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Promotion of cycling in rural areas

Promotion of cycling in rural areas
Promotion of cycling in rural areas © Alexander Hunger
Low population density, dispersed settlement patterns and subsequently large distances between home, workplace, school as well as amenity and leisure facilities - these are the main characteristics of rural areas.


This publication deals with the promotion of cycling in rural areas. However, it cannot cover all aspects, since there are major regional differences within the spatial category of “rural areas”, which will not always be discussed in detail.

In the medium to long term, it is assumed that some major cities will continue to grow while, given demographic change, the population in many rural areas will continue to shrink and its average age will increase. All forecasts assume that this trend will continue and even increase throughout the coming decades. Currently, especially peripheral areas are subject to this development. However, there are also differences among the agglomeration areas, in which both shrinkage as well as growth can be observed.

Abbildung 1: Modal Split im Jahresvergleich und nach Gebietstypen
Abbildung 1: Modal Split im Jahresvergleich und nach Gebietstypen © Difu 2014 nach MiD 2008

These structural and population changes lead to enormous challenges for the different rural areas with their small and medium-sized towns - especially when it comes to transport and mobility. On the one hand, local residents lack alternative offers in many regions. At the same time, many motorists deem it inconvenient to use a different means of transport in everyday traffic.

The figures of the "Mobility in Germany” study of 2008 (MiD 2008) confirm these statements. The privately owned car is the preferred means of transport, which can also be deduced from its modal split share of 46 % in rural areas. Six out of 10 journeys are made by car; the same applies to eight out of 10 kilometres that are travelled. The following overview depicts a comparison of modal splits in 2002 and 2008 per area category.

The average distance covered by car, walking or cycling is 15 km, two kilometres and four kilometres respectively (MiD 2008). For journeys of five kilometres or more, however, the use of cycles in rural areas decreases significantly, as can be seen in the following figure.

Abbildung 2: Modal-Split-Anteile von Fahrrad und „zu Fuß“ nach Wegelängen
Abbildung 2: Modal-Split-Anteile von Fahrrad und „zu Fuß“ nach Wegelängen © MiD 2008

In rural areas, cycles can play a major traditional role in everyday traffic - regardless of age group - especially for those without cars (Ahrend/Herget 2012, BMVBS 2012). Nonetheless: 50 % of all journeys made by car in rural areas are shorter than five kilometres. 75 % of all journeys take place in built-up areas (Ahrens 2011).

The core challenges for the promotion of cycling in rural areas differ from those in conurbations. For instance, motor vehicles jam roads passing through built-up areas, or there are no inter-urban and therefore no safe cycle links. Local public transport mainly is a means of transport for schoolchildren; the timetable is planned accordingly, at least for buses, which leads to greatly reduced services on weekends and during school holidays. Due to the scarcity of funds, the public transport authorities often do not finance more services, which is why it usually is only partly attractive and flexible enough for the mobility expectations of the rural population. Therefore, cycles are all the more relevant for ensuring mobility.

Information box: Urban and rural areas

In 2011, the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) in the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning launched a re-classification of space in Germany. All major cities not belonging to a district and urban districts now form the Urban Space, while rural districts form the Rural Space. The following three settlement pattern characteristics are used for the classification:

  • population share in large and medium-sized cities;
  • population density of the district region;
  • population density of the district region excluding large and medium-sized cities.

This results in four different groups:

  1. Major cities not belonging to a district: cities and towns not belonging to a district and with a population of more than 100,000
  2. Urban districts: districts with a population share in large and medium-sized cities of at least 50 % and a population density of at least 150 inhabitants per square kilometre as well as districts with a population density (excluding large and medium-sized cities) of at least 150 inhabitants per square kilometre
  3. Rural districts with increasing population density: districts with a population share in large and medium-sized cities of at least 50 % but with a population density of under 150 inhabitants per square kilometre as well as districts with a population share in large and medium-sized cities of under 50 % with a population density (excluding large and medium-sized cities) of at least 100 inhabitants per square kilometre
  4. Sparsely populated rural districts: districts with a population share in large and medium-sized cities of under 50 % and a population density (excluding large and medium-sized cities) of under 100 inhabitants per square kilometre

[BBSR 2014]

By now, less than 30 % of the population in Germany live in rural areas. The following table depicts this trend with figures.


