200 years ago, the inventor Karl Drais from Baden introduced his first balance bicycle, the prototype of all means of muscular mobility – the ancestor of all bicycles. Children today still learn to balance on two wheels on such balance bicycles and we are learning to rethink and correct a development that has marginalised the bicycle to being a mere recreational vehicle from being a mass transit vehicle, which it was until the 1950s,.
The triumph of the automobile has made us almost forget what significance Drais’ invention had for the development of modern urban society by offering every man and every woman affordable access to individual mobility. The car-friendly topography of our cities had cemented the displacement of the bicycle, leading to its functional fragmentation and partially to its obliteration.
With increasing environmental and health awareness and in the face of massive problems created by individual automobile traffic, the bicycle has gradually reconquered European cities. Bicycle-friendly communities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam are considered by many to be ideal outcomes of sustainable mobility-oriented transport and urban planners, although this seems only possible with considerable investment in cycle paths and public parking facilities. From an urban planning point of view, traffic concepts that take into account the interests of all road users open up the prospect of an overall higher quality of life in the cities.
The uphill struggle of citizens and well-organised bicycle lobbyists is gradually leading to a policymakers’ rethinking ‘from the bottom up’ and across party lines. In order to create bicycle-friendly infrastructures, municipalities and states depend on the support of the federal government, and this seems to have more and more understanding for this: The federal government now invests 100 million euros annually under the National Cycling Scheme (NRVP) and participates in campaigns intended to (re)popularise cycling across large sections of the population.
According to the current German National Cycle Traffic Plan (NRVP), the share of cycling in urban and rural traffic is expected to rise to 15 percent in 2020 – a not necessarily ambitious goal the realisation of which is also not secured, traffic experts criticise. The potential is rather 40 percent or more and not just in Denmark or the Netherlands: until the onset of the car boom in the sixties, the proportion in Germany was at approximately this magnitude, the scientific traffic expert Dr. Heiner Monheim points out.
Cycling associations demand at least an eightfold increase in federal funding as well as a series of measures and reforms aimed at ensuring and accelerating the implementation of bicycle mobility projects across the board, including inter-ministerial control of all cycling issues in the various ministries.
The bicycle renaissance
While politics reluctantly reorients, society is rediscovering the bicycle and its diverse uses from tourism to urban logistics. Bike rentals, which are already established in all major cities, supplement car-free mobility and, together with car-sharing opportunities, make the possession of a private car superfluous. Improvements and innovations in equipment and accessories, as well as electric auxiliary drives enabling even untrained cyclists to conquer any hill, enliven the bicycle industry, creating and securing hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Environmental scandals in this zero-emission means of transport can be virtually excluded, and the internationally agreed decarbonisation of the global economy, a prerequisite for successfully tackling climate change, will remain an empty vision without a significant expansion of bicycle mobility. The interest in a more sustainable design of our production and lifestyles should therefore pay more attention to the green image of the bicycle.
The bicycle still thrills and enthuses 200 years after its invention. According to information from the Federal Ministry of Transport, about 82 percent of the German population regularly uses it, and the “small” mode of transport certainly has a great future in Germany, too, where bicycles and automobiles were invented. The prerequisite for this is that it succeeds in making its use more attractive in everyday life. Then it can assert itself in a sustainable mobility mix and claim its unique merits.