Berlin’s future cycling plans are wrong. Here’s a way forward.

There ought to be a single aim for a city’s cycle policy: get more people to cycle.

A number of factors can have an impact on this – the actual (statistically provable) safety of cycling, the perceived safety of cycling, the ready availability of places to park bicycles, and the integration of cycling into the rest of the city’s infrastructure.

The debate about cycling in Berlin currently goes like this:

  1. Measurable safety is of paramount importance
  2. Accidents per cyclist-kilometre are higher on cycle paths on pavements than they are on cycle paths painted on roads
  3. As a result put cycle paths on roads instead of on pavements

The debate in the EU’s leading cycling countries – Netherlands and especially Denmark – instead goes like this:

  1. You boost cycling by making cyclists feel they are safe, as well as actually statistically being safe
  2. To do this requires the separation of cyclists from motorised traffic, as the marginal cyclist is afraid of being knocked off by a truck on the road
  3. Build cycle paths that are physically separated from the road

Please note here I am not actually debating the statistics (more about those here), but more actually questioning why Berlin’s cycle paths are so unsafe. My conclusion – as documented along Skalitzer Straße, and from Bergmannstraße to Jannowitzbrücke (and RBB has more here) – is that this is because the cycle paths are badly designed. Most accidents occur at junctions between cycle paths and other traffic, and lines of sight at these locations in Berlin are often extremely bad, making accidents almost inevitable. A secondary danger is pedestrians and parked cars blocking or straying onto the cycle lanes, something that is rather common as the line between lane and pavement is often very unclear.

This is a quote the research about segregation (or not) of cycle paths in London:

Cyclists have differing and potentially conflicting needs from cycling infrastructure. Some cyclists who are often more confident and might be cycling to work prefer to use cycle lanes on the carriageway. Cycle lanes can give a more direct route. Other cyclists wanting to avoid conflict with motorists prefer off-road provision i.e. shared use paths and cycle tracks.

In other words, if you’re a manic and fast cyclist you will be doing it anyway. But if you’re a marginal cyclist, someone who might choose to cycle or not, not being mixed in with the rest of the road users actually matters. That’s why I am rather non-plussed about the debate about whether cyclists have an obligation to use cycle paths or not – it doesn’t matter much to trying to get extra people to cycle. I am also rather unconvinced that a 30km/h speed limit on Berlin’s roads is the best way forward – this is very poorly enforced in Berlin as it is, and I would prefer to engineer safe solutions, rather than relying on the policing of speed limits to achieve the same ends. Being hit by a truck at 30km/h is not much fun as a cyclist either.

So here’s a new way forward for Berlin. Switch the strategy for the city to repairing and improving the off-street cycle lanes that exist already. Widen them, and redesign the junctions that currently prevent clear lines of sight. With bright paint or curbstones better separate the cycle lanes from the rest of the pavement (that would even be cheap to do!) In the medium term adopt the Copenhagen cycle lane design manual, where lanes are height-separated from the road and from the pavement, are made from smooth asphalt and are 3m wide to allow overtaking. More space for bikes in S- and U-Bahn trains, and transport of bikes in taxis, and more cycle parking and communal air pumps would also be welcome. So that combination would be Berlin’s best bet to increase the numbers of cyclists, and make sure they both feel safe and are safe. The city’s current obsession with only the latter will not help get more people cycling.

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  1. Olivier

    Couldn’t agree more. Specifically me coming from the Netherlands I notice the poor design, the inconsistency everywhere… But it is also a mindset thing. A lot of the taxi drivers and local Berliners appear to hate cyclists. Even with the new demarkation zones at the Moritzplatz, cars will happily ignore cyclists and actually accelerate (!!) just to make their turn. Also, the traffic lighting situation here is absolutely dire. Some examples of how it should be done:

    As a road biker, I fear for my life every time I get on the bike, whether it’s in- or outside of Berlin. Yesterday on my way to Walnitz, many of the cycling paths are so poorly constructed, I cannot physically stay on them, in many cases I risk of tipping / flipping over. Therefore, I make the decision to cycle on the normal road, which isn’t appreciated by a lot of folks…

  2. Alex

    I realise this post is about feelings and perceptions of marginal cyclists, but are painted-on paths in Betlin really so bad to use in reality?

    Firstly, they are nearly always wider than those in the UK. I’m thinking for example of the ones on Holzmarktstrasse, if I remember right, they’re quite wide. Wilhelmstrasse also seemed to function reasonably well as a high-traffic route. They make cyclists visible, they allow them to switch into left-turning-lanes, and they allow safe overtaking for faster cyclists (using car-lane) without straying onto the pavement.

    The Fahradstrasse/mixed concept also seems quite good to me. I understand that people are dissapointed in lthe take-up, and enforcement, but to me, they have some obvious advantages over infrastructure in certain areas. Linienstrasse seemed to work quite well. Quiet back-streets are usually OK in Berlin, and I found that drivers were quite careful there. Even streets without infrastructure can also be quite useful for cyclists, for example Französische Strasse and Reinhardtstrasse work as medium-speed E-W axes through Mitte. Panninerstrasse, to me, is a good model of people being able to use both road and pavement-path as suits them. Tauentziehenstrasse at least has a bus/bike lane.

    For me, the Benutzungspflicht issue is quite important. The first priority of bike politics has to be that bikes aren’t forced off the road. I think this is a serious downside to the Danish/Dutch models. Some roads I regularly used are problematic in my (atypical) experience because drivers sometimes (rightly or wrongly) believe that cyclists should get off the road and stick to the pavement-paths. Bismarckstrasse/Kaiserdamm, Hohenzollerndamm, Skalitzer Strasse, Petersburger Str, Prinzenstr, I forget many more. Here you have to be assertive to use the road.

  3. Mike T


    the background to this thoroughly misguided approach on Berlin is, primarily, that the city is skint as a kipper’s backbone. Your medium-term solution requires funds to be earmarked for raised or segregated lanes. Raised or segregated cycling lanes, however, are more expensive than simply painting a line on the tarmac and I’m afraid the rationale in the report has subsequently been tailored to fit the frugal, if misguided, savings goal.

    Moreover, there is still a latent dislike for cyclists in the minds of select decision-makers. They complicate things, detract from the homogeneity (read: car monopoly) of street users; they straddle the line between “neatly-seperated-from-car-traffic” pedestrian and the true ruler of the roads (read: car). Any instance of cynicism in the above paragraphs is fully intentional.

    Thanks for this very informative post.

  4. Richard

    It’s probably more useful to think in terms of four types of cyclist, with a large “middle” group who want a reasonable combination of coherent/direct/safe (+attractive/comfortable) rather than an emphasis on one particular attribute. I don’t think it’s accurate to characterise the marginal cyclist as wanting safety above everything else. I’ve written more about this here:

    If you’ve got the funds, then improving provision at the junctions and upgrading the on-pavement “tracks” would be sensible. Berlin probably has the space for that. But if your budget is limited (maybe the city has other priorities?), then slowing traffic and making provision on the road might well be more effective in the short-to-medium term.