Building Speed

Map of the ten cities of the Ruhr Valley that will be connected by the Radschnellweg Ruhr. Click to enlarge. | Image via Metropole Ruhr

The development of the Radschnellweg Ruhr (RS1), Germany’s first bike superhighway, linking ten city centers in the country’s former industrial belt, was made possible by a close cooperation between those cities, the greater Ruhr region, and the federal government. Over the course of a month we interviewed politicians at various levels of government who have been instrumental in seeing the project through, in order to understand the specifics of the Ruhr context, how the RS1 relates to other bicycle initiatives in Europe, and how a bicycle speedway might be possible within a New York framework.

Michael Groschek is Minister of Construction, Housing, Urban Development and Transport for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Ullrich Sierau has been Mayor of Dortmund, the largest city of the Ruhr region, since 2009. He fled East Germany in his youth, and studied urban planning at TU Dortmund.

Oliver Wittke is a Member of the Federal Parliament (Bundestag), representing Gelsenkirchen, as well as the former mayor of that city, and former Minister of Construction and Transport in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

SLO Architecture (SLO):

What’s interesting about the Radschnellweg (bicycle speedway) is the idea of cooperation among ten towns to make interconnecting bike infrastructure happen beyond the confines of a single city. Can you tell us a little bit about how this kind of teamwork between these different cities was possible?

Michael Groschek (MG):

The Radschnellweg Ruhr brought together the Regionalverband Ruhr (Ruhr Regional Association) and the each of the ten cities involved. At the outset, the Regionalverband Ruhr and a couple of the cities took on the pioneering role, and then motivated the other cities to join in. The Ministry of Transport of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and I have been stewarding the process since the beginning.

Ullrich Sierau (US):

The Radschnellweg project was able to happen because we all wanted to alleviate the same regional problem of traffic congestion. There are a lot of private cars out on the road, and we’ve been making plans to improve public transportation, but in the meantime we thought that we should be intelligent enough not only to improve mass transit but also to give people opportunities to ride bicycles in and between cities. We reached a kind of agreement on how to encourage bike riding, particularly if electric bikes were included in the mix. We held the first European E-Bike Festival in Dortmund last year, and we will hold another event this April. Our impression is that with e-bikes people will opt to go out regularly on bicycles for long distances, and thereby relieve congestion on the vehicular roads. The approach feels logical and like it is catching on. At the E-Bike Festival, Michael Groschek said we should make Dortmund the e-bike center of the whole region.

Oliver Wittke (OW):

In recent years, the Ruhr Valley began to pursue tighter regional cooperation. This was indispensable in helping along the bigger shift in our regional economy, the “Strukturwandel”calling for the transformation from past emphasis on coal mining and steel production to a post-industrial research, technology, and services economy. The merging of the ten cities of the Ruhr Valley into one Metropolitan Corridor organizes, for instance, tourism, public relations, regional economic support, and transportation and regional planning into one system. We also collect data concerning geography and climate and make them available for local purposes. What’s striking about our region is its multi-centered structure, which came about due to rapid, broad industrialization across the region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Our aim is to politically and economically bring together the Ruhr Metropolitan Corridor, which consists of diverse centers, through far-reaching infrastructure. This ambition allows us to take on visionary regional projects like the Radschnellweg.

The 2015 E-bike Festival in Dortmund. | Photo via Fabian Menke
SLO:

What was the origin of the Radschnellweg?

MG:

The idea of the Radschnellweg evolved during the “European Capital of Culture” in the Ruhr Valley in 2010. The A40 Freeway — one of the most important freeways in the state — was closed for a whole day to vehicular traffic, for 60 kilometers from Duisburg to Dortmund, so that people could walk, cycle and skate. Hundreds of thousands of bikers came out. This is how the idea for a new system of mobility was born: A Radschnellweg running across the Ruhr Metropolitan Corridor, possibly the longest bike superhighway in the world, at 101 kilometers. It connects ten cities and four universities, with 1.6 million people living within the two-kilometer-wide catchment area along the corridor.

OW:

The Radschnellweg idea came from the multi-district Ruhr Regional Association — the Regionalverband Ruhr. Commuter traffic congestion has long plagued the Ruhr Valley, as it is the busiest urbanized region in Germany, with millions of inhabitants in a limited area. This becomes obvious on streets and highways, as well as on the railways, particularly during rush hour. We were looking for an alternative to car travel, especially for commuters, by shifting to buses and trains, and to strengthen bicycle-travel as well. The parallel growth of the electro-mobility sector, particularly electric bicycles, eased the general shift from cars and trains to commuting by bicycle. We therefore support the emerging range of electro-mobility, including e-bikes and pedelecs (pedal-activated electric bicycles). Battery chargers will make up an important part of the service equipment along the RS1.

