PhD Project: Cycling Activism in German Cities

A Mobility Transition from Below? The Role of Bicycle Activism in the Governance of Sustainable Urban Mobility


Ph.D. researcher: Berenike Feldhoff


  • Research Question: To what extent do bottom-up bicycle activism and associated representations of cycling influence a) the governance of sustainable urban mobility, and b) mobility transitions?
  • Concepts/ Theories: bicycle activism and advocacy, social movement theories, imaginaries, governance, citizen participation
  • Methods: interviews, qualitative content analysis, process tracing

The contemporary fossil fuel- and car-centered mobility system and the associated emissions (CO2, NOx, noise), energy consumption, inequalities and planning challenges (congestion, land sealing, competition for space) represent an enormous burden for cities. In view of these challenges, cycling is often argued to be one of the answers to the problem of unsustainable automobility (Pucher and Buehler 2017). In many cities, cycling has become a popular and important means of daily travel over the last years. More and more cyclists claim space on the roads. Furthermore, general ‘pro-cycling’ discourses are also noticeable. Authorities on international, national and local levels are currently planning and implementing plans that are designed to promote cycling as an alternative to motorized urban transport (e.g. the EU Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans). However, not all cities give due consideration to cycling issues. The share of cycling still varies considerably from city to city, and in many cities, a comprehensive and far-reaching promotion of cycling has been missing (Koglin and Rye 2014).


In the wake of years of subordination of cycling practices and needs and a perceived lack of road space for cyclists, new forms of engagement in cycling issues beyond traditional bicycle advocacy are emerging (Balkmar and Summerton 2017; Balkmar 2020). Different new expressions of bicycle activism appear to be on the rise: e.g. the international movements Critical Mass and Kidical Mass, naked bike rides, the Ghost Bikes movement and the so-called Radentscheide (bicycle bill referenda) in 30 German cities. These are only a few among many examples that demonstrate how more and more cyclists are taking to the streets and protest for better cycling infrastructure, more sustainable mobility and better urban livability. A new political zeitgeist of doing and taking the sustainable mobility transition into one’s own hands can be felt. Over the course of the last five years, the emergence of this new wave of urban bicycle activism has contributed, inter alia, to an increasing politicisation of the field of transportation (Graf and Sonnberger 2020: 71). In addition, as awareness and evidence of the unsustainability of contemporary urban transport have risen, the ‘conventional’ top-down, technocentric, car-centered and expert driven transport decision-making in cities has been increasingly called into question (Banister 2008). Instead, participative, direct-democratic and co-creative local governance arrangements involving citizens and bike activists are getting more attention in the field of sustainable urban mobility (Schneidemesser et al. 2018; European Cyclists’ Federation 2016).


This dissertation wants to bring together the research on bottom-up bicycle activism with the research on urban citizen participation that often focuses on participatory approaches that are initiated and controlled top-down by authorities. I seek to shed light on the complex interactions between top-down and bottom-up processes of governance in the field of urban mobility with a focus on the bottom-up dynamics of bicycle activism in decision-making processes. This combination provides a lens 1) for describing and analysing the ways in which bicycle activists imagine, shape and construct future cycling, sustainable mobility and cities; 2) for investigating how their concrete goals, strategies and visions are received in governance processes and interactions with authorities in politics and administrations; and 3) for understanding their potential contributions to a mobility transition. In other words, my research interest is to outline different representations and future visions associated with cycling and sustainable mobility in contemporary bicycle activism in Germany. The representations depict how sustainable cycling and mobility futures can be achieved and what they can be about. Within these representations certain assumptions, problems and solutions seem more reasonable than others (Balkmar 2020: 4). I want to find out if and how these representations with their specific problem and solution definitions materialize in policy-making and how they influence the implementation of sustainable mobility policies and, thus, mobility transitions.


Methodically, I pursue a qualitative, case-based approach. The case selection is not yet complete, but my first case should be the Radentscheid initiative in Berlin “Volksentscheid Fahrrad Berlin”. For each case (probably two or three cases), I compile a text corpus consisting of documents (e.g. press releases, newsletters, newspaper articles, position papers etc.) and semi-structured interviews with bicycle activists and administrative and political staff. Besides qualitative content analytical methods, I use the in-depth case study method process tracing. Process tracing aims to identify causal mechanisms linking causes with effects. The goal is to trace the causal relationships linking the representations as well as the work of bicycle activism to a change in urban mobility policies: Which, if any, causally interrelated processes, representations, visions, strategies affect the governance of sustainable urban mobility and ultimately lead to a rethinking of urban mobility policies?



Balkmar, Dag (2020): Cycling Politics: Imagining Sustainable Cycling Futures in Sweden. In Applied Mobilities, pp. 1–17.

Balkmar, Dag; Summerton, Jane (2017): Contested Mobilities: Politics, Strategies and Visions in Swedish Bicycle Activism. In Applied Mobilities 2 (2), pp. 151–165.

Banister, David (2008): The Sustainable Mobility Paradigm. In Transport Policy 15 (2), pp. 73–80.

European Cyclists’ Federation (2016): A New Approach in Cycling Advocacy: Berlin Bicycle Bill Referendum. Available online at, checked on 7/22/2019.

Graf, Antonia; Sonnberger, Marco (2020): Responsibility, Rationality, and Acceptance: How Future Users of Autonomous Driving are Constructed in Stakeholders‘ Sociotechnical Imaginaries. In Public Understanding of Science 29 (1), pp. 61–75.

Koglin, Till; Rye, Tom (2014): The Marginalisation of Bicycling in Modernist Urban Transport Planning. In Journal of Transport & Health 1 (4), pp. 214–222.

Pucher, John; Buehler, Ralph (2017): Cycling Towards a more Sustainable Transport Future. In Transport Reviews 37 (6), pp. 689–694.

Schneidemesser, Dirk von; Herberg, Jeremias; Stasiak, Dorota (2018): Wissen auf die Straße – ko-kreative Verkehrspolitik jenseits der ‘Knowledge-Action-Gap’. In Nico Lüdtke, Anna Henkel (Eds.): Das Wissen der Nachhaltigkeit. Herausforderungen zwischen Forschung und Beratung. München: oekom verlag, pp. 107–128.