Cycling into the future

Car loving Germans are a relic of the eighties – the new generation rides the bike instead, thus saving money, stress and the climate. But politicians and the industry cling to the status-quo

This is a shortened and updated translation of an article which I wrote for EPD news agency >>

The family carriage of the Heinecke’s has five wheels and not even one horsepower: Mother Gabriele Heinecke rides the bike in front, the eldest daughter follows on a back seat and the two little ones sit in a bike carrier at the end. It is a rare vehicle, provocing the neighbours to shake their heads: “Will you still not have a car?”
Germany is a car producing, car maintaining, car loving country. Still nine out of eleven households own a car, spending an average 269 euros a month on it – more than a child of welfare recipientsgets. Cars make identities; the generation that has been growing up in the 80ies is even called “VW Golf generation”, after the then widely popular car. But their children do not identify with gas guzzlers any longer. In a time where the oil stock runs short and traffic is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gases, the car as we know it is no longer sexy for young city dwellers.
At the Rio conference last month politicians discussed electric cars and other “green technologies” as a way for a sustainable development – the industry’s lobbying efforts bear fruits. Eleven years after Toyota presented the first hybrid car, the German state granted 500 million euros to help their industry catch up. “We are on the wrong way again”, warns Wolfgang Lohbeck, transportation expert at Greenpeace Germany. “As long as our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, electric cars are also carbon belchers.”
But potential consumers hesitate. The image of car driving has changed in Germany: It is no longer a status symbol, but a constraint of those who, in the eighties, have erected their homestead in the suburban green, far away from public transport. “Thanks to the re-urbanization cars become increasingly expendable”, says transport expert Helmut Holzapfel of Kassel University. “The car centred mobility has exceeded its climax.” He sees his own students as an example for this paradigm shift: “While still lacking money to buy a car, they discover the joy of cycling and stick to it.”
But how will Germans cope with the increasing need for mobility in the future without own cars? Greenpeace expert Lohbeck: “Depending on the situation we will choose different means of shared or public transport by using a single fare system. Why own what we can also share?” The Heinecke’s from Osnabrück are pioneers for this model: They use their bike trailer for shopping, borrow a car for trips and go on holidays by train. “We save several hundred euros a month this way – and a lot of stress”, says Gabriele Heinecke. “Maybe we do less than families who flit hither and thither. But we enjoy what we do.”