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"The time is ripe for a female transport minister!"

Rebecca Peters is the new head of the ADFC. In an interview, she talks about the reorientation of Germany's biggest cycling association, female mobility behaviour – and her first bike.

Rebecca Peters, Chair of the ADFC, Germany’s National Cycling Association. Photo: © ADFC

Hi Rebecca. Did you ride a bike a lot when you were a child – or was the car more dominant?
Yes. I rode my bike a lot as a child and at primary school. We lived in Cologne, the distances were short and everything was close by, even within walking distance.

When did cars come into your life?
When it became more difficult for my parents to manage life with two children of different ages, and when we moved house. Using a car became the norm at the age of 11 or 12 and remained so until young adulthood. Like all my peers, I got a driving licence and used a car for a lot of journeys. If you don't question things, you simply do what you know and what you are accustomed to.

You are often asked in interviews where your passion for mobility issues comes from. It's not from Germany, is it?
You're absolutely right! (laughs) The first spark was kindled in Copenhagen. I thought, hey, mobility is a really exciting issue that we could approach very differently. We were there as geography students on a field trip with our university. It was the first time I really experienced what cycling could be like. What mobility can feel like. And how urban planning can work.

You have been the new head of the ADFC since the end of 2021 – a huge organisation with over 200,000 members, some 11,000 volunteers, and around 500 district associations. How do you manage to do that alongside your studies?
Good time management and a lot of commitment. You have to be passionate about it, really want to do it, otherwise it won't work. It also wouldn’t work without our offices in Berlin and Bremen with their 40 full-time employees who do all the day-to-day running of the business, briefing us as the Board and organising everything. But yes, quite a few private matters have had to be put on the back-burner for the time being.

Do you still have time for interests outside of studying and cycling?
Yes, absolutely. There is still Rebecca, the private person, who likes to go out with friends, have board game nights or go to the gym. There are evenings when I say: Guys, there is no ADFC today: today is just for me. This is something that I also see again and again in the climate justice movement. We all work ourselves to the bone, sacrificing so much, and so also need to take more care of ourselves.

Rebecca Peters (r.) and fellow campaigners at a demonstration against the IAA motor show in Frankfurt am Main in September 2019. Photo: © ADFC

What goals do you have for the ADFC?
To reposition it – make it more modern, more political, more diverse. We want to work even harder on these issues. A lot has already happened, otherwise it wouldn't have been possible for me, a young woman, to run for such an office – and to be elected with such great support. But that’s not all. Increasing member numbers and recruiting activists, developing a mission statement, getting the message across to the outside world about who we are and what we want – and what a 'transport revolution' can actually look like.

Only once before, in 1986, has the ADFC had a woman at its helm. Did you stand for office to make the association more female?
Yes, I did. But also to make it younger! I was still a long way from being born when the last female chair was elected! And now ADFC's management is very female, with a chairwoman and two female directors. That’s making a difference.

Was everything that came before bad, then?
It was just different. Now there is a new togetherness and space for completely different issues. The ADFC was clearly in need of change. If this association is to have a future, we need many more young people, many more women, and also women in management positions. Achieving a healthy mix is important.

What is the difference between female and male attitudes to mobility?
It isn’t about gender, but rather the roles that are associated with gender. Our society is still patriarchal, with very traditional roles. The man leaves the house in the morning, drives to work and drives back in the evening. And he does so by car, because he is, of course, the higher earner, and because roads have been created for cars. Women, on the other hand, are usually out shopping and with people, doing care work, looking after children, organising appointments. Her journeys are much shorter and more frequent, and do not go from A to B, but are more like a network within a neighbourhood. And, of course, she doesn't have a car at her disposal, because the man is using it.

Never before in the history of the German Federal Republic has there been a female transport minister. Has transport policy been shaped by men for too long?
Definitely! It is patriarchy at its purest. Many male planners and policy-makers are incapable of incorporating a female perspective on multimodal transport chains and care work because it is not part of the reality of their lives. Our mobility system is therefore very much geared towards white mobility and male mobility. I think the time is ripe for a female transport minister.

