Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The new paths would be aimed not at jump-on, jump-off cyclists, but at riders taking longer journeys.
Munich has a new plan that could totally reshape how cyclists access the city: so-called bike Autobahns. To be launched tomorrow by the city’s planning association, Munich’s proposal imagines a new 14-path network of broad, two-way, entirely segregated bike highways that have neither crossroads nor traffic lights to hold up circulation. While still at the blueprint phase, Munich’s plans could well represent the shape of things to come across Northern Europe. As the provision of roadside bike paths is increasingly being accepted as a civic obligation rather than a perk, cities and regions are moving on to create a second wave of bike infrastructure that is heavier, more highly protected,and considerably more expensive.
Calling a bike path an autobahn might sound grandiose, but what Munich’s plan proposes is certainly heftier and more ambitious than what it provides cyclists with at present. Currently, German cities’ bike lanes are typically single-file affairs that are marked out by special paint or paving but not necessarily protected from cars by barriers. Where possible, they are carved out from sidewalk rather than road space.
Compared to what less bike-friendly countries offer, they are a dream, but they’re nonetheless behind what’s on offer in Denmark or the Netherlands. Negotiating a German city by bike remains a disconcerting experience, requiring you to move from sidewalk paths onto the edge of busy roads and from smooth surfaces onto crotch-rattling cobbles.
By contrast, the new paths would be consistent and spacious, according to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Measuring four meters (13 feet) wide, they would provide ample space for two-lane traffic (including bike trailers) and room for overtaking. And for their duration, there wouldn’t be a car in sight. All this would come at a cost, even for a wealthy city like Munich. Given the necessity of constructing entirely new track—elevated at times—the cost of the network is estimated around €1 million per kilometer, which converts as roughly $1.75 million per mile.
More broadly, the plan, which will need to pass a consultation period and be voted through by political representatives before becoming a reality, shows a shift in emphasis on ideas about what bike infrastructure should be. Running from the inner city out into the countryside, the network would be aimed not at jump-on, jump-off cyclists zipping around town, but at riders taking longer journeys. The bike highways’ real target users are commuters coming in from across the city region, as well as day-trippers heading out to Munich’s idyllic subalpine (but mainly flat and thus bike-friendly) surroundings. The network thus makes long-distance bike rides more accessible and palatable to the general public.
Munich’s grand vision might require major investment, but it doesn’t stand alone—far from it. The bike highway idea is one that’s been taking off across Northern Europe. Copenhagen’s twisting, elevated Cycle Snake, weaving through the city’s harbor, showed the potential of this kind of urban cycleway when it opened last summer. Elsewhere, the Netherlands has a grand total of 28 long distance bike-only paths, laid out in a densely populated country where the short distances between towns make bike transit especially viable. While this network began in the 1980s, the Netherlands has plans to make it much bigger, expanding the special speedy tracks to cover 675 kilometers (419 miles) by 2025.
Plans for similar heavy duty, long-distance paths are currently cropping up all over Germany. Building a long distance road network exclusively for cyclists may still sound like extravagance to some, but there are already signs that, in Europe’s pro-bike heartland at least, such plans may soon be standard.