• Berlin
  • Cycling in Berlin: Part 1


Cycling in Berlin: Part 1

The Sternfahrt, the world's biggest bike demonstration, happens in Berlin this Sun, Jun 14, so every day for the rest of the week we'll be posting tips from our handy guide to your summer on two wheels.

Image for Cycling in Berlin: Part 1
Photo by Jason Harrell

Tips, apps, laws and more: for the rest of the week we’ll be posting tips from our handy guide to your summer on two wheels. Check out part two here.

Berlin is a biking city. When you first arrive as a visitor, you’ll trip over stands full of bicycles for hire and you won’t have to look far for a good bike tour. You might cluelessly pull your suitcase along a bike path, rapidly sparking the ire of locals.

If you choose to settle here, the first thing people will tell you to do is get yourself a two-wheeler. The city boasts flat, wide roads and 1087km of bike-friendly streets and lanes, including 662km of dedicated bike paths. Bike traffic here has doubled in the past decade – 13 percent of journeys are now made on bicycle. The world’s largest bike demo, the Sternfahrt, is held in Berlin annually, along with multitudes of services, activities and events for cycling citizens, bike enthusiasts and pedalling commuters. Most online top 10 lists of bike-friendly cities include Berlin. Sounds like a cyclist’s paradise, right?

But there’s trouble in paradise. For one, the number of reported bike thefts has skyrocketed from 19,942 in 2010 to 30,758 last year, according to Berlin police, making it Berliners’ favourite criminal activity. And cycling is dangerous, with more than 7000 bike-related injuries per year. Cyclists account for a quarter of traffic deaths (nine died in 2013). Underinvestment in bike infrastructure leaves cyclists unprotected in many key intersections – Rosenthaler Platz in Mitte, for example. Bike paths are often poorly marked or congested with commuters and huge bike tour groups, as is the case on Linienstraße. Berlin could do well to learn from other cities with more forward-looking policies – London’s bike superhighways, Copenhagen’s cargo bike culture or the Dutch switch to bikes-over-cars policies in the 1970s, which continues to put them at the top of all lists. In these places and many more, city planners have realised that cycle mobility should ideally be 30 percent or more of all traffic. This puts Berlin’s goal of 18-20 percent to shame. And yet people here cycle and cycle and cycle, many of them through the six-month-long winters and sweltering, humid summers. Because we Berliners know that there’s no such thing as bad weather on a bike, just bad clothing.

Here are the important rules you need to know:

HELMETS You don’t have to wear one, unless you really want to fudge your hairstyle or match your Lycra outfit. German law doesn’t require it, not even for kids.

BIKE PATHS If Berlin’s 662km of dedicated bike lanes aren’t good enough for you, you’re allowed to cycle on the road even when there is a bike path – unless there’s a round blue sign with a bike on it indicating you have to use it. Don’t ride in the wrong direction though!

ALCOHOL You’ll have to be quite drunk to be over the limit. But once you are, a blood alcohol level of 1.6 or over (the equivalent of 5-8 small beers, depending on weight, compared to 0.5, or 2-3 drinks for drivers) is considered a criminal offence: you’ll be sent for psychological evaluation and may end up losing your driver’s licence. If you’re involved in an accident, alcohol levels above 0.3 will be held against you.

KIDS Your brats can ride on roads and bike paths when they’re eight years old or over. Before that, they have to ride on the footpath. And here’s where it gets Kafkaesque: grown ups are not allowed to ride on the footpath, but you can also get in trouble for letting your kids tear around on it while you’re negotiating heavy traffic on the road. So damned if you do, damned if you don’t. About time this law changed.

PARKING If there’s no room on the footpath and it’s daylight, you’re allowed to take up a car parking spot. Keep your bike to the right side, neatly parked by the kerb. If anyone tries to cart it away, inform them that you are well within your rights to park on the edge of the road, as long as there is no room on the pavement.

IMPROPER BEHAVIOUR Insulting fellow road users is illegal. Showing the middle finger can land you in court and set you back up to €4000!

FINES Riding without hands is €5, faulty brakes or bell €15, riding on the pavement €15-30, using a mobile phone €25, running a red light €60-180 (under €120 if the light was red for less than a second), going across a train line when the barrier is closed €350 or death, whatever comes first. The cops can also fine you multiple times (we’ve heard up to €200!) if you run through a street with a double red light, or multiple ones in a row.

Grumpy natives may abuse or even hurt you if you don’t abide by the law. You might just get elbowed hard in the kidneys by some such model citizen trying to stop you riding on the pavement (even if you are riding very slowly and respectfully) or going up a one-way street in the wrong direction (on many streets this is allowed, but there has to be a sign). If you want to skip the fines, elbows and insults, just follow the rules!

Originally published in issue #139, June 2015.