Way back during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, the German government had the idea of building dedicated and separated highways for the new automobiles. Hitler liked the idea and built up the Autobahn network. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed with it, saying it " made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land." When he became President of the US he promoted the building of the Interstate highway system, which changed the face of America. It was a grand vision that took decades to build and cost untold billions of dollars.
So it was exciting to read headlines like Germany opens first stretch of bicycle ‘autobahn’ and Germany gives green light to cycle Autobahns. It also looks really impressive, when they illustrate it with photos of Copenhagen's Cykelslangen, or bicycle snake. It is ultimately supposed to connect ten cities and four universities.
Alas, the reality is much more prosaic; what has been opened, in Mulheim an der Ruhr, near Essen, is the first 5km (3 miles) of an unfunded 100km route, much of which was paid for by the European Community since bike lanes are locally funded. It doesn't look anything like the bicycle snake. Bike lanes like these have been built and paid for in Denmark and the Netherlands for years; this one needs 180 million euros to finish, according to Martin Toennes of regional development group RVR in the Local.
Toennes said talks are ongoing to rustle up €180 million for the entire 100-kilometre route, with the state government, run by centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens party, planning legislation to take the burden off municipalities. "Without (state) support, the project would have no chance," said Toennes, pointing to the financial difficulties many local governments would have in paying for maintenance, lighting and snow clearance.
Normally bicycle commuting hits a wall at about 10Km; most people don't have the time or energy to go much further than that. What's changing the picture is the huge popularity of electric bikes. They can dramatically increase the mobility radius and speed compared to conventional bikes. But if they are going to share the lane with bikes, there had better be a wider path with passing zones or there are going to be conflicts. That's why they are so wide, at 4 meters (13 feet)- to accommodate the different modes and different speeds.
The bicycle autobahn, (silly name,
let's call it a bikebahn it is called the Radschnellweg Ruhr 1) could be the start of a big idea - a recognition that if you build good bike infrastructure people will use it, even for longer distances. The RVR claims that it could take 50,000 cars off the road. If it gets funded and built. But all over Germany, nobody really wants to pay for this infrastructure; in Berlin, the government actually wants it to be paid for by advertising that's installed along the route. According to one report, others have different ideas.
The German Bicycle Club ADFC argues that, since about 10 percent of trips in the country are now done by bicycle, cycling infrastructure should get at least 10 percent of federal transport funding. "Building highways in cities is a life-threatening recipe from the 1960s," said its manager Burkhard Stork. "No one wants more cars in cities."
That, like the bicycle autobahn, is little more than a dream.