• Berlin
  • Save Berlin: On the bike path to hell


Save Berlin: On the bike path to hell

What is the city doing to improve conditions for cyclists?

Image for Save Berlin: On the bike path to hell

The law prescribes 350km of new “cycle streets” by 2025. Photo: Gitti La Mar / Rabea Seibert / Volksentscheid Fahrrad

What is the city doing to improve conditions for cyclists?

Cyclists are saints. With every pedal spin, they bolster our fragile planet while strengthening their hearts, calves and karma. But not for traffic planners – in their binary world, cars zoom along streets and pedestrians waddle along sidewalks. They don’t know where to put those two-wheeled agents of anarchy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Berlin’s planners designated cyclists pedestrians and gave the newly-united city a network of sidewalk cycle lanes. They didn’t foresee our bike population explosion. Half a million now clog those narrow paths every day. And they couldn’t predict today’s smartphone-chatting e-bikers, Deliveroo kamikazes or swarms of zombie-like bicycle tourists. Bikes-for-rent pile up on every street corner.

Berlin’s cycling chaos is more than a headache. It’s getting increasingly dangerous. In 2016 Berlin saw 7500 accidents involving bicycles, and 19 cyclists were killed – about one every three weeks.

In December 2015, a golden bicycle appeared in front of Berlin’s city hall. It carried a manifesto from the activist group Volksentscheid Fahrrad, a 10-point plan to make Berlin more cyclist-friendly and safe. Then-Transport Senator Andreas Geisel dismissed the demands, pointing out that the city was already spending €14 million a year on its bike network. So the activists raised the stakes. They gathered 105,000 signatures, enough to put their proposals to a public vote in the September 2016 election. Facing likely defeat, Berlin’s Senate threw in the towel and adopted Volksentscheid Fahrrad’s plan as law. Last December, current Transport Senator Regine Günther signed off on an annual cycle infrastructure budget of €50 million.

The 10 points boil down to three flavours of new, street-level bike lanes:

A street of their own

The plans call for 350km of safe Fahrradstraßen, a network of bicycle-priority routes converted from existing streets in the city centre. Residents’ cars and delivery vans would be permitted, but cyclists are boss. Berlin already has bike-priority streets – such as Linienstraße in Mitte and Wilmersdorf’s Prinzregentenstraße – but they’re poorly marked and unenforced.

Please mind the bollards

In addition to the Fahrradstraßen, Berlin’s government has committed to giving all major thoroughfares two-metre-wide bike lanes at street level, clearly marked and protected from four-wheeled invaders (and their swinging doors) by kerbs or other barriers. Work is underway on the first, along Kreuzberg’s Hasenheide.

Cycling Superhighways

Another key demand is 100km of Radschnellwege, or bike speedways. Planners have already mapped out eight radial routes linking the city’s outskirts to the centre, often through parks or abandoned railyards. The first is planned to run north from Adlershofalong the A-113 highway, then across Tempelhof into Kreuzberg.

Other Volksentscheid Fahrrad goals: 100,000 more bike parking spaces, cyclist friendlier intersections, and a city-funded ad campaign to promote cycling. That last demand may prove critical. Despite their good intentions, the saintly activists have stirred up some bad blood.

High on the list of bike haters are the carand lorry drivers set to lose traffic lanes and parking spaces. The three opposition parties in Berlin’s Senate have banded together, declaring the bike-friendly proposals a “culture war against car drivers.” And imagine the reactions of Fahrradstraße residents when their centuries-old cobblestones are ripped out and replaced by teal-coloured polyethylene pavers. With their laundry list of demands and lofty tone, cyclists risk casting themselves as a privileged minority.

Through clever political maneuvering, the Volksentscheid Fahrrad got their ideas carved into law and even funded. Now comes the hard part: concrete action. Berlin’s Senate, perhaps burned by having the plans jammed down their throat, is dragging its feet. That 2015 golden-bike manifesto called for Berlin to be transformed into a cyclist’s paradise by 2025. Since then, just a single new bike lane has been approved for construction. Activist Peter Feldkamp bemoaned the lack of progress in Tagesspiegel, saying, “If the Senate keeps working at this rate, it will take 150 years.”