INTERVIEW WITH PROF. DR. ANDREAS KNIE

Professor Andreas Knie is head of the research group Digital Mobility and Social Differentiation” at the Berlin Social Science Centre since 2020. One of his main areas of research is the reorganisation of urban areas. Bike transport has an important role to play here – but only if the bike industry can transform itself.

“There is no reallocation of urban space at present.”

Prof. Knie, the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on mobility. What are the long-term changes?

Prof. Andreas Knie: The number of journeys we make has declined as we consider our transport choices more carefully. For example, we might hold a video conference, instead of going to a meeting. We estimate that only 70 per cent of work-related travel will resume compared to before the coronavirus. Travel on foot or by bike is enjoying a renaissance in large cities. Our aim is for 30 to maximum 40 per cent of all journeys in major cities to be made by bicycle. That is our major objective. You have to remember though that there is a certain amount of people who just don't want to ride bikes at all. However, we are optimistic that bicycles can continue the upwards trend that they have been enjoying for a decade now – providing that we have the corresponding infrastructure.

 

Shortage of space is an issue in many cities. Mobility has to compete with housebuilding, park and recreation areas and economic requirements. Is it possible to reallocate public space without taking it away from other groups?

At present, we continue to act as we have always done: We want to promote public transport, we want to boost cycling, yet we don't want to do anything to affect car use. Expanding bike infrastructure is only possible at the expense of private transport, this means car parking. There needs to be a reallocation of urban space – and this is something we are not seeing at present.

 

However, bicycles also need room to park and this is something that many cities do not have. Is the only option here to take parking space from cars, as Germany’s National Cycling Plan recommends, although it is not often implemented?

It’s not just a matter of installing bike stands. This only annoys pedestrians. We also have to take space away from cars. New bike storage solutions are required too. Cargo bikes require more room. It might take a while, but where high rents are charged for urban living space, bike infrastructure is becoming indispensable. Urban planning in big cities is now always accompanied by bike infrastructure measures. However, cyclists also need to ask themselves: Do I really need so many bikes? Maybe we should consider an upper limit for the maximum number of bikes one person can own. Otherwise, the figures might go through the roof and take up more and more room

“Bike sharing is the way forward.”

Is individual ownership of a car, bike or e-bike still relevant?

As originator of Deutsche Bahn’s “Call a Bike” bike sharing scheme, I have to admit that I am biased here. I believe in “using instead of owning”. Pedelecs are a wonderful invention. It is a new dimension of transport. However, I don’t buy vehicles any more. I hire a pedelec when I need one. Of course, having your own bike is the best solution for longer trips. But in cities in particular, bikes should be there where you need them. “Bike sharing is the way forward here.” German only has two major national schemes – Nextbike and Call a Bike. But there will be more in future. Leasing, renting, sharing – everything we are familiar with from cars, is now available for bikes.

 

Availability is key. There is a saying: The smartphone is the new car key. Do we need to expand digitalisation too?

Smartphones allow us to organise individual availability better. Nevertheless, this has to be reliable. It’s not much use to me if I reach my destination, only to find that there is no bike there. All our requirements, for example, booking bikes, should be displayed on our smartphones.

“The bicycle industry needs to become significantly more professional.”

What should the bike industry be doing? At present, it’s all about selling new bikes.

The fact that there is no common bicycle dealer brand for bike hire just shows how far there is still to go. That is something we have been talking about for 20 years. “This demonstrates that the bicycle industry needs to become significantly more professional.” The problem starts right back with bike manufacturing. The range of bikes available is just not reasonable. You have to choose either mass-produced items or highly-priced customised models – with little in between. Political lobbying and product development also needs to get more professional. There are plenty of possibilities to create added value. However, the industry is waking up to the opportunities. Germany is a sleeping giant when it comes to bicycle development. We sell bikes until everybody has one, and then notice that you can’t use them properly because you can’t take them with you in the train or in the car.

