By comparison, Rotterdam has a cycling share somewhere around 26%, reportedly the lowest modal share of any city in the Netherlands, and yet this part of Berlin doesn’t feel anywhere near it in terms of cycling rate.
It’s difficult to compare different transport statistics, as different cities and countries use different methods. I’ve heard that Berlin measures cycling numbers on one day in the height of summer, and I can believe that. There’s no way that Berlin’s cycling rate is anywhere near Rotterdam’s, even in the centre.
I’m sure you could find some streets or bridges in Berlin where people travelling by bike make up a huge proportion of rush hour traffic, as you can in London, but that’s not what modal share is. The modal share is averaged out over the entire year and includes all journeys – it’s not just a measure of bike commuters on one popular street in the middle of summer.
Commuting share for cycling is usually approximately double the actual modal share. This is probably because people commute alone along routes which they’re very familiar with, and they have learned to cope with the unpleasant parts. There’s also a feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ which comes from a lot of other people travelling by bike at the same time. Making journeys at other times to unknown areas with less confident or adventurous cyclists isn’t the same thing.
The weather also has an effect on cycling rates, especially when infrastructure is poor. In the summer when the weather is bright and the roads are dry, you can just jump on your bike and go. In the winter the roads may be wet and slippy, and in the dark it’s harder to see and be seen, and you might wear a hood which will restrict your vision. These extra factors tip the balance from cycling being an okay option to it feeling dangerous and uninviting.
But where the infrastructure is good, the factors above have less importance. For example, when the cycle routes are surfaced in smooth asphalt, slipping in the rain isn’t a worry. On good cycle infrastructure you don’t need to constantly look behind you, so a hood isn’t an impedance.
Winter cycling in Berlin
I filmed the video clip below on Tuesday the 3rd of February at 5pm, on one of the main north-bound cycle routes out of the city centre. This is somewhere that even in winter you would expect to see a great number of people on bikes.
Schönhauser Allee is quite an interesting street when it comes to modal share, because it’s a main artery which has five streams of transport on it.
- It has a raised U-Bahn (metro) line running along the centre of the street.
- It has tram lines, one in each direction.
- It allows motor vehicles and parking, in both directions.
- It has a protected cycleway, one on each side of the road.
- It has wide footways, in both directions.
So you can watch this video and estimate the modal share for yourself. You can see the U-Bahn trains running in the top-left corner. You can see the trams. You can count all the motor vehicles, and you can count the tiny number of people on bikes.
That’s right. There’s hardly anyone on bikes, at all. On one of the main roads, at rush hour, in what is apparently the 12th best city for cycling in the world.
Compare this with cycling levels – and the conditions which enable them, despite the major roadworks at the time – in this video of Utrecht by Mark Wagenbuur:
It was filmed in April, so the weather would have been a little warmer, but even so it’s clear that the levels of cycling in Utrecht are on an entirely different scale, not just a few percentage points away.
Even in the summer, I doubt the genuine modal share for cycling in Berlin rises much above 15% overall – which is shockingly low for a mostly flat city where almost everyone is within a 30 minute bike ride into the centre.
Anyway, now it’s summer and Berlin is a much nicer place to cycle, I can go out and not be the only person on a bike, surrounded by cars. It can be very pleasant, on the right routes. But let’s not mistake that for modal share.