The Autobahn’s bloody Brother – Germanys deadly Cycle Paths

There’s a strange war going on between cycling advocates and local authorities in Germany: While dedicated cyclists in other countries usually fight for more and better cycling infrastructure, situation in Germany seems to be a little surprising for people from other countries. Cyling clubs and dedicated cyclists are stuck in numerous lawsuits against local road authorities, which still won’t give up a legal status of cycle paths, which has been abolished nearly twenty years ago: The mandatory use of cycle paths.

To understand, why some German cyclists seem to fight against their infrastructure, we have to go back about more than hundred years in history:

In the Kaiser’s German Reich before World War I cyclists had a quite good reputation. The bicycle has been seen as a modern and sportive mode of transport, not causing much trouble and – last not least, very clean compared to horseback riding or the upcomming automobiles. Local cycling clubs and local legislations had built the first dedicated cycle paths. Usually they where placed along cobbled roads to improve comfort for cyclists. But when streets later became build from tarmac, technically this rendered special cycle lanes obsolete. In the 1920s things changed and cyclist where more an more seen as a „brake“ for motorised vehicles.

Cycle Paths and the Autobahn: Hitler brought both to Germany

When Hitler’s NSDAP with it’s strong automotive sub-divisions came to power, things got worse for cyclists. The nazis saw the bicycles as an item of beeing backwarded and started to ban cyclists from the road. Awaiting many foreign visitors during the upcomming Berlin Summer Olympics in 1936, the Ministry of Transport gave a note to the press:

Let’s show the stunned foreigner new evidence for an arising Germany, in which a motorist not only on the autobahn, but on every road will find a lane free and save from cyclists.
– Press realease from Nazi-Germany Ministry of Transport when introducing compulsory use of cyle paths in 1934

The 1937 amendment of the road traffic act was the first law for the complete German Reich, to enact a compulsory use of special cycling infrastructure, if marked by a specific sign. The German Reich’s road traffic act stayed in use for nearly four decades until 1971, when a new law was intruduced.

The nazis didn’t have the time to fullfill their plans with the cyclists. During World War II the lack of fuel and other economical needs of the Wehrmacht stopped mass motorisation in Germany. But Hitlers devastating war had opend the way for the automobiles in a way, the nazis hadn’t expectet:

After World War II most German cities laid in ruins. Heavy bombings had crushed many housings and much of the traffic infrastructure. The geographical leftovers of the Reich had to face a stream of millions of refugees from those parts of Germany now beeing placed behind the iron curtain. Residental property became rare – things had to go quick. Germans had to decide between two alternatives how to rebuild their towns and how they wanted to live in the future:

Achtung: Velo behindern der Wirtschaftswunder!

One way was just to rebuild cities in their centuries old mediavel dimensions with narrow, cobbled roads, market places and obsolete city walls turned into parks. Cities like Munster, Oldenburg in the north or Freiburg in the south chose this way. Today cyclists have a high percentage in the modal share in many of these cities. But much more German cities did it the other way round: The booming postwar-economy put much money into municipal treasuries and the Roads were broadaned, old market places turned into parking space and historic city walls were ripped of for multi-lane urban motorways. Landmarks, which had survived the war, often got sacrificed to the automotive city. Best examples for this way are cities like Hamburg, Hannover or Ludwigshafen.

During the first two decades after World War II, cycling was seen as a vanishing problem, sooner or later to be solved by full motorisation. But in several cities especially in the flat north, cycling did not decline as expected. And this is, when the trouble really started:

Those cities which had undertaken wide modernizations of their infrastructure simply had forgotten to integrate proper cycling paths. Those cities which had kept their pre-war grid instead, soon got problems with congestions. But nazi-educated planners still saw cyclists as the problem – and not as the solution. Remember: The old nazi-law was still in use – and the planners just had to build some cycle paths and to mount some signs to expel cyclists from the road. And they did it: The standard procedure to integrate cycle paths into the existing, sometimes brand new infrastructure became to cut of narrow lanes from the pavement. The place for cyclists simply was taken from the pedestrians by painting a white line on the pavement.

