How citizen action brought cycling to Wuppertal
Situated in the Bergisches Land region of North-Rhine Westphalia, Wuppertal is world famous for its suspension railway. But since 2014, the city can now also be crossed very easily by bicycle – despite its many hills. Cycling along a route once used by trains is now feasible thanks to a citizen initiative – you can discover how in our interview.
Back in 2006 a group of Wuppertal residents had a visionary idea: to convert a 22-kilometre stretch of abandoned railway line into a cycle route running right through the heart of the city. Because the city was so hilly, construction of the original railway line involved building viaducts and bridges to keep ups and downs to a minimum. So it’s a perfect route for cycling!
It was not easy initially to convince the city authorities of the project – and the volunteers needed to collect millions of euros. But by 2014 the work was done and the “Nordbahntrasse” cycle route could have its official opening. Since then it has rapidly become the city’s new showpiece – for regular commuters, day-trippers, pedestrians and skaters alike. Carsten Gerhardt is a physicist and one of those involved in the cycle route construction project from the start. In this interview he reports on the project that has brought sustainable mobility to Wuppertal.
Once upon a time ... there was a stretch of abandoned railway line that ran right through the heart of Wuppertal. Do you remember the moment when you thought: “We have to turn this into a cycle route”?
Carsten Gerhardt: On the Sunday of Carnival in 2005 my wife and I went for a walk along the completely overgrown stretch of railway. That day we walked through pitch-black tunnels and climbed fences to cross the closed-off viaducts. But we soon realised how quickly the route took us from one part of the city to another. After about 10 kilometres we came to a place where a bridge had been demolished and a flower market built on the line. That was the moment we just knew we had to get involved and ensure the former railway line was preserved for the future benefit of the general public.
Photo gallery “Nordbahntrasse Wuppertal”
How did the project come about? What were the first steps?
Carsten Gerhardt: We toyed with the idea of getting involved in preserving and converting the line for around nine months and during that time sought out friends and acquaintances for possible support. Then we set up an association under a name that highlighted our thinking: Wuppertalbewegung e. V., “Wuppertal”, “Tal-Weg” (valley path) and “Bewegung” (movement/exercise). We drafted and published a feasibility study, outlining why we considered it important for the city to bring new life to the line, specific benefits and how the whole thing could be financed.
You had to collect several million euros in funding. Did you ever think you had taken on too much?
Carsten Gerhardt: Since the city told us it was not in a position to approve the required civic contribution of around three million euros, we presented our concept to companies, patrons and other citizens and campaigned for their support – in total we set up over 100 face-to-face meetings. Within around four months, we had collected pledges totalling 3.5 million euros. Then the local government told us it was not able to write the necessary funding applications for the state of North-Rhine Westphalia and the EU, so we took responsibility for that too – and were successful! Finally we could make a start on the building work and completed the first two kilometres of line by ourselves. We had not the slightest doubt that we would not achieve it. If anything, the obstacles that were put in our way made us even more determined.
Wuppertal – Germany’s answer to San Francisco
With a population of 350,046 (31 December 2015), Wuppertal is the largest city and centre of industry, business, education and culture in the Bergisches Land region of Germany. Situated to the south of the industrial Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s “greenest city” is also the country’s seventeenth largest and one of the major conurbations in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. (…) Wuppertal is known for its steep streets, public parks and woodland paths – as well as being the city in Germany with more public steps than any other. Film director Tom Tykwer, who was born in Wuppertal, refers to his city as “the German San Francisco”.
A whole line-up of Wuppertal residents got involved. Who were they and how did they help?
Carsten Gerhardt: From the outset we were able to count on the support of thousand of local residents: together we collected rubbish, cleared the line of trees and paved the route. So in addition to donations of the financial kind, our volunteers also invested muscle power!
Over 5,000 supporters are known to us by name. And we also received massive support from the job centre and various institutions from the secondary labour market. The ‘inner core’ of Wuppertalbewegung e. V. is made up of a group of a dozen campaigners. They organise and orchestrate a whole range of different activities, ranging from guided tours along the route to events and measures to preserve the original character of this stretch of line, including restoration of stations and the operation of a handcar.
People from all walks of life are represented among our ranks of volunteers – including professionals essential for implementing any large-scale project: designers, architects, construction specialists, accountants… All have given generously of their time.
Since 2014 the route has been used on a daily basis by many Wuppertal residents. How has the route changed life in the city?
Carsten Gerhardt: Since the official opening in 2014, the route has become a regular part of the leisure programme for Wuppertal residents and visitors alike. People meet at the line to enjoy a wide range of group activities, including cycling, walking and inline skating. The route links different parts of the city – so people can walk to places they had rarely if ever visited until now.
Cycling is a widely accepted form of mobility today. But perhaps the most striking thing in Wuppertal is the high degree of civic involvement and variety of initiatives that have been launched in individual suburbs. Perhaps our “Nordbahntrasse” project, with its ‘by citizens for citizens approach’, helped encourage these initiatives to achieve their objectives. Or at least that’s what we would like to think!
Community discussion on sustainable mobility
Cycling is growing in popularity all over the world. What would need to happen for you to get on your bike more often? How can towns and cities in particular become more cyclist-friendly? Have your say in the comments below.