The neverending story?: The eternal struggle between cyclists and drivers

The space on Germany's streets for cyclists and drivers is becoming tighter, the tone rougher: In many cities, both parties are apparently irreconcilable.

The neverending story?: The eternal struggle between cyclists and drivers

The space on Germany's streets for cyclists and drivers is becoming tighter, the tone rougher: In many cities, both parties are apparently irreconcilable. And this despite the fact that a large part of one group is also part of the other. But there is hope.

The potential for conflict is high: on the one hand, parked bicycle lanes or overtaking drivers too closely. Cyclists who go unpunished on a red light or on the footpath on the other side. If you want to get excited, you can do it with a short drive through the city, whether with one or the other means of transport. And if you don't want to get upset, you need patience.

The feeling that the potential for conflict between car drivers and cyclists has increased can be backed up with facts: Because of the increased numbers and the resulting shrinking space for each individual, it is no wonder that car drivers and cyclists are constantly getting in each other's way .

Today around five and a half million more cars are driving on German roads than ten years ago. And when they are not on the road, their drivers have to find a (more or less) suitable parking space in the cities' dwindling parking spaces. According to the two-wheeler industry association, the number of bicycles has increased by 10 million to around 80 million over the past decade, including more and more e-bikes.

In addition, more and more people are now using their bicycles in everyday life, be it for health or environmental reasons. Service bike offers like "Jobrad" are booming. The corona pandemic has once again increased the trend towards individual transport. What has not changed in the meantime is the available space on city streets.

But does the atmosphere between car drivers and cyclists really have to become aggressive so quickly? "The basic problem is that both want to use the same resource, 'road space', and the advancement of one means the handicap of the other. The driver feels handicapped, the cyclist feels threatened," explains Mark Vollrath, Professor of Traffic Psychology at the TU Braunschweig.

If one of two lanes in a municipality is reserved for cyclists, perhaps even marked as a "Protected Bike Lane", motorists feel robbed and complain that they can get through it more slowly and that there are traffic jams. And look with envy at the faster cyclists. Any misconduct on the part of cyclists - be it using the pedestrian path to avoid traffic lights or cheating through traffic - in this constellation becomes a trigger point that makes people angry. "I think envy plays a big role here - as a car driver you're constantly standing at red lights and have to comply with the rules, while cyclists simply ignore it and move on quickly," says Vollrath.

The frustration is also sometimes high among cyclists: drivers who park in the cycle lane, overtake at a distance of only half a meter, cut off the path of cyclists who have the right of way. Cycling can be life-threatening, 426 cyclists died in road traffic in 2020, mainly in urban areas. The most frequent other party to an accident (72 percent) is the car; In three-quarters of the cases of collisions between cars and bicycles, the driver was the main cause of the accident, according to data from the Federal Statistical Office.

So it's understandable if you get mobbed by a cyclist while you're parked in front of the bakery on the bike lane? "The cyclist has to move out of his protected zone onto the street, which is dangerous," Siegfried Brockmann from Accident Research at German Insurers (UDV) pleads for understanding. "Even if you only stand there for a few minutes: someone will always park there for only five minutes for the cyclist."

The accident researcher identifies two major potential hazards between bicycles and cars: around two-thirds of all serious accidents involve turning accidents, both when cars and trucks turn left and right open their door and a passing cyclist crashes into it.

Here, for example, clear markings are needed on the road, with a 75 cm wide "safety strip" between the cycle path and parked cars, says Brockmann, because: "If the cyclist keeps his distance from the cars parked on the right, the driver thinks the cyclist wants him to annoy."

In fact, many motorists are not aware that cyclists are actually allowed to do some things that are supposedly forbidden. For example, at a red traffic light, a cyclist is allowed to drive past the queue of cars on the right to the front, even if there is no cycle lane. Unless the cycle path sign (white wheel on a blue background) prescribes an obligation to use it, cyclists can also use the road.

At the same time, however, cyclists seem to regard their own traffic violations as a minor offence. Among them are drivers, who should know better, but: "If you are a driver in the role of a cyclist, your view of the rules changes," explains traffic psychology professor Vollrath. "On the one hand, of course, this is due to the pursuit by the police - the risk of being caught is much higher for a car driver than for a cyclist." On the other hand, cyclists often feel disadvantaged and there are rules that appear nonsensical.

But how do you get out of the never-ending spiral of aggression? Traffic researchers agree: Really good helps to physically separate the two parties to the conflict - the less they meet, the better. With separate, possibly even protected cycle lanes and separate traffic light phases. Anyone who has ever been to the Netherlands or Copenhagen, Denmark, knows what that might look like.

As can be seen from the national cycle route plan 3.0, which was passed in 2021, the federal government wants municipalities to gain space by converting car parking spaces: Parking should therefore be concentrated in “district garages”, for example. The Ministry of Transport is making around 1.46 billion euros available from 2020 to 2023 to improve the infrastructure - for protected crossings based on the Dutch model, bicycle bridges or for retrofitting truck turning assistants.

Christian Rudolph is convinced that motorists will also benefit from a better cycling infrastructure. He heads the professorship for cycling at the TH Wildau in Brandenburg, which the Ministry of Transport has been funding with four other chairs researching cycling since 2021. "Better cycling infrastructure leads to more bike rides, leads to fewer car rides, leads to clearer roads," says Rudolph.

Commuters who are plagued by traffic jams and who are dependent on their cars could be relieved if the tailwind of the bicycle boom was used to convince some people with good and safe bicycle transport offers to switch to bicycles more often. His hope, when more safe cycling infrastructure is established, is: "Perhaps the trench warfare between car drivers and cyclists will then subside a little."

There is no doubt that the conflict must be resolved: the federal government wants the number of trips made by bicycle to increase from 120 in 2017 to 180 trips per person by 2030. A route is then on average 6 kilometers long instead of 3.7. Nevertheless, the number of cyclists killed in traffic should be reduced by 40 percent.

The Ministry of Transport advertises in the cycle path plan for "more together and less against each other", municipalities should promote "cultural change", but also consistently monitor compliance with traffic rules. "The turnaround in mobility can only succeed if everyone participates. That means there must be a change in awareness, but even more so in behavior," says Christian Rudolph. Politicians are asked to create incentives.

Surveys such as the "Bike Monitor" funded by the Ministry of Transport show that many motorists are aware that the German cities that were planned to be car-friendly decades ago must be made sustainable. In the current 2021 survey, for example, 62 percent of drivers stated that they rated the “pop-up cycle paths” that some municipalities had set up during the Corona period as positive. 76 percent like the idea of ​​"protected bike lanes", i.e. cycle paths separated by curbs or bollards. In the same survey, both car drivers and cyclists complain about the tense climate on the streets.


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