PhD Project: Cycling Advocacy in German Cities

A New Type of Cycling Advocacy in German Cities – A Qualitative Study of the “Bicycle Referenda”


Ph.D. researcher: Berenike Feldhoff


  • Research Question: What are promoting and hampering conditions for the implementation of urban cycling policies after a bicycle referendum?
  • Theory: urban governance, citizen participation, democratic innovation, social movement theory
  • Methods: interviews, process tracing, qualitative content analysis



In view of the enormous burden that motorized private transport places on cities (i.e. climate-damaging, hazardous and noise emissions, spatial competition, growing congestion, road safety), cycling as a climate- and resource-friendly mode of transportation has a lot to offer. Bicycles represent an important alternative to the fossil fuel- and car-centered urban mobility system. For instance, cycling is quiet, cheap, healthy and saves space. More and more cities seem to embrace this climate-friendly mode of transport. Researchers postulate an “urban cycling renaissance” and a “cycling boom”. In German cities, however, the bicycle-friendliness varies considerably. In many big cities, a comprehensive and far-reaching implementation of cycling promotion is missing. To compensate for the inactivity of some cities and to underline the necessity for safe and comfortable biking infrastructure, a new type of cycling advocacy gains momentum. The so-called bicycle referenda started as a group of activists, scientists and urban planners in Berlin and currently spread all over the country. People in Berlin, Bamberg, Stuttgart and Darmstadt collect signatures in order to force city administrations to ameliorate cycling conditions in their cities. Whereas in Berlin and Bamberg, city authorities incorporated the claims of the referenda in their mobility policies (Berlin is now the first city with a mobility law), in Darmstadt, the mayor plainly rejected the referendum.


The different outcomes raise the question of the conditions for failure and success of such referenda in urban contexts and their relevance for transformation processes towards more sustainable mobility. This thesis, therefore, asks what are promoting and hampering conditions for the implementation of urban cycling policies after a bicycle referendum?


Drawing on urban governance research, democratic innovation literature and social movement theory, the proposed dissertation project aims to develop a framework that contributes to a better understanding of the conditions for success of the empirically observable trend of the spreading of bicycle referenda in Germany. The research on democratic innovations and social movements can help to reimagine the role of citizenship in urban governance arrangements which I assume is an essential factor for success.


Methodically, the thesis pursues a qualitative, case-based approach. I will investigate the cases Berlin (Volksentscheid Fahrrad) and Darmstadt (Radentscheid Darmstadt). With Berlin and Darmstadt, I select typical cases that are as representative as possible of a successful (Berlin) and an unsuccessful (Darmstadt) initiative. For the empirical analysis, I compile a text corpus consisting of documents and interviews with major stakeholders in the distinct cases. With the help of process tracing and content-analytical methods, I seek to identify the causal relationship linking the bicycle initiatives to success or failure. Process tracing enables me to open up the black box of causality and to make strong within-case inferences about causal mechanisms.