Some cycling activists may be wondering why we’ve spent the last couple of months discussing the apparently boring subject of car parking. True enough, there are certainly sexier cycling themes to pursue in Bremen at the moment – the planned Cycling Quarter in the Neustadt, the Premium Route from Mahndorf to Bremen-Nord, that is under discussion, or the new cycling bridge over the Weser. But the place of parking in the traffic hierarchy can have a radical influence on the progress or otherwise of everyday cycling in Bremen.
We have already looked at the ways in which illegal parking is routinely overlooked by Bremen’s enforcing authorities. But it is the over-zealous defence of legal parking spaces, in the face of conflicting demands from other road users, that defines key transport policy debates in Bremen.
One example is Sielwall, a feeder road from the national trunk road along the river, the former B75, into the Viertel’s residential and shopping streets with 5300 cars and lorries every day. Feeder roads like this are the battleground for cycling policy in Bremen. It is widely accepted that calmed, and relatively low vehicle volume residential streets with a 30kph speed limit, do not require special cycling infrastructure. Similarly, high-volume, and often high speed, trunk roads are regarded as simply too dangerous for mixing cyclists with motor traffic. But in between these two types are the feeder roads like Sielwall, where traffic volume and speed both lie on the borderline for cycling safety.
Along much of the 450 metre long street there are parking bays, with a cycle path running between them and the footpath. But in other areas cars are allowed to park with two wheels on the road, the others on the pavement, leaving the cycle path untouched – in theory. The reality is often quite different: All wheels are on the pavement, two wheels innocently covering the cycle path.
Sielwall is also a street with a 30 kilometre per hour speed limit. However, the limit is rarely observed by through traffic. The situation is further confused by the fact that it feeds a 30 kilometre per hour zone, which in bureaucratic traffic-speak is different from a 30 kilometre per hour street that moving from a zone to a street requires a sign signifying the end of the 30kph zone, but not the beginning of the 30kph street.
Sielwall was re-developed in the early 1980’s following the victory of the campaign to stop the building of an urban motorway through the district. As part of that development, the street got its first separated cycleways, complete with raised humps at junctions to make cycling smoother and more continuous. This was in no small part due to the role of the German Cycling Club, ADFC, a national body founded in Bremen in 1979, who lobbied for improved cycling infrastructure.
Over the following 20 years, Bremen’s cycle path network grew to 700 km, and figures for cycling’s modal share steadily rose. But in 1993 the German Cycling Club ADFC began to change its position, proclaiming that it was safer to cycle on the road than on cycle paths. This ideology, so-called objective safety, was largely based on one study published in 1993 by Hannover-based researchers. The study of 9 German cities, including Bremen, suggested that on-road cycling was at junctions safer than cycling on a cycle path. But this study never suggested abolishing cycle paths. Instead the researchers recommended an improvement of their design at junctions – exactly the way all junctions on Sielwall were built – with raised bumps.
However, as the ADFC moved to abolish the compulsory use of cycle paths, the study was used to generalise the apparent dangers of cycle paths. Statements began to appear in official documents lamenting Bremen’s cycle paths, and arguing that cyclists would be better off on the road. But what all these documents and statements never told us: The researchers from Hannover said in their study on page 236: „Allerdings lässt sich aus dem Ergebnis nicht schließen, die Führung auf der Fahrbahn oder auf Radfahrstreifen sei generell sicherer als die auf Radwegen.“ Means: It is not generally safer on the road for cyclists than on off-road cycle paths. – An important sentence.
With Bremen’s financial problems dominating the political agenda, maintaining cycle paths, at least those on feeder roads like Sielwall, became a low priority. More and more, parked cars were allowed to encroach. But unfortunately for policymakers, this wasn’t enough to get cyclists on to roads. Bremen’s citizens repeatedly expressed their preference for separated cycleways, regarded as “problematic” in a 2007 official presentation.
But another argument, well known to readers in the United Kingdom, was about to be deployed. As cycle paths began to be overrun with parked vehicles, cyclists were forced to stray onto pavements already too narrow for pedestrians, especially those in wheelchairs or pushing baby buggies. Conflicts beween pedestrian and cyclists on these feeder roads grew. But that did not lead to abolishing parking spaces or moving parked cars back onto the road. Instead, arguments began to appear in favour of pedestrians, that involved the elimination of cycleways. This was crystalised in the current Transport Plan, VEP, whereby the fate of Sielwall’s cycleways was detailed under the heading “Accessibility”. The re-configuring of cycling infrastructure on Sielwall would not be made on terms relevant to cycling, but to improve space for pedestrians. Thus:
“Sielwall has in many parts only extremely narrow footpaths and cyclewpaths. In order to allow pedestrians to have enough space, cycling needs to be carried out on the road. For this purpose, it is necessary to prevent parking on the road along the entire length”. (VEP page 165)
Anyway, the VEP proposed that cyclists be returned to the pre-1980s position, lose their cycle paths, and mix with motorised traffic on the road. Not because it is a street that will be calmed to make it safer for cyclists, nor because it will help increase cycling numbers – evidence suggests the contrary – but because parked cars are absolutely sacrosanct.
The VEP’s embrace of onroad cycling, and rigid defence of parking spaces, is thankfully just one strand of transport thinking in Bremen. Though it was partly authored under ADFC influence, today’s ADFC Bremen has largely shed its vehicular cycling past. There are also contrary voices within Bremen’s administration. For example, a very different approach was recommended by a European project involving Bremen as a key partner. The PRESTO project, a partnership between Bremen, the ADFC and a number of cities and cycling organisations around Europe, issued a series of guidelines and fact sheets in 2010, including one entitled “Cyclists and Pedestrians”. Here (p.1 and 4), it was argued that “cyclists and pedestrians mix easily” and:
“When space is restricted, fully separate provision for cyclists as well as pedestrians may not be possible if quality design dimensions are respected. Sharing space between cyclists and pedestrians may be the best available option. The safety risk of mixing cyclists and pedestrians is much lower than mixing either with motorized vehicles….The first approach should be to try and free up space by reducing the claims of motorized traffic: reroute car traffic and take out a traffic lane; take out a parking lane”.
Meanwhile, on Sielwall itself, the local council which is ultimately responsible for the cycle paths the VEP wishes to remove, spent a substantial sum of money just three years ago upgrading a section of the street’s cycleways. When we contacted the office, they were dismissive of the VEP’s bizarre ideas for removing cycleways they had just upgraded, whilst acknowledging that parked cars were a problem still to be solved.
The fate of Sielwall’s cycleways, and others on similar feeder roads throughout the city, is up for grabs. Different forces within and without the administration will continue to do battle over the coming months and years, on the one hand to defend and improve them, and on the other to eliminate them and reclaim the space for other users. Key to which policies prevail however, will be the city’s car parking policy. Once the rigid defence of these few spaces on streets like Sielwall is challenged, space for both cycling and walking can again become priority. And weak VEP proposals like this one can be consigned to the dustbin of history.