Friday 21 May 2010

German cycle paths vs Dutch cycle paths.

The German cycling organisation, the ADFC, recently published alarming criticisms of cycle paths in general which have in turn been widely criticized by Dutch commentators. Remembering my own experiences on German cycle paths, I decided to make a video comparing the situations on the two country's paths, which you can see above.

Waiting to cross the road in Essen. In Germany this often
means a multi- stage crossing (more than one red light)
and a long wait. It's not like that in the Netherlands.
I understand why German cyclists are dis-satisfied with their cycle paths. The quality obviously varies from one place to another, but in many cases they're simply not built with anything like the quality that is required to ensure the safety and convenience of cyclists. However, they have made a mistake in criticizing all cycle-paths.

Dutch cycle paths are different. They've done a proper job. This is why Dutch cycle paths really are both convenient and safe. They are designed to be used by everyone, regardless of ability of experience. Fast cyclists use the same infrastructure as children, and elderly people.

The video above doesn't claim to be comprehensive. Rather, it's the result of my looking at a small amount of video that I shot in Germany, mainly near Leer as well as near the border around Rütenbrock, and finding how the Dutch had treated similar situations here in the Netherlands. Having visited other parts of Germany, and read comments by Germans about their cycle paths, I think it's fair to say that the conditions presented in the video are not far off normal.

Essen: Take your pick by bike. Do you prefer a narrow
shared-use path or a four lane highway ? In the Netherlands
we don't have shared-use paths. We do have wide efficient
Germany actually presents quite an interesting case. The cycling rate varies by a remarkable degree between different areas, and does so with the quality of cycling provision. While German cycle paths may not always be of an adequate standard, where there are extensive networks people cycle in quite high numbers.

British cyclists, comparing only with what they get in the UK, are frequently impressed by German cycle paths. I had several people say just this to me at a recent cycle show in Germersheim. The difference in quality between Britain and Germany goes a long way to explain why under 2% of journeys in Britain are by bike vs. 10% in Germany.

The Beauty and the Bike project compared the situation for German and British teenagers, showing quite clearly that cyclists in Germany in many places have an advantage over cyclists in the UK.

However, the difference between Germany and the Netherlands also explains why the Dutch cycling rate is nearly three times that of Germany. Any place which wants to truly achieve a high cycling rate really needs to copy from the Netherlands, where 27% of all trips are by bike. This country has achieved such a high rate of cycling because the experience of everyday cycling is not remotely like taking part in an extreme sport.

Essen: "Cycle friendly city" ?
The still photos in this post show cycling conditions in Essen in Germany, a city which is struggling a little with cycling and currently has a modal share of around 5% of all journeys by bike. Despite this, the city makes the claim of being a "cycle friendly city." The first photo shows someone waiting to cross several lanes of motorised traffic (the green overpass can also be taken), the second shows a narrow shared use path to which the alternative route is a four lane each side road. Apart from the lacklustre infrastructure, and cyclists facing a huge number of cars on the roads, there is also a problem of speed limits being ignored. A taxi driver told us that the 50 km/h speed limit referred to "50 km/h for the front wheels and 50 km/h for the back wheels."

A large part of the problem with Essen is caused by post second world war reconstruction, with the then considered to be "modern" wide roads. However, these problems due to old-fashioned car dominated planning can be overcome, as Nijmegen demonstrates.

Lessons to be learnt
German cycling infrastructure is quite
comprehensive, but the quality is often awful
In this example sight lines are bad, priority
isn't obvious and the cycle-crossing is not
even straight.
On the positive side of things, in much of Germany you do find a reasonably tight grid of cycle infrastructure of some type or another. A tight grid of high quality subjectively safe routes is what enables cycling, just as has been found in the Netherlands. This is why cycling is possible by a fairly wide range of people in Germany and why roughly 1 in 10 journeys in that country are made by bike. However, the quality of this network falls well below that of the quality of cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands. This makes it is un-usable or inconvenient for those want to cycle fast (hence ADFC complaints) and not particularly easy to navigate, quick to use or so safe as it should be. In my view, the difference between the modal shares of Germany and the Netherlands can largely be put down to the difference in quality of the different country's cycle infrastructure as demonstrated in the video above. Germans want to cycle more, but their infrastructure makes it less attractive than it should be.

We've enjoyed cycling in Germany on holiday, but this is not
nearly wide enough for a bidirectional path. It's also too close
to the road, and there are cars parked on it !
For campaigners
Campaigning for better infrastructure is a negotiation. If you ask for Dutch infrastructure, you are unlikely to get Dutch quality of infrastructure in the first instance. You may, if you're lucky, get the equivalent of German infrastructure instead. However, ask only for German infrastructure and you're very unlikely to get that either. If your aim is to see everyone cycling then always ask for the very best. i.e. infrastructure which works for all cyclists including the young and the old and the sporty, not a compromise which doesn't work for everyone. Campaigners must not have low aspirations.

2013 update
Earlier this year a German TV programme showed how Germans are amazed at how bad cycling is in London. More recently, another German TV programme covered many of the same issues as I pointed out in my video about the problems with German cycling provision.

There's a lesson here. While countries like the UK may think that countries like Germany have achieved something worth emulating, this is not the right place to look to in order to progress. You need to set the highest possible standard, not set about copying something which the people who live with it don't actually find to be good enough.

The best examples of cycling infrastructure to emulate are to be found in The Netherlands, but even here you must be careful to select only the best examples. Don't assume that Dutch contractors will inherently do the right thing, because they won't.

