The idea to build the Radschnellweg Ruhr (RS1), a sixty-three-mile bike superhighway connecting the ten cities of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, was conceived in 2010 when the Autobahn 40 was opened to cyclists and pedestrians over the fifty miles from Duisburg to Dortmund for a day, and three million people showed up to use it. Michael Smart is a professor of Urban Planning at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University who focuses on the influence of social and spatial phenomena on transportation decisions with an interest in alternative modes of travel in gay, lesbian, and immigrant communities; Martin Tonnes is Chief Urban Planner of the RS1. Here, the Tonnes and Smart dive into the origins of the bicycle speedway, the success of its implementation, and how New York City might learn from the visionary project.
You are the chief planner for the Ruhr bike superhighway, and we here in New York would like to know more about bike superhighways, in order to consider how we might build something similar in our city.
You already have a great project in New York, which is very well-known, at least over here — the highway on a former elevated railroad track.
Yes, the High Line; but that’s for pedestrians. What we would like to know from you is more about bicycle infrastructure and your work on the Radschnellwegbicycle speedway. More the “how” than the “what.” We would like to know more about the planning, the policies, and public participation. Maybe we can start with a bit of background, the history of the project.
The idea for the project emerged in 2010. Every year, a so-called cultural capital is named by the European Parliament, and in 2010, the city of Essen in the Ruhr region was designated the European cultural capital. We launched a project called Still-Leben (Still Life), during which the most important highway in the Ruhr region, the A40, was closed to car traffic for a day. The A40 is a highway with six lanes. In one driving direction, we set out a long picnic table and on the other side, in the other three lanes, people could circulate as pedestrians, on their bikes, rollerblades, or whichever way they chose, between the city of Duisburg and the city of Dortmund, which is a distance of approximately 50 miles. That day, I biked from Essen to Dortmund and for the first time in my life I was in a traffic jam caused by bikes — a completely new experience. 3 million people came out for the event.
To some extent this was the beginning of the idea: We asked ourselves, why not plan something like a bike superhighway? Of course the project was also inspired by Holland, by the Fietssnelwegen, because Holland has had bike superhighways for some time now.
Several months earlier, we had been planning a bike lane project on the old Rhein railroad, and we had just finished a first three-mile segment in the city of Essen, on former freight train tracks that go right through the core cities in the Ruhr region. That was our second motive: We had already started a project to repurpose the Rhein railroad.
Soon thereafter we sat down with a couple of colleagues and discussed whether the project was really possible. Our first idea was to cover the distance between Duisburg and Dortmund. We filed a petition with the German Federal Ministry of Transport, and fairly quickly we were approved to receive funding for the feasibility study, which has examined in great detail, foot by foot, mile by mile, the entire distance of 63 miles from Dortmund to Hamm. It was completed in the fall of 2013, and we have been working on the project ever since.
And during which phase were the municipalities and the public included in the planning of this project?
The cities themselves have been involved since 2010. We financed the concept study together — the Ruhr Regional Association and the seven large cities that were participating at the time, and also the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. That was the first stage of the project. A working committee was formed in which all cities were represented. We have also established a so-called decision-makers conference, which meets twice a year. The citizens were fully informed by press conference, as soon as the feasibility study was complete and we had determined a path. The public relations work was intense. A survey was conducted, and two-thirds of all the people in the Ruhr region said they wanted this Ruhr bike superhighway.
I would like to talk more about that, because here in New York there are many groups who support bike lanes and bike projects, but there are also groups who take the opposite position and are quite vocal about it. Was it like this for you? Or were the 33 percent against this project not really vocally against it, but just not for it? Were there opponents?
In the past 20 years, the Ruhr Regional Association has built a total of 440 miles of regional bike lanes. We were able to build on this experience to some extent. The bike lanes we have built so far are more recreational, and the Radschnellweg Ruhr is our first project where we address everyday traffic — the daily commute.
Most of our focus is on bringing together all participants. We convince them of the benefits of working together on such a project. That’s our main job. The Ruhr Regional Association is a manager of networks, bringing together the most diverse participants. There simply was no opposition to this project. 58 miles of this future bike superhighway are basically already built because we’re using freight train tracks that are no longer functional. But in the city of Bochum and in Dortmund we had to go into the existing road network. In Dortmund, there was some protest, but it was more about people fearing that parking spaces would have to make way for the bike superhighway. Our cities are densely populated, and many cars park on public roads. Even so, during our three community meetings in Dortmund, people told us that they wanted the bike superhighway.
