Munching on Munich’s Climb to Cycling Prowess

IMG_6389 The 2014 EU BICI series is available for Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), and Berlin (Germany).

You don’t need to be in Munich long before you hear of the Champion’s League of Europe and Munich’s football (soccer) prowess—5 time champion (and 5 time runner up) of the most prestigious competition in European football. Apparently, the Champion’s league apparently also to bicycling; Munich eagerly wants to be included in EU’s fictitious Champion’s league of cycling cities, joining the ranks of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Odense, and the like. A host of factors suggests a solid platform for this aspiration. However, the quality of their overall cycling environment still has ways to go prior to joining this elite group.

Munich is near the mountains, but is by no means mountainous. The city is rich, but not ostentatious. The city has bent over backward with cycling marketing and publicity; they aim to climb in the ranks fast. The relatively lighthearted ways of the Bavarians provides a fruitful environment for cycling. But still, the bicycle’s role in the city’s transport system is marginalized and it appears that Munich is having a difficult time taking the next step: suppressing the car to make cycling better.

Munich is home to 1.5 million residents. The compact old town is full of everything would expect of Bavaria’s signature city: meticulously rebuilt buildings after WWII, beer halls, and original, narrow streets. The cycling scene in the small historic core is wildly different than immediately outside. This is not uncommon in European cities. In the historic core, cyclists are largely competing with pedestrians in traffic restricted (or banned) areas. This works fine. Outside, the “company line” is that more than half all roads in the city have a bicycle facility of some kind. This may be the case but I did not see it on the maps. And, its unclear what counts as a cycling facility. It doesn’t matter: it’s the overall quality of the bicycle paths, and the cycling environment, that keeps Munich out of the first tier of EU cities. Cars dominate roads more than in their peer cities. While facilities may be present—and many of them are better than others—too many of them are narrow. Others abut and traverse streets with high car volumes and incompatible speeds. Some mix in high pedestrian zones pedestrians; a few end prematurely. Munich is good, relatively speaking. It is better than your average U.S. city, but not exceptional.  (See below 2:00 minute video cycling the streets of Munich; in particular, notice the action of the police van at 1:17).

Density is clearly high enough to support high levels of cycling (4,500 inhabitants / km2)[1]. And, these density gradients are apparently alive and well across the 25 boroughs of the city; further from the historic center, bicycling falls off rapidly. Closer to the center, not surprisingly, is where it appears it thrives. Some of this has to do with parking availability and fees–1.5 Euro per hour in immediate outlying areas and 2.5 Euro within the center. These are costly rates but they could go higher. Travel data suggests that half of all car trips are less than 5 km. They city claims that in 2011, 17.4% of trips were by bike—a figure they are proud of because of the 3.8% rise relative to 2008 numbers[2] , [3].

Much of the Munich’s cycling momentum comes from the 2008 elections when the Green Party made huge strides. They launched the “Radlhauptstadt campaign” an aggressive, in your face, marketing campaign to increase the awareness of cycling city-wide. This included videos that were accompanied with all sorts of brick-brack. We are talking beer coasters, t-shirts, maps, canvas bags and the sort. Completely covering the street in front of town hall, the city painted a giant bike—visible for all aerial Google map shots of the city[4]. These efforts came out of the gate fast—a public relations effort that they are keen to assess[5]. For average citizen, bicycling is noticeably on the rise owing to these efforts. But can public relations really propel a city to the next level? Marking is relatively inexpensive; changing city form is not. It is unclear if Munich is ready to make the hard decisions that are required for cycling.bike coasters The city aspires for a 25% bike mode split is its future, perhaps as early as 2020. If you write off Muenster (because it is too small), Munich clearly aspires to be the bicycling capital of Germany. They may be there. But, to join the Champion’s league, the city clearly needs to do more. Public relations campaigns only go so far. Moving space from cars needs to rise in priority—difficult propositions for an affluent city and who also is home to the world headquarters of BMW. More innovative street design, across the board, is this Bavarian city’s big hurdle. We are talking the types that allow modes to more harmoniously mix. These can be accompanied with more mix zones. More dedicated traffic signals. More protected bike paths. What they have is commendable. However, their status quo performance will likely keep them out of the Champion’s league. IMG_6449 IMG_6426 ^^^^^ Caveat: My personal involvement with Munich’s cycling scene is a bit deeper here than for other EU BICI towns. In addition to a two-hour bicycle tour, I participated in a roundtable with locals on the topic of sustainable transportation. While my knowledge is admittedly still scant, my perceptions are a bit stronger; and, my expectations in terms of creating a world-class cycling are higher. I heard such aspirations several times during my brief visit. Thanks to: Nina Gartz (U.S. Consulate), Johanna Balthesen (Munich Department of Public Order, Kreisverwaltungsreferat), Martin Glöckner and Julia Fröbel (Green City e.V.), Thomas Schmidt (General German Bicycling Association (ADFC)), Dominic Staat (Pedal Heroes), Paul Bickelbacher, and Benjy Barnhart. [1] Pedestrians fair well in Munich, almost 30% of all trips are by walking. [2] Though, it is worth mentioning that the 13.6% value from 2008 was based on a relatively robust sample of 23,505, where as the 17.4% value for 2011 is based only on sample size of 1,996. [3] More on status of current levels of cycling, see: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/radfahren-in-muenchen-stadt-der-speichen-1.1194530 [4] They since repaved this stretch of road, covering the paint, but there are supposedly plans to redo it. [5] see: http://www.abcmultimodal.eu/evaluation-munich.html

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