Münster – a rich Westfalian experience*

This article was published in 2001, in Newsletter 38.

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Ten go to Münster – from left to right: Lisa, David, Simon, Myra, Nigel, Neil, James, Martin, Clare and Dave.
Image as described adjacent ‘Fahrradfreundliche Stadt in Nordrhein-Westfalen’ – Bicycle friendly city in North Rhine-Westphalia. Signs on the main roads focus on the bike as the symbol of the city. The city is proud of what it has done for bikes, to the extent that they were able to send us a map for a tour of their cycle facilities.
The enormous number of bikes in Münster need enormous storage, not least at the railway station. The city’s solution is what we first suggested for Cambridge – a store underneath the square immediately outside the station, called RadStation (literally, “Cycle Station”). The triangular glass canopy is the striking manifestation of the store above ground.

Münster is an historic German university city about 100 km north east of the big industrial conurbations of the Ruhr valley. It was to here that ten of us headed on the first weekend in September because of its reputation as a centre for cycling. And so it proved.

In many ways it is physically like Cambridge. It’s a little larger in population – 280,000 including the immediate rural hinterland – but about the same size physically. It has narrow central streets with busy urban distributor roads further out. Its railway station is off-centre and there’s even a motorway west and north of the city, boxing it in just like Cambridge.

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Inside, underground, bikes are stacked. This is two-thirds of one row – and there were about eight rows. It costs 1DM (about 35p) per day, or 120DM (£40) for an annual pass. Another entrance, like all of them with gentle entry ramps, was across the street. This meant you could get to the store without crossing the busy road in front of the station. The centre is open 5.30 am to 11 pm. There’s a cycle repair and rental shop there too.

On Saturday we followed the City Council’s tour of their cycle provision. Many of the same techniques were used as here: for example closing rat runs at a diagonal (like Suez Road or Hooper Street), contraflow lanes and route signing. But whilst surfaces and widths left a lot to be desired, much of the detail was to a higher standard – there weren’t the repeated wiggles, give-ways and bumps up and down that we are subject to here. Bikes were always properly integrated into junctions; our only real example is Barton Road.

But as some of the participants have said, perhaps the most striking thing, as in our trips to Netherlands and Denmark, is that motorists don’t intimidate cyclists. They always gave way to us when we crossed side roads. Whereas here the Council argues that it would be hazardous for a car to have to do this, it is normal practice in every European city we have visited so far.

On the Sunday we meandered around the quieter roads west of the city. We discovered that cycle routes and tracks are pretty universal even away from the urban area.

James Woodburn is keen to visit France next year. If any of you know of a particularly appropriate place to visit, do let us know.

David Earl

* an in-joke: as well as rooms for the night, our hotel, right next to the station, offered us a ‘rich Westfalian breakfast’ which turned out to be just like hotel buffet breakfasts worldwide.

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Owners stow the bikes themselves, but there are barriers and swipe cards to control access as well as staff on hand. Bikes on the upper storey do not need to be lifted manually – there were two kinds of contraption to lift them. Lanes are clearly marked on the cycle tracks. This is necessary because the junction is controlled by lights with different phases for different directions.

I liked best the extent of the cycle routes out into the countryside, and the thoroughness of that provision. It was great to see the general impact that cycling on a large scale has on the quality of life in the urban environment – to give us a vision of what life could be like if people could get sufficiently motivated to get cycling-Neil

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Nearly all one way streets exempt cyclists, as in the Netherlands, with a simple sign, no complicated infrastructure. ‘No entry, except bicycles’ is the rule. The Promenade, a really valuable traffic-free connector ring right around the city centre, at the same time a peaceful escape from the busy city. It follows the line of the old city walls, which have long since vanished.

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The forward stop line for cyclists is maybe 50 m ahead, indicating just how many cyclists they need to accommodate at busy times at this junction. The sign on the nearest signal says ‘except bicycles’ meaning they can pass the first light at red.

The thing that struck me most was the continuity and clarity of the provision for cyclists. Whenever you arrived at a junction, you knew from road or pavement markings exactly how to get through it and out the other side. Routes didn’t just stop dead and expect you to levitate to the other side. The sheer number of people cycling, even on a weekend, was impressive, too – it rather put Cambridge to shame-Clare

There are many excellent things to say about cycling in Münster, but I think what makes it all work so well is attitude. Drivers do not think that because they have a large, hard and powerful machine they own the road, they think that because they have a large, hard and powerful machine they must take extra care and give way to the more vulnerable. Yes, cyclists are expected to keep to the special tracks, but these take you where you want to go, give you priority over side roads and lead you off safely into the right position at junctions-Lisa

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Just as the UK Department of Transport won’t allow ‘except cycles’ under a no entry sign, they don’t have a sign for slip lights for cycles only either. Of course, pragmatic Germany has both. Dogmatic conservative signing policies hold back what we could do in Cambridge. This is typical of cycle track construction, and if there is a cycle track you must use it in Germany. It’s a pity that the surface quality lets them down, and while they are nearly always on both sides of the road, they are fairly narrow. However they are always segregated from pedestrians, and don’t twist all over the place at junctions – they just go straight across. Mind you, in the central streets without tracks, the cobbles you can see in the main carriageway were wildly uncomfortable!

In Munster I was particularly impressed by the number of cyclists (much greater than in Cambridge), by the fact that they so obviously included people from a much wider social range (including the wealthy and respectable bourgeoisie who would almost all be in cars here), by the courtesy extended to cyclists by motorists and by the huge government or local authority investment in cycle planning and cycle facilities. As someone approaching old age I greatly appreciated the well-marked priority given to cyclists at road junctions and roundabouts and the excellent smooth-surfaced off-road cycle paths being constructed at great expense along most out-of-town main roads. My one strong dislike was the fact that mopeds are allowed on these cycle paths-James

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The RadStation is turned into a cultural centre for a day, with a pianist hoisted aloft in the entrance dome. Unfortunately it went on all night, and as our hotel was next door, some of us were a little sleepy the next day! Another typical scene on a busy urban distributor road. Even on a Saturday, out of term time, there were vast numbers of people out on bikes. Child trailers were commonplace.

The city has a really valuable asset in its ‘Promenade’, a 5 km ring road right round the central area dedicated to cycles and walkers. Some 4m wide, well surfaced, and with proper crossings at every single radial road it crossed, it linked lots of areas of the town. But, though it was better further out, I was disappointed by the surface quality and width of many of the urban cycle tracks – mostly tile or brick, and sufficiently narrow that everyone would have to travel at the pace of the slowest-Dave

In many places motor traffic was held behind a ‘retarded stop line’ so cyclists could use the space behind an advanced stop line. The sign that achieved this was very simple: Bei rot hier halten (on red stop here). It may have been unfamiliarity with the system or just the Brit’s legendary lack of foreign tongues, but the first car we saw that had transgressed carried a British number plate!-David

Everywhere we looked, there were bicycles, easily putting even the number at Cambridge railway station to shame-Martin