Bicycling Boom in Germany:
A Revival Engineered by Public Policy

by John Pucher, in Transportation Quarterly, V51, #4, Fall 1997


Reviewer: John Forester

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John Pucher is a professor of Urban Planning at Rutgers, Ph.D. from M.I.T. in 1978, who has conducted much research on transport policies, economics, and finance. One would presume that he is well-informed about his subject. As it happens, he is only ill-informed about that part of his range of subjects that concerns cycling transportation, but that is the specific subject of this paper.

Pucher argues that governmental policy has caused the increase in cycling transportation in Germany. There is much to be said for this argument, but Pucher fails to distinguish between practices that improve cycling, those that harm cycling, and those that reduce the competitiveness of modes that compete with cycling. One cannot take Pucher's description of planning practices as an accurate description of what should be done to make cycling better.

Pucher summarizes his argument as "The main reason for differences in the level of bicycle use is public policy. In the United States, very little has been done to promote bicycle use. The few bikeways and bike lanes in U.S. cities are, in general, uncoordinated, poorly maintained, and--because they are not separated from auto traffic--dangerous for bicyclists." He goes on to say that, "even more serious," society and the justice system have little respect for the legal rights of cyclists. The bikeway argument is incorrect, as we know, because bikeways separated from traffic are more dangerous than normal streets. The lack of legal acceptance argument, while true on its face, ends up false when presented as Pucher does.

Pucher first notes that the Netherlands and Denmark have proportionally far more cycling transportation than other nations, but that West Germany is not far behind, trailed by Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and, toward the bottom of the list, England, France, Italy, Canada and the U.S.A. Pucher asserts that cycling is not driven by lack of money, or of public transportation, or by climate or topography. As far as climate goes, he errs. He considers rain to be the most climatically limiting factor, and dismisses climate because Holland and Denmark have the most rain as well as the most cycling. He does not realize that the temperature extremes of much of the U.S.A. are far more limiting than rain, which is only a minor nuisance compared to either humid heat or dry sub-zero cold.

Pucher also dismisses travel distance. He states that average trip distances in U.S. and Canadian cities are 50% longer than those in Western Europe and then gives a distribution of U.S. trip lengths as 49% less than 3 miles, and so downward, asserting that 3 miles is an easy bicycle trip. However, he never gives the lengths of the bicycle trips made by Europeans for comparison. If the typical European bicycle trip is less than 1.2 miles (2 km), as I have read, he can hardly expect Americans to ride longer trips or criticize them for not doing so. In fact, apart from those compelled to cycle (the poor, students), American transportational cycling is largely done by those who enjoy it, and their distances far exceed the German ones. Among them, the average cycle commuting trip is 4.7 miles, and 50% of the cycle-commuting miles are produced on trips of more than 10 miles.

Pucher then lists various German cities in declining order of cycling transportation proportion. Again he gives the erroneous argument about weather, listing rain as the major deterrent. "Indeed, it rains in Muenster an average of 238 days per year!" That tells us that on 238 days a year the temperature is above freezing, and since a large proportion of the remaining 127 days are probably warm, there aren't many days when it is as cold as Boston or Minneapolis in winter. And, so far as I have heard, N.Germany is not subject to the heat and humidity of Boston, Minneapolis, or Houston.

More importantly, Pucher notes that four of the top six are university cities, with two of the top three having a very high proportion of students, and the top three are Green Party cities. While Pucher's summary discounts the economic factor and ignores the ideological factor in the propensity to cycle, students cycle because they don't have cars (and couldn't get them onto the campuses), while Green Party members believe in the environmental importance of not driving. Just as elsewhere, these social conditions produce cycling transportation.

Pucher then considers "Policies that Encourage Cycling." The item that he considers of first importance in all the cycling cities is a bikeway system. For example, Muenster has 252 km of bike paths, Freiburg has 265 km, Munich has 906 km, and Bremen 750 km. These figures come from Pucher's paper, but his definitions are sloppy. Pucher sometimes describes these as "completely separated", and sometimes as "grade separated from car traffic," these latter being along "virtually every major roadway in the city" of Bremen. I have never read that Bremen has any bicycle freeways, let alone 750 km of them. Furthermore, I don't think that Bremen has the experimental two-level traffic circles that Claxton put into Stevenage. When Pucher talks grade-separated he means something other than grade separated. He shows a picture of what he calls a typical bike path. "Such bike paths are one-way only and thus on both sides of every major street. Muenster has 252 of such bike paths." When Pucher writes "grade-separated" he means the height of the sidewalk above the roadway, and he has no idea that the urban bicycle sidepath is the most dangerous type of bicycle facility that we have devised, thousands of times more dangerous than a good American street.

In addition to giving undeserved praise to the bikeway systems, Pucher praises some other facilities. He praises bicycle streets on which cyclists have total right-of-way over the entire width of the street. I wonder what decides the right-of-way between cyclists? That's been tried in America for festival occasions, and the result is dangerous chaos. False-one-way streets, one-way for cars but two-way for bicycles. That's not an encouragement for cycling, merely a discouragement for motoring by prohibiting travel in one direction. Bus and bike lanes. If there aren't many buses, these are usable, but in places with much bus traffic the cyclist spends his time jumping past and then slowing behind. Convoluted street layout with short-cut bike paths. Permission for cyclists to make turns where motorists are prohibited from turning. Neither of these are encouragements for cycling, merely great discouragements for motoring with a lesser discouragement for cycling.

