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Cycling in Berlin

Typical Berlin scene

Typical Berlin scene

We stayed in Neukölln, an inner suburb of Berlin, for a few weeks and looked at cycling infrastructure and how cyclists seemed to be faring.

Berlin Cycling - 1 (1)

(Above) It’s certainly different from what Cate and I are used to in New Zealand and Ireland.  Here’s a typical Berlin scene- Dad and his wee daughter, negotiating a huge and very busy intersection in Neukolln.  He does have an air of concentration about him, and a kids’ helmet dangling from his hand, but he seems to be happy to have her cycling independently- and she’s less than five I reckon!



(Above) Dad isn’t alone.

All round Berlin we saw relaxed, carefree cycling providing transport for all ages, all genders, and all types.  Little ones on baby seats and young kids cycling under supervision are extremely common; the ‘school run’ at 3pm or so was a study in the many ways of carrying kids on bikes- cargo bikes, trikes, trailers, baby seats and many more.  See photos below.

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Mum+Kid-Footpath copy

(Above) The gender balance is very close to 50/50, and as we’ve seen there’s a huge proportion of kids on bikes.  Two very healthy indications of confidence in the safety of this transport mode.


(Above) As further evidence of cyclists’ confidence I’d reckon helmet use ratios at well less than a third; my one very unscientific count picked up 88 cyclists, 12 of whom wore helmets or about 14%.  I don’t remember seeing ANY hi-viz clothing worn by bikers, even during our few night rides.


The interesting thing is that this situation has been created quite recently; almost 1 in four of these cyclists have been ‘converted’ since 2008 and Berlin’s mode-share is actually not that spectacular compared with other German cities (above).  This uptake is reflected in the stats- a City survey in 2014 found that, within the U-bahn ring (basically the inner suburbs and CBD) bike modal share is 18%, with private motor car use at 17%.  The central Mitte district is at 21%! (Below)


Mum+Kid-Footpath copy

But -as for many European cities- there was virtually no provision for cycling on Berlin’s reunification in the early 1990s, particularly in the former East.  How has such spectacular growth happened so quickly?  Could it be due to excellent bike lanes?


Here’s a look at the infrastructure we saw-

Typical transition from on-road thru junction to footpath

Typical transition from on-road thru junction to footpath

(Above) Footpaths appear to be the backbone of Berlin cycling.  Width allowing, a metre’s width of the path is marked out by coloured paving or just painted lines.  Pedestrians wander onto this territory at their peril -yells and assertive bell-ringing often result.  This gives cyclists, particularly the slower and more cautious, a reasonably good path.  However construction standards are not too rigorously enforced: widths can be compromised due to varying footpath width, street furniture or other factors.  The recession has seen cutbacks in maintenance, too; poor surfacing and missing markings are common.  Of 1,000km total length of claimed ‘facilities’, 662 are purpose-built paths, and 174km are on-road marked lanes.  This is infrastructure at its most basic and economical.


(Above)  Footpath bike lane under construction.  In a compact city of three million, both cyclists and pedestrians seem resigned to sharing what’s inevitably limited space.  Cyclists must move that bit more slowly, while as a pedestrian you quickly learn to tolerate bikers and keep off the designated bike path.

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(Above) At junctions, you’re dropped onto the general road surface and expected to mix it up with motor traffic.


There’s also some use of painted on-road lanes (above).

As well as ‘carrots’ for cyclists, there were infrastructural ‘sticks’ to encourage careful car use- 30km/h zones are extremely common, even applying to 17% of the main road network, and these would typically have no cycle lanes marked – bikers share with cars.  Shared zones included ‘home zones’ and ‘cycle streets’ where cars and bikes share, and -on narrow footpaths- sections where cyclists and pedestrians are expected to share.  Here are some snaps-

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(Above)  The various ‘share the road’ signs and configurations offer lots of flexibility and benefit those using bike rather than car.  And those bike traffic-lights don’t keep you waiting an inordinately long time.  So traffic calming has been deliberately embraced as a policy.  This is  a recent development: ADFC activists told me that the footpath-based infrastructure was built in the late 1970’s and early 80’s (before which cyclists were hardly catered for at all), but most of the traffic calming measures have been rolled out since the 2004 Strategy.


(Above) Finally on infrastructure, you may well find yourself thrown completely at the mercy of bigger vehicles.  Cate and I did experience respect and patience from car drivers, even on this divided-highway style street, but Cate certainly didn’t feel comfortable.  In fact, we found many of our day-to-day rides a bit disjointed by inconsistency, large junctions and variable route quality.  Poor surfacing and failed maintenance also prevented an easy hassle-free ride, and we found the junction layouts sometimes confusing.  Progress was quite slow, 10km taking us an hour (maybe made slower by my feeble map-reading!)

So, Berlin definitely doesn’t offer the perfect roading environment for cycling.  Local advocates also feel that routes could be a lot better.  However it has to be said that these issues didn’t ultimately put us off getting round by bike.  They obviously don’t stop the locals, as we’ve seen.

So with quite scruffy infrastructure, are there other causes of the recent growth?  The city’s high density may have helped-



(Above) The 1862 Boehm Plan laid out the city in large blocks of six- or seven-storey apartments along existing arterial roads -a contrast with -say- London’s lower-density development of two-storey houses along railway lines.

So this may be a factor, but, in place for over 100 years, doesn’t explain why there’s been such a resurgence since the 1990’s.


Driver behaviour

As well as traffic calming, we found driver behaviour to be strikingly different from that we see in New Zealand and Ireland.  Public-information campaigns and cyclist-specific training programmes have been carried out and these, perhaps combined with the ‘strength in numbers’ effect (and an existing driving culture) ensured that respect and patience were the order of the day.  Certainly Berliners seemed to love their cars- souped-up machines and loud acceleration were common, but when it comes to cyclists they are considerate and prepared to compromise.

RightTurns - 1

(Above) For example, the driver of the black car, waiting to turn across cyclists’ straight-ahead path, held patiently in position while cyclists passed on the right (in NZ this would be on the left).  Some junctions had marked turning or ‘left-hook turn’ lanes and stop lines.  Speeds are lower, and drivers more tentative about manoeuvres, always looking out for cyclists.


(Above) Behaviour change advertising campaign from 2013 (translation Burkhard Horn).

All in all we found that using a bike round Berlin you generally feel safe, normal and respected, though you have to be on your toes to use the infrastructure.  Road user behaviour is obviously a major factor.


So what are the lessons?

This all strongly suggests that imperfect-but-legible infrastructure coupled with imperfect-but-respectful road user behaviour can bring about huge positive change.  It also suggests that moving forward, even imperfectly, on all fronts -encouragement, education, engineering and enforcement- is critical to bring the results we’re looking for.  Infrastructure alone can’t do it, you might say ‘te whenua, te whenua, te whenua’ is the critical factor – changing hearts and minds of road users.

This is what CAN has been advocating and acting on for 20 years and, from what we’ve recently seen, what the NZTA’s cycling team are aiming for.

Implemented with energy and intelligence it will bring huge benefits to all New Zealanders.

Berlin Cycling - 2 (1)





Please also see Prof. Glen Koorey’s excellent article on Munich and his other posts on European cities.

Max Robitzsch’s 2012 post on Bike Auckland’s site-  https://www.bikeauckland.org.nz/european-cycling-berlin/

Criticism of German standards, compared to Dutch- http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2010/05/german-cycle-paths-vs-dutch-cycle-paths.html

Berlin set a comprehensive cycling strategy in place in 2004, revised it in 2013, and backed it up with action.





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