Biking and Walking in Berlin Is a Breath of Fresh Air (Metaphorically, Not Literally)

Busy city street with cars and cyclists

Lloyd Alter

In the latest Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index, Berlin comes in 10th out of the top 20. Only one North American city, Montreal, made the list at all, sneaking in at 20th place, so most of us in North America would just be amazed at how wonderful Berlin is by comparison. But it is still an odd, non-intuitive place to cycle, as I found out during a short visit recently. Mikael of Copenhagenize notes:

The bizarre mix of bike infrastructure designs resulting from years of planners trying to squeeze bikes into a car centric paradigm need to be made uniform. With the rise of the cargo bike, the City needs to plan accordingly for them from the beginning.
credit: Lloyd Alter

Berlin is a marvellous mix of everything you can think of -- great subways and streetcar (tram) systems, dedicated bike lanes, comfortable spaces for those waiting for transit, good pedestrian signals... sometimes.

credit: Lloyd Alter

In other parts of town, it reminded my of my home, Toronto, where there is often on-street parking and a bit more than one lane for cars, bikes and streetcars. The difference here is that this streetcar actually slowed down to the speed of the cyclist and followed her because there was not room to pass.

credit: Lloyd Alter

They really try to squeeze everything in. I loved walking down this street of low apartment buildings, with a sort of private zone next to the buildings for cafes, a walking zone, a totally chaotic strip of bike parking, guerrilla planting, car storage and more.

credit: Lloyd Alter

On the other side of those parked cars, you get a painted bike lane in the door zone, but at least the cars and trucks are separated by a curb. No wonder you don't see many cars on these roads; clearly they are not prioritized.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There are so many different kinds, from the smoothest of asphalt separated lanes...

credit: Lloyd Alter this vaguely defined different surface. (The cyclists ride on the darker paving.)

credit: Map My Run

One day I took a 19 km bike tour of Berlin with Berlin on Bike! and saw everything -- areas with no bike lanes, separated lanes, shared spaces. Our tour guide, Simon, said that the streetcar tracks in the former East Berlin were almost the exact width of a bike tire, so that we had to be very careful to cross them at right angles. The other big hazard is broken glass. Berliners party hard on weekends and we were riding on Monday. He was not kidding.

credit: shared street

This was, I think, the weirdest bike infrastructure I saw -- signs and symbols indicating that it is a shared street. Because, in reality, it is was no different than any other. They are all shared in some way.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Whether on dedicated bike lanes or in the road, there were bikes everywhere. Copenhagenize tells us:

The modal share is a respectable 13% but there are neighbourhoods where the numbers are as high as 20%. A new bike share is slated for 2017 and there are experiments with traffic-free streets and they are testing Green Waves for cyclists. The number of cargo bikes for private and commercial use is rising exponentially, showing that the citizens are ready for a car-free daily life.
credit: Lloyd Alter

These might be the bike share Copenhagenize is alluding to, one of the new app-driven bike share systems that don't need those fancy stands that Citibike and Toronto bike shares need. They are sitting everywhere in town; there is also another one branded with the grocery chain Lidl.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The one thing that impressed me most about Berlin was the civility of it all. Pedestrians all wait for the light to change, even when there is nobody coming for miles; I was told by a friend who is from North America that people do cross against the red occasionally, but never if there is a child nearby because Mom will chastise you for setting a bad example.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Cyclists rarely went through red lights; cars rarely honked; everyone just seemed to get along. It seemed balanced, so that no single mode dominated the roads. Cars, trams, delivery trucks, bikes and pedestrians all seemed capable of sharing the road. I wondered how this could possibly happen, especially when cycle activism is a big deal here. Copenhagenize explains:

Berlin’s rise up the ranking is due in great part to some extraordinary activism. The Volksentscheid Fahrrad (Cycling Referendum) responded to a unique tool in the city’s democratic framework. If you can gather enough signatures for a cause, the City is forced to debate it in city council. The group showed how modern activism should be and could be everywhere. They placed cycling on the agenda with a bang.

Where I live, every inch of new bike lane is considered a war on the car. The pedestrians hate the cyclists who hate the drivers who hate the streetcars. Berlin was confusing, and is a work in progress, but it really was a breath of fresh air.