Campaigning for Safer Routes to School

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.

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Rachel Gooch shares insights from her new home in Germany, where the ambition is to make it possible for everyone to become a cyclist.

When I moved away from Cambridge for the first time, I left my bike behind – a blue drop-handlebar Raleigh Wisp that I had saved for months to buy as a teenager. It was the first new bike I had ever owned. It saw me through dashes to lectures, hauled me up Castle Hill to supervisions in New Hall and had been my sherpa on countless trips to Sidney Street Sainsbury’s. When I graduated, I had no way of taking it with me. I simply left it behind in the bike shed and turned my back on cycling for the next 30 years.

Living in busy cities and, later, rural Suffolk, I found any number of reasons and excuses. It was unsafe and impractical. I had small children and a busy life. I was overweight and unfit. Cycling was too much effort for too little reward.

In 2017, my children grown and independent, I moved back to Cambridge and bought a lightweight hybrid bike. I took to pootling into town along the Cam, heading out at weekends against the wind along the Busway cycleway or puffing on a looping route out into the fens. There were frustrations, of course – dodging wandering tourists on shared paths, the chronic lack of secure parking, random bollards in the middle of cycle paths. There were dangers too – close passes from angry motorists, the cycle lanes that disappear without warning or those that make cyclists give way at side road junctions. Cambridge had reintroduced me to cycling but I was yet to feel properly at home on a bike.

Political commitment, personal joy

Then something unexpected happened. The shadow of Brexit forced my relocation to Frankfurt, Germany. And when I left Cambridge this time, I took my bike with me – fixing it to the back of the car as my husband and I drove into Europe. Cycling in Frankfurt is proving to be a proper joy. It is a crowded, skyscraper city of 750,000 people, rooted in a culture that worships the car, and while it cannot yet claim to be a cycling city like Utrecht, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, it can still offer to Cambridge some simple lessons in improving the experience of cycling in the city.

The fundamental difference seems to be one of national and local political commitment. Germany has a simple ambition to make it possible for everyone to be a cyclist and it has a national plan to make it happen. The government estimates that 80% of Germans currently have access to a bike but it aims to extend this to everyone and for 15% of all journeys to be made by bike. Germany as a whole has made this a priority with responsibility for ensuring it happens devolved to local areas. It has had a National Cycling Plan since 2002. The third edition is currently being reviewed and consulted upon for implementation from 2020. These are its guiding objectives:

  • seamless cycling infrastructure
  • cycling should be safe for every age group from children to senior citizens
  • urban cargo transport by bicycle
  • Germany becomes a country of cycling commuters
  • Germany becomes a country of cyclists
  • cycling becomes intelligent, smart and interlinked
  • cycling becomes ubiquitous in urban and rural areas
  • cycling at the heart of modern mobility systems

These are ambitious, if vague, targets and the final plan will fill out how they will be achieved. As I cycle round my new city, I can see there is already a solid basis for thinking that ‘jeder ein Radfahrer’ (everyone a cyclist) can be a reality. Were the innovations here common in the UK, my 30-years cycling hiatus might not have felt necessary and I would be very happy cycling into my old age.

In Frankfurt, many babies get their first experience of cycling as passengers in cargo bikes (of which more later). From then on, they are cyclists themselves. Almost as soon as they can walk, German toddlers scoot around the pavements and parks on a ‘Laufrad’ – literally a run-wheel. These pedalless, two-wheel balance bikes are becoming more common in the UK, while in Germany they are universal. German youngsters graduate quickly to pedalled bikes at a much earlier age than is usual in the UK. It is very common to see even three-year-olds frantically pedalling alongside their mum or dad on the way to kindergarten.

When they are eight or nine years old, every child in Germany takes a cycling proficiency course delivered in school by local police, tested through both practical and written exams. It is a serious business and success means many will be cycling to school independently from this point onward. Of course, it helps that cycling infrastructure is much better here. Wide pavements with segregated lanes, priority when crossing side streets and cyclecrossing lights are usual in residential areas and there are fast commuter routes directly into town where cyclists have priority. Cycling here feels safe.

