Monthly Archives: September 2014

Berlin does not have a cycle network

This article has also been published on my German blog.
Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.

I often hear great things about cycling in Berlin.

Apparently there are “ubiquitous grade-separated cycle tracks, bicycle boulevards, and other facilities“, which mean that “you can get round most of Berlin on segregated bike paths“.

According to this Lonely Planet guide book I have here, “the biking infrastructure is fantastic“, and Stephen Evans of the BBC found “endless cycle tracks” (where are they, Steve?).

I really wish all this was true, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. Berlin is definitely second-rate for cycling.

I often find myself wanting to go somewhere within cycling distance but having to choose to use a different mode of transport, because the conditions for cycling there are too unpleasant for me or the people I’m with.

So with this in mind, I made a map of Berlin’s cycleways. And I’ve been extremely generous in my definition of “cycleway” here. Nothing comes close to the criteria set out in this article.

A map showing roads in central/north/east Berlin which have protected cycleways along them. It's very sparse and disconnected.

This is not a cycle network. (Click for full-size.)

I may have missed a few little bits off, but I think I got all of it.

The green lines are the not-too-bad cycleways, and the grey lines show the absolute rubbish, such as this…

A very narrow, bumpy, neglected cycleway on Luxemburger Strasse in Berlin

Only people with mountain bikes may overtake here.

…and this…

pathetic narrow cycleway right up against the edge of a wide, fast busy road in Berlin. There are parked cars on the footway beyond the cycleway. I have added an arrow to point out the cycleway, it is that bad.

I’ve added an arrow to point out the cycleway, otherwise you might miss it. (Photo: Google Maps)

…so don’t go thinking that I’m being harsh on Berlin here. If anything, I’m being too kind for including those on the map.

In the interests of balance, here’s a typical example of one of the relatively better (but still nowhere near good enough) cycleways denoted by the green lines:

One of Berlin's better cycleways. Not too narrow, but a tiled surface and a low fence which pedals could hit. Also right next to parked cars with only a tiny buffer.

One of Berlin’s better (but still not good enough) cycleways. Just enough room to squeeze past in the door-zone. Keep alert at junctions!

Everything else is either a painted lane on the road or nothing at all, and like most people I’m not willing to mix with motor vehicles along fast, wide, busy roads.

The map covers the part of Berlin where I live and spend most time – the central north and east areas – but the picture is pretty much the same elsewhere in the city. Some areas are better than others, but not much.

I was considering adding some of the back streets on this map too, but I couldn’t think of any that were really suitable. On the whole they’re either too busy with traffic to be serious contenders for being part of a cycle network, or they’re surfaced in the rough cobbled “Kopfstein” that make cycling a pain in both the physical and metaphorical sense of the word.

(I’ll cover some of the back streets in a later post, such as Stargarder Strasse which should be great but is a busy rat-run, and Choriner Strasse which is designated as a “Bicycle Street” but has nothing beyond a few signs to back this up.)

At least there are no buses around here, just trams, though bad street design means that they can be dangerous too (the subject of yet another post to come). But as you can see from the map, travelling by bike in Berlin can be a real pain unless you’re happy to mix with cars, vans and lorries on multi-lane roads.

Photograph of Danziger Strasse in Berlin, showing a painted cycle lane on the carriage-way side of the parked cars, with a lorry thundering past.

Be my guest. I’ll walk.

 

And how should it look? My dream cycleway..

 

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Cycling in Berlin

There’s so much to cover here in Berlin, that I can’t possibly fit it all in to one blog post. I have to tell you about the excellent public transport system, the suffocating dominance of car parking, the superb driving conditions, the less-than-superb cycling conditions, the at times downright hostile footways, the culture and attitudes, the VC-and-helmet-loving local cycle campaign, and so much more.

So this first post is a general overview of conditions for cycling in Berlin as I’ve experienced them these past five months, and I’ll begin with this statement:

Anybody who says that Berlin is great for cycling doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

I can see how this common misconception may come about, though. Berlin is far better for cycling than any British city (and, for that matter, any city in the US, Australia, etc…). It’s easy to visit Berlin and see the higher number and wider demographic of people cycling and think “yes, Berlin is a good example for cities back home to copy.”

I’ve heard it said that Berlin, with a 13% average modal share for cycling, provides a more realistic model that’s easier for British cities to achieve.

The trouble is, to someone who lives in a country where cycling has been actively suppressed for decades, almost any amount of cycling looks impressive. Living in the UK, it’s easy to see the current motor-dominated transport mix as normal or natural, and therefore to think that countries with higher cycling rates have done something special, artificial and unnatural.

But the truth is that road design in the UK effectively bans cycling as a mode of transport for the vast majority of the population. The “natural” level for cycling can be seen in the Netherlands, where car use is not discouraged (on the contrary), but there are no barriers to cycling either. The road system there has been designed so that people have a genuine choice. They can use whichever mode of transport they wish to, and they very often choose to use a bike.

