Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new law could see the city’s cycling infrastructure completely transformed.
When Berlin unveiled its plans last week to become a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly city, it was almost immediately hailed as a revolution. Assembled by the Green Party (part of the city’s ruling coalition), the draft of a new law calls for at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) of cycle superhighways threaded across the city—and that’s just the start of it.
By 2025, the city will also create 100,000 new bike parking spots, some of them in three multi-floor parking garages located at key commuter hubs. Meanwhile, the city’s existing bike-lane network—already extensive, but not always well segregated from car traffic—will be more rigorously protected by bollards. This more modest network of roadside lanes (as opposed to long-discussed specially constructed superhighways) will also be expanded to cover one-third of all city streets, a considerable expansion on its current total of 18 percent. Viewed from cities where it’s a struggle to introduce even basic bike infrastructure, Berlin’s plans seem inspiring, even utopian.
That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t badly needed. Last year, 33 Berliners died in collisions with motor vehicles; nine were cyclists. While a few decades ago, many Berlin streets seemed eerily traffic-free for such a major city, now its roads are clogged and bike lanes created simply by painting a roadside verge offer little protection. This is deterring people from getting on their bikes, fearing with some justification that the road plan itself is not tailored primarily to their safety.
To remedy this, the city has committed not just to creating an alternative cycle network in the form of separate segregated superhighways, which could cross the city using former rail corridors. It would also see the remodeling of dangerous junctions to protect cyclists still using the regular road system, with 10 remodeled in the first year, 20 the following, and 30 each year thereafter until intersections across the city are deemed safe. Meanwhile, the law plans to give non-private vehicles preference, by retooling traffic lights so that buses and streetcars get priority.
The moves should help push the modal shift to bikes that Berlin needs if it wants to get anywhere near the levels of cycling found in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. While more than half of both those cities’ workers commute by bike, Berlin struggles to reach 25 percent. Its rates of car commuting are similar to London’s, and worse than Paris’s. Berlin is far larger and more sprawling than either the Dutch or Danish capitals, but it also has a rangy layout that makes it arguably more suitable for top of the range bike infrastructure than almost anywhere else in Europe.
Berlin’s streets are often unusually wide by European standards (London is a city of alleyways, by comparison) and sidewalks can be so broad that, in a few places, they can accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and even a café without causing much friction. The city’s mainly flat terrain is perfect for cycling, while its polycentric layout can make it somewhat inconvenient to transit somewhere and then walk the rest of the way.
Other cities might hanker for the level of mobilization afoot in Berlin, which will debate and ratify the law proposal in the new year. But if Berlin can’t push through real changes to make it one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, it’s hard to see how anywhere else could.