Berlin’s Striking Cycling Renaissance

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Berlin is a hugely under-appreciated cycling city. Often overshadowed by the accomplishments of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, over the past two decades Berlin has quietly experienced what is perhaps the most striking cycling renaissance in the world. On any given day, more trips are now made by bicycle in Berlin than any other European city.

Berlin does not fit the mold of a typical bicycling paradise. The metropolis of 3.5 million people is as populous and expansive as Los Angeles. In contrast to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Berlin boasts abundant road supply, minimal traffic congestion, and an extensive Metro system. Summers are hot and humid and winters are long and cold. In the capital of the nation that produced Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW, and autobahns, one would not expect bicycling to flourish; yet, since German reunification in 1990, Berlin has undergone a cycling revolution.

According to Berlin’s 2010 Mobility Report, Berliners made approximately 1.4 million trips by bicycle every day in 2008, amounting to 13 percent of all trips citywide (and 14 percent of commute trips). This figure has more than doubled since 1990, yet it is likely already outdated, given rising gas prices ($8/gallon in Berlin) and an aggressive city initiative to raise cycling mode share to 15 percent by 2015.

While mode share figures are an imperfect measure of cycling rates, they allow for rough comparisons between cities. In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, about 35 percent of all trips are made by bicycle. In Portland, cycling captures 6-8 percent of commute trips, the largest total of any major American city. For a city the scale of Berlin, 13 percent mode-share is substantial — especially considering 30 percent of trips are already made by walking and 26 percent by public transportation.

The accomplishments of Berlin are even more outstanding at a district level. Substantially larger than Amsterdam (population 780,000), Copenhagen (541,000), and Portland (583,000), Berlin encompasses a wