After eight years of gentle propagandising, led by the surprisingly memorable ‘Radlhauptstadt München’ (Eng)  title, suddenly it was all gone. Like the local Föhn (aptly, a subtle wind), in 2018 Munich simply decided it no longer wanted to sell itself as an all singing and dancing ‘cycling capital’.
And if the city’s honest, it was an acceptance of abject failure: that after eight years of claiming it was (or would be), Munich was nowhere near becoming a noted cycling-friendly city, never mind a so-called ‘cycling capital’. Certainly nowhere near the likes of Copenhagen, Utrecht and Amsterdam, Malmo and Bern.
For a city that at times can seem a little too much in love with itself, whose city PR people love nothing more than to let us know how Munich has finished at – or near – the top of some lifestyle survey or economic analysis, to be named as only 34th in a 2019 Global Bicycle Cities Index (Eng) must hurt. It seems, however, symbolic: Radlhauptstadt München? You must be joking. You couldn’t even make into the top ten, never mind the top one. Worse, it wasn’t even anywhere near being the best in Germany, coming 13th, behind Munster, Bremen, Hannover, Hamburg, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Berlin … ok, it managed to beat Stuttgart and Dortmund.
‘I was actually sitting at the table when it was decided to call it Radlhaupstadt,’ says Andreas Schuster, responsible for mobility at Green City Munich (Eng) an undervalued, independent organisation trying since the 1990s to push for a more environmentally friendly city. Recalling the decision back in December 2009, he says the name was not chosen because ‘we thought it’s what Munich [already] is; but because if we were settling on a term, and if you really want to be a Radlhauptstadt, then, “You have to do this, this and this [to get there].”’ A decade later, the city hadn’t done nearly enough. As in the wider fight against the climate emergency, it’s been almost a wasted decade.
Meeting Schuster for the first time in the Green City offices in May 2019, high on the fifth floor of an unremarkable Munich building near Theresienwiese (home to the Oktoberfest), is a welcome experience. Short-cropped hair with sideburns, Doc Martens and button-down shirt can for some people be slightly disconcerting: yes, he’s a skinhead. No, not one of those. A proper skinhead, someone who understands how this much-maligned sub-culture emerged in working-class London in the 1960s, bringing together young black migrants ostensibly from the Caribbean and young Brits. They rejected the stifling post-war conservative mainstream culture, and embraced music from Jamaica, and danced to dub, ska and bluebeat.
The movement evolved, taking in punk and Oi!, but in the process also getting badly twisted by some, becoming associated with right-wing extremism (the NYT has a decent overview here) and football violence. The clean cut, smart clothes and rock steady of the original skinhead movement with its international music and cultural focus was transformed into a boorish, intolerant, violent, nationalistic sect.
I immediately recognise in Schuster, however, someone who knows the real value of the original skinhead movement, of tolerance, openness and a love of the music – indeed, he even plays in a band. Over around two hours, our discussions go from 1980s Ska, Two Tone and Oi! to Naomi Klein, the invigorating recent protests of the FridaysForFuture and the London Extinction Rebellion protests that – when we met – had just made such a major impact.
Another S-Bahn tunnel
Munich, however, is not London. Each city has to take its own green path. ‘The most important thing that has to change in Munich is to move it away from having only one centre. Munich is really centred on the middle, on Marienplatz. All the [S-Bahn] lines go into the centre before they go out again.’
At present, only around 18 per cent of journeys in Munich are by bike, up from 10 per cent 12 years earlier, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Such a low figure, however, is clearly unsustainable, and mitigates against a comprehensive climate action plan for the city. Of course, Munich has a plan (climate neutral by 2050 & associated 2030 aims), but few people consider it a glowing testament to joined up thinking, arguably perfectly evinced by the agreement to build a ‘second core S-Bahn’ (Eng) tunnel – contrary to what Schuster thinks, in the hope that it will ease the burden on inner city public transport.
It’s difficult to be sure, but it appears that after many years of discussion, there is the strong suspicion from some people involved that the decision to finally build the second tunnel was little more than wishing the subject could be settled – something like, ‘Build the bloody tunnel and let us move on!’
Making the localities more attractive
Indeed, even with work ongoing, Schuster is still not wholly convinced that the tunnel will be built (it’s still at a very early stage). In fact, he’s convinced that the investment would be much more useful elsewhere. A start, he says, would be to make Munich localities and suburbs much more appealing so people need to actually go into the city centre less often. ‘People wouldn’t have to go though this new tunnel because they would have more [local] choices,’ is his reasonable rationale. ‘This would reduce the stress on the whole system,’ he explains. He cites the new western Munich X80 bus route, linking the packed Puchheim, Gröbenzell, Lochhausen, Untermenzing and Moosach. ‘It’s great. It’s a start. If it works really well, you can then build it as a tram or a train.’
He talks about the possibility that Allguth is studying ideas to transform its 15 petrol stations around Munich into ‘mobility hubs’. The context, of course, is the rise of electric cars and the likely reduced use of fossil fuels for transport in coming decades. ‘Let’s connect the S-Bahns to big mobility [centres], where people can drive to, change to public transport, and maybe also go to the barber’s shop or get their parcels there.’ In other words, don’t drive into an already packed city centre.
On your bike for a cycle referendum
Such ideas demand long-term planning and investment, and include a major infrastructure overhaul to ensure cycling is at the heart of the new Munich transport system. Which is where Radentscheid München comes in. The Munich Bicycle Referendum petition has a series of demands aimed at the city, revolving about the construction of a safe, convenient and intelligent cycle network. Taken to its logical, evolutionary conclusion, it means bikes (and obviously cyclists) would supersede cars and other vehicles as having priority in transportation within much of Munich.
The end of the signature-collecting period is 30 June 2019, and concludes with a planned major cycling demonstration entitled Rad-Ringdemo to and from Theresienwiese. For the petition to go ahead and transformed into a future referendum requires 33,000 signatures. Back in May Schuster pointed out that he was already confident the petition had ‘reached its goal’, though he was also at pains to point out that organisers did not know how many they had collected. If successful, ‘within one month the city would decide whether or not the people can go to a referendum and vote for it.’ Importantly, however, [the city] can also simply recognise its legitimacy, and say: ‘“It’s great. We’ll do it ourselves.’”
Any referendum could take place in October 2019, says Schuster. And if the people of Munich wish it, the capital of Bavaria should finally have earned its moniker of ‘Radlhauptstadt München’.
 Links in German unless ‘(Eng)’ stated