Somewhere in the middle we have places like Berlin, where the authorities pay lip service to cycling infrastructure, and grudgingly provide for a fairly low rate of cycling, but where journeys by motor vehicle are still prioritised pretty much all of the time, and given the lion’s share of road space.

What this means is that Berlin’s modal share is low, much lower than it should be. A 13% cycling rate is not high or impressive, or anything to get excited about, though it may seem otherwise to people living in countries where cycling almost doesn’t exist.

Berlin’s cycling share should be at least double the current rate, and with better infrastructure, it easily could be.

A View from the Badly-Designed, Badly-Maintained Cycle Path

So Berlin does have some cycleways, separated from motor traffic. This is a good thing, and it enables many Berliners to use a bike for journeys which, without the cycleways, would be made by motor vehicle.

But while these cycleways exist, and make cycling away from motor traffic possible, they are – almost without exception – awful. Berlin falls short on all three important aspects of good cycling infrastructure: maintenance, design, and network.

Maintenance

…or rather the lack of it. For example, concrete tiles are normally used as the surface, and over the years these become uneven, meaning that riding on them is pretty bumpy, sometimes dangerously so. Tree roots lift up the surface too, though while the carriageway never seems to be affected (it is clearly better cared for), the cycleway and footway are often left rucked and cratered. Bushes and trees are frequently not trimmed either, meaning much (or, in places, all) of the cycleway width is taken up by foliage.

A narrow cycleway next to a very, very wide road. The cycleway is almost completely obscured by a bush growing beside it, rendering the cycleway almost useless..

Yes, that really is a cycleway on the right, and its patchy surface is almost completely obscured by a bush. And yes, that’s a wide, well-maintained six-lane road with central median strip on the left.

Design

Even the newest and best-maintained cycleways are poor in comparison to their Dutch counterparts.

Even along the roomiest boulevards they’re too narrow, often wiggly, with street furniture right against (or even in) them. Flush kerbs are virtually unheard of, and the cycleways fall and rise at every driveway (most of which are surfaced in uneven cobble stones) and at side-streets too, where they usually turn into paint on the road. All this bumping up and down expends a lot of unnecessary energy and turns an easy journey into a tiring one.

A cycleway narrows as it wiggles sharply around a pole which is installed in its way. There are further barriers on the right too.

I used to play computer games like this as a child.

The junctions are badly and dangerously designed, with none of the safety or convenience that you see in Dutch cities. That was the first one that struck me, incidentally. Where the Dutch take the cycleway away from motor vehicles at a junction, here in Berlin it bizarrely moves towards the main carriageway, suddenly thrusting you into the blind-spot of turning vehicles.

This design also means that the Dutch-style protected, unsignalled right turns aren’t possible (where the cycleway, like the footway, isn’t controlled by the traffic lights as people turning right aren’t actually interacting with the junction).

A cycleway moves towards the carriageway as it approaches a junction.

Rather than continue straight on, bike users are diverted into the blind spot of turning vehicles. This is the standard for Berlin cycleways at junctions.

The Network

The network is more of a patchwork, as it’s full of large holes and therefore unreliable.

A wide boulevard in Berlin, with most space given to the main carriageway.

No space for cycling on Sonnenallee, but plenty of space for motoring. There’s no good alternative to this road either, so footway cycling is very common here.

Some roads have cycleways, some have painted lanes, some have nothing at all. There seems to be no logic to it, either – some quiet, minor streets have cycleways for some reason, despite the level of motor traffic being very low, while many multi-lane urban motorways have nothing at all.

There’s no consistency of provision, no minimum quality of service that can be relied upon. The surface can vary from smooth asphalt to a relief map of the Moon’s biggest craters. In places, the width of the cycleway suddenly changes at random and for no apparent reason, and in other places the cycleway suddenly disappears, unceremoniously dumping you into the carriageway.

A cycleway suddenly ends and riders are sharply diverted onto a busy dual carriageway. This is a permanent design.

Should I get homesick for Britain, I’ll go stand here and remember why I left.

When roadworks interrupt the cycleway, sometimes you’re thrust out onto a fast, busy road, but other times you’re sent the other way to mingle with people on foot, and sometimes you’re simply abandoned. I haven’t once seen a temporary cycleway take the place of a general traffic lane at roadworks, as is usual in the Netherlands.

Poor-quality handling of a cycleway at roadworks in Berlin. The cycleway turns into painted lines which suddenly veer onto the busy dual carriageway, into the path of motor traffic.

Surprise! Now just swerve out from behind that parked car, onto the dual carriageway.

There’s unfortunately little joy in using the back streets, either. There’s almost a total absence of modal filtering, with most streets remaining two-way through-routes for all vehicles. Luckily, the main roads are so good for driving that rat-running isn’t the huge problem it is in the UK – endless queues of traffic that are normal for London are unheard of here, even at rush-hour. But some people still choose to drive down the back streets at unsuitable speeds, and there’s very little to prevent this.

A small street which remains open to motor traffic in both directions, with cobblestone surface, making for an awful cycling environment.

