From the country that gave us the autobahn comes another kind of superhighway—one designed for two wheels instead of four.
Earlier this month, Germany opened the first three miles of what will soon become a 62-mile bicycle highway that will connect 10 cities along the western part of the country. Unlike traditional bike lanes that are either on the same road as car traffic or adjacent to it, the new bike highway in the Ruhr region will be 13 feet wide, include passing lanes for cyclists of all speeds and will cross major roads by underpass or overpass.
One of the biggest questions with any new bike infrastructure project is whether it will get regular use. In the case of the Ruhr region’s route, all signs point to “yes.” The route passes within 1.2 miles of nearly 2 million local residents, which could take as many as 50,000 cars off the road every day, according to a study from regional development group RVR.
And this could be just the beginning for similar “bike autobahns” in Germany. Frankfurt has approved plans for a 19-mile path south to Darmstadt, and Munich has approved a 9-mile route into the northern suburbs. Additionally, both Nuremberg and Berlin have launched feasibility studies to assess the practicality of building dedicated bike highways to link surrounding suburbs.
A majority of the Ruhr route will be built adjacent to a railway that is no longer in use. The terrain surrounding the railway has already been leveled to accommodate the track, which should simplify the construction process for the bike lane. These so-called “rail trails” are common in other countries, including the United States.
Adding to the Network of Bike Highways in Europe
Germany is just the latest country to adopt the idea of bike highways. Denmark recently opened the Copenhagen-Albertslund bike route, the first of 26 interconnecting bike routes that will span more than 180 miles and connect 22 municipalities in the greater Copenhagen area. The dedicated bike paths have the dual benefit of making bike trips more accessible to everyday commuters by eliminating red lights and intersections and, more important, separating cyclist and vehicular traffic to make transportation safer for those on two wheels.
The Netherlands is also famous for its cyclist-friendly infrastructure, where an estimated 31 percent of all travel happens by bike. Their roads are some of the most bike-accessible of any nation in the world, with traffic lights that are timed according to the pace of bike traffic, as well as bike highways connecting much of the country.
Why Bike Highways Matter
The 62-mile route in the Ruhr region of Germany is set to cost an estimated €180 million—split between the EU, North Rhine-Westphalia state and RVR—which is no small price to pay. But if a city or country is interested in getting more people out of of cars and onto bikes, getting them onto a path away from cars may be the best way to do it. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, dedicated bike paths are used 2.5 times more often than on-road bike paths, and with 28 percent less injuries to cyclists.