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Twenty-year-old German sustainability poster finds fame on Facebook

by Megan Taylor Morrison
Oct 18, 2011

A photo of a 20-year-old poster designed in Münster, Germany, to promote the use of alternative transportation has suddenly gone viral on Facebook. In one week, the image has collected more than 40,000 “likes” and nearly 30,000 “shares” from Facebook users across the world.

The picture shows the space required to transport 72 people by car, bus and bike, said Stephan Böhme, a representative from the City of Münster (The number posted on Facebook, 60, is incorrect.) Taken in 1991 on Münster’s main street, Prinzipalmarkt, the original poster was designed to raise support for the city’s spending on bicycling infrastructure. The city, which dates to the 8th century, has around 280,000 residents.

The photo was posted on Facebook by the Indian-based organization, Earthian, on Oct. 11. Officials at the city of Münster had no idea that the photo had hit the social network, said Ute Kutschera, the city’s press officer. But its sudden appearance and growing popularity is a pleasant surprise.

“I’m really happy because the idea is so simple and so convincing, and via Facebook we have the possibility to send it all over the world,” she said. “When you want to live in the city where it’s a good quality of life and you have fresh air and streets which are not crowded and no traffic jams all the time, then you can do something for it by taking either the bike or the bus.”

Chicago officials are also aware of the importance of using public transportation.

“The photograph provides a visual image of what we encourage people to do, and that is take public transportation for all or part of their trips to help save the environment as well as save money,” said Wanda Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Chicago is an excellent city where it isn't necessary to own a vehicle in order to get around.”

The CTA alone provides 1.6 million rides per day to people living in Chicago and 40 surrounding suburbs.

An article published by the Chicago Tribune last month highlighted Chicago’s continued effort to increase transportation options. The city plans to launch a bicycle-sharing rental program in summer 2012, the article said, with an initial “goal of providing 3,000 bikes for short-term use between 300 pickup and drop-off stations.”

The Münster photo is a reminder of how alternative transportation can positively benefit people in Chicago and other urban areas, said Josh Hancock. A Seattle-based environmental engineer, he visits Chicago once a year to see family. The picture is a great visual for a greater lesson, he said.

“I hope that they appreciate their own personal contribution to congestion and how simple and straight forward it is to escape that,” Hancock said. “The constant congestion is not inevitable. There are convenient and accessible ways to solve it.”

The Münster photo shows how much extra space is actually available on our streets, said Daniel Persky, the director of policy and planning at Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance. The poster is a three-paneled portrait of Münster’s cobblestoned main street. It depicts the look of the street when 72 people travel by car, bus or bike. The stretch of empty space on the bus and bicycle panels is striking.

“There is space available to do a lot of great things,” Persky said, “And we can use our space more efficiently to give ourselves more options.” Persky called the photo “a telling message and a great starting point for planning more efficient ways of getting people around.”

Chicago’s current efforts to promote more sustainable transportation include the upcoming bicycle share program. The city also has committed to adding 100 miles of bike lanes in the next four years, said Jeremy Rothschild, director of marketing for Bike and Roll, a recreational cycle company in Chicago.

“Chicago is making great strides toward becoming more bicycle friendly,” Rothschild said. “I know that it’s going to help change the face of transportation in a more sustainable fashion.” Increasing sustainable transportation in the city, which includes traveling by bike, foot and public transit, is a multifaceted effort, he added.

“It takes all sorts of different groups from around the city, if not the country, to achieve it,” Rothschild said.

Kutschera agreed that myriad efforts are needed to encourage alternative forms of transportation. Today, Münster is known as the bicycle capital of Germany, she said. A national-wide bicycle association nominated Münster for this title based on its extensive infrastructure for bicycles, including bicycle lanes and garages.

Münster’s photo was only one step to encouraging people to use public and alternative transportation, Kutschera said.

“It is one convincing puzzle piece in our public relations campaign,” she said. “It’s not just one action and one poster, which motivates the people to behave like this, but it was definitely one of the most effective or most creative means we had in all these years.”