 

What about Swapfiets or Listnride, are they models for the future? These schemes come from abroad.

Yes, and this is no coincidence. The Netherlands in particular are showing what can be done. There are many options coming between buying and short-term rental. I sincerely hope that German bike manufacturers and especially bike dealers start to get more established. Otherwise, foreign companies will move in. This is no bad thing in itself, but I feel that German companies could do it better.

“We need more reasonable clothing for bike riding.”

What would you like to see here?

Yes, we desperately need proper bike clothing, so that we can finally ride bikes dressed normally. But clothing is just one aspect, accessories and service structures also need improvement.

 

Pedelecs are expensive to buy. Is bike mobility the next luxury trend?

Bikes used to be a ‘poor man’s’ vehicle. Today, it’s the opposite. Mid and high earners ride bikes more, while people on lower incomes ride less. And a company bike only makes sense for those with a good income. This should be changed. We need to introduce measures that make it possible for people on low incomes to have access to high-quality bicycles. And I’m not just talking about adults, I mean from school age onwards. In addition to building safe routes to schools, there could be subsidies to help people on lower incomes afford reasonable bikes. So not just money for PCs and tablets – we need investment in bikes and transport for everyone irrespective of income bracket.

“Bike riding should start at primary school.

However, many schools are moving in the opposite direction. Large numbers of schools ban younger pupils from coming to school by bike.

Bike riding should start at primary school. This is where the foundations are laid. We need to do more for bikes, and we can do this by providing safe routes to school. The old saying from Hans-Jochen Vogel still rings true: “If you sow roads, you reap traffic” – so if we sow bike lanes, we reap bike transport. It’s really embarrassing that we are still having to discuss these questions in 2021. This just shows how disastrous the situation in Germany is.

 

More bikes mean more bike repairs and more servicing. You see it at the moment – there are queues outside the workshops. And yet bike associations are concerned that retailers are dying out as there are not enough young people coming in to the industry.

We are going to see significant structural changes in the bicycle industry. It used to be a pretty homogeneous group – mainly groups of men in cycling gear on weekends. These groups are now decreasing in size and more ‘normal people’ are getting involved. Once this is the case and the numbers are there – and we believe that figures will continue to grow in coming years – there will be a new generation of companies. These new shops will not be like the bike shops that we grew up with, they will look totally different.

“We are just not seeing the boom that is so often talked about.”

The present solutions are primarily all about urban transport. In the countryside, cars are still the main form of transport. How do we promote bikes more here?

We generally assume that average journeys are longer outside of urban areas. This is not the case. 90 per cent of all journeys in the countryside are under ten kilometres. Distances of three to five kilometres could easily be travelled in rural areas by bike instead of by car. However: There is no bike infrastructure in rural areas – even in areas with high tourism. Every new road that is built in Germany ought to have a bike lane that is a minimum of 1.20 metres wide, so that cyclists can ride safely. If this were the case, more people would ride bikes again in rural areas. We see an increase in journeys by bike of around 20 per cent in the cities. There is virtually no increase in the countryside. This is why the number of cyclists across Germany has only increased slightly during the coronavirus pandemic. We are just not seeing the boom that is so often talked about.

 

On the other hand, local authorities complain that there are not enough transport planners to expand bike lanes and cycle tracks. What is needed?

By appointing new so-called ‘bike professorships’, a start has been made to address this issue in terms of teaching. But as we know, education in Germany is always complicated. There is no coordinated planning. In two or three years, there will be more cycling planners than you can shake a stick at. In a few years, we will be complaining that we have too many of them. I’m talking about the so-called ‘pork cycle’ of cyclical fluctuations of supply, but in the context of education planning. We could make cycle network planning much less dramatic by simply painting bike lanes on the existing cycle paths. You don’t need a degree in bicycle network planning to do this. What we need to improve bike infrastructure in Germany is: courage!
It just needs courageous people.