Pucher exposes his ignorance with two descriptions of special traffic signals. One is the advanced stop line, in which cyclists can filter to the front and then get a green phase before motorists do. This is not really an encouragement for cyclists, because they don't get a green any earlier than they otherwise would. Their green is not shown until the cross traffic has cleared the intersection, so it couldn't be shown earlier. The delayed green for motorists is merely a discouragement for motoring. The other is the signal with the special bicycle phase, which is much the same, but without the advanced stop line. Pucher doesn't understand the two significant characteristics of these signal systems. The first is that they delay all traffic, both motoring and cycling, to a greater extent than the conventional signal with directional phasing without vehicle-type phasing. The more signal phases there are in the signal cycle, the smaller the proportion of total time can be given to each movement, and hence the greater probable delay for each movement. The second is that these vehicle-type signal phases are made necessary to avoid the dangerous conflicts that the bicycle sidepath system has created. Because no cyclist can use a bicycle sidepath system safely using the standard right-of-way rules, the traffic engineers have to prohibit one of each pair of conflicting movements that their designs have produced. When cyclists operate on the roadway in the normal fashion, such vehicle-type signal phases are not necessary to avoid conflicting movements.

As an example of this analysis, consider Pucher's picture of one leg of an intersection. The approach has two narrow motor lanes, the left one LTO, the other one marked for left, straight, and right, with the bike lane on its right. Traffic is waiting at the intersection. Many of the cyclists waiting in the advanced stop area are waiting to turn left. The cyclist who turns left from the bike lane will be smashed by cars that go straight or right, while the cyclist who goes straight from the bike lane will be smashed by cars that turn right. The advanced stop line and the special vehicle-type signal phase prevent these conflicts. However, neither type of protection is available to the cyclist who is so unlucky as to arrive at the intersection when the light is green. This protection is only available if he arrives when the light is red. Even I, skilled as I am, have not the skills required to operate safely at normal road speeds in such a system. If I were there, I would be going just as slowly as the Germans, to preserve my life.

What should cyclists be doing instead? Just like everyone else, they should select the line of travel that is appropriate for their destination and negotiate their way into it long before reaching the intersection. Then, when they reach the intersection, they can make the proper movement without conflicting with any same-direction traffic. That is the standard traffic operating principle that everyone should know.

One very important subject that Pucher totally ignores, doesn't even mention in passing, is cycling speed. One of the great disincentives of cycling transportation is that it takes more time than motoring, at least in America, for all but the shortest trips. For most personal trips (ie, those that don't involve heavy loads or other special factors) that are taken frequently, and many of those that are taken infrequently, the trip time is the strongest factor in modal choice. Cycling suffers in comparison with motoring because it takes longer. If times for cycling trips increase because cycling must be done slowly and with more delays to avoid added dangers, then cycling is at a greater competitive disadvantage. Over the longer trips that American transportational cyclists make, and with the higher operating speed of American motor traffic (in most places), it is vital to ensure that cyclists can travel as fast as their legs will power them and with as few delays as possible, to minimize the competitive time disadvantage of cycling transportation. Practically everything that the Germans have done reduces the safe operating speed and increases the delays over normal operation on normal roadways with the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. Pucher entirely misses this very significant concept.

One item that Pucher praises as an encouragement to cycling is "Comprehensive training in bicycle safety for all school children." This praise is the crowning glory of Pucher's ignorance. If Germany had taught traffic-safe cycling to its children in any effective manner, the population would be up in rebellion at the dangerous ways that government provides for them to cycle. No, Germany does not teach a comprehensive course in safe, effective cycling. Instead, it teaches the cringing cyclist-inferiority attitudes required to avoid the conflicts with motor traffic that its road designers have created for cyclists, so they accept being so treated without complaint because they can't imagine what real cycling is like. There are signs on the internet that some German cyclists have begun to realize what has been done to them, and they don't like it. Whether they can put an end to it, however, is extremely doubtful. It will take a real rebellion of cyclists to accomplish that.

Pucher also praises the law enforcement effort. Presumably, those cyclists who ride properly, with the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles, get prosecuted. What irony. That brings us to Pucher's final error. He thinks that all these German actions exemplify a proper regard for cyclists' rights. Germany has stolen cyclists' rights to ride on the roads in a safe and efficient manner, and replaced them with the requirement to operate in a manner that is so dangerous that it must be done slowly to save one's life. If cyclists agree to accept that degree of oppression, then the government says that it will try to see that nothing worse happens to them. That's like praising laws prohibiting the mistreatment of slaves; better than nothing but nothing at all like real freedom.

The one undoubted benefit for cyclists that Pucher mentions is the provision of bicycle parking, although, judging from both his words and his pictures, it is still woefully insufficient.

Another part of Pucher's paper describes the anti-motoring activities of these cities and of Germany as a whole. I consider these to be largely out of my province for discussion. However, given that such a large proportion of the supposed German improvements for cycling, supposedly making it better, have actually made cycling more dangerous and therefore slower and less useful, one must conclude that the major part of the increase in cycling is due either to extraneous factors, such as environmentalism, or compulsory cycling on the part of students and such, or to the effect of the anti-motoring programs in making motoring very inconvenient. In other words, even this dangerous, slow, and therefore inconvenient German urban cycling is preferable to the urban motoring that the anti-motoring programs, plus the natural difficulties of motoring in older cities, have made even more inconvenient.

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