Germany, the country famous for its speed-limit free stretches of Autobahn, is building car-free Autobahns for bikes. The Radschnellweg ("fast bike path") RS1 runs 62 miles between the cities of Duisburg and Hamm, passing through eight other cities along the way.
Cycling is big and growing in Germany. In Berlin, the school run is more likely to consist of a parent on a bike with two child seats than in an SUV. Cycling is done for pleasure, but also as just another way to get around. Cities already have extensive cycling infrastructure, and in the countryside, you can find wide, smoothly-paved bike highways.
The RS1 cuts through the Ruhr region in North West Germany, close to the border with the Netherlands, and runs mostly along former railway tracks. The bike paths are 13 feet wide, have overtaking lanes, and according to the AFP are lit, and cleared of snow and other debris, just like regular roads. The inspiration for the RS1 comes from the cycle ways of the Netherlands, and also from London’s bike superhighways, and the route usually crosses other roads via over-and-underpasses.
The route is still under construction. The second stage opened in November 2015, in Mülheim, joining the first section in Essen, which opened in 2010. The plan is to have a proper alternative for inter-city travel. Usually, bike lanes are squeezed on to existing city roads, and even when they are well-separated from motor traffic, the lanes are likely to disappear at any time. The RS1 will be continuous, running not just between cities, but right through city centers.
There’s one big barrier to this kind of inter-city model: funding. Whereas regular roads are paid for federally, bike lanes are the responsibility of local authorities. This makes it tricky to build anything between towns. The RS1 is 50% funded by the EU, with 30% coming from the North Rhine-Westphalia State. Berlin, says AFP, plans to use bike-lane-side advertising to help finance its own efforts. It’s a lot cheaper than road-building though. According to the ADFC, one kilometer of road costs around €10 million. One kilometer of bike highways runs to just €1.8 million.
"The RS1 is not only a pioneer project for modern transport policy in North Rhine-Westphalia, but for all over Germany and beyond," says the ADFC’s (Germany’s bike association and advocate group) Ulrich Syberg. "When it’s ready, the world will look upon the Ruhr area and wonder, how many people can you motivate to switch from the car to the bike, and much this will relieve congestion in city centers."
How much congestion? A 2014 study into the lane by the Federal Ministry of Transport says that it could replace up to 52,000 car journeys. But that’s not even the best part. The study also estimated that savings due to the health benefits of cycling could be as much as five times the cost of building the bikeway.