German Cities: What Can We Learn About Car Use?

Often culture is used as a reason for differences in cycle use. Europeans love to bike, the Dutch love to bike, but two German cities, Munich and Hamburg show how this may not be such an important factor.

Müncheners and Hamburgers (I hope the second is the right name) live in very wealthy cities at each end of Germany. Both have similar car ownership levels and although they would disagree a similar culture.  How they use their cars suggests that they come from different planets.

Munich is a biking and public transport paradise. The car is something for shifting the kids or getting away to the Alps for the weekend.  Hamburg, although also blessed with good transport, just does not want to get on its bike. So what’s the difference?

It’s the built environment stupid.

If you have ever been to Munich you will have noticed that the city is pretty spacious. The river is lined by a flood plain and on this flood plain lays a north south bike path- a sort of pedalway if you will. A Pedalway network like a motorway network is formed from radial routes with a central and outer ring. The bikes are separate from the cars; the traffic lights (although not perfectly tuned to the cyclist) give him more priority than someone in Hamburg.

The lack of investment in bike paths, the more than weak prioritisation for cyclist and pedestrian mean that Hamburgers pick the car over their own feet or the bike.

Through our built environment we can change traffic patterns and therefore reduce our impact on the environment.

But what can you do as an individual?

Persist. Through critical mass you can create safety. Cycling in numbers is safer because the motorist is forced to pay attention as he begins to recognise you as another hazard and that only comes with numbers. It also forces the planners and politicians to look again at their traffic priorities. The combination of a progressive mayor, increasing bike usage (due to fears of terrorism and painfully slow commutes, and fuel prices) resulted in the surge of investment in London’s cycle network in recent years.

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