The project is widely accepted here in the Ruhr region. Not only the citizens, but also the media play a large role. I am being interviewed almost daily about this project, and those interviews and reports are always very positive, presenting the idea as innovation. Even the ADAC, the German automobile club, has published a very positive report regarding the bike superhighway in its membership magazine. There were no complaints that we would take away from car traffic. I believe that the Association sees the opportunities connected to a stronger promotion of bike traffic, because we will be taking an estimated 50,000 cars off the highways.
We would love to have that in New York, but there would be a lot of groups protesting it here.
To be fair, maybe I have to add that you do not have as many old railroad tracks. That is, of course, the historical heritage of the Ruhr region. We had the coal mine trains, the steel mills and their connecting tracks, and we are able to use them now for the construction of bike lanes, and they are especially suited to biking, because they have no incline. The tracks also cross every major road and highway, and that is, of course, a special situation here in the Ruhr region. I know that in Germany all large cities are supporters of bike superhighways — just look at Berlin, Hamburg, Munich — but not all of them have our old railroad tracks. Those cities have to appropriate room from car traffic to create bike lanes, so the approval rating might look a lot different.
There is also a question that is very important for us here in New York — there are groups who think that bike superhighways and biking itself are not relevant for them, not planned for them, not destined for them. For example, immigrants. Do you have such groups in the Ruhr region as well?
I ride the segment of the RS1 that we have opened up since November very often lately. Currently, there are about seven miles in use, between Essen and Mulheim, and it is used by all members of the population. And that is the particular strength of the Ruhr bike superhighway: It does not depend on income, because nearly every household in Germany has a bike, independent of income. Maybe they’ve stored it in the basement, for years, and now there’s this good reason to drag that bike out of the basement again. Recently, while traveling by bike, I saw a man, an immigrant, with his two children, and it was clear to see that he was teaching his children how to ride a bike there on the Radschnellweg. He recognized that the Radschnellweg is especially safe, because there are no cars, no intersections, and it’s wide enough that a child can swerve to the right or left and nothing bad will happen. It’s very exciting what one can see when traveling the rail trail on a daily basis.
Interesting. I have interviewed people, mostly in Holland and Denmark, and they often told me that immigrants especially do not bike a lot.
I do not have explicit data on immigrants in the Ruhr region. Maybe that is something I should think about. The Ruhr has a long history of immigration, and I always call the Ruhr region an “integration machine.” For people who came from Turkey and worked in the coal mines, this region became a new home. The question of whether immigrants might use the Radschnellweg in a different manner never even crossed our minds. Maybe someone from New York had to come and point this out to us.
There is always tension between the bike as a slow, or slower, means of transportation, and the bike as a fast means of transportation. And here, for example, people are having discussions whether we should create more play streets, or standard bike lanes, or whether we should invest in bike superhighways. What is your opinion on this? Because you can’t do everything at once. So the question really is, where does one start, and when does one build a bike superhighway?
I believe that just like New York, all large metropolises are growing metropolises. Maybe this concerns the Ruhr region a little less than London, Paris, or even New York, but we have seen that the Radschnellweg has been intensely examined in Europe. We have a joint research team with partners from Belgium, Holland, and Denmark to see what kind of potential there is in bike superhighways. And there is a feeling among urban planners that with the growth rate of large cities, we will not be able to manage with four wheels in the future. It’s not about creating policies against the car. We will continue to need new roads. We will need more railroad traffic, public transportation, streetcars, and buses, because, as is certainly true in New York, traffic will only increase. But urban planners know that for the future of mobility, we have to focus on every means of transportation.
The difference, in my opinion, is that the bike so far has only had a niche existence. The bike has the potential to become a full-fledged mode of transport, especially in large metropolises. And we have to work on it. We will simply not be able to do without bike superhighways in the future. One has to plan and build them in order to be able to manage the growth of mobility. There have been technology leaps in the past couple of years, and the pedelecs (e-bikes) will bring even more opportunities for ridership, especially in densely populated, large cities. I also own a pedelec, and I use it for my 14-mile daily commute.
