by motorcycle, you have to make sure they are going to enjoy it.

Asked whether Europe is entering a new age of long-distance cycle commuting, Spap says: Of course! The Dutch already have, thanks to the enormous popularity of electric motorcycles and our network of fast cycle connections. And in Germany its going to happen in the very near future.

According to Spap, fast electric bikes enable passengers to easily cover stretchings of 12 to 18 miles provided theres a well-designed freeway with a smooth surface. I have a colleague who commutes by power bike from Tilburg to Breda. Thats 16 miles, she says. In the future, more and more passengers will cycle smiling past the traffic jams.

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