Major cities not belonging to a district

Urban districts

Rural districts with increasing population density

Sparsely populated rural districts

Number of districts





Population (million, rounded)





Area (km2)





Source: In-house figures in accordance with BBSR 2012, as at 31 December 2012.

Cycling mobility of elderly people in rural areas

Two especially significant impacts of demographic change on large parts of the rural areas are population decline due to low birth rates and people moving away as well as the high share of elderly people. As senior citizens get older, they tend to stay within their local area and walk more frequently. The challenge for these areas consists in adapting the mobility services to the requirements of the ageing society.

Abbildung 3: Frage: Welches Verkehrsmittel nutzen Sie überwiegend? in % (Befragung zur Radverkehrsmobilität in zwei Landkreisen, ISAB 2006 (N = 538))
Abbildung 3: Frage: Welches Verkehrsmittel nutzen Sie überwiegend? in % (Befragung zur Radverkehrsmobilität in zwei Landkreisen, ISAB 2006 (N = 538)) © Burmeister 2007

Due to population decline, social infrastructure and local services are reduced and concentrated on central places or locations with a focus on the car. Therefore, the independent mobility of elderly people in rural areas requires alternatives to walking; however, cycle use is increasingly limited as distances get longer. A survey among older cyclists in rural districts of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania showed that the traditionally strong use of cycles in villages (under 3,000 inhabitants) is much below the use in small and medium-sized cities (Burmeister 2007).

The pedelec offers a good opportunity to continue the mobility patterns that have been existing for years of travelling long distances in rural areas with little physical effort through to old age - as long as secure parking facilities at home make it possible, in the future also increasingly for electrically assisted tricycles.

Potential for utility cycling and cycle tourism

To promote cycling in rural areas, the existing potential, especially over short distances, should be increasingly exploited. The pedelec share in small towns and rural areas, which is perceived to have increased significantly, can provide another chance in this regard. It is not the case any more that only elderly people opt for pedelecs, but indeed also younger people, who have understood the great advantage of pedelecs, namely the ability to travel longer distances faster.

Utility cycling

Utility and leisure cyclists mainly use the same routes in rural areas. For this reason, improved cycle tracks and thereby improved links are always beneficial for both target groups. Nevertheless, they have different expectations: while utility cyclists need direct routes to reach their destinations quickly, leisure cyclists care more about the experience than about time. However, safety is paramount for both target groups.

Direct and safe links to important locations within the city and in neighbouring cities form the basis for functioning utility cycling in rural areas. It is therefore necessary to analyse important origins and destinations and link them in a direct manner. In this context, however, not only cycle routes along or on roads must be taken into account for the network development. Farm tracks or forestry trails and tourist routes plus less frequented roads should be included as well. But time plays the major role here: utility cyclists who ride to school or work do not want to make detours. In this case, recreational networks that have an attractive landscape but are not fit for everyday use are of little benefit.

Information box: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania: gap infill programme for the cycle network

On 23 September 2014, the Mecklenburg-Western Pomeranian Ministry for Energy, Infrastructure and Regional Development presented the core principles of a gap infill programme that was to create cycle track links especially between and to central places. The actual construction is financed with the funding from the gap infill programme and co-financed from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF); only cycle tracks on regional roads are built. If appropriate reasons are presented, the rural districts are responsible for preparing the decision-making with regard to the prioritisation of the cycle tracks that are to be built; they can thereby contribute measures that they deem necessary and of regional importance.

