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Bike-friendly city? The reality of cycling in Berlin

It’s been almost a year since Berlin’s senate passed the Mobility Law. Paul Sullivan looks at what that means for the future of the city’s cycling infrastructure…

Berlin’s cycling infrastructure has some way to go (Photo: Pascal Volk/ flickr)

You don’t have to live in Berlin too long before you spot a “ghost bike”. Located at places where cyclists have died as a result of traffic accidents—often at busy traffic intersections—these white-painted bicycles serve as simple but touching memorials. Depending on how recent the accidents have been, they might also be accompanied by flowers. If children have died, there might also be teddy bears and other poignant tributes.

They are fairly ubiquitous in Berlin, because for all its reputation as a bike-friendly city, it has a relatively high accident and death rate. According to various sources and assessments, almost 200 people have been killed on their bicycles in Berlin since 2000, 11 of them in 2018, which equates to almost one per month. Such figures are on a par with London, a much larger city not known for being particularly cyclist-friendly, where 10 cyclists were killed in 2017.

Although the cycling infrastructure is in many ways much better than many European countries, the flaws are obvious to any local cyclist, with bike “lanes” often just narrow painted strips along busy, multi-lane roads, that sometimes abruptly disappear, leaving cyclists suddenly confused amidst roaring traffic. It becomes quickly apparent that the city was constructed for automobile use.

Unsurprisingly, there have been long-standing calls and campaigns to improve the safety situation for cyclists, and these reached a peak in 2015 when various activist groups joined forces to create the Volksentscheid-Fahrrad—a referendum that eventually raised more than 100,000 signatures. The ten key demands included an interconnected network of bicycle boulevards, safer bike lanes at all main roads, a 100-kilometre network of bicycle highways; 200,000 additional parking spaces for bikes; and improved road safety.

Mobility Act

Berlin’s red-red-green coalition government, assembled in 2016, invited the group, along with other NGOs, to help draft the Mobility Act, which came into law in July 2018 and green-lighted many of the original demands while modifying others. But though the senate and activist groups continue to cooperate, tensions and disagreements remain, with some claiming the senate are dragging their feet in some areas, and not fulfilling the Act’s full criteria in others.

“The infrastructure you see in Berlin today is that of Copenhagen or Amsterdam 40-50 years ago,” points out Ragnhild Soerensen, a spokesperson for Volksentscheid Fahrrad and its funding organization Changing Cities. “Traffic planners and engineers in Berlin have worked the last 70 years with a sole purpose—to improve the mobility of cars. And this basic fear of change makes any kind of transforming the status quo very, very difficult.

The new cycle lane along Hasenheide has attracted criticism (Photo: imago/Rolf Kremming)

“For many Germans the car remains a symbol of German culture, and the industry has persuaded them that a car is virtually the solution to everything. In Lichtenberg, the loss of 10 parking lots infuriated a few residents a couple of months ago, and now the mayor does not dare implement 500-metre protected bike lanes. One of the brand new protected bike lanes in Hasenheide is also only two metres wide, half a metre less than the standard espoused by the Mobility Law, which means, for example, you can’t overtake with a cargo bike. We demonstrated against it, but the senate didn’t dare make it wider because it would have reduced the sizes of the parking lots, or even a traffic lane. On the other hand, none of this was a mainstream discussion in Germany a few years ago.”

Dorothee Winden, Deputy Press Spokesperson for the Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection, points out that the city has had to work hard to get the right internal structures in place to meet the new goals. “First we have had to increase the personnel for bike planning. We now have ten additional bike planners, and the city districts have filled 16 of their 24 places. Since the law was passed, we have opened three protected bike lanes (PBLs), with more currently being built and planned, and the planning for fast bike tracks has advanced enormously. All of this effort should not be underestimated. More safety for cyclists is also a high priority; in 2018 ten crossroads, where accidents with cyclists occurred in the past, were improved, and we will improve 20 more by 2020.”

The senate have also founded an agency, Infravelo, to take on specific tasks like planning fast bike tracks and bike parking, and coordinate bigger projects where more than one district is involved. Indeed, one of the key obstacles that both the city and activists agree on, is the uneven efforts made so far by the districts. “If you don’t agree with the visions of the mobility law, it is pretty easy to just do nothing,” claims Ms Soerensen, with Ms Winden agreeing that “dedication differs from district to district, with many still understaffed,” adding that Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Steglitz-Zehlendorf have been particularly active in terms of initiating their own local projects to improve infrastructure.

Increasing activism

Changing Cities, ADFC and related groups remain ever-vigilant, working closely with emerging climate change movements such as Fridays for Future, Klimanotstand Berlin, and Extinction Rebellion, and applying pressure to lagging districts and continually pushing for more improvements. “We are currently having serious discussions about how to use the public space normally occupied by 60 percent of parked cars to make the urban space more livable. Statistics say that a car is parked around 96% of the day, which means that people simply don’t use their cars. So Berlin needs to redefine this as an individual luxury that the community should not pay for, just like the community does not pay the rent for all the things you store in your cellar.

We also think the Berlin Senate needs to explain their plans more clearly. Some people still think that protected bike lanes are crazy ideas dreamed up by activists. But it is actually now law. Some car owners think they have the right to parking in front of their house because nobody ever told them that this is public space that belongs to everybody. Communication is an important part of restructuring the city making it more bike friendly.”

Overall, the Act and the cooperation of the senate and these groups represents a huge step forward for cyclists in the city. Also encouraging is that the new law also has deadlines in place. The Radverkehrsplan, for example, which regulates important details of the bicycle infrastructure, has to be established within two years from the passing of the law, and updated at least every five years subsequently.

“Ultimately it has taken Copenhagen and Amsterdam decades to achieve their current status as bicycle friendly cities,” concludes Ms Winden. “Berlin has already made progress in the past two years, and we remain in an intensive dialogue with the bicycle community, and local activist groups, but it will take approximately ten more years to reach the goal of a major expansion of bike infrastructure.”

If you want to get involved in, or keep up to date on, cycling infrastructure in the city, the following organisations have newsletters and organise workshops and related activities and pressure groups.



Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.


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