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In Some Places, Germany's Bike Autobahn Is Faster Than The Car Version


German highways, or autobahns, as they're known, are legendary for having no speed limit. But you can't go fast when you are stuck in traffic. One state in Germany is building an alternative for frustrated commuters. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to check it out.

SORAYA SARDHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: To get to this alternative, you have to trade your gas pedal for bike pedals. That's right. This new autobahn is for bicycles, not cars. But it's a bit of an obstacle course here in the city of Essen to get to what will be the longest bicycle highway in Europe. Parked cars often block designated cycling lanes, and drivers don't always stay on their side of the road. It isn't much better in the car-free shopping zone, where you have to weave to avoid pedestrians.

But with patience and perseverance, cyclists soon reach the autobahn designed exclusively for them. This highway that is 13 feet wide follows abandoned rail routes and other flat expanses in Germany's Rust Belt. A 6-and-a-half-foot-wide pedestrian path runs alongside but is separated by a grassy median to prevent people or their dogs from straying into the bicycle lane. Planners say this part of Germany is ideal for a bicycle highway because cities in the Rust Belt are very close together.


SIMONE RASKOB: (Speaking German).

NELSON: At a recent Berlin news conference, Essen Deputy Mayor Simone Raskob said people travelling to and from the neighboring city of Mulheim are already finding the bicycle autobahn faster than the car version.


RASKOB: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Raskob said bicycling on the path can be done year round, with municipal workers clearing snow and ice from the pavement during the winter months. At the moment, the bicycle highway is less than 8 miles long, and that's if you include the feeder paths. But planners say that by 2022, it will stretch 66 miles and connect 10 German cities, where then a million and a half people live within a mile of the planned route. And planners are betting that those with a commute of less than 12 miles to work will make the switch from cars to bicycles. One Essen commuter who has already traded in her daily drive is Heike Wollmann-Zintel.


NELSON: The 48-year-old says besides cutting down on travel time, the new bicycle highway offers another benefit, stress relief. She says when she's had a bad day at work, she just peddles the negative feelings away. There's even a rest stop of sorts - a cafe called an Radmosphere, which is a combination of the German words for bicycle and atmosphere. It's there that I meet Frank Joneit of the regional association Ruhr, which oversees the bicycle highway that the state and German federal government are spending $200 million to build. Joneit says it's a lot cheaper than building other infrastructure.

FRANK JONEIT: For that sum of money, you'll get, well, let's say, 600 feet underground construction for a metro rail. So you see, if you take construction of a motorway, so you get more value for money than constructing a motorway in all. I would say it's about 10 times more at least.

NELSON: He says once it is completed, the bicycle highway will also be good for the environment, removing 50,000 cars from the road as well as their carbon dioxide emissions. In the meantime, other major German cities, including Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, are studying whether to build bicycle highways, too. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Essen.


QUEEN: (Singing) I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride my bike. I want to ride my bicycle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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