When closing network gaps, it is advisable to take not only cycle tracks alongside roads into consideration, but also rural and tourist tracks as well as less frequented local and district roads. In this connection, the Mecklenburg-Western Pomeranian cycle network is currently being developed. In the framework of an interministerial project, all roads and paths that can be used by cyclists are recorded.

Cycling in built-up areas

To increase the share of cycling in built-up areas within towns and villages in rural areas, cycling must be strengthened in this field of local mobility. The positive impacts achieved by increasing the overall share of cycling are very diverse. To name but a few:

  • enhancing quality of life and amenity value;
  • improving road safety;
  • independent mobility of children, young and elderly people;
  • reducing noise pollution and the pollution level.

The better the conditions for cycling in built-up areas, the more willing people are to use their cycles instead of cars. Safe and convenient - these often are the expectations of cyclists to be able to ride directly and without any detours from their origin to their destination. Surveying origins and destinations and the correspondingly safe design of especially busy sections are important individual measures for strengthening cycling in built-up areas. Major basic links for cycling in small and medium-sized cities are those between housing areas and the centre, the train station and schools as well as further important institutions such as major workplaces.

The main traffic problems usually concern roads passing through built-up areas that the local authority level often only has a limited influence on if the responsibility for construction and maintenance lies with the Federal Government or federal state governments. Narrow, shared footways/cycle tracks that were built in the past are often not appropriate any more. Here, in the medium-term, there is a need for redesign in connection with moderate running speeds.

Cycling outside built-up areas - also with connecting function

The promotion of cycling in towns and villages in rural areas focuses on creating a safe cycling network not only in built-up areas, but also outside built-up areas or between distant communities to reach schools or the nearest train station. These inter-urban, direct links are of importance for reaching communities and neighbouring towns in everyday life without detours and, above all, safely. By passenger car, these journeys can usually be made quickly via well developed roads. For cyclists or pedestrians, however, usually no fast and/or safe routes are provided in these areas. Understandably, many people are deterred from cycling there due to passenger cars’ speeds and possibly far too close overtaking manoeuvres. However, safe cycling should especially be provided where non-built-up roads form a direct connection between localities. In Germany, the provision of cycle tracks alongside federal highways, regional and district roads varies in each region. Especially in Eastern Germany and the federal states in the upland region, more needs to be done; northern federal states, however, have made more effort to provide cycle tracks alongside roads (Difu 2012).

Especially for district road networks and networks of local roads that link localities, this form of construction is impossible for financial, but also technical or environmental reasons. Regarding the current budget situation, it is likely that it will take a long time until cycle tracks alongside roads allow safe and seamless cycling.

Checklist for promoting utility cycling in rural areas

  • Create a cycling strategy in cooperation with stakeholders (the public, retailers, rural district council, neighbouring communities, environmental protection authority, road traffic authority, associations, transport operators).
  • Analyse commuter flows in the region to find approaches for a shift to cycles or pedelecs.
  • As a result: conduct cycle track planning across local authorities for creation of inter-urban links: close network gaps to ensure that certain destinations can be reached.
  • Network planning: consider and plan the utility network in combination with the tourist cycle route network!
  • Federal state programmes for conserving cycling infrastructure in less favoured regions where local authorities cannot fund it on their own.
  • Consider important destinations (workplaces, schools, train stations and main shopping areas etc.) and link them to the cycle infrastructure.
  • Link cycling to public transport by allowing the carriage of cycles on buses, trains and trams, but also by providing secure and high-quality parking facilities at bus and tram stops and train stations.
  • Directional signing for cycling.
  • Review the mandatory use of cycle tracks.
  • Campaigns/days of action, e.g. “Cycling to the Shops”.