SLO:

Is there a community-board hurdle to overcome in order to get public approval for these kinds of infrastructural projects? Is there a public-hearing process?

US:

You have this discussion everywhere. The majority in the municipal parliament is in favor, on the condition that the money comes from the federal or regional level. Or rather the Social Democrats and the Green Party are in favor. The Christian Democrats say, “No we don’t want that because we are in favor of car transportation.” At the regional level, though, we have consensus from all parties that bikeways would be part of the metropolitan infrastructure.

We had three or four public hearings and through those discussions we got approval to implement a route. That is, we have public approval from those people who attended the hearings. Still, you have the naysayers who don’t want funds spent on bike lanes, but we tell them that putting people on bikes is a very good tool for making transportation more fluid and getting cars off the road. And then they say, “We need to think about it,” and when they wake up the next morning they agree with us. It’s a win-win situation for the bikers and the cars.

For example, if you want to go the 30 kilometers between Essen and Dortmund on an e-bike, you can do it in a half-hour. By car, it can take up to 40, 50, or 60 minutes. The cyclists win because it’s quicker and they’re healthier for having ridden bikes. The drivers win because they also arrive sooner along less congested roadways.

OW:

Communication with the public is one of the most important parts of the planning process for the Radschnellweg. What is special about the RS1 is that citizens are given various options for how to participate in the planning process. They can take a guided tour of locations along the cycle speedway, they can keep themselves informed via social media and online platforms, and they can have a look at renderings and models — all before the completion of the RS1.

An e-bike recharge station; it is expected that e-bike usage will propel up to 50,000 daily users to commute long distance along the Radschnellweg Ruhr. | Image by “Radschnellweg Ruhr” via Flickr
SLO:

Are you a cyclist? If so, when do you cycle?

MG:

I really like cycling. Of course, my commute, which is almost 50 kilometers one-way, is too long to bike. I don’t often get the opportunity to cycle, but when I am on holiday, I do. The only problem is that our dog, Trixi, isn’t used to the bike yet – I really have to figure out how to change that.

OW:

I enjoy cycling a lot. During the plenary sessions at the Bundestag, biking for me is the healthiest, fastest and most efficient means of transport around Berlin.

SLO:

Americans tend to look at Holland and Denmark as groundbreaking examples of bicycle planning. How would you compare cycling culture in Germany to cycling culture in those countries? What would you say are the specific challenges that Germany faces in creating a cycling culture?

MG:

Cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark has a long tradition. It has long been part of mobility there. In Germany, we still have to get the infrastructure in place so that people can enjoy choosing the bicycle. This is exactly what we are doing to improve conditions on the Radschnellweg — for example, by ensuring safe bicycle storage and clear signage on the streets.

OW:

The image of bicycles in Germany has changed in recent decades. Many Germans nowadays use bicycles as their vehicle of choice to go to work and university, and as a way to transport children and pick up groceries. Electro-mobility contributed to this evolution. In 2015, more than a half-million e-bikes were sold in Germany, gaining more than a twelve percent share of the market. Until now, we tended to focus more on tourist bicycle-use, while countries like the Netherlands and Denmark recognized earlier on the potential of bicycle speedways to help alleviate traffic congestion and mitigate climate change. Nevertheless, bicycle speedways in Europe are a new way to interconnect cities or to connect various bikeways with city centers, like in Copenhagen. The concept of the Radschnellweg itself is exceptional because the bicycle speedway interconnects several cities and urban centers along a metropolitan corridor.

SLO:

The Ruhr Valley was an industrial region known for mining. What are people doing these days? Are they working close to home, or do they drive or cycle long distances to reach jobs?

MG:

The Ruhr mining industry will soon disappear. Apart from industrial production, today the Ruhr Valley is defined by the trading floor and the service sector. You can tell just by counting the headquarters of energy suppliers and water companies in the area. Also, you have a lot of retail traders here, not to mention all the logistics companies, who choose the Ruhr Valley because of its good connectivity. Besides, the academic landscape is great, with all the universities. Many students and employees have to commute every day between the cities. Not many of them take their bikes to work or university yet. The Radschnellweg is supposed to change that.

OW:

By 2018, the last coal mine will be closed. But fact that one-in-ten Germans studies at one of the twenty universities in the Ruhr Valley emphasizes the continuing importance of the region. Nevertheless, the percentage of long-term unemployment is too high, jobs are scarce in several sectors, and 1.1 million people commute between their hometowns and workplaces, for an increase of 22 percent over the last ten years. The flow of commuters primarily moves along an east-west axis. That’s why the Radschnellweg will run parallel to the Autobahn A40.

US:

Many people tend to live in one place because they have a specialized job; but differentiation is also growing. This means that we have people traveling longer distances when they change their job, because they stick to living within their social networks.

On the other hand, Dortmund is undergoing intense structural change. Mines have shut down, as well as the steel works. Beer brewing is disappearing as well. At the same time, we are a university city with more than 50,000 students. We also have a growing number of young startups  a lot of technology firms. The United States Ambassador to Germany, Mr. John Emerson, came to visit us and he said, “This is Silicon Dortmund.” We are changing intensely and we have new attitudes as to what kind of transportation we should use. A young engineer is perhaps more interested in going to work by bike.

SLO:

Is there a generation gap in the people who are cycling — the older working class of the area’s industrial era versus the youth? Does the area have a new large immigrant population? And if so, are they riding bicycles?

MG:

The older generation in the Ruhr area is totally oriented to the car. The younger people are more flexible when considering modes of transportation. Public transport, car sharing and cycling are getting more and more important. At the moment, the population in the Ruhr area is growing again, in part because of immigration. We are trying to help refugees and asylum seekers get used to the bike as a mode of transportation right from the start. This is a big opportunity for us.

OW:

In the Ruhr Area, migration has a tradition. In times of industrialization, Polish people moved to the Ruhr area, and after the Second World War, refugees from former German territories in the East came here. In the 1950s, guest workers from Turkey and Portugal began to work here, and after 1990 there was an increase of people from the former German Democratic Republic and southeastern Europe. On the whole, 13 percent are foreigners in the Ruhr Valley, which is average for the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. In my opinion, the willingness to go by bike is a more individual one. What about the infrastructure? Do I feel safe in traffic? Is weather a reason to switch to car or train? In general, one can say that it is important to advertise cycling and to make people enthusiastic for a healthy and environmentally friendly means of transport.

US:

I think it depends where they are from. If they come from Turkey, or let’s say Russia, they might not like bike riding. If they are from Afghanistan or India they love biking. Many are more interested in biking because it’s a fraction of the cost. It’s easier to buy a bike than a car.

SLO:

How is cycling promoted?

OW:

People decide they want to ride bicycles because they don’t want to sit in traffic jams.

SLO:

Is there conflict between cyclists and e-bikes?

OW:

Currently, we have a 25 kilometer-per-hour speed limit for e-bikes, but no speed limit for regular bikes. We are trying to change the law so that there will be no speed limit for either; the four-meter width of the RS1 speedway will allow for this.

SLO:

What is the biggest change to the design of the urban environment that cycling culture and particularly the Radschnellweg has caused to come about?

MG:

The Ruhr Valley has an extensive network of railway lines — freight railways, etc. — that are out of use. Today, they can be used as cycling paths. That makes the Ruhr area an ideal place to go on two wheels. The Radschnellweg Ruhr also runs along former railways.

SLO:

How will the Radschnellweg roads be maintained? Cyclists in the United States often worry that by having separate lanes, the bike lanes will not be kept as smooth or well-maintained as the car lanes. Will there be tolls? Bike repair stations?

US:

No tolls, but there will be bike repair. We would like it to be regulated and we are looking for a solution. We have not completely resolved how it will be maintained. This was one of the main arguments against it. People said: We have a system of bike lanes in poorer condition. Why not spend the money on those?

SLO:

When will the project be complete?

OW:

25 kilometers are finished and we expect the project to be complete within two years.

SLO:

Is the plan to connect all of Germany with a high-speed bicycle route?

MG:

At the moment we are planning seven Radschnellwege in different regions of the state. They will form a network together with the normal slower cycle paths. But a continuous loop or unbroken network of bicycle speedways is neither intended in North Rhine-Westphalia nor in the rest of Germany.

