Cycling in Berlin – Between lifestyle and life- threatening

Cycling – for many Berliners, that means a lifestyle choice, the ideal form of transport and a steadfast belief that even 200 years after its invention, the future belongs to the bicycle.“I love the idea of a city with more space and better air,” I’m told by a cyclist who rides her bike rain or shine. Yet so far, an idea is all it is: Every day, from traffic light to traffic light, it’s bumper to bumper on Berlin’s main roads (and not just there). The lone warriors in those cars are plagued by traffic jams, watching as cyclists zoom past. But even in the rigid minds of many drivers something is starting to shift. To be sure, car traffic in the city centre is in decline, yet only 13% of all journeys were conducted by bicycle in early 2018. For comparison: In Münster, Germany’s bicycle city no. 1, it’s about 40 percent.

Fifty percent of car journeys in Berlin are shorter than five kilometres – a distance easily manageable by bike.

Idealistic, pragmatic, fierce: Berlin’s Cyclists

Getting on a bike in Berlin requires foresight, and not just with regards to the next busy intersection. The metropolis is still miles away from being a bicycle capital. Berlin’s streets are anything but fun: too narrow, too busy. Cyclists, cars, buses, trams, pedestrians – in many places, there is a hard- fought battle for one’s own lane. Bicycle lanes? Too few, too narrow, too inconspicuous. They are prone to being used for parking. It’s therefore not surprising that the infamous Berlin tone often gets a little rougher still. Gesticulating, yelling, tailgating – cyclists do it as much as drivers, yet while they may not be any quieter, they’re definitely more vulnerable. 9 cyclists died on Berlin’s streets in 2017, and as many as 17 in 2016 – not to mention hundreds who are severely injured every year.

Yet neither statistics nor nitric oxide can curb the idealism of Berlin’s cyclists. “I ride my bike because it’s the most beautiful way of driving a convertible year-round,” says one. And another: “You’re never stuck in traffic and closer to the weather, you’re travelling in an environmentally friendly way, you’re flexible and independent of bus and train schedules – and you reach your destination on time and more relaxed.” Cycling: On the one hand, it’s a way of getting from A to B. On the other, it’s about the journey itself; a journey that can be much more exhilarating by bike than behind the wheel. Just picture a ride through the city on a warm summer’s night, when car traffic has almost ceased, becoming one with the pedals and getting into a flow, for a moment forgetting everything that lies behind you or ahead of you (apart from the traffic, of course).

Rental bikes define the cityscape

If you have discovered your enthusiasm for cycling now and are thinking about switching, here’s the thing: You don't even need your own bicycle anymore in order to get started. These days, it’s hard to imagine cities without rental bikes. It feels like there are more and more of them every week. They’re everywhere, with neon orange spokes, in turquoise or silver, motley dashes of colour found in flocks or by themselves. In early 2018, Berlin featured more than 16,000 bicycles from a total of six providers – and counting. Resentment about footpaths getting even more clogged up by rental bikes is already on the rise. Despite growing competition, provider nextbike – one of the firstin town – is reporting an increase in user numbers.

Gently buzzing freewheels instead of traffic noise

In the face of this much bicycle power, the notion that more needs to be done for cyclists has finally arrived in politics as well. In early 2018, Berlin’s (and Germany’s) first Bicycle Act was adopted as part of the “Berlin Mobility Act”. At the very least, its planned measures provide a glimmer of hope: More and wider bicycle lanes with a “green wave”, intersection-free fast bicycle lanes, bicycle-only streets and bicycle parking garages, to name just a few. The ADFC, an organisation representing the interests of cyclists in Germany, is delighted: “The Mobility Act is the beginning of a new era in transport policy in which the city belongs to everyone – and not just to cars.” On a small scale, the bicycle city is already emerging: More and more action groups are demanding car- free zones and bicycle-only streets. More substantial endeavours like the “Radbahn” project are materialising as well: a nine-kilometre cycle path running through Berlin underneath an elevated subway line.

Parking garages for bicycles

In Berlin, almost every streetlamp, every post, every ever-so-delicate plant is used to chain up bicycles. According to the Volksentscheid Fahrrad (Bicycle Referendum) initiative, Berlin needs 200,000 additional bicycle parking spaces. Apart from lockers, there are plans for multi-storey bicycle parking garages where bicycles can be stacked almost endlessly. Germany’s largest bicycle parking garage, featuring 3,500 bicycle parking spaces, is currently located in Münster – with all necessary comforts for your bike to stay fit: a repair service, an additional bike rental facility and even a bicycle washing bay.

Berliners themselves have a clear vision of what their bicycle city is going to look like one day: “The Berlin of the future has fast bicycle lanes with no traffic lights over long distances. Parking lots have been turned into bicycle parking with lots of greenery. Pedestrians and cyclists have priority at traffic lights. You’ll hear the gentle buzz of freewheels instead of traffic noise,” a particularly enthusiastic cyclist predicts.

Indeed, who wouldn’t want to switch to cycling in that case?

Author Alexandra Lau works as a writer in Berlin and is also an enthusiastic cyclist.

Translation: Elisabeth Meister Copyright: Text: Goethe-Institut, Alexandra Lau. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.