The change in the bad mood against cyclists started around 1970. 1970 in Western Germany marked the all-time peak in deaths by road accidents. 20,000 people got killed only in that year. A few years later the oil crisis made driving by car much more expensive virtually over night. Road congestions became more and more common not only in those cities, which had kept their old dimensions after the war. On the horizon, a paradigmatic change was upcomming: The automotive city could have been a really bad idea.

This change in the popular opinion happend to be surprisingly quick. It seems that within only one decade people forgot more or less in public discussion, that German cycle paths had been built to get cyclists away from the road. In 1971 the old nazi road-act was renewed by a more modern amendment. The compulsory use of signed cycle paths got wiped out from the road act. But just a few years later, in 1975, after a first revision of the new road act, the use of any existing cycle path went mandatory:

Now it were safety arguments, which lead the German gouvernment to hold away cyclists from the road by forcing them to use cycle paths. The new rules soon got accepted by the German public – but back in those days, no one ever had done scientific research about wether cyclists really do benefit in means of safety from a use of more or less separated cycle paths or not.

A bloody Surprise

In the middle of the 1980’s some police officers in Berlin made a scary discovery:

Whenever a new cycle path was opened, more cyclists got hurt in that specific road, than before. Even, if they took in count that the number of cyclist in the road had increased, travelling the road by bike got riskier than before introduction of the cycle paths. Rate of injured cyclist often more than doubled.

Further investigations during the early 1990’s not only by the Berlin police, but also by the BASt and the UDV for example, pointed out, that dedicated cycle paths on the pavement often have a horrible impact on safety records, if not built properly. While cyclists on the road rarely had accidents with overtaking motorists, on cylce paths the risk to have an accident increases with every junction and every driveway. The typical cycle paths in Germany are lead directly trough  the blind spot of heavy trucks and the dooring zone of parked cars. Obstacles in the line of sight between motorists and cyclists, like road furniture, trees or – most common – parked cars tighten the situation. On intersections accidents doubled, if cyclists had to use a cycle path – and for cyclists cycling on a bi-directional cycle path against the direction of the motorised traffic on the neighbored lane, the risk to have an accident seems to be more than ten times higher. At least as the space for cycle paths had been taken from the pedestrians, there are high numbers of collisions between cyclists and pedestrians, if the remaining part of the pavement reserved for them is to narrow.

The ministry of transport and the upper house reacted remarkably fast: When a new revision of the German road act was published in 1997, the mandatory use of any existing cycle path was again deleted and substituted by a law quite similar to the old nazi’s law. But this time, the new road act came along with several strict rules, under which circumstanzes a local street authority is alowed to enact a mandatory use by the corresponding road sign:

Since that year a precept to use a cycle path is only legal if…

  • …there is really a specific danger for cylists to use the road (i.e. tram rails, bad street surface, heavy heavy traffic – much normal traffic doesn’t count)
  • …the cycle path matches the actual technical standards and be safe, which means it must be broad enough (at least more than 1.5 meter (~ 60 inches), better 2 meters (~ 80 inches)), have a good surface, not too sharp corners etc.
  • …there is enough space left for pedestrians, which means, that two adult people should be able to pass each other without touching the cycle path.

Local authorities only got one year till 1998 to check wether their exisiting cycling infrastructure matched the new rules or not. But nearly all local authorities missed the deadline – often they simply postponed the decision in order to wait until the next renovation of the street, claiming to build proper cycling paths or cycling lanes, which had become more popular in Germany since around 1990. But more common some pro-automotive die-hard dinosaurs beyond planners and officials refused to re-open the roads for cyclists. They ignored or didn’t even understand the scientific evidence that had led into the new law and saw it just as a waste of tax money for buying new road signs.

