I write this blog in Munich while visiting my father and his partner. They (86 and 71 years old) cycle everywhere, weather permitting, even to a black tie event at the opera. When I think back on how cycling was here 40 years ago I am very much reminded of how cycling is in Northern Ireland today: there were hardly any cycle paths and drivers treated cyclists like lepers.
How things have changed over four decades: today there are cycle paths everywhere and there are bike racks all over the city. The large office buildings have employees’ bikes parked up either in secure outside areas or underground. It is really easy to get around by bike because not only are there loads of bike lanes that are separated from the roads but bikes also are allowed to run counter the direction of travel on many one-way streets. That has the effect of forcing drivers to pay more attention and to slow down which makes those streets safer for pedestrians as well.
Google is a good indicator of how far Munich (and Germany) have come when it comes to embracing cycling:
When you look to get into the city centre from our flat by bike, not only are you told that 72% of the 4km journey is on “cycle lands and paths” but that is broken down much more precisely: 25% is on shared paths, 23% on separate cycle lanes, 23% on marked cycle lanes, 23% on minor roads, and 6% on pedestrian paths. My local knowledge would actually take me through the English Garden, which is the large green patch on the map. That would cut the road bit to no more than perhaps 15%. It would also be considerably shorter and faster. It would take me no more than nine minutes rather than the 16 that Google calculates.
On the other hand, all you get when you calculate a cycle route from Bangor West to Bloomfield Shopping Centre is a notice that the route includes a “very steep hill” and a notice to “use caution – cycling directions may not always reflect real-world conditions.” Google can only work with what is available on the ground, and in this case that is poor cycling infrastructure. We have a lot of groundwork to do…
Moving on to demographics, during my time here it struck me that it appears that everyone cycles: young children, pensioners, people going to work, parents taking their children to school on an e-cargo bike. E-cargo bikes appear to have taken the place of the second car for many families, which, given their high cost, is remarkable. It seems to work, however: one doesn’t get stuck in traffic here which at the moment is atrocious as much of the city is being dug up for the installation of a new underground line.
Most cyclists use utility bikes with mudguards and very effective dynamo lights. I was surprised at the number of e-bikes in use now. They probably make up somewhere between 10 to 20% of the bikes in use now. Push bikes with Gates belt drives instead of a mucky chain have also taken off in a big way, and hub gears instead of derailleur gears have always sold in much greater numbers than in the UK.
Because so many people cycle drivers are much more attuned to cyclists, making for a rather pleasant riding experience.
Rather than relying only on consultants to formulate the Eastern Transport Plan 2035, the Department for Infrastructure would do well to liaise with cities around Europe to hear how they managed to get residents out of their cars onto bicycles. Much of that research could be done by phone, keeping costs down, but experiencing in person how well good cycling infrastructure can work for residents would certainly be worth a trip or two. Of course that would require actually cycling: I do hope the DfI has a few employees in the relevant department who can ride a bike…