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.
…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.
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.
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.
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).
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 is more of a patchwork, as it’s full of large holes and therefore unreliable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!