Twelve members of Cambridge Cycling Campaign were hosted in the German city of Oldenburg in late May 2013. Oldenburg is growing quickly and styling itself as a city of the future.
A new European Medical University, a growing hi-tech service sector, and lots of new housing make it like a bit bigger version of Cambridge. With 43% of trips by bicycle it is the biggest significantly sized cycling city in Europe and is very proud to be known as Germany’s ‘cycling city’.
Our guide walked us to the top of Bergstraße (Mountain Street), the highest point in the city, a full 9.3 metres above sea level. At no point were we even approaching the dizzying heights or the steepness of Castle Hill. There were no steep bridge approach ramps over the motorways or railways as they had all been built above ground level, allowing city traffic to pass underneath, at ground level.
The city has very high levels of cycling: at one location it was hard to keep up a count of the bicycles because they streamed past way too quickly, three or four abreast.
The bicycle infrastructure is probably best described as a work in progress. In some parts it looks very much like what the Dutch would do, with wide off-road dedicated cycleways. But surprisingly we were also often sharing rather narrow pavements with pedestrians.
One street had recently been converted to a bicycle street. A central strip had a road-like quality, wide enough for bicycles to travel in two directions four abreast. This was surrounded by bicycle parking, and then wide footways next to the very busy shops. It worked incredibly well, and should be something easy to replicate in Cambridge.
All the cycleways were paved with 40cm-square concrete blocks. By making them 10cm thick the city engineers said that it provided a better surface after services underneath had been repaired, and didn’t crack under the weight of heavy vehicles.
The city centre is surrounded by an inner ring road. The bus lines loop around this ring road before heading back out again, providing excellent interchange possibilities with no need for buses to cut through or wait in the historic centre. Also, there were plenty of car parks just off the ring road, with the inevitable queues of car traffic attempting to get into them. Car parking was significantly cheaper than in Cambridge. There appears to be little restraint on car traffic except for the large pedestrian area. This is a policy decision by the city council as car drivers from outside the city were still considered very valuable to the local economy.
Out in the countryside, an extensive network of permeable paths and quiet roads for bicycles had been used to create a 120km orbital leisure route. This passes through woods, fields of maize, and at one point was even suspended from a motorway bridge, 40m above a river which provided vertiginous views of the city. Plenty of ‘refuelling’ establishments along this route served German beer and fresh asparagus.
Many of the older residential areas have no footpaths beside the residential roads. Newer areas have ‘play streets’ with very wiggly narrow roads and plenty of parking. We still didn’t see many children playing in these areas, but did see lots of kids cycling through them. Typically there were fully separate cycleway networks that led to schools and the local shops.
At minor road junctions, the cycleway just continued at the same level, along with the footway. From the riding or walking point of view, there was no real difference; no Give Way, no kerb to step down from, no traffic turning fast across you. From the driving point of view, you are crossing the pavement, just like accessing a driveway, except you are crossing into a minor road. The priority is clear and simple.
Most of the cycleways along the main roads were on both sides of the road and went the same way as the flow of the traffic. However, in some very busy locations, they were two-way cycleways on one side of the road. Two-way cycleways were the exception rather than the rule and were provided where many people on bicycles previously broke the rules and took the shortcut anyway. Instead of penalising them, they just changed the infrastructure to match the desire lines. Where these two-way cycleways crossed a side street they had very bright red paint warning drivers of this crossing.
Another great innovation in Oldenburg is cameras for detecting bicycles. If a traffic junction detects lots of bicycles they will give the bicycle traffic more green time. This was especially effective at a narrow bridge where bicycles and cars shared the same space. The bicycles are given their green light first, and it stays green until all the bicycles have filled the narrow bridge, and then the cars are given their green light. It works very well, and is definitely worth trying in Cambridge. Given this success, especially of reducing collisions and increasing capacity, they are now rolling these out to other junctions. These innovations are also closely aligned with giving buses priority at traffic lights throughout the city to cut bus journey times. It required a few additional bicycle detector loops or cameras and some new software for the traffic lights. The benefit in terms of additional people travelling through the junction was however huge.
There was no green wave for bicycles as used in Copenhagen, owing to conflict with trying to keep car traffic moving to reduce pollution. However, they have been experimenting with giving an additional very short eight second green phase for bicycles waiting at traffic lights between other traffic phases, allowing up to 20 bicycles to pass through the junction quickly. This provided most of the benefits of a green wave, little or no waiting, without having to slow down car traffic. Other innovations that we saw included separate bicycle and pedestrian lights at road crossings, specifically to give bicycles a longer green time, advanced green lights for bicycles at main traffic junctions, and 30km/h speed limits on most roads within the city. The separate bicycle and pedestrian lights were very interesting: if it took 20 seconds for a person to cross a roadway, but only 5 seconds on a bicycle, and 25 seconds were allocated for the crossing time of people walking and cycling, then the pedestrian lights were on for only 5 seconds, but the bicycle lights were on for 20 seconds, increasing the safe capacity of the junction.
Another surprise was bicycle parking, where we observed two major differences from Cambridge. The first was that people just parked their bicycles wherever they wanted. They just stopped, put down the typically sturdy kickstand, locked the back wheel, and wandered off. Secondly, we noticed how orderly the bicycle parking was. Long rows of bicycles all parked side by side formed quickly and easily, especially near pubs, restaurants and shops. We didn’t have a word to describe this, so we invented a new German word for this: Fahrradparkordnung. Bicycle park ordering.
It is incredibly liberating just stopping and parking your bicycle. There were a few Sheffield stands, including their own design of Oldenburg stands, but few bicycles were actually locked to them. There were also plenty of wheel-benders, but again, this appeared to only hint where bicycle parking was acceptable and was not something to lock a bicycle to.
We asked at a suburban secondary school of about 850 children how many bicycles had been stolen. Just two had gone missing in the last ten years. About 90% of the pupils rode their bicycle to this school, mainly because it gave them the freedom and time to do the things they wanted to do. It was quicker than the bus, and less effort than walking the 400 metres to the nearest bus stop. There were few ‘mummy taxis’ dropping kids off at the school.
What could Cambridge learn from Oldenburg?
- Segregated cycleways along the side of all the main roads worked exceptionally well, attracting all age groups
- Priority for bicycles and pedestrians at side roads with the cycleways and footways continuing through the junction at the same level also provided fast routes through the city
- Traffic lights that provide quick bicycle phases, advanced greens and additional time for bicycles when there are lots of bicycles travelling through the junction.
Oldenburg appears to have all the qualities of a cycling city: high bicycle use, safe routes that give priority to bicycles at the critical places, and a culture of cycling that pervades the city. The biggest shock was how easy it was to ride around on the almost ubiquitous cycleways. These were always segregated from the main roads, if not from people walking, and always had priority over side streets. This meant that going along a main road is a virtually pain-free experience.
It was also quite a revelation when the cars just stop, or even reverse out of the way of somebody on a bicycle. The cycleways are considered part of the main road, and therefore blocking them is as bad as pulling halfway across the main road before finding a gap in the traffic.