Strengthen intermodality - linking public transport and cycling

As stated earlier, the bulk of journeys in rural areas are made by car. The cycling share therefore continues to be threatened due to longer distances as a consequence of more concentrated amenities and infrastructure. However, to strengthen cycling in small and medium-sized cities and in rural areas over large distances overall, attractive services to link cycling with public transport are required: a simple solution for carrying cycles on public transport and corresponding parking facilities at stops are only two basic requirements to create the conditions for good intermodal transport chains. The objective is that public transport and cycling can benefit from one another in the long run.

The representative online survey entitled “Fahrrad-Monitor Deutschland 2013” found that 14 % of those questioned and living in rural areas use their cycle to get to work. 27 % stated that their journeys were intermodal; they combined cycling and public transport. This feeder potential of cycling should be exploited to a greater extent.

The main argument against using cycles as a means of transport to get to work or school in rural areas is simply: “The distance is too long.”

At this point, a well-planned link between cycling and public transport can undermine this argument. To be able to realise this, the local authorities, together with public transport authorities and transport operators themselves should create the most optimal conditions possible for seamless mobility chains and develop and market intermodal mobility services (National Cycling Plan 2020).

Haltestelle im Ortszentrum in Wolfurt, Vorarlberg
Haltestelle im Ortszentrum in Wolfurt, Vorarlberg © Jörg Thiemann-Linden

One especially important link in the intermodal transport chain is covered, secure and accessible bicycle stands at local public transport stops and stations, so that owners of high-value cycles also know that their bikes have been parked securely. Almost half of those questioned in the 2013 survey (46 %) consider suitable parking facilities on roads or at important destinations especially significant.

Abbildung  4: Einzugsbereich von Haltestellen bei einer Wegdauer von 10 Minuten
Abbildung 4: Einzugsbereich von Haltestellen bei einer Wegdauer von 10 Minuten © Energieregion Weiz-Gleisdorf GmbH 2009

When installing these facilities, particular consideration must be given to corresponding parking facilities for securely parking high-value cycles and pedelecs. This matters because pedelecs have great potential, especially in rural areas, to make journeys over longer distances possible, thereby boosting cycling. Especially in prospering rural regions, local businesses are increasingly experiencing problems in recruiting young employees. A mobility management scheme for the journey to work for younger people without passenger cars, but with public transport and cycles, e.g with a cycle or pedelec service at the central bus station for the last mile to their workplace in peripheral business parks, can help to attract young people.

Correspondingly, the following figure, which is also useful for creating a Bike & Ride scheme, provides a good overview of how cycles and above all pedelecs can enlarge the pedestrian catchment area of stops. When taking the necessary decision as to what parking facilities should be provided at which stops - taking into account residential areas that are close by etc. - a visualisation of catchment areas near the stops could be useful.

Checklist for promoting intermodality in rural areas

  • Link cycle routes with local public transport network by prioritising development of safe routes outside of built-up areas that lead to local passenger rail service access points and important bus hubs
  • Enhance capacity for the carriage of cycles on the vehicles and increase the range of services on which cycles can be carried
  • Fare and ticketing management for carriage of cycles (for instance in Saxony-Anhalt, carriage of cycles on local passenger rail services has been free of charge for a long time, which led to a mobility culture in rural areas that is less dependent on cars, especially for the younger generation)
  • Clarification of fares and tickets for carriage of cycles by public transport authority: pedelecs are classified as cycles
  • Take into consideration the links to and from major employers in the area when deciding on timetables and stops
  • Coordinate timetables for buses and local passenger rail services
  • Secure and convenient cycle parking facilities at stops

Cycle tourism

Many people take a bicycle tour in the countryside because they want to experience nature: out of the city and into nature and quietness. Cycle routes with attractive landscapes are usually established away from motor vehicle traffic and via public tracks. They can be agricultural and forestry trails or waterway towpaths.

