A bike nation? How Germany plans to improve its cycling infrastructure

Germany is looking into how to improve biking infrastructure, both to reduce accidents and cut carbon emissions. Here is what's in the works to make cycling a core part of the oft-dubbed 'car nation.'

A bike nation? How Germany plans to improve its cycling infrastructure
Many Germans want to use their bicycles more often, but don't feel safe. Photo: DPA

Germany is a “car-country” – but could it be a “bike-nation”? The journey would be a long one. So far, most city spaces still belong to the car.

Cycling on busy roads without bike paths is often dangerous, since parked vehicles obstruct bike and pedestrian lanes. The car industry is a key economic player in Germany and has a strong lobby.

Cycling, on the other hand, was neglected for decades, according to the Allgemeine Deutsche Fahrrad-Club (General German Biking Club, or ADFC).

But now it seems attitudes are changing, and the main factor behind the push is climate protection. The ADFC celebrated its 40th anniversary with a symposium Friday in Berlin.

Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU), a self-proclaimed Fahrradminister, or “Pro-Bicycle Minister,” will address the question: What is the state of cycling in Germany?

Here's what we know so far.

Preventing accidents

Cyclists often live dangerously on German roads. According to information from the Federal Statistics Office, 275 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents between January and July 2019: 16 more than in the same period of the previous year.

This is an increase of 6.2 percent, with slightly fewer traffic accidents and fewer fatalities overall.

READ ALSO: 'We must expand cycling infrastructure': Biking fatalities rise in Germany

The same types of accidents are seen again and again as truck drivers, usually seated high above the flow of traffic, overlook cyclists or pedestrians in their blind spots.

Some propose assisted steering software that can emit warning signals or brake automatically.

'Equal road users'

It’s no coincidence the ADFC has named its anniversary campaign #MehrPlatzFürsRad, or #MoreSpaceforBikes; This is considered the core issue. Helmut Dedy, the Managing Director of the Deutscher Städtetag (German Association of Cities) says streets and public squares should be “more than just a parking lot and a lane for cars.” 

The idea is to divide public space more equitably for all involved. According to information from the German Ministry of Transport, around 11 percent of all trips are currently made by bicycle, with numbers substantially higher in the cities.

“We want to significantly increase this share in the coming years,” says Dedy. 

However, a good cycling infrastructure must be in place if Germany wants to make the switch to more bicycles, and is the key to make cycling comfortable and safe. Bottom line: bicycles need more space.

“Cyclists are equal road users on the street,” says Scheuer. “They not only need more acceptance, but above all, more space.”

Activists in Berlin use chalk to re-label parking spots as biking paths to support a cycling-friendly city. Photo: DPA

Investing in infrastructure

Billions of euros have flowed into the construction and maintenance of roads for decades, as well as into the railways. This will be no different in next year's budget, but funding for cycling improvements is going up.

Currently, the Ministry of Transport is providing €200 million in federal funding to promote bicycle lanes on federal highways and bicycle-only paths. However, states, districts and municipalities are responsible for the construction and maintenance of all other cycle paths.

But now there should be a big chunk more money: The government's climate protection program will provide an additional €900 million through the year 2023 to promote the founding of new infrastructure projects in the states and municipalities.

This would mean that €1.45 billion would be available at the federal level just for cycling by 2023.

READ ALSO: What does Germany's planned climate protection package mean for you

“The goal is a fairer division of the road space and the most complete and secure cycling infrastructure possible,” Scheuer says.

The Association of Cities is calling for an “aggressive cycling initiative” supported by federal, state and local authorities.

“There are a few things underway, but there is still much to do,” said Dedy. Bike-only lanes must be expanded so that they offer a real alternative to cars and to better connect cities with the surrounding areas.” 

The ADFC has been calling for more funding for a long time. “Germany has to make up more than 30 years of stagnation in the development of bicycle infrastructure – and that's a pretty big undertaking,” says spokesperson Stephanie Krone.

The biggest challenge is that city planners specialized in cycling infrastructure and the corresponding consulting firms were missing.

“In the Netherlands and Denmark, the construction of wide, continuous bike paths and safe crossings has a long tradition. In Germany, this is technically still new territory.”

Bicycles are locked up by the roadside in the city of Hanover, Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

Fines for parking on footpaths

The conclusion: Cycling will likely become safer in the coming years, with more space and more rights for cyclists and stricter rules for cars. The Federal Cabinet recently approved some of Scheuer’s proposals, but the states have yet to sign on.

Under these new regulations, the fines for parking on footpaths and bike paths would rise. Additionally, there will be more zones with speed limits of 30 kilometres per hour for all transport, keeping cyclists safe more broadly. There are also plans for right-turn signals specifically for cyclists.

Bicycles on the rails

Cycling to the train station and hopping on with your bicycle to shorten the ride is a nice idea, but the implementation is lagging. For one thing, there are too few bicycle parking spots at stations in major cities. And bringing a bike on the train is difficult so far.

That should improve. By 2025, bicycle places in trains, while not available on every single stretch, will at least be offered on every long-distance train.

How bike friendly is Germany? 

Compared to other countries in Europe, the verdict on Germany's cycling culture is sobering.

“People in Germany would like to ride more bicycles, but the conditions on the roads are often scary,” said ADFC spokeswoman Krone. “We must first become a bicycle-friendly nation.”

The Association of Cities says Germany is almost a “developing country when it comes to bicycles.”

Green Transport politician Stefan Gelbhaar was even more explicit: “Cycling in Germany is still at the Holzklasseniveau (a term for lower-class).”

This becomes especially clear when you compare cycling in the Netherlands or in Denmark. “There is a lot of catching up to do.”

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Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction

Campaigners began a legal challenge against five German regions on Monday to force them to take stronger action on climate change, emboldened by a landmark recent court ruling in favour of environmental protection.

Young activists take German states to court over climate inaction
Demonstrators from the Fridays for Future movement protest in Gießen, Hesse, with a sign saying "No wishy-washy, no climate lashing". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

The plaintiffs are basing their case on a sensational verdict by Germany’s constitutional court in April which found that Germany’s plans to curb CO2 emissions were insufficient to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement and placed an unfair burden on future generations.

In a major win for activists, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal government then brought forward its date for carbon neutrality by five years to 2045, and raised its 2030 target for greenhouse gas reductions.


On Monday, 16 children and young adults began proceedings against the regions of Hesse, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saarland, with support of environmental NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH).

They are charging that none of the states targeted by the legal action have passed sufficiently strong climate legislation at the local level, according to DUH.

“The federal government can’t succeed on its own,” lead lawyer Remo Klinger said in a press conference, highlighting state competence in the area of transport.

DUH worked closely together with the youth climate movement Fridays For Future to find activists willing to front the challenges, the group said.

Seventeen-year-old plaintiff Alena Hochstadt said the western state of Hesse, known for its Frankfurt banking hub, had always been her home but she feared having “no future here”.

Concern about the risk of “floods, storms and droughts” led her and other campaigners to seek “a legal basis for binding climate protection”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

Hesse’s ministers for climate and the economy said they were “surprised” by the announcement.

“DUH clearly has not yet understood that we in Hesse are well ahead,” Priska Hinz and Tarek Al-Wazir said in a joint statement, drawing attention to an energy future law from 2012, before the Paris climate agreement.

In July, DUH-supported activists took the states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Brandenburg to court on similar grounds.