The situaton brought cycling advocates or clubs like the ADFC and VCD into a difficult conflict: First of all, time ran out. In German law it is much easier, to sue an administrative act in the first year after beeing touched by it. But cities argued ostensible, they could not turn every cycle path along thought to be dangerous roads in such a good state to match the new rules within only one year. The clubs often accepted this argument, but their members lost legal admissibility to sue.

Second, especially the ADFC just didn’t want to loosen the often good contact to cities administrations. A lawsuit could be seen as a personal offense and have a bad influence on other activities of the club: The ADFC has a broad touristic background for example, and many cities and the club work close together when editing new cycling maps or signing and advertising new touristical routes. Even the club itself had an inner conflict: If sueing, it could have been brandmarked as the ugly lycra-clad sports cyclists, who’d love to sacrifice ’safe infrastructure for cycling children‘ to their sports activities. In many local subdivisions of the ADFC the new law was seen critical by a majority of their members.

At least, the safety issues of German cycle paths never made it much into the media. Local politicians, road authorities and police departmends as well as their federal counterparts didn’t advertise the new law – but spent hundreds of thousands of Euros for cylehelmet- and high-viz gear campaigns. Opening a new cycle path by cutting a red ribbon still gives a nice photograph in the local newspaper for a local politician.

While the clubs hesitated to force the administrations by lawsuits, private cyclists mainly had fiscal reasons, not to sue the mandatory use of a specific cycle path. Even, if the chance loosing such a lawsuit and to have to take the costs is only one of ten, costs for such a suit in first instance without a lawyer are approx. 500 Euro and will rise to 1,500 Euro on second instance, where hiring a lawyer is mandatory.

But even against this difficult starting position, there have been several lawsuits against obligatory cycle paths: Sometimes a local group of the ADFC backed a dedicated cyclist, sometimes one of them took the risk of his own. There is a Berlin based lawyer, who confrontates local Berlin road authorities every two or three months with new petitions. In Hamburg, there is a cyclist who won nine out of ten lawsuits – and if he starts caring for a cycle path, the Hamburg police often enough unmounts the unbeloved blue signs of its own.

In 2010 a Bavarian member of the ADFC finally achieved a precedent by the Federal Administrative Court of Germany. He fought down a quite well built mandatory cycle path along a really rural road with only a school bus line serving a stop in the road three or four times a day. Since that lawsuit in downtown areas obligatory cycle paths nearly aren’t justifiable anymore.

Unfortunately, there are still officers in high positions in many local road authorities, who do not want cyclists to chose between a cycle path and the road for free. These men often have learned their job in the ultra-automotive 1960s and 1970s. And even Münster, known as Germanys bicyle capital and the city this blog is based, is among those German cities, that force their cyclists on paths not broad enough for one adult cyclists – even, if some of them die on that paths in horrible accidents.

And that is, why German cyclists fight against their infrastructure.

5 Kommentare zu “The Autobahn’s bloody Brother – Germanys deadly Cycle Paths

  1. Pingback: Fahrbahn vs. Radweg – wo wollen wir fahren? | rad[irr]wege

  2. Thomas Bliesener

    Schöne Zusammenfassung, und da auf ausländisch geschrieben, läßt sich darauf sehr universell verlinken. Danke.

    Noch ein paar Typos:

    1. Rasmus Richter Autor des Beitrags

      Danke übrigens für die Typos. Mein Schulenglisch ist durchaus ein wenig eingerostet. Auch wenn hier Stilblüten auftauchen, bitte einmal kurz hier unten anmerken. Ich korrigiere das dann.

  3. Thomas Bliesener

    Eine Stilblüte dürfte „outlander“ sein. kennt das Wort nicht Ich hätte „foreigner“ geschrieben.

    Zwei (offensichtliche) Typos gibt’s noch in der ersten Zeile.

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