Who would be a good candidate?
I would always vote for Katja Diehl. And then I might also be happy to be her successor at some point. But there are so many qualified and talented women who could do the job! The most important thing would be a change of perspective, not just a change of minister, but also a change in everything that comes after that.

Peters at a rally on the sidelines of the IAA demo: "Very little thought is given to cycling." Photo: © ADFC

The current federal government's coalition agreement runs to almost 180 pages, only five lines of which are dedicated to cycling and walking. What did you think when you first read it?
I thought: Oh, that’s not much! So many pages on changing car motors, but very few lines on changing our complete approach to transportation. It was sobering. It does say that the National Cycling Plan is to be implemented. We will have achieved a lot if that happens precisely as it is set out in full. But there's a problem: it is not a binding commitment and it is questionable which parts will be implemented, how and who will do it, and whether it will be done at all. Many question marks remain, which we would now like to put exclamation marks against.

What do you see as the key points of this plan?
It is about three main building blocks. First, the Highways Act (Straßengesetz) is totally outdated. It no longer corresponds to modern times and needs. We mustn't forget that we also have a climate crisis to deal with. We need to set down in law that the transport sector must deliver. Second: we need a lot more funding for cycling. And not just funding programmes, but a continuous flow of money to support financially weak municipalities and enable municipalities to plan for the long term as well. You can’t make great plans with planning horizons of just three years? In that time, you can’t transform a city to be sustainable. And third, if a lack of financial resources doesn’t cause failures, then a lack of human resources will. There is chronic understaffing everywhere and we need planners who can plan for cycling. It is unacceptable that, as a cycling country, we have to borrow planners from Denmark and the Netherlands because we don't have any of our own. This requires more education and training. As a road traffic planner, you need to understand that you don't just plan motorways, but also design protected bike lanes and protected junctions.

You are eligible for a state subsidy if you buy an electric car. Is it time to subsidise private E-Bikes as well?
Generally, very little thought is given to cycling. A while ago, we called for a mobility allowance that people could use to subsidise public transport tickets, Rail Cards, or even an E-Bike or Cargo Bike. It was intended to promote sustainable mobility. Electric cars are, of course, part of the transport revolution, which requires a change in the types of engines and motors fitted. But they will not solve everything. People need to be able to buy an E-Bike that will ultimately replace the car.

Car owners frequently argue that some journeys just can't be done by bike.
I know enough people who have proved the opposite. Quite often it's not case of "I can't do it", but "I can't imagine doing it any other way". But there are, of course, some journeys we make by car which are not attractive or feasible by bike, among other things because they are along rural roads without cycle paths. Or there's too much to carry from the DIY store. But even there I have seen cargo bike models that would rival any car. Nevertheless, there are the "maximum possible demand" arguments along the lines of: "But if I have to deliver three washing machines 400 km away... While working on shift duty... I really can't do that, so I need my car!". Yes, if I had to do that, I would borrow a van. Things can be done differently and we have to get people to realistically imagine it and then also to do it.

How many bikes do you own?
One. (laughs) Yes, I am a very atypical member of the bicycle bubble in that respect. But I actually have just one bike and it has been my faithful companion, a trekking bike without a motor that I bought second-hand.

And can you still remember what your very first bike looked like?
I don't know if it is still around, but it was a Puky Tiger Duck bike with stabilisers and I was as proud as punch! I loved it so much! (Laughs).

Many thanks for the interview, Rebecca!

  • About Rebecca Peters

    Rebecca Peters, born in 1996, is a transport geographer specialising in sustainable urban development. She has been on the ADFC Board for Transport Policy since 2018 and was deputy chair of the National Board. Since the autumn of 2020, she has been studying for a Master's degree in Urban Development and Governance. She wishes to give the ADFC a voice and a face for mobility change and inspire people about future mobility.

  • About the ADFC

    The Allgemeine Deutsche Fahrrad-Club e.V. (ADFC) is an association representing the interests of cyclists and supports the transport transition in Germany. It provides its approximately 200,000 members with services, such as roadside assistance, insurance and legal advice. The association was founded in 1979 and is the world's largest cycling association.