“Boris bikes” at Canary Wharf underground station in London: the bikes for hire in the British capital owe their name to the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
Roy Shakespeare/Loop Images/laif

Urban life on two wheels

More and more cities are promoting cycling in order to tackle traffic problems and fulfil ambitious climate change targets. The reallocation of urban space offers great opportunities and has successful models.

Visitors are enthusiastic about Amsterdam: virtually no other city in the world has so many cyclists as the Dutch capital. Nearly half of all journeys here are by bicycle. This rises even to almost 60 percent for the city centre, Amsterdam Marketing reported in early 2014. Bicycles in all possible shapes and colours are a firm fixture in the urban landscape. Amsterdamers take their children to school by bicycle, pedal to work and do their shopping with a bike. Schoolchildren are just as likely as the elderly to get around by bicycle. Couriers, the police and even delivery services often use pedal power to progress through the city. And it goes without saying that the mayor and city councillors ride a bicycle as well. What motivates people to get onto a bike day in, day out and in all weather? It’s quite simple: cycling is cheap, quick, healthy and clean. 

After all, the longest distance in the city centre is only five kilometres – an ideal distance for cyclists. And perhaps cycling is an expression of the freedom-loving Dutch people’s attitude to life. For Amsterdam’s inhabitants, the fiets, the Dutch word for bicycle, is certainly the best means of moving around their city fast. At the same time, the city’s outstanding bicycle infrastructure helps: the main network of almost 800 kilometres of cycle routes and paths – known as Fietspaden – runs right across Amsterdam, along every road and canal and through all the parks, connecting the city’s districts and all neighbouring communities. There are more than 500 additional kilometres of separate cycle tracks as well. The 780-metre-long Nesciobrug is spectacular. At the time of its construction across the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal in 2006, it was the world’s longest bicycle bridge and since then has connected the newer built-up area with the old city centre.

Even if retailers are reluctant to believe it: cycling boosts sales.
Michael Adler, author and editorin- chief of “fairkehr” magazine

Two million kilometres are covered by bike in Amsterdam every day, Amsterdam Marketing has extrapolated. The city has 880,000 bicycles, a figure higher than its population, accompanied by 140 bicycle shops and 29 bike hire firms. Around 225,000 bicycle stands are spread across the entire urban area, including 10,000 at the main train station alone. On the west side of the station there is a three-storey bicycle-parking garage designed for 2,500 bikes. Even the airport boasts a cycle track. The bicycle with a chain drive, invented in 1885, caught on swiftly in the Netherlands thanks to the country’s topography and the egalitarian nature of Dutch society. Amsterdam was already a true cycling city by 1900. However, the rise of the car after 1960 caused cycle use to decline substantially. The prospering port city faced an urban development dilemma, because the roads and canals of its historic old town dating back to the seventeenth century were not designed for the hugely increased number of motorised visitors, residents and commuters. The city and transport planners chose not to subject their community to the diktat of increasing motor traffic, beginning instead in the 1970s to revive bicycle transport and promote it consistently. The “Long-term Bicycle Plan 2012–2016” makes clear the bicycle’s huge importance for Amsterdam: “Compared to other modes of transport, investing in the bicycle infrastructure yields the most impact per euro. This upholds and strengthens Amsterdam’s status as the world’s bicycle capital. That is not a goal in itself, but a great way to ensure that Amsterdam remains appealing, sustainable, healthy and accessible.”

A parking space for a car can be used by up to ten bicycles. The Car Bike Port’s shape illustrates this in a very humorous way.

Change of perspective needed

Another bicycle-friendly city is Copenhagen, the Danish capital, which also assumed a pioneering role since the 1970s. The cycle-blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen regularly publishes a ranking of the world’s 20 most bicycle-friendly cities – and Amsterdam and Copenhagen have always topped the list to date. The consultant, who is in demand worldwide, is campaigning for a change of perspective. The question, he argues, is not how many cars can be channelled down a city street, but how many people can be moved along it. He therefore makes the following call: “Copy the solutions from Amsterdam and Copenhagen! Why reinvent the wheel?” Michael Adler, an author and editor-in-chief of “fairkehr” magazine, considers this argument conclusive: “Both cities have formulated targets for climate change and quality of life that are to be achieved through the promotion of cycling, among other measures. Between 20 and 30 euros per capita and year are being invested in bicycle transport here. Most German cities manage only 2 to 3 euros, or at very most perhaps 10 euros.” Nevertheless: “In car-loving Germany, the trend started to reverse in the 1990s, and a lot has happened in Paris, London and New York in recent years”, observes Adler, who is also the Managing Director of tippingpoints, an agency for sustainable communication in Bonn.


of all journeys taken by car are shorter than 5 kilometres.

This is due not least to one of the pioneers of the bicycle-compatible city: Jan Gehl, an architect and urban planner from Copenhagen. In his bestseller, “Cities for People”, in response to the question of what makes a city worth living in, he gives the simple reply: “Its human dimension”. So who does the space in the city belong to? And how has the Danish capital become a model for soft mobility? Just like many cities elsewhere, Copenhagen had relegated its lively streets to motorways and misused its inner-city squares as car parks. Gehl convinced the Copenhagen City Council that a city should move at the pace of its pedestrians and its squares should go back to being a meeting-place for people, ensuring that a proportion of the city centre was returned to the pedestrians and cyclists. When the first streets were closed to car traffic, there was strong opposition – especially from shopkeepers. “Even if the retailers are reluctant to believe it,” says Adler, confirming the positive experience in Denmark, “cycling boosts sales.” He adds that people preferred to spend time in an area with less traffic, where they could relax and focus on what was on offer. A pedestrian or cyclist buys less, but more often, and this revives the retail location, Adler argues. Wherever there were fewer cars parking and driving around, Copenhagen heaved a tangible sigh of relief. One reclaimed site in an attractive waterfront location is Nyhavn (New Harbour). Once a vast, unappealing car park, it is now popular among tourists and locals out for a drink. “Build cities for people and you solve all your problems”, Gehl’s words, are something the experts like to quote. Copenhagen’s city centre now attracts four times as many visitors as in its car-friendly past, confirms the travel magazine “GEO Special” in its edition devoted to Copenhagen.

Up to 600 metres

This is the distance that pedestrians are faster than cars. Cyclists are faster than cars up to a distance of 6 kilometres.

Bicycle culture – an export hit

Today, the Danish city presents an unconventional and innovative face: cyclists will find convenient footrests awaiting them at traffic lights, rubbish bins that are slanted in the direction of travel for throwing away rubbish without getting off your bicycle, and taxis are fitted with bike racks as a matter of course. The consistent, continuous and, since 1993, also very systematic promotion of cycling has given rise to several hundred kilometres of cycling routes while substantially reducing automobile traffic. Every day well over a million kilometres are covered by bicycle here, reducing car journeys accordingly. Busy cycle routes have already been converted into what are known as green waves. Copenhagen plans to increase the cyclists’ share of the total transport volume from around 31 percent at present to 50 percent – including commuters. The new bicycle superhighways, such as the one between Copenhagen and the suburb of Albertslund, are a step in this direction. Denmark’s bicycle culture has been successfully exported all around the world. The word “copenhagenise” was even coined to describe the redesign of cities based on the Danish model. In 2007, urban planner Gehl was commissioned by New York City to reorganise some roads for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists. This resulted in the launch of an ambitious cycling promotion programme, the building of many kilometres of new cycle routes, the introduction of traffic-calming measures in Times Square and a bike-sharing system, and the publication of a city map for cyclists.

The British have also been inspired by Copenhagen and have hugely expanded the London cycling network in recent years. The Barclays Cycle Superhighways, for example, which are bicycle routes running from outer London into and across central London, are praised as being the quickest way to get to work. Just as in Paris and other European cities, London naturally has its own bicycles for hire – which have been dubbed Boris bikes after the mayor Boris Johnson, who launched the scheme. “Without unconditional political will, the modal split, meaning the distribution of transport volume across the different transport modes, cannot change in favour of bicycle transport”, says cycling expert Michael Adler. 

The award-winning Webb Bridge for cyclists and pedestrians was modelled on a Koori eel trap. Some 110 metres long, it spans the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia – connecting residential areas with the heart of the Docklands.
mauritius images / Alamy

Committed politicians are needed, he continues, such as Bertrand Delanoë, who was mayor of Paris from 2001 to 2014. Delanoë set the target of minimising car traffic in the French capital to 40 percent by 2020. It was he who managed to banish cars from certain Paris streets on Sundays and expand the network of cycling routes. And what is the situation in Germany? “For young people in Germany’s major cities car ownership has long ceased to be of crucial importance”, says Mario Bäumer. The research fellow at the Hamburg Museum of Work provided support for the special exhibition entitled “The bicycle, culture, technology and mobility”. In German cycling strongholds, such as Münster and Oldenburg, bicycles account for a sizeable 40 percent of the modal split, and Bremen and Freiburg are also notable cycling cities, he points out. In the Düsseldorf Seestern business district, the eponymous location initiative is planning to provide service bicycles, e-bikes and free-of-charge changing rooms and shower facilities in an effort to promote cycling there. The self-styled “Radlhauptstadt München” (“Cycling Capital Munich”), reports Bäumer, of the Museum of Work, already manages a million-euro budget aimed at convincing its residents of the benefits of two-wheeled mobility. In the city on the Isar River the bicycle’s share of total transport volume has increased by 5 percent to 18 percent within a year, he adds. Anyone seeking directions to Munich’s Allianz Arena on the internet, for example, is naturally also shown a cycling route. So when trendwatcher Mathias Haas postulates: “Cars in the city centre are out”, he is still describing a future vision, but one that may become reality in more and more cities soon. Before that, however, there is still plenty to be done: public transport must run more frequently, the range of car- and bike-sharing schemes must be expanded and an infrastructure created which makes cycling a tempting option for more people. These measures could reduce the share of car traffic to just 10 to 20 percent by 2040, predicts Michael Adler in his book “Generation Rent-a-Car”. This is a highly attractive vision, Adler believes: “Just step outside and imagine what it would be like. Mobility in the city is quiet, safe, climate-friendly, resource-saving and healthy.”


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