Making Berlin a Cycling Metropolis

Given that I’m Dutch, it’s actually a small miracle that I haven’t written about bicycles before – or at least not a lot. But since I couldn’t imagine my live without a bike and use it for 98% of all my travel within the city, it might be time to pay a little more attention to cycling in Berlin. The stories are true: it’s a great city to cycle. But there is still plenty of room for improvement. Please allow me, as a concerned Dutchie, to explain everything a ‘Cycling Metropolis’ should know – and please forgive my frustration, I still love you, Berlin.

First some comparative figures, Berlin versus Holland. In 2013, bike rides accounted for 18% of total traffic in Berlin. In 2007, 33% of all Dutch travel over a distance of below 7.5km was by bike and 45% of all travel below 2.5km. Berlin has 0.71 bicycles per resident, Holland has 1.1 bicycles per inhabitant. There are 620km of cycle paths in the city of Berlin, compared to 1,800km in the Dutch province of Utrecht (roughly the size of Berlin).

The wider, the better

Google ‘bike lane’ and one of Google’s first suggestions is ‘bike lane Netherlands’. We, the Dutchies, know the meaning of a good bike lane. According to it’s “a part of a road marked off or separated for the use of bicyclists”. In Holland, ‘parts of a road’ quite often means an entire road just for bikes. Four people could pedal next to each other and there would still be room to pass them. In Berlin, sometimes I’m afraid to fall off the bike lane, because they are too narrow to even handle one bicyclist. That is: when there is a separate lane, because there are still plenty of big roads where cyclists are supposed to share their lane with buses and taxis (70km of the 620km total). And they are not the friendliest types. On top of that, there are all the obstacles on bike lanes. Bus stops, parked cars, pedestrians, glass…

“The streets are crazily wide,” a Guardian journalist wrote in an article (2010) about cycling in Berlin. “Yesterday I pedalled from Alexanderplatz (site of the 1989 protests) down Karl Marx Allee, the archetypal example of East German road building. […] this imposing boulevard is almost 90m wide. Even the pavements are broad enough for tanks to drive down two abreast.” I agree that cycling down Karl-Marx-Allee is a great combination of sightseeing and transportation. But also in my street the bike lanes are way too narrow. There’s about a 1m wide bike lane and a 100m wide sidewalk next to it. I might be exaggerating a little.

Good karma, bad karma

I’m not the only one who can get frustrated by all this. The people behind the ‘Volksentscheid Fahrrad’ (Berlin’s Bicycle Referendum) have been collecting signatures to wake up the politicians. As they say on their website: “At the moment, cycling in Berlin usually means: independence, feeling alive, good karma; but sometimes also: courage and braveness and sadly also too often: anger, one-finger salutes and bad karma.” They want more bike lanes, broader bike lanes, safer crossings, ‘green waves’ and more awareness. And they’re not alone: within less than a month, over 100.000 people from Berlin signed their petition.

So why is it so important that the bike lanes are wider than 50cm? First of all, because nobody wants to get stuck between a tree and a parked car. Second, because in my opinion cycling is not a solitary form of travel – contrary to what I witness in Berlin. In Holland, you don’t wait for the school bus. In Holland you wait for your friends to cycle to school together. Dutch couples specialize in cycling hand-in-hand and when going out at night, the bike ride to the city, beer in your hand and friends beside you, is part of the fun. Have a look at this slightly cheesy video to see what I mean. Knowing this, you might not be surprised that the Dutch don’t feel like cycling behind each other, especially when the streets are as wide as they are in Berlin.

Know your place

This does call for some cycling etiquette though. It is true that we Dutchies learn how to ride a bike right after we learn how to walk. And at the same time, we also learn how to behave on a bicycle. I even had a mandatory ‘traffic exam’ when I was around 10 years old, in which I had to prove I was a responsible cyclist who knew the rules. The Dutch are anything but perfect, but we realize that we’re not alone on the road and that we could make life a lot easier for other people if we indicate which direction we are going (a slight lift of the left or right arm will do) and don’t stop without checking if anyone is right behind us. Especially in a crowded city, where there are always people around you.

And following up on that: we don’t take ourselves too seriously and understand that we’re not alone, even though we have certain privileges in Holland. I once read that wearing a helmet actually increases the chance of getting hurt on your bike. Just because you have the fastest bike and the shiniest helmet, it doesn’t mean that you have super powers. A lot of accidents happen because cyclists get overconfident – and as long as Berlin is no Cycling Metropolis, they are definitely not in a position to do so.

Bike lane in Haarlem, Holland
Bike lane in Haarlem, Holland. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

So keep watching the other traffic, make sure you stay on the right side of the road and leave the sidewalk for pedestrians. As one of the Fotostrasse bloggers writes on his article (with interesting video!) about cycling in Berlin: “[…] one of the worst thing about cycling in Berlin is when you are walking on the sidewalk and a guy comes on a bike ringing his bell and telling you to move. I often wonder why are they on the sidewalk if the street is a few centimetres away. At first, I moved and made the sidewalk clear to them. But I gave up on being friendly and I just hear the bell and don’t move. Bikes should be on the streets and on bike lanes, not on sidewalks.”

Bike lane in Haarlem, Holland.
Bike lane in Haarlem, Holland. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

And still… I love it

I get frustrated sometimes, when trying to manoeuvre through the traffic in Berlin. But I couldn’t imagine using public transport to get to the office. Being Dutch, I basically don’t have a choice. I can feel my bike crying whenever I take the U-Bahn. I love getting on my bike in the morning and seeing the city waking up as I’m moving through it at my own pace. Sun on my skin, twittering birds in the trees, the smell of fresh bread from the Turkish bakery and the view of the glistening water of the Spree.

Bike lane in Haarlem
More than enough space for cyclists in the centre of Haarlem. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Even though there’s no cycling etiquette in Berlin yet, I also always strongly recommend that visiting friends rent bikes. The weather usually permits it (no wind and rain!) and it’s a great way to see as much as possible of the city. And yes, I get annoyed sometimes because the Germans clearly haven’t used their famous Gründlichkeit to make cycling as much of a pleasure as it can be. But the good thing is: as long as Berlin isn’t a ‘Cycling Metropolis’, there will always be plenty of room to park my bike wherever I want it – try doing that in Amsterdam.

Feel like taking a bike tour in Berlin? Mit Vergnügen has some great ideas: 11 beautiful tours in and around Berlin (only in German).