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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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Cycling in Berlin

  1. congokid

    Interesting post given that just last week I did some research on cycling in Berlin after someone posted in a thread about how well-behaved cyclists appeared to be there, based on what sounded like a short visit with limited observation opportunities.

    I’d heard before about how Berlin was apparently a mecca for cycling, but despite its miles of available infrastructure, conditions there are little better than that on offer across the UK, depending as they do largely on botched shared use with pedestrians and offering little advantage over motor vehicle transport.

    Here are some of the main findings I made, gleaned from various blogs, news reports and official sites:

    – Berliners make 1.5 million cycling trips a day, at an average of 3.7 km a trip, giving a total of just over 2 billion km cycled per year, which accounts for 13% of total traffic (Berlin’s population is about half of London’s, but here we see only about 580,000 daily bike journeys, about 2 per cent of total traffic)
    – Berliners have access to 620 km (390 mi) of bike paths, which includes 100 km (62 mi) of combined pedestrian/bike paths and 50 km (31 mi) of marked bike lanes on pavements – in other words there are a LOT of shared use pavements in Berlin
    – Berliners are allowed to cycle through parks
    – Berliners can take their bikes on tubes and trains if they buy a special ticket (€1.70)
    – Germans are generally sticklers for rules and people on bikes are not only policed by the general public and law enforcement authorities, they also self-police
    – having said that, people on bikes in Berlin *do* break the rules, and from what I understand rule breaking is quite common there: in April 2010 (only figures I can find) Berlin police fined 4,114 cyclists during an intensive two week period, including cycling on the pavement/in a pedestrian zone (907 cyclists), cycling the wrong way up a cycle path (457), running red lights (1,793), riding unsafe or defective bikes (1,083) and four people were fined for riding fixies with no brakes, lights or bells.
    – there are still problems for people on bikes in Berlin. Fifteen cyclists died in 2012, seven of them through collisions with lorries; and 4,533 more were injured over the same period.

    I guess my main point in replying was that with all the miles of infrastructure supposedly dedicated for cycling on, it’s of such poor quality that people on bikes in Berlin are just as likely to break rules – I’d guess out of a sense of frustration – as we are in the UK.

    • Thanks for sending what you found.

      I won’t go on about it too much here, as I’ve got more posts planned, but you’re right in saying that the poor quality of the cycleways encourages rule-breaking. Footway cycling is common, and largely tolerated as far as I can tell. Like in the UK, the authorities are quite happy to push cycling onto the footway when it suits them, either with a white line or a shared path, and then act surprised when people cycle on the footway elsewhere.

      But then, parking on the footway and cycleway are both common too – people don’t just break rules when they’re riding a bike! This idea of the Germans being sticklers for rules is absolute nonsense. Maybe down south they are, I don’t know, but not in Berlin, that’s for sure!

      I don’t think there are many shared use footways (not that I’ve seen, anyway) though it’s not unheard of either. I’m not sure where that 100km of shared use statistic comes from! Generally, people cycling are expected use a narrow, badly-maintained cycleway one minute, then be perfectly happy “sharing” with buses and lorries the next.

      Despite all the flaws, it is much better, and easier, to ride a bike here than in the UK. But then, that’s not difficult, is it?

  2. Pingback: Anybody who says that Berlin is great for cycling doesn’t know what they’re talking about | World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities

  3. It’s good to see that a change of scene hasn’t lowered your hackles. Let me know when you finally move to NL.

  4. Antje

    It is fine to point out tons of technical details. But you forget to look at the bigger picture, dear author.
    There are two essential points you entirely forgot with all your detailed technical descriptions of bad cycling tracks ( and not all are like the examples you pointed out).

    Firstly: the mentality. While in Leeds or Northern England where I unfortunately have to live people just ignore regularly the rights of cyclists, dont take them seriously, supported by an inefficient police, in Germany most of the car drivers are aware of cyclists. It is taught in driving lessons to turn right with the head to see, if a cyclist overtakes from the right, before a driver can actually turn right (imagine this in England all with the left side). So, appearing to car drivers in a blind spot is NOT as dangerous as in the UK where you find – pardon my french – lots of car driver idiots on the roads.

    Secondly: Unlike Leeds, where even if you have in the middle of nowhere a flat tyre, bus drivers mercilessly refuse to take you along with your broken down cycle; in Berlin, you can use any means of public transport WITH the cycle. For little money, or even for free. Busses, S-Bahn, Trains, Underground. Just take your cycle and jump in. Because no one wants to cycle from Wannsee to Prenzlauer Berg – you just take the S1 – and thats it!

    Britain has a lot to learn, and educating car drivers is only one step. Ridiculous statements like the one of the city council member in Birmingham that cycling schemes only benefits white young men because old people consider it too dangerous to cylce and women would not cycle if they dress modestly are never heard of in continental Europe. Britain’s mentality needs to change. Good luck with that.

    Thanks for your attention.

    • I haven’t forgotten to mention those points. As I said in the very first paragraph, there’s far too much to fit into one article, and I intend to cover more later, including the points you’ve raised.

      The cycleways in Berlin are mostly pretty bad. I can think of a few exceptions, but not many, and even those are just short stretches of good stuff surrounded by bad. I don’t feel that the photos above have been particularly cherry-picked. On the contrary, I had a problem narrowing the photographs down! If you know of some truly great cycleways in Berlin, please tell me the location and I’ll go take a look.