OW:

To connect all of Germany with high-speed bicycle routes, in my opinion, would be ineffective. A bicycle speedway is only useful in populous regions with a high frequency of cyclists. Additionally, we already have 200 cycleways. What’s special about the RS1 is that it connects not only city centers and universities, but reaches more than 1.65 million people. Furthermore, the RS1 will be a high-grade speedway in order to attract a lot of people: It will have very few crossroads, low ascents, a winter road clearance, lighting, rest areas and battery chargers for e-bikes and pedelecs.

The Autobahn at night. | Image by Buskopf via Flickr
SLO:

One of the main focuses of the current New York City administration is to implement Vision Zero, an idea first conceived in Sweden. In addition to the redesign of certain city streets and intersections to slow traffic, the core thought is that, by slowing down, fatal collisions can be averted. Germany is known for celebrating speed — the autobahn without speed limits, for example, or this idea of a bike speedway, rather than a slow bicycle path. Does the concept of Vision Zero play a part in infrastructural design, or is there another way of thinking about speed in Germany, and specifically in the Ruhr Valley, in conjunction with safe travel?

MG:

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Vision Zero has been our road-safety goal since 2004. Safety is more important to us than speed — including on freeways. About one third of the freeways have a speed limit. A Radschnellweg is not primarily about speed. It is cycling without crossings, without traffic lights, without restrictions. Freeways in Germany are generally known to be safe; in other countries it is often said that Germans build the best freeways. In the future we also want that for the Radschnellwege. We want to build the best Radschnellwege: Safe, comfortable and without traffic jams.

I really like the protected bike lanes in Chicago: Although there is a lot of car traffic in the city, people can take a bike and get from A to B safely. North Rhine-Westphalia is already great for bikers, but in the big cities we can still learn something from New York or Chicago. You can see there that by installing protected bike lanes one can bring safe bicycle traffic into the cities in a quick and inexpensive way.

OW:

We’re focusing on reducing the number of killed and badly injured people in traffic by 40 percent through 2020. Although infrastructure is getting better, cars are getting safer, and the road casualty numbers are decreasing, there are too many people killed due to road accidents — currently 4.3 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants. The Vision Zero strategy in Sweden is inspirational; there are only 2.4 traffic fatalities per hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the United States has a restrictive vehicular speed policy, but still maintains 10.6 fatalities per hundred thousand.

All in all, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are the most endangered in traffic and that is why it is important to separate car and bike traffic. And then autonomous driving will be the next milestone in order to reduce human mistakes in traffic.

US:

Vision Zero is important for us as well, for the city center. In the city, the limit is 30 kilometers per hour. The autobahn without speed limits is becoming rarer. It’s really only to give tourists from Japan or Houston an opportunity to drive Porsches as fast as they can into the night. We have a Vision Zero for the city; it’s a part of our master plan.

SLO:

We have heard that some European cities, such as Oslo, want to make the inner city car-free by 2019 and that bicycle infrastructure is rising there to the level of architecture — such as skyscrapers that allow you to ride your bike directly into a building and have it parked and tuned-up or repaired by valets. Do you see this kind of bike infrastructure within buildings as something that could come to Dortmund?

US:

That’s a nice idea, but Oslo is a metropolis with only one center. Here, if you make the center of Dortmund car-free, then those cars will go to the other regional city centers like Essen. We would lose customers and jobs. We have a car strategy: a master plan to improve open space and create urban festivals that draw people to the center without their cars. We’re not entirely car-free, but we’re still an urban center that is friendly to the pedestrian. People come a long way from the rural areas just to have the city atmosphere here. If you tell them they can’t come by car, they won’t come at all. In this region, we have several concert halls. If you were to proclaim Dortmund as car-free, then everyone would go to Essen or Bochum.

OW:

Cycling is of more and more interest to municipalities. We already have a lot of innovative projects like covered bike-parking at train stations, special cycleways and traffic lights designed for cyclists. Due to changing mobility preferences, many employers are improving their infrastructure for biking commuters (i.e., parking lots for bikes with battery chargers in office buildings). What innovation should come next is a topic of conversation in various companies. There are no limits to architectural creativity here.

SLO Architecture (Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter) links urban and architectural design with artistic production and social action to unearth latent networks and transform them. SLO’s recent projects envision connections forged along urban waterways and abandoned infrastructure long-fragmented by rights-of-way, industry, and contamination. Among other awards, Schachter and Levi are 2014 Urban Urge Award Winners, 2013 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellows, and two-time recipients of the James Marston Fitch Foundation’s Blinder Award.

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