As the Parliamentary Inquiry that aims to ‘Get Britain Cycling’ opens, many will ask why the UK can’t follow Denmark and the Netherlands in making the bicycle a leading choice of everyday transport for the masses. Those two countries are beacons of cycling due to policy decisions made in the 1970s and of course there is an awful lot we can learn from them, but more recently, Germany is showing what can be achieved.
According to an article on the website of the European Cyclists’ Federation, Germany’s national cycling plan, introduced in 2002, currently aims for 15 per cent of all journeys to be made be bicycle by 2020. That goal may already have been overtaken nearly a decade early, with 2011 figures from Mobility Panel Germany revealing a 14.5 per cent modal share in that year.
While Sustrans today called for Britain to show the political desire and investment to get more people cycling, a spokesperson for the national cycling association in Germany, the ADFC, says that the rise there has less to do with government intervention in the shape of the national cycling plan and is more due to people simply deciding to use bikes more.
That should perhaps be viewed as intervention at national level – the organisation cites several cities that have seen a boost in the number of cyclists due to local initiatives. The evidence is that policy decisions and hard work at municipal level do have an impact.
“It’s been a revolution from below,” said the ADFC’s Bettina Cibulski. ”Young, urban, well educated people have started cycling. And this group gives an example to the rest of the population, who have also started to cycle.”
That’s not the whole story, though and we suspect there is a chicken and egg situation at work. Visit any German city a decade ago, and you’d have been likely to see cycling infrastructure already in place that would be the envy of pretty much anywhere in Britain.
Those facilities were already seeing high levels of usage – the ECF says that modal share for cycling even in 2002 was 9.5 per cent. Figures released last year showed that there were only three local authority areas in England with a statistically significant population – Oxford, York and, way ahead in the lead, Cambridge – that have 10 per cent or more people riding a bike at least five days a week.
So in the case of Germany, there is perhaps an element of, as the saying goes, ‘build it and they will come;’ it’s not enough to encourage people to cycle, they also need to be given somewhere they feel confident that they can ride their bikes safely.
But again, that’s not the full picture, with Cibulski’s colleague at the ADFC, David Greve, highlighting that some cities in Germany are at a more advanced stage of provision for cycling than others.
It is the latter that are showing the stronger growth, with levels of bicycle use (by which specific measure is unclear) in Munich, for example, jumping from 6 per cent in 1996 to 17.4 per cent in 2011.
“We have ‘the classical’ cycling cities as Münster, Freiburg or Bremen,” said Greve. “They all see more than a quarter of trips by bicycle thanks to a long tradition of cycling and pro cycling policies.
“But the best cities to look at are maybe cities, which are ‘on the jump’, working hard to develop cycling, have their own budgets for cycling for staff in the municipality, for infrastructure and also for campaigns and have made ambitious plans to advance cycling in their cities. Examples include Munich, Frankfurt and Hanover.”
While the country’s capital is often focused on outside Germany as providing a case study in good cycling policy, Greve says that doesn’t reflect the reality. “Is Berlin the best cycling city in Germany? We don’t think so.”
He explained: “Berlin has an infrastructure plan and a special strategy to develop cycling. But there is only a high number of cyclists in the centre and special quarters of the city.
“Because of the long time tradition of car orientation it’s not easy to reach a change in the Berlin transport policy – and also in the minds of the Berlin politicians”
“We think an average of 20% modal split in Germany is not a dream but possible within the next five to ten years,” added Greve. “In the cities, the number of cyclists may rise up to 40%.”
That would even put Copenhagen, where one in three residents are said to ride to work or their place of study, in the shade; perhaps policy makers in Britain, rather than looking to the Dutch or Danes for inspiration, would be better advised to look at the more recent efforts of their larger neighbour instead?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.