„You just have to want it”

Dangerous lanes, little investments: Germany’s cycle infrastructure has been kept down in the car country for a long time. Can the Germans learn from Copenhagen?

By Thomas Balbierer and Henriette Bertheussen Isachsen

Sausages, beer and brass music: in Germany, the opening of a new highway is celebrated like a holiday. Sometimes, the authorities organise a big beer tent, that stands across the new track. There, citizens listen to local and federal politicians and enjoy the Oktoberfest-atmosphere with friends and family. On the next day, the joy goes on: car drivers cross the new road and notice the new smooth asphalt under their tires. What a feeling.

Can someone imagine the same hoo-ha because of a new bicycle lane? Certainly not in Germany.

Click through our Copenhagen bike gallery (Photos by Thomas Balbierer)


But if you move a little bit further north on the European landscape you will find a place, where cars have been overtaken by bicycles long ago: Copenhagen. Not only in numbers but also in a way of thinking. From unemployed to CEOs: every social class uses the bike. And almost every public debate about infrastructure revolves around the question: how can we attract even more people to use a cycle?

Germany invested 0,5 percent of the transportation budget in cycle infrastructure

By the city’s own account, Copenhagen invested 295 DKK (39,5 Euro) per inhabitant per year between 2004 and 2016. Compared to that, the city of Munich (that has one of the best cycling infrastructures in Germany) invests about 6 Euro per inhabitant per year. In 2018, only 0,5 percent of the federal transportation budget will be invested in bike-traffic.

Video: Copenhagen’s strategy to become “world’s best city for cyclers” by 2025

Two wheels are the future of urban mobility, that is a consensus between city planners, mobility experts and foresighted politicians. Bikes do not emit CO2, they kill fewer people and they save urban space. Above all, cycling is healthy: the region of Copenhagen saves approximately 215 million Euro of health costs per year, just because people use the bike instead of the car.

Still, Germany is not really on track to make its infrastructure fit for a new cycle-era. In August, Greenpeace presented a study showing that cycling in Germany is “dangerous and unattractive” (the study). German cities would be “decades behind Copenhagen or Amsterdam” regarding the change of transportation due to climate change, air pollution and traffic safety.

The feeling of being pushed to the edge

Greenpeace mobility expert Marion Tiemann is one of the study’s authors. She says: “German transport politics makes cyclists feel like being pushed to the edge.” When German cities establish a new bike lane they would often do nothing more than drawing a white line next to the border of the street. But most cyclists do not feel safe when sharing the lane with cars and trucks, Tiemann says.

According to her study, German cyclers live in a hazardous environment. “On average, every day in Germany at least one cyclist dies on the road, in total 382 cyclists died in 2017 on Germany’s roads”, states Greenpeace. The risk of a bike accident in certain German cities is nine times higher than in Copenhagen.

So, what can Germany learn from the Danish capital to make German cyclers safer and more confident?

“More money, more space, more rights”

Greenpeace demands “more money, more space, more rights”. The non-governmental organisation wants the government to invest 100 Euro per inhabitant and per year to close the gap to cities like Copenhagen.

For example, the money should be invested in safer bike lanes and intersections based on the model of the Danish capital. Bike lanes in Copenhagen are often separated from the car lane by parked cars, for instance. That makes the cyclers feel safer.

Klick on the map to see the share of total cycle traffic in EU-capitals

But it is not only improving details of infrastructure what German cities could learn from Copenhagen. It is an attitude, says Greenpeace-expert Marion Tiemann. Copenhagen’s city planners like Jan Gehl had “no fear to put the human being in the centre of of city planning and transport politics”, Tiemann explains. That would be a big difference to Germany, where the car is a “holy cow”. Tiemann hopes for more courage in German politics.

She calls for a change in the political mindset. “More and more city dwellers want to cycle. But decisions are still made by politicians of a generation, whose main goals after graduating from school were to get the driving license and own a car”, Tiemann says. She believes that younger politicians could make a change towards a better cycle infrastructure.

A breach with German car traditions?

What Greenpeace asks for is nothing else than a radical change of the German urban infrastructure and a breach with German car tradition: The NGO wants to decrease car park fees in cities, lower the maximum speed in cities from 50 to 30 kilometres per hour and to change car lanes into cycle tracks.

“It is already happening”, says Tiemann. There would still be a lot of opposition and the role of the car industry is of course strong in Germany. Still, there are a lot of citizen initiatives claiming a better cycling infrastructure via referendums in more than ten German cities. Tiemann is sure that change must happen, if Germany wants to reach its climate goals for the transport sector in order to limit the global increase of temperature to 1,5 °C.

Change is visible in Berlin, for example. In summer, the capital passed a bill that is supposed to improve the conditions of cyclers greatly. The city wants to invest 100 million Euro within the next two years and build 100 kilometres of cycling highways. The package is ambitious and reminds of Copenhagen’s cycle strategy (read the article).

Greenpeace-expert Marion Tiemann says: “You just have to want it.”


This article was written for a German audience