2014 update
Rural German bidi cycle-path in 2014. Too narrow, too bumpy
A recent organised bike ride from Haren in the Netherlands to Haren in Germany and back again gave an opportunity to try out some more German cycle-paths and the results were similar to what I'd experienced before.

Assen, the Dutch city which we live in, only started to claim to be a "cycling city" once and after the cycling rate climbed above 40% of all journeys. The website where the claim was made then was rearranged, and there is now no such claim made for our city.


fred_dot_u said...

That is a very well edited video, with clear explanations. I can understand more easily how attitudes vary from one country to the next. I'd read recently that Germany had repealed the mandatory use laws, but now do not know if it refers to bike lanes, on the roadway, or to bike paths as shown in the video. Either way, not requiring the use of such poor facilities is certainly a step in the right direction.

I cringed at the young rider entering the path without looking first.

Anonymous said...

Interesting video. I think the Danish bicycle paths are generally a little wider than the German, and probably more smooth.

I look forward to compare bicycling in Amsterdam with Copenhagen because i can imagine that it is sometimes hard to design for all traffic in cities with a lot of traffic.

Slow Factory said...

Perhaps it is implicit/obvious, but where there is less on-street vehicle parking there is more space for separated cycle paths. So, in the NL examples I see many places where motor vehicles just get enough space to move... and not much more. Even if a lot of automobile driving is unnecessary, emergency and delivery movements are not.

I live in Berlin now and cycled a fair bit in Munich. There is definitely a desire in both places to improve infrastructure for cycling, but it's a case of having of one's cake and wanting to eat it, too: Speaking very generally, German-design will not sacrifice motor vehicle space for cycling! As we see in this video, this results in narrow bike space, narrow pedestrian space, or both. So, this desire comes with little or no introspection into cultural pre-conditions for mobility improvements.

Anonymous said...

@Green Idea Factory
But maybe it is worth for cars to give up road space to bicycles in the beginning, because this will move some people out of the car and onto bicycles/into velomobiles, which will take up less space than cars.

Slow Factory said...

@jon: To be clear, I would like as little space as possible to be used for (especially urban) automobiles... for movement, parking and production!

christhebull said...

The German bike paths aren't that great, but at least they seem usable (ie - you could ride the Mango without getting stuck at some zig zag barriers). I'm going to Munich soon, is the infrastructure / atmosphere there any good?

David Hembrow said...

Christhebull: I'm afraid I've not been to Munich, so can't say. I think it's got one of the higher cycling rates in Germany, so it probably also has some of the better infrastructure. These things go hand in hand.

inconvenient_truth said...

Another great post, David. Sorry I've been so slow to respond. I'm just on my way back to Cycling Demonstration Town Darlington from Bremen, the two towns featuring in the Beauty and the Bike project mentioned above. Bremen's provision is actually pretty out of date and limited now. Much of it was built 20 to 30 years ago, and has resulted in levels of cycling (now about 25%) that are now proving too much for the network of old, narrow cycle paths.

But, beyond simple quantitative comparison, the intriguing difference that exists between the two towns is the remarkable tolerance towards cyclists in Bremen, and intolerance in Darlington. Most of this old infrastructure is actually just shared pavements, with one part typically cobbled red to mark the cycle path. Bremers are used to cyclists having to pass each other using pedestrian space, and indeed the pedestrian side is often more comfortable to ride on than the old, cobbled cycle path.

What this has led to, I think, is a concept of "cycling" as a transport mode that is seen to be culturally closer to walking than to driving. Compare this with the major disaster amongst certain cycling advocates in the UK, so called vehicular cycling. This cultural difference is, I think, an important component for the UK to understand if it is to generate the public support for Netherlands-style infrastructure.

As for the issue of space and cars, I think Germany is perhaps more in love with the automobile than the Netherlands. Parking space requirements in Bremen have certainly been a limiting factor in terms of further developing the quality of cycling infrastructure. Back in the 90's, Michael Glotz Richter (who also appears in Beauty and the Bike) tried to establish a car-free housing development on the edge of Bremen, but it failed to take off because of lack of support.

David Hembrow said...

Inconvenient Truth: I hoped you'd respond. I haven't looked to criticize Germany for no reason. After all, they've a cycling rate which is amongst the highest. However, after the ADFC comments recently, I thought it worth pointing out how German provision varies from the Dutch.

Dutch towns also can suffer from having out of date provision, which may have looked good at an earlier time. If provision is 20 years old, then it's time for an update !

The difference in tolerance is quite amazing. Britain is a very hostile place for cyclists.

However, I find the parking issues interesting too. Many places in the Netherlands really don't give motorists much of a problem so far as parking is concerned. Certainly not so much of a problem as new developments in the UK. However, attitudes are somewhat different.

Andy in Germany said...

I think you have to remember that Germany is very different to the NL in that it's Federal, so whjat you see there is very different to what we see here. Even locally there'S huge variation: Ostfildern is poor, Stuttgart is worse, but Esslingen is improving rapidly as are a lot of towns locally because our state (Baden-Württemberg) is pushing hard to get cycling back as a transport option, and Freiburg and Tübingen rival the Netherlands. Please don't look at a few cases, and assume it's all like that: It depends on the local government because they have a lot more authority.

That said, we've a lot of catching up to do, and we have 20% of the working population working for car companies, and that will make it hard to move forward. said...

In general German cycle paths are designed for car traffic, in Denmark or Netherlands cycle paths are made for cycle traffic.

Some older examples from Hamburg, but it still keeps going on similar: