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The best German cities for cycling

Amsterdam and Copenhagen are different. Visitors notice it immediately: People riding bikes, everywhere you look. Here, the infrastructure is geared up for cyclists: Cycle paths, cycle bridges, broad cycle lanes, and phased traffic lights for cyclists. These two cities show what's possible. Can German cities do it too?

It was the rubbish bin in Copenhagen that triggered the 'a-ha' moment. Placed beside the cycle path, it is open and angled in such a way that you can throw things into it as you cycle past. And suddenly it was clear that the city sees cyclists as the most important road users, and is gearing its infrastructure consistently to them. That has the positive effect that the number of people taking to their bike to get about day-to-day is growing steadily, and is today around 62%. And Copenhagen is looking to do even more. In the years ahead, further cycle lanes are already being funded. In addition, the city has set itself the target of becoming the world's best city to cycle in by 2025. It's an ambitious plan, since its nearest competitors Amsterdam and Utrecht have a similarly good infrastructure, and cycling is similarly very popular there. For years, these three municipalities have been competing in a head-to-head race for the crown of being the world's best city for cycling.

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German cities compared: Which is the real cycle city?

How do German's cities and municipalities come out, in a direct comparison? Many cities pride themselves on being a cycle city ("Fahrradstadt") or a cycling capital ("Fahrradhauptstadt"). However, this is not based on any standardized gathering of data, but often on a non-representative and impressionistic feel. Different surveys, assessments and studies create more confusion than clarity. It's fair to ask: What is being looked at? How people feel when out on the roads, bike use or the quality of the cycling infrastructure?

A study known as the "Copenhagenize Index" is a trailblazer, applying scientific precision and a comprehensive approach to examining the world's best major cities for cycling. It includes the volume of investment in the cycling infrastructure in its assessment, and beyond that the urban cycling culture and policy support for cycling play an important role. The publishers of the "Copenhagenize Index" examine over 600 capital cities and cities with over 600,000 residents annually. Here is the list of the best German cities for cycling, based on this Index.

3rd place: Hamburg

Hamburg is simultaneously on the way up and on the way down. It's dropping down the "Copenhagenize Index" because other cities have overtaken it, and have expanded their cycling infrastructure a lot more heavily. But it's also on the way up, because increasing numbers of Hamburg residents are taking to their bikes. The modal split grew from 9% in 2002 to 12% in 2008 and 15% in 2017. The aim is that by 2030, 25% of trips will be undertaken by bike. Recent studies confirm that picture: In 2020, cycling in Hamburg had again increased by 33% compared with the previous year. On one cycle path, a special recorder logged 2.3 million cyclists riding past last year. That's a Hamburg record. Another argument in favor of the city is its well-functioning, extensive, subsidized bike hire system, linked to its rail stations. Even if the son of Hamburg and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said that "anyone who has visions should go to the doctor", the city on the Alster offers compelling vision. One of these is "Superbüttel". In the city district of Hamburg-Eimsbüttel, public parking is set to give way to green spaces and playgrounds. Pedestrians and cyclists are taking precedence.

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2nd place: Berlin

No list is complete without Berlin: The city has more people without cars than with cars. That's a good enough reason to invest more in expanding the corresponding infrastructure - something that has been happening in Berlin since a successful referendum in 2016 and the mobility law ratified in 2018, aimed at promoting increased funding for public transport and cycling. This push was given further impetus with the coronavirus pandemic. In several districts, temporary cycle lanes were installed - an opportunity that many Berliners have used. According to one study, the new routes with pop-up cycle lanes have seen recorded growth in cyclist numbers of up to 200 percent. These temporary routes are to be converted gradually into safe cycling lanes .

Berlin has ideal conditions to be in our Top 3: Generously laid-out streets with space for cycle lanes, large parks, a young population, and a flat topography. However, the ambitious plans are still very vague, and as yet not consistently implemented, according to the "Copenhagenize Index". The strategy is reaching its limits, many Berliners are saying. Things are set to remain exciting in the capital.

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1st place: Bremen

According to the "Copenhagenize Index", Bremen is climbing the rankings and, in the global comparison, it comes out in an impressive 11th spot. In Germany, this city - standing on the Weser river - certainly ranks at the top, and is our Number 1. Bremen has 674 kilometers of dedicated cycle lanes, separated from other traffic. That's an excellent starting-point for cycling. Bremen's residents also see it that way, and they use their bikes to get around with above-average frequency. The modal split for cycling as the preferred mode of travel is 25%, which is a leading figure for Germany. And Bremen is looking to do more. The Bremen 2025 transport development plan envisages expanding several fast cycle lanes. That is one of several further measures for cyclists.

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Unclassified: Münster

Münster is the Copenhagen of Germany – that's always been the case. This university city in Westphalia boasts 1.67 bicycles per head. Compared globally, Münster is the most cycle-friendly city after Utrecht. And when it comes to cycle hire per resident, the city again ranks high up internationally. Sadly, Münster with its 314.000 inhabitants does not feature in the "Copenhagenize Index", although for many it is Germany's cycling capital. That's why we include it here, as an unclassified entry.

As early as the 1960s, its city planning department foresaw the coming gridlock, and invested significantly in the cycling infrastructure. Between 1972 and 1984, cycling rates increased by a factor of four as a result. Since then, Münster has built on this turnaround and on the keenness of Münster's residents to take the bike for most trips. In that, the city has been helped by a number of basic preconditions: The city center, almost completely destroyed after the Second World War, is largely closed off to motorized private vehicles, there are very few parking spaces, Münster is flat, its population includes many students, public transport is unpopular, and it only takes 4.5 kilometers to do a tour of the city center by bike. Hence the modal split for cycling as the preferred mode of travel has been around 40% for years.

The only downside is that, despite the prevailing cycling culture and appreciative declarations of support from the politicians, in 2020 the city invested relatively little (around EUR 10 million) in the partially dilapidated and ageing infrastructure. It's of some help that people who live in Münster see their bikes as everyday objects, much like people in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. You will look in vain here for pimped-up racing bikes, multi-functional all-weather clothing and fixie bikes. In Münster, people ride "gefiets", on practical everyday bikes. Generally comfortably, and in fashionably chic style.

The love of cycling

The most exciting figures when looking for the best city for cycling (rapidly deflating or reinforcing any impressionistic images and self-appointed titles) are the statistics for annual expenditure per resident on cycling. Here it quickly becomes apparent which municipalities are able to and want to make changes, and to what extent. Copenhagen, which holds the record in the global ranking, has again increased its investment per head between 2018 and 2020, from EUR 35 to EUR 40. The best cities in our German ranking do not come out well, by comparison: So far, they have been saving rather than spending. Bremen spends around EUR 6.70, Berlin close on EUR 9, Hamburg EUR 10, Münster EUR 3. However, these investments could rise in the years ahead, given the increasing love of cycling. The comparison with other modes of transport, in particular, reveals an imbalance: For example, the Heidelberg City administration spends EUR 240 annually on infrastructure for cars, EUR 171 on public transport and EUR 6 on cycling. Copenhagen remains a distant prospect, on that basis.

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Munich - a city with great potential

And what about Munich, the host city for IAA MOBILITY 2021? Transport experts see plenty of potential for growth in cycling. The share of trips undertaken by bike has risen from 10% in 2002 to 17% in 2011. There are no concrete numbers as yet, but city spokespersons are confident that the modal split for cycling has risen dramatically again due to the pandemic. In part, this is due to attractive destinations in the surrounding countryside that can be reached by bike – and routes such as the Munich–Venice long-distance cycle route, the Isar cycle route or the WasserRadlwege Oberbayern in Upper Bavaria which are an open invitation to use the bike as often as possible. One thing is clear – the cycling infrastructure is set to be further expanded in the years ahead. Four temporary cycle lanes created in Munich last year are now being retained.

(Stage photo: © Bennett Tobias / Unsplash)

IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: The Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries comes together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.