Wednesday, 22 February 2012

From Road to Cycle Path and Back Again

The meeting of local residents last night on Humboldtstraße
When Objective and Subjective Safety Clash

Last night saw what for me was a remarkable sight - a local authority anticipating the digging up of a road by one of the utilities (in this case water to renew a main sewer), and actually planning to take advantage by developing plans for infrastructure improvements when the work is finished and the road needs relaid. What's more this is the Viertel in Bremen, an area of the city with higher than normal cycling rates in a city that averages 25%. Our local mayor Robert Bücking, who chaired the event, represents the Green Party that recently won 45% of the vote in our district at last year's election. Both local government policy and popular will were heavily weighted towards cycling-friendly improvements.

Local utility company HanseWasser will begin work on renewing the main sewer that runs beneath Humboldtstraße in April, and last night's meeting was called to discuss local authority proposals to convert the street into a Cycle Street following completion of the works. Humboldtstraße has a problem that is increasing in Bremen - cycle paths built in the 1980s that are deteriorating, whilst the numbers of cyclists using them continues to increase. Figures released at the meeting last night show that somewhere around 4,000 cyclists use the street daily, a number that is equal to the number of motor vehicles. Humboldtstraße is a residential street, with a series of small local shops dotted along the its 800 metre length. Though no arterial road, it is often used as a handy alternative link between the main city hospital and the city centre.
The local authority proposal is to convert Humboldtstraße into a Fahrradstraße (Cycling Street), removing the existing cycle paths, narrowing the main road by a metre, and giving more space to the pavements, and car and bicycle parking. The street will continue as a 30kph (20mph) zone, but unlike now will have priority at all side junctions. Currently, junctions use the "priority to the right" system as an alternative to "give way" signs, but it seems in this case many drivers have historically acted as if Humboldtstraße already had priority over side streets.

One principle argument for Fahrradstraße is objective safety. Especially at junctions, cyclists are more visible on the main road when compared with the cycle path. In Germany, cycle paths and pedestrians have priority at side junctions, so any accidents involving a cyclist/motor vehicle collision will almost inevitably be due to the driver failing to see the cyclist. Such collisions are less likely to occur if the cyclist is out on the road. Of course this argument is used regularly by vehicular cyclists in the UK and USA, who have amassed considerable evidence to argue their case. But unlike these studies, the Fahrradstraße discussion last night was primarily concerned with quality issues. How would cyclist priority on the street work in practice? Is the 30kph speed limit respected by all users? What happens at night when there are few cyclists? Clearly on-road cycling here will be quite different to the average UK or USA road.

But most interesting of all, concerns from the audience, and women in particular, revolved around subjective safety. Many said they feared any kind of mixing with motorised traffic, and predicted they would instead cycle on the widened pavements promised in the plan. Others questioned whether the role given to cyclists - to calm motorised traffic - was fair on small children or the elderly. Here, the "experts" from the local authority, the ADFC (German Cyclists Federation), and even one local politician who explained her surprise when she was shown the statistics about Fahrradstraße safety, were unable to reconcile their objective statistics about safety with the subjective feelings expressed by members of the audience.

Yet subjective safety is a widely recognised and important concept. In this case, it raises the question about the "feel" of the street for users, and to what extent it is more of a space for slow moving traffic - pedestrians and cyclists - than for fast, or potentially fast-moving motorised vehicles. Many in the audience felt that giving Humboldtstraße continuous priority over all side streets will only encourage reckless driving, despite the speed limit. Humboldtstraße runs in a straight line from one end to the other. These criticisms seemed to suggest a wish for a street design that better stated the intentions of the planners to "tame the motor vehicle". One woman suggested taking motorised traffic out of the street altogether. Perhaps here there are even some lessons for Bremen from the UK after all.

It is gratifying that the public debate last night hardly touched on issues of convenience for motorised traffic. Pretty well all who attended agreed on the aim of making Humboldtstraße a better living street by reducing the dominance of the car (although that pesky issue of parking space remains a popular demand). But if our local authority is to properly address residents' concerns, a range of options from Fahrradstraße to Fussgängerzone (Pedestrian Zone) should now be explored. As one attendee said last night, Bremen is going through a deep cultural change, from car-centricity to liveable streets. But the journey from one to the other is not a simple one, and mistakes could be made on the way.

In a deeply democratic country like Germany, this debate will continue for some time to come here in the Viertel. We'll let you know how the proposals develop.