An invention from Germany that moves the world: the bicycle is celebrating its 200th anniversary

/ins.Baden-Württemberg, June 2017. For 200 years, the bicycle has provided us with envi-ronmentally friendly mobility. The history of this revolutionary invention from Germa-ny begins on 12 June 1817 in the city of Mannheim. Today, the bicycle is one of the predominate forms of transportation the world over. For the 200th year anniversary of the “first bicycle ride”, Germany is looking back to the origins of individual mobility and to the place where it all began: Mannheim, today the third-largest city in the state of Baden-Württemberg –. Baden-Württemberg, in particular, is celebrating the bicy-cle’s bicentenary in 2017 by hosting many special activities and events.

Baden-Württemberg is the land of inventors and thinkers. Not only was the bicycle invented in this region in 1817, but the automobile as well in 1886. Nearly 200 years since the invention of the bicycle, and after decades of auto-centered transport policies, the state of Baden-Württemberg is working on inventing mobility for the future. Winfried Hermann, who is the state’s Minister of Transport and himself a passionate cyclist, is pointing out the way: “In order to confront the challenges of the 21st century, the state government has set out to turn Baden-Württemberg into a pioneer in sustainable mobility. The bicycle will play a key role in this, especially for short-distance commutes.”

Karl Drais made the breakthrough in 1817: When constructing his dandy horse, he placed two wheels behind one another and thus laid the groundwork for the bicycle of today! On June 12 of that year, he took the first ride through the streets of Mannheim on his so-called “running machine”. This invention from southwest Germany would go on to have a huge impact on individual mobility and it permanently revolutionized locomotion. Reason enough for the (65 years old) state of Baden-Württemberg to commemorate this invention in 2017.
This year, the state government is working with numerous partners to promote the bicycle by hosting diverse events, activities, exhibitions, competitions and publications. As Minister Hermann highlights: “Bicycles mean less air pollutants, better quality of life in our cities and towns, improved health through exercise, more climate protection, great economic potential provided by a highly innovative growth industry and, finally, more mobility for all.”

The importance of the bicycle for Baden-Württemberg, Germany and the World

Since its invention in 1817, the bicycle has experienced dramatic growth as a form of individ-ual transportation. After witnessing a decline in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, the bicycle has come back in style once again. It is a symbol of health and fitness, while elegant designs have even turned some bicycles into status symbols.

The past several decades have seen a trend towards increased bicycle traffic and led to a change in awareness within transport policy. Today, the state of Baden-Württemberg invests more than 40 million euro annually in bicycle traffic. The state government adopted the RadSTRATEGIE (Bike Strategy) policy in 2016 as a sort of conceptional and strategic framework. It contains 60 individual goals and over 200 concrete measures to be implement-ed by 2025. The state government has set out to double the portion of bicycle traffic across the state from its current 8 percent. With around 73 million bicycles in use today, around 10 percent of all trips in Germany are biked. Münster and Freiburg are Germany’s two model cities for cycling, with bicycle traffic accounting for between 30 and 40 percent of all trips. The cities of Groningen, Utrecht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Copenhagen in Den-mark, Sandnes in Norway, and Bozen and Ferrara in Italy are the model cities for cycling globally. The frontrunner among them
is Copenhagen with its 454-kilometer-long cycling network. Over 50 percent of the city’s commuters use their bicycles to get to work or school on a daily basis.

Growing bicycle traffic is also positively influencing other areas: In Baden-Württemberg alone, cycling tourism brings in over 1 billion euro in revenue every year, with 14 million day trippers and 3.2 million overnight stays. The bicycle industry is also a highly innovative sector, and financial support for cycling equates to support for local economies. Baden-Württemberg possesses a strong economic cluster related to cycling, as it is home to manufacturers of bicycles, components, accessories, apparel and services. This cluster encompasses small bicycle retailers, specialized medium-sized companies (hidden champions) and enterprises active on a global scale. Every year, Baden-Württemberg generates 730 million euro in bicy-cle retail (including accessories) and 360 million euro in bicycle production (also including accessories). These business activities provide around 32,000 jobs at over 800 companies. Many of the over 100 manufacturers of bicycles, components and accessories in Baden-Württemberg are global
market leaders and important innovators.

The history of the bicycle – how it all began

1816 was a year with no summer. The reason was the eruption of the volcano Tambora in present-day Indonesia. This natural event had catastrophic consequences for Europe’s cli-mate and ushered in low temperatures, hailstorms, persistent rains and flooding. This was followed by harvest failures, famines and extreme price increases for food products, while feed scarcity led to mass horse starvations. It was from this state of emergency that the German Karl Drais (1785-1851) invented the “draisine”, also referred to as a “running ma-chine”, which was prototype of today’s bicycle. This prototype did not have any pedals and, similar to a children's balance bike, forward motion was carried out using one’s legs; a saddle and movable handle bar provided stability and balance.  

A status symbol and crowd favorite

With the invention of the foot pedal in the 1860s, the “running machine” underwent rapid fur-ther development. By 1870, the penny-farthing with its strikingly large front wheel and hefty price tag, became a status symbol among the affluent. Controlling the penny-farthing de-manded a certain degree of skill and sportiness, and the contraption also proved dangerous and ill-suited for everyday use.  

The breakthrough would occur with the return of the low bicycle (also known as the “safety bicycle”). Two wheels of equal size – as we are familiar with today – provided better stability while the chain drive made it easier to move forward. A short time later, industrial production turned the bicycle into an everyday item and the number of cycling clubs in Germany steadily grew. By the end of the 19th century, cycling had become an Olympic sport. In the first half of the twentieth century, the bicycle turned into a form of mass transportation, until it increasingly gave way to the automobile from the 50s and 60s onwards.

The importance of the bicycle would grow once again with changes in people’s ecological awareness starting in the 1980s. Initially, a few pioneering cities implemented changes to improve traffic conditions for cyclists in normal city traffic. The expansion of bike lanes and bicycle parking options helped introduce a new cycling culture and better quality of life in many towns and cities.  

Press Contact:
Ministry of Transport Baden-Württemberg
Telephone: +49 711 231 - 5841

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Ministry of Transport Baden-Württemberg

Telephone: +49 711 231 - 5841