We monitor the Internet closely and we see a lot of posts to the effect of, “I tried the Ruhr bike superhighway for the first time. I used to drive to work by car, but now I am much faster on this bike superhighway, and I will use my bike to commute every day.” Since we completed the first seven-mile segment in November 2015, it has been fascinating to witness how popular it has become. Our main focus is of course on everyday traffic. We can already see that the project absolutely meets the goal for which it was planned, namely to attract commuter traffic. Though currently, the bike superhighway also sees a lot of recreational traffic. Some groups meet to travel the seven miles of the Ruhr bike superhighway every Sunday. And just as the High Line in New York has found international recognition, I am convinced that the Ruhr bike superhighway will also attract Europe’s bike scene. Every bike enthusiast will visit the Ruhr region at least once to bike the 63-mile distance.
I will definitely try it one day! So, what are the next steps in the expansion of the bike superhighway? Are there still obstacles, are there still financing issues? Or is there still something left to regulate?
This project was born in 2010, and it is currently August 2016, and all financing issues have been resolved. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia will make bike superhighways in the future into so-called state bike lanes. How to explain that to a New Yorker? In Germany, there are differently classified roads. There is the autobahn—the highway, internationally very well known, and financed by the federal government; then there are federal roads; and finally, there is the category of state roads. The individual states build and finance them. At the moment in North Rhine-Westphalia, a law is being passed for bike superhighways to be treated just like state roads. In the future, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia will finance the construction of bike superhighways — not only the construction, but also their maintenance, lighting, and winter service. I am becoming more and more optimistic that the construction of the bike superhighway will be completed by 2020 (maybe in 2021, or 2022). As the Ruhr Regional Association, we are proud that six years after the initial project idea, financing has been completely secured.
We can only dream that the State of New York might do the same.
If we had only planned a bike superhighway between Essen and Mulheim, spanning seven miles — the part we have just opened — this project would have never garnered this kind of attention nor the support of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. I think the crucial factor was that we said that we plan to build a bike superhighway across ten cities, right through the Ruhr region. I still recall the article in the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, basically saying that the people in the Ruhr region have lost their mind, because now they want to build a 63-mile bike lane. But suddenly, this was something visionary, and exactly this distance of 63 miles, and also with the cost — 180 million euros — we were thinking very big. The first question that journalists always ask me is whether the Ruhr region has nothing better to do than spend 180 million euros for the expansion of bike lanes. And I always answer that it is not the question whether we canafford it, it is the question for how much longer we will be able to not afford it to make this investment.
So here is my recommendation to you: Do not think small but very big because only then will you receive the media and political attention. Because we thought big, the project has now also made it to Berlin and has received the federal government’s attention, and the minister of the environment will visit us and support it. “Think big!” is the key. Prepare well, and when you know what you are doing, approach the press and the media, with the right kind of project that has the “Boom!” effect. You’ll gain a lot of supporters.
That is really a great tip.
Anyone can come up with a small project. But for something this complicated — to bring all participants to the table — you have to reach a lot of people and attract them. But once you are able to unite all participants around one project, then you have a lot of support. Right from the start we knew that we would not receive an additional 180 million euros to build some small, municipal bike lanes — there had been discussions in the region to invest those 180 million euros into the existing network. But we received the money for this bike superhighway only because everyone supported the project together. All the mayors signed on the dotted line. If one is able to accomplish that, then it is also possible to convince important financing partners of such a project. That is my experience from the past six years. If a group supports one project, as a whole, then generating additional means of funding is also doable. And if you add the media attention, then funders will think, “Yes, this is a great project, very innovative, genius, even. We won’t even be able to oppose financing it.”
Is there something additional you would like to say to planners and politicians, or to our readers?
I think, for the future, it is crucial that we make the bike a full-fledged mode of transport. It has to come out of its niche existence, or we will not be able to manage our traffic issues, especially not in big cities. And standing behind a project in a united fashion is crucial. By the way, a colleague of mine, who is in New York frequently, tells me that a lot has happened in New York in regard to bike traffic development.
That is true, absolutely. It is much better now, but the issue we are dealing with is that there are opponents, and we did not have them before. Because back then, there was nothing to protest. But now, there are groups who think that biking is dangerous for pedestrians.
Speaking of pedestrians, right from the start, that was a very important topic for us. Because even if we convert these old railroad tracks into bike superhighways, we are still in a densely populated and heavily built-up area. People use these rail trails to take the dog for a walk at night, or to go for a walk with a baby stroller during the day. That is why it was clear to us right from the start that we cannot only build a 13-foot wide bike superhighway. A six-foot-wide walkway would have to be built as well with a small separation from the bike lane. One has to deal with these conflict situations; an important element of any project is to make sure that no one feels at a disadvantage.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.