The economic effect of cycling tourists is not insignificant for the individual travel regions. For instance, in the context of a cycling analysis in Brandenburg in 2012, the spending of cycling tourists and visitors on day trips was determined with surveys on the cycle tracks in the federal state. Cyclists in Brandenburg stated that on average they spent 36 euros per day plus 31 euros on their accommodation - a total of 67 euros. Visitors on day trips spend on average 22.85 euros during their trip (Tiffe, Vieten 2012). This result also applies at national level; the German Tourism Association identified the sectors that benefit most from cycle tourism with a basic analysis back in 2009 (DTV et al. 2009).

Abbildung 5: Vom Fahrradtourismus in Deutschland profitierende Branchen
Abbildung 5: Vom Fahrradtourismus in Deutschland profitierende Branchen © Difu 2014 nach DTV et. al 2009

The economic value creation of cycle tourism therefore plays an important role. Many rural regions noticed this effect a long time ago and brand themselves as cycle tourism regions. Often, cycle tourists can find information on how to get there, on different route suggestions in the area and accommodation possibilities on their website.

A decision taken by the German Bundestag on 18 April 2013, following a motion submitted by the CDU and FDP parties, strengthens the promotion of tourism in rural areas. The significance of cycle tourism for the tourist development of rural areas is especially highlighted here. According to the German Cyclists’ Association (ADFC), around 2.9 million people – which amounts to seven percent of all people in employment – work in the tourism sector. Ten percent of these can be attributed to cycle tourism, states the ADFC. The ADFC certification “Bett&Bike” and its classification of long-distance cycle routes give new opportunities to tourism in rural areas.

To further strengthen and expand cycle tourism in rural areas and thereby give an impetus to utility cycling, cycles should be included in the tourist mobility chain. For tourist cycling as well, it is necessary that cycles can be carried on public transport and that cycle tourism infrastructure is accessible by public transport.

Checklist to promote cycle tourism

  • Regular maintenance, checks and corrective actions on cycle tracks, for instance by track inspectors
  • Consider and plan the tourist cycle track network in combination with the utility network!
  • Directional signing for cycling, for possible guidelines see Road and Transport Research Association (FGSV), North Rhine-Westphalia and Brandenburg
  • Use of junction signage
  • Brand existing services together
  • Integrate the different players (restaurateurs, tourist professionals, bicycle retailers, administrations) in branding of cycle tourism
  • Guarantee good connectivity with public transport and carriage of bicycles (not only on Sundays or holidays)
  • Gear timetables to reaching tourist hotspots and consider their opening hours
  • Secure and high-quality bicycle stands at important locations
  • Luggage storage, e.g. lockers for panniers

The role that rural districts play in the promotion of cycling

The rural districts can be key players when it comes to the promotion of cycling. They can support their municipalities in the planning and implementation of cycling measures especially when acting as coordinators, experts or contact persons for financing and applications for grants. This leads to a variety of possible ways in which a rural district can actively promote district-wide cycling (BMVBS 2012).

Communication with cities and municipalities in the rural district are vital in this process, as well as regular and continuous meetings. A district-wide cycle track and cycling strategy can be used as a basis for action. It should be created in cooperation with the municipalities in the district.

The cycling strategy of the Göppingen rural district

In July 2011, after two years of intensive work, planning and discussions with municipalities, specialised authorities, associations, neighbouring districts and lawmakers, the cycling strategy of the Göppingen rural district was unanimously adopted by the district council. The implemented strategy comprises a network of 830 km; 80 % of it meets the requirements of the Recommendations for Cycling Facilities of the Road and Transport Research Association. The other 20 % of the network was included in an infrastructure strategy comprised of 466 individual measures. Since 2012, the rural district has been investing an additional 100,000 euros annually in cycling infrastructure or more specifically the package of measures. 50,000 euros is allocated to the financial assistance programme of the rural district, which finances one third of the measures for improving the cycling infrastructure of the municipalities. This also comprises cycling measures included in municipal cycling strategies as well as signing measures.

On 3 May 2014, the Göppingen rural district was the first rural district of Baden-Württemberg to be recognised as a “Cycling-friendly rural district”. To achieve this goal, since 2010, the district had not only focused on infrastructure upgrading, but especially on three aspects of cycling promotion: perspectives of cycle tourism, promotion of safe cycling in everyday life and linking of cycling and local public transport. The Commission that had explored the rural district by bike in 2013 confirmed and acknowledged the efforts and projects of the rural district administration. The district, together with the municipalities, focuses on constant infrastructure upgrades and on information and communication campaigns with regard to cycling.

Checklist for the promotion of cycling from the perspective of a rural district

  • Develop a district-wide network of cycle tracks that links utility cycling and cycling tourism
  • Continuous connectivity with municipalities and adjacent rural districts
  • Cross-authority cooperation
  • Promote measures for cycling
  • Cooperate with associations at rural district level (e.g. tourism associations, ADFC, cultural associations)
  • Regular maintenance, checks and corrective actions on cycle tracks, for instance by track inspectors
  • Directional signing for cycling
  • Promote better connectivity of cycling and local public transport
  • Consider cycling in planning and construction of roads (also and especially on federal highways, regional and district roads)
  • Communication and public relations work

Summary and outlook

Rural areas and cycling are no longer to be considered contradictory. There are numerous good examples showing that cycling is also suitable for everyday errands in rural areas that are often optimised for car usage. However, a safe infrastructure and reasonable connectivity with other means of transport are necessary. Considering and planning utility cycling together with cycling tourism is important here.

With regard to longer distances between destinations in everyday life, increased age in rural areas and increasing energy prices for getting from A to B, cycling policy must not be isolated; instead, it requires a cross-departmental approach of spatial planning, transport and environmental policies. Cycling promotion in Germany can only be successful as a whole if cycling also gains more importance in rural areas. If this is not the case in rural regions, it will be difficult to reach the cycling share of 15 % at the end of the National Cycling Plan (NRVP) in 2020 that was targeted as a nationwide average.


[Ahrend, Herget 2012]
Technische Universität Berlin (Abruf 03.07.2014)
Ahrend, Christine; Herget, Melanie
[BBSR 2014]
Siedlungsstrukturelle Kreistypen (Abruf 31.03.2015)
[Energieregion Weiz-Gleisdorf GmbH 2009]
Energieregion Weiz-Gleisdorf GmbH
[Ahrens 2011]
Prof. Dr.-Ing Ahrens, Gerd-Axel, TU Dresden
[Burmeister 2007]
Burmeister, Joachim; Waak, Kristine; Bernstein, Irina; Braun, Joachim
[Tiffe, Vieten 2012]
Nicht veröffentlichter Vortrag im Landkreis Spree-Neiße im Rahmen der Ergebnisvorstellungen der Befragungen an Radwegen in Brandenburg 2012
Tiffe, Andrea; Vieten, Michael
[DTV et al. 2009]
Vom BMWI, Forschungsbericht Nr. 583
Deutscher Tourismusverband e.V.; dwif-Consulting GmbH, München; BTE Tourismusmanagement, Regionalentwicklung, Hannover und Berlin; Europäische Reiseversicherung AG
[Jennert, Froitzheim 2014]
Präsentation zur 15. Bundesweiten Erhebung zum fahrradtouristischen Markt auf der Internationalen Tourismus-Börse Berlin (abgerufen am 31.03.2015)
Jennert, Raimund; Froitzheim, Thomas
[MiD 2008]
Haushaltsbefragung im Auftrag des BMVBS, Bonn/Berlin 2008
infas Institut für angewandte Sozialwissenschaft; Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)
[BMVBS 2012]
Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung
[Difu 2012]
Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik (Hrsg.)
Thiemann-Linden, Jörg; Mettenberger, Tobias
Meta Infos
SPT 02
Date (Text as of…)
24. April 2015
Sabine Schulten (Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik)
Handlungsfelder NRVP
Electric mobility
Logistics and transport operations
Charging infrastructure