Rough cobbled surface, busy two-way rat-run, pathetic attempts at traffic calming. What’s not to love?

An even bigger problem with the back-streets is that they’re commonly surfaced in a kind of large cobblestone known as a “Pflasterstein” or “Kopfstein”. These are smooth with rounded tops, and are a real pain to cycle along at anything more than a crawling pace, and even then you’d better not be carrying any fruit. These surfaces are not always well-maintained either, meaning that large gaps can appear between uneven stones, creating danger for bikes.

Despite their bike-inhibiting nature, thanks to modern car suspensions these cobblestones do nothing to slow down a speeding driver.

A close-up of the bumpy cobbled surface of a typical Berlin back-street.

Even when well-maintained, as seen here, this surface is awful to ride on. The photo doesn’t do it justice. Many people choose to ride on the footway along roads surfaced like this, even on streets with almost no motor traffic at all.

The Forbidden City

All this means that while I have many more opportunities for utility cycling than I did in London, there are still huge swathes of the city that effectively remain inaccessible to me by bike, and many destinations within cycling distance that I instead choose to use public transport for, even though it’s slower than the bike and costs €2.20 each way.

So Berlin is not a great place for cycling, though it may seem that way to visitors. It’s not all awful (I’ll show some good stuff at some point) and it is better than pretty much all English-speaking cities, and its lacklustre infrastructure does enable more people to use a bike.

But really it’s a below-average place for cycling, with weak infrastructure – and that’s why Berlin shouldn’t be a model for elsewhere, except as a way of learning which mistakes to avoid.


Footnote: If you’re looking at any of these photos and thinking “I’d like some of that”, please take a look at the videos of David Hembrow and Mark Wagenbuur to see how it should be done instead.


Note: My German is okay but not perfect. If there’s anybody out there with native-level skills and a cycle campaigning urge, and you would like to proof-read/edit some German-language posts I have planned for a sister blog and campaign, please do get in touch!

 

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How Southwark can spend less to do more on their Quietway

After my last post about Southwark’s pointless plans to waste cycling money on their section of Quietway 2, I’ve had a think about what I’d suggest.

Some of the route is already fine, but the bits that aren’t fine have too many motor vehicles on them. While Southwark want to throw money at fancy paving and plants, what this route really needs are modal filters to remove motor traffic while allowing bikes to pass through.

This is cheap because it’s just bollards and a few signs. Politically it’s trickier because car-owning residents often want to drive out of their street at both ends, but I’d be amazed if car-free households aren’t the norm in this area by quite a large margin. The added bonus of more greenery, safe places for their children to play, cleaner air and quieter streets should be enough to get most residents’ approval, I should imagine.

And the nice thing is that this can be trialled easily and altered or removed if it doesn’t work, saving any “place-making” for when the changes are proven to work.

In this scheme, for example, I can see the plaza on the corner of Webber Street and Great Suffolk Street being expanded across the existing junction. This sort of thing should come later, though there are plenty of firms willing to sell their expensive designs for fancy paving without actually changing the nature of the traffic passing through.

Anyway, here’s my suggested plan:

Re-worked map of Southwark's Quietway plans, showing modal filters at various points to remove through-motor-traffic, while retaining motor access for residents and visitors.

Click to see full-size version

It removes through-motor-traffic from the entire route, while keeping motor access for residents and visitors. (In addition to the filters here, all of which are in Southwark Council’s area, I’d add one further west on Webber Street too, near the junction with The Cut.)

Suddenly, and for a bargain price that can’t be beat, the whole of Webber Street and Great Suffolk Street will now carry so little motor traffic that they’re safe to ride.

Further east, the northbound rat-run on Tabard Street is removed (vehicles currently enter from Great Dover Street via Becket Street, turn left up Tabard Street, then right along Pilgrimage Street), while full access is retained.

Most importantly, Law Street is no longer a rat-run. This is currently an awful street to cycle on due to vehicles avoiding the major Bricklayers Arms junction in both directions, just off-image to the south-east. In fact, the filtering in this area improves the entire block between Great Dover Street and Long Lane, as all rat-runs are now prevented. (I think – can you see any?)

The filtering at the top of Law Street also makes safe the turn into and out of the Rothsay Street cycleway, which under the current plans looks awfully dangerous.

I’ve gone no further because I’m not familiar with the area from this point, I always went up Wild’s Rents from here on a complicated, meandering route towards Tower Bridge.

So, that’s it!

The consultation on this section runs until the 5th of September (with the western-most section until the 15th), so there’s a few days left to respond now.

It’s probably worth responding so that when Southwark ignore all our suggestions we can at least point the finger at them when the plans fail. (Cynical, me?)


Addendum, 2nd February 2015: One of the hot debates along the route is the awful restrictive gateway on Trinity Street. Having thought about it, the simplest solution is to move it so it’s to the south of the Globe Street junction. It will still perform its motorbike-filtering purpose there, but not interfere with the Quietway. Ta-da!

Trinity Street SE1, with motorbike barrier that hinders cyclists too. Simple solution is to move it.

 

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