One thing that Frankfurt has not yet fixed and that it shares with Cambridge is the lack of secure cycle parking. There is a shortage in the centre of parking sites and the two cities share the experience of a disastrous central station parking site which promised much but simply became a target for thieves. If Cambridge ever manages to solve this one, Frankfurt would like to hear about it.

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Leisure, buses and e-bikes

Leisure cycling is encouraged for all ages. There are many medium and longdistance cycling routes around Frankfurt that are well paved and well signposted with rest stops and bike repair stations for when it all gets a bit too much. A 77 km route – the Grüngürtel (green belt) – circles the whole city running alongside the two rivers and through the Stadtwald (city forest). It links to many other cycle paths that criss-cross the area, often making it possible to cycle for many miles almost entirely off-road. Further afield, you can cycle hundreds of kilometres along the major arterial rivers. The Main, Rhine and Mosel all have signed paths and infrastructure, including bike repair shops, along the way to support cyclists. Accessing these wonderful routes is easy because almost all public transport welcomes bikes. It is possible to hop on cheap trams, U-Bahn (underground), S-Bahn (suburban) and regional services and be out in the countryside with your bike within 15 minutes. There are even some buses that will take a couple of bikes, including one that runs to the top of the local berg so you can freewheel 25km down through forest paths back to the city. In contrast, I found leisure routes out of Cambridge to be mainly on roads or crowded pedestrian paths, unlinked to public transport and simply not on the same scale as here in Frankfurt. A signed, offroad, circular route around Cambridge with safe spokes into the centre would be a special joy, I think.

The huge growth in electric bikes in Germany has opened up cycling to demographics that remain marginalised in the UK. The German cycling industry association estimates that there are 75 million bikes in Germany of which 4.5 million are electric. 920,000 e-bikes were sold in Germany in the first half of 2019 alone.

The impact of electric bikes here is clear. I usually notice them when I am puffing up a hill and overtaken by a woman 20 years older than me pedalling at a steady, electric-assisted 25 km/h. A 2011 survey found that 24% of interviewees intended to buy an e-bike as their next bike and this rose to 54% for people over the age of 60. Electric bikes are making it possible for cycling to be something that can continue into old age and infirmity. While I would like to think I can go another decade or more before pedalling becomes difficult, I am heartened by the idea that when I am no longer capable of reaching the top of the hill on my own, I can get an electrical push. Beyond older people, electric bikes are also becoming popular with commuters who can have a cycle commute into the city and home again even when the wind is against them and they are tired after a busy day. Even mountain bikers are adopting e-bikes to provide an extra bit of torque in trickier terrain.

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But it is with cargo bikes that electric assistance seems to have made a real difference in Frankfurt. While in Cambridge, I looked on in awe at mothers who could push two beaming toddlers in a Bakfiets over the Chesterton cycle bridge – an impressive feat that needs thighs of steel to achieve. In Frankfurt there is a huge variety of cargo bikes of various designs and most of them have electric assistance. It opens up this mode of transport to many more families for many more journeys. They remain hugely expensive, but many families see them as a cheaper alternative to a second (or even, first) car.

The cost is less of a problem for businesses. The German government sees the cargo bike as a key part of its cycle plan and businesses can claim a subsidy of up to €2,500 to invest in one. This makes an electric cargo bike a viable option for city deliveries and they are a common sight on Frankfurt’s cycle network. Camcycle’s Cargo Carnival this summer showed that cargo bikes are popular and practical for businesses in Cambridge, especially when electric assistance extends their capacity and range. If subsidies were promoted more widely, I am sure many more Cambridge businesses would choose to use them.

The lesson for Cambridge overall is to be more ambitious and to ensure that planners and decision-makers prioritise the cyclist. Cycling needs to be not merely safe, but a pleasure. Plans must consider all ages and targeted subsidies will make a difference. And, for myself, when I finally return to Cambridge, I really hope that it will be possible for me to continue to consider myself first and foremost, a cyclist.

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