By bike. Fast. And away!

Aug 18, 2021

Fast cycle lanes can relieve traffic congestion in our cities. But commuters are only going to switch to the bike if the route satisfies certain requirements. So what precisely is needed for success, and what’s the picture like in those countries leading the way on this?

Fast cycle lanes - isn’t that an oxymoron, a term formed from two opposing concepts? That, at least, is the question the fun rider who takes a leisurely cycle around the local area at the weekend will be asking themselves. Transport policy in most municipalities in Germany also tends to view cycling as a relaxed means of getting around, one which to some extent could even be accommodated on the sidewalk.

Smooth and safe cycling

Anyone who travels over 5 km in one go looks forward to stretches of road that are not constantly interrupted by traffic lights and junctions - just like on an empty motorway, in fact. In a study, the Swiss Association of Transportation Engineers and Experts (SVI) defines the fast cycle lane, or “Velobahn” in Swiss German, as follows: “These high-quality connections primarily link up residential areas, key areas for education and employment, shopping centers and cultural centers, and nodal points for public transport services.”  

As such, these routes are geared primarily to commuters, and therefore need to be “attractive, safe and fast”. By that, it means that speeds of at least 20 km/h should be achievable. Transport planners achieve that, above all, with a good road surface and good traffic flows. That’s because stop-start travel, in particular, lowers the average. If you can pedal without stopping, then longer distances can be readily achieved. Germany, along with the cycle-loving countries of Denmark and the Netherlands, are driving this agenda forward and are increasingly building fast cycle lanes.

There are many arguments in favor of these fast cycle lanes: Experience in the Netherlands shows that five to 15 percent of car drivers have switched to riding a bike if there was a suitable lane in their area. That’s good for health, relieves congestion in the city centers, and has a positive impact on the climate balance sheet.

A cycle path in Paris. © Grillot Edouard/Unsplash

Trying out a fast cycle lane for myself

Berlin, on the southern side of the city: You have to know where the southern entrance to the “Schöneberger Südgelände” park is, or you could easily cycle right past it. The route starts from here, and it runs straight for just over two kilometers, on a good tarmac surface. Trees fly past you. A basketball court and a number of meadows line the route. Then Berlin Südkreuz station interrupts the flow of the journey, and cyclists suddenly find themselves pitched into the station forecourt, losing themselves between the numerous buses and pedestrians rushing to the station.

With some skillful navigation, you find your way back onto the route, hidden behind the station building, by a fitness center car park. From here, it runs along the left of the train tracks for roughly a further two kilometers to Kreuzberg, with no interruptions. If commuters swap sides via a bridge along the way, they find themselves in the Park am Gleisdreieck and riding along the old track bed which has been resurfaced for cycling. With no traffic lights, and with only occasional crossing pedestrians, you can cover four kilometers until just before Potsdamer Platz.

Bike path on a bridge in Copenhagen. © Febiyan/Unsplash

Copenhagen as the model

Despite its shortcomings, this cycle lane is one of the better ones in Berlin. However, the coming years should see more such lanes appearing in the capital. For instance, a route connecting the outlying district of Wannsee with Kreuzberg, very much in line with the model of the Danish cycling capital of Copenhagen. Here, people have long understood the benefits of cycle expressways. The aim is to increase the amount of cycling traffic to the point where 30 percent of commuter routes in the region around the capital (on routes of between five to 15 km) are covered by bike. Twenty local authorities and the government are working on creating a common network covering some 500 km. Route markings are readily understood, getting lost is practically impossible - attractive, safe and fast. One highlight is the 16 cycle bridges, connecting city districts that are separated by the water. 

In Copenhagen, the approach is therefore a lot more consistent than with our German local authorities. But there are highlights here too, such as the Darmstadt-Frankfurt route, or the first fast cycle lane in Göttingen. The fast cycle lane along the Ruhr is also very well-constructed. But with many other projects, to date only test sections have been realized, while others have only completed the planning stage. So will all these cycle expressways really be implemented as planned, in the foreseeable future? The need for them is certainly there: Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Frankfurt had around 400,000 daily commuters. Hardly any of them traveled by bike. A sensible network of fast cycle lanes could surely change that.

(Stage photo: © Tolu Olarewaju/Unsplash)

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