The Architect of Germany’s First Bike Law
Heinrich Strößenreuther had not just one, but two epiphanies that literally set the wheels in motion, towards becoming Germany’s best-known biking activist.
The first time came in 1992 while Heinrich was on his bike during a visit to Canada’s Jasper National Park. He was trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life and he came to the realization, out of his concern for the environment, that he wanted to become a climate activist. The second ‘lighting bolt’ occurred in the summer of 2015, while on a mountain top in Bavaria. Heinrich was keen to make Berlin a more bike-friendly city and it occurred to him that he should organize a referendum in support of Germany’s first bike law, in order to pressure politicians into action.
Conditions for bikers in Berlin at the time were less than ideal. Of the more than 200 major streets in the city, only 3% of road space was dedicated to bikes, compared to 20 times more space for cars. Yet there were already more commuters biking (18%) than driving (17%), with public transport (30%) and pedestrians (30%) accounting for the remainder of the population.
This unfair distribution of space in favor of cars, together with the conviction that something had to be done to get more cars off the road in order to improve air quality and reduce C02 emissions, is ultimately what compelled Heinrich and Berliners of like mind, to swing into action. “The core problem was that politicians at the time were afraid to take space away from car users and give them to cycling users,” recalls Heinrich. “So, one of the most important tasks of the bike referendum, was to trigger a discussion in the city about the general direction of politics.”
Prior to launching the referendum, Heinrich, along with a well-organized team of about 30 other activists came up with a list of 10 key goals, which included: making streets in general safer for everyone (including kids and seniors), creating a safer biking infrastructure, building cycle highways for bike commuters and giving bikes ‘the green light’ or priority starts at key intersections. The way to transform these goals into reality, was to create an Amsterdam or Copenhagen style infrastructure that would include two-meter wide bike lanes on 1,600 km of main roads and another 100 km of bike autobahn for bike commuters. The estimated price tag was 550 million euros with a 10-year timeline for implementation.
For these goals to be even considered by city officials, by law the group was required to collect at least 20,000 signatures within six months from citizens, and second, prepare a bike law draft that politicians could then vote on, tied to the transforming Berlin into a more bike-friendly city.
Heinrich is the first to admit that the initial response to the bike referendum was lukewarm at best from politicians and the media alike. But instead of meekly accepting this response, the group swung into action, launching a creative activist campaign that included: organizing slow rides of hundreds of bikers along some of the busier streets of Berlin; parking bicycles on the road to block traffic on the same streets where cars were illegally parking on bike lanes; and organizing flash mobs of activists dressed up in Santa outfits, literally drawing the line on cars parked on bike lanes using canisters of whip cream.
Collectively these actions not only clogged up traffic and enraged car drivers, but also created what Heinrich best describes as a ‘political tsunami’, generating massive media exposure across the country, predominately in favor of the bike activists.
Because of this media exposure, together with the fact the group was able to engage 1,300 volunteers and set up over 200 survey boxes across the city, in just three weeks, the group collected over 105,000 signatures.
“When I first learned how many signatures we had collected, I actually started to cry,” Heinrich recalls. Three months later, with the help of lawyers providing pro bono support, the group drafted Germany’s first bike law, which if enacted, would bring about all of the changes the group was advocating. And when the time came to vote on this law, all of the parties and the vast majority of politicians came out in favour of the law.
“It was a 180-degree shift in mindset (from being pro car to pro bike) in the span of just six months,” Heinrich observes. And the consequences of this transformation go well beyond the borders of Berlin, with several other cities in Germany (including Dusseldorf and Stuttgart) now working on their own bike laws, inspired by what took place in Berlin.
In light of Berlin’s remarkable transformation from a car to bike-centric city, it’s no wonder Heinrich has earned the reputation of Germany’s best-known biking activist.
What I like about Berlin, is we have fewer cars than other cities and many people are interested in sustainability and climate issues.
One individual who has inspired me has been Thilo Bode, the CEO of Greenpeace in the 90s.
My advice for other cities that want to launch bike campaigns is to build a highly professional core team.
Every city should cut their C02 emissions by at least 50% in the next 10 years and increase in the same time the quality of life, by boosting cycling.
Heinrich Strößenreuther is one of the leading mobility campaigners in Germany. He turned mobility policy in Berlin upside down, enabling politicians to take giant leaps instead of small steps. The traffic expert has gained experience in professional positions in the German Parliament, Greenpeace, The Deutsche Bahn, and as a startup-CEO and consultant, Heinrich is the founder and managing director of the Agency for Clever Cities. In addition, he is a wonderful and humorous speaker, which he clearly demonstrated at the Urban Future Global Conference 2018.