      It’s true that the standard of driving feels better here compared to Britain. Cycling is something that most people do at least occasionally, so it’s not an unusual activity, and the aggressive “cyclist hatred” mentality that’s common in Britain doesn’t seem to exist here.

      But people are still people. They drive too fast when they’re late. They use their mobile phone while driving. They stop in bike lanes to nip into shops. And I don’t want to ride a bike on a road with buses and HGVs, no matter how well-driven they are.

      While most drivers do indeed stop to look back when turning, enough don’t that I’ve learned to hang back when approaching a junction, and expect the driver just to turn across me. It’s saved me from being hit more than a few times. It does of course help that the “those turning should give way to those going straight on” rule is firmly embedded here, and drivers get a green light at the same time as people walking, so when driving (or cycling) you know you do have to slow down and give way to people crossing.

      But relying on fallible human beings not to make mistakes is no substitute for sustainable safety. You do have to – to coin a phrase – “keep your wits about you” for less-than-careful drivers and riders. There’s not much room for error here.

      While it is indeed handy to be able to take your bike on the S- and U-Bahn, it’s a nice side benefit, rather than a mass transport solution. There are restrictions on the number of bikes trains can carry (though of course people flout this) and it’s not free, either – it costs €1.70 for a single ticket, or €4.70 for a day ticket, in addition to the usual fare.

      Cycling in Berlin is far, far better than cycling in Leeds (my home for 30 years, incidentally), I love living here. But nor is it anywhere near as good as it should be, or could be, and I’m not going to gloss over that.

    • MJ Ray

      Learner drivers in the UK are also taught to watch carefully for cyclists, walkers, horses and so on, but once they’ve got their full licence, it’s not really policed at the moment and road design encourages “might is right” abuses by non professional drivers. The foxes are in the henhouse, the farmer is Missing In Action and head henhouse builder Mr Pickles is cheering on the foxes.

      Good point on public transport. I’ve got a second hand folding bike because that isn’t banned yet – except by Stagecoach’s buses – but that’s not a good solution in general and it’s only a matter of time if things don’t change.

  5. Gar

    Is the patchy cycle path not used by bicycles because its overgown with foliage, or overgrown with foliage because it is not used by bicycles?
    How would you test either theory?

    • Good point!

      Having ridden along very well-used cycleways with overgrowing foliage, I’d say that people on bikes tend to avoid it. It’s easier to cycle around it than it is to let the stuff hit you in the face or shins, so it continues to grow ever more across the cycleway.

      Of course, the opposite happens where there are motor vehicles, which constantly trim away any stray branches, as anybody who has ridden on the top deck of a bus will know!

  6. Sarah Swift

    It’s over a decade since I lived in Berlin, so my personal memories are neither here nor there. But I think that there are some mitigating circumstances which are worth mentioning. I will accept “excuses” from Berlin (up to a point, and for a limited period of time) that I would find risible if they were to be offered from officials in somewhere like Munich that is much wealthier, hasn’t had Berlin’s problems to deal with, and yet doesn’t seem to be doing substantially better.

    After 1989, three big things happened in Berlin:
    1. The public transport network in the city had to be reassembled from its two utterly disconnected halves and connected to its rural hinterland.
    2. The city had to cope with a lot of people who had been confined within West Berlin for decaces moving to the country (maybe not ideal in planning terms, but you can only impose so much planning dictatorship on people who have already had the Cold War dictating their movements for decades).
    3. The city had to deal with a very, very sudden spike in car ownership (again, maybe not ideal, but Berlin is a big, untidy place and Brandenburg is a big, sparsely populated place with limited public transport options, so wanting a car isn’t completely irrational if you want to head out of town at the weekends.)
    (And those were just the transport issues… plus, I’ve left out the entire sorry airport saga.)

    Now, as a cycle campaigning type, I don’t believe that any of those things should have been allowed to push cycling nearly as far down the agenda as they did, so that Berlin is really only getting to cycling now and hasn’t achieved all that much yet. But I can completely understand why those in charge were a bit distracted.

    There is a lecture here, in English, by Burkhard Horn of the City of Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment. I think it’s interesting, and it sheds more light on some of the above.

    Also perhaps of some interest (albeit unfortunately not in English): the advice the police in Berlin have for Berlin cyclists: should you choose to use a bikepath which isn’t compulsory, expect dirt, holes, tree roots and uneven surfaces. It seems they forgot to mention the greenery…

  7. Pingback: Berlin does not have a cycle network | The Alternative Department for Transport

  8. Hein Bloed

    What you see in Berlin can be seen all over Germany (give or take a little). It’s equally crappy

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m realising that Berlin is pretty normal for German cycling infrastructure. I’m visiting Bremen later this year, so I’ll take a look there too.

      I think Germany needs minimum standards for cycleway design, set at a national level.

  9. Pingback: Cycleway design in Berlin and beyond | The Alternative Department for Transport

  10. Pingback: Kameralizowane ulice – jak powinny wyglądać? | Zrównoważona Mobilność w Jaworznie

  11. Pingback: Berlin hat kein Fahrradnetz | Das andere Bundesministerium für Verkehr

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