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The German city of Freiburg has become an example of sustainable transport thanks to its policies to promote the use of bicycles

Text: Alberto García

The environmental struggle in the cities is being fought on wheels. For months now city halls, employers and unions have been drafting measures against vehicles that emit contaminating particles into the atmosphere. Public bicycles are being provided, streets are being narrowed and motorised traffic is being restricted. But to really avoid contamination, it’s not enough to just prohibit. There is a whole range of possible remedies that include changing the habits of residents, urban layouts and driver education.  And Germany, one of the countries experts cite when mentioning “sustainable mobility,” has a city that’s a symbol of this relentless move in favour of our surroundings.

We’re referring to Freiburg, the fourth largest city (220,000 residents) in the Baden-Württemberg region, in the south-eastern corner of the country. Its policies have made it the “capital” of ecology. How? According to the faircompanies.com website, Freiburg promoted the use of bikes in the 1970s, when this device was still considered “a product of underdevelopment.” Some 500 kilometres of bike paths were built, and in 1999 bikes were regularly used for transport by 17% of the population. And this wasn’t the only measure the city took. Instead of dismantling tram tracks, they were extended; it preserved 40% of the surrounding forests (15,300 hectares) in its territory; it promoted the construction of buildings that were energy-efficient (through solar panels or materials that prevented waste). And along with car sharing, it established guarded parking places at outlying train stations.

Here’s how Florian Hertenstein, a 35-year-old ecologist who lives in the city, puts it: “There are no machines selling tobacco , they sell inner tubes,” he says in a small cubicle in the street as he sends a photo by phone. And it’s true: there are no machines dispensing candy, cigarettes or soft drinks, just packages with bicycle inner tubes. As he says, “about 30% of the roads are reserved for bikes, and 30,000 people travel this way each day. Most of them, and especially the tourists, support the fact that there are no cars in the city centre. Besides that, it’s faster to go by bike or tram.” Hertenstein also stresses the fact that Freiburg is a “compact city” that “takes advantage of the space to offer what’s necessary without the need for public transport: shops, leisure time, work.” Just the opposite of the “diffuse cities” that exist in many other places but that are now studying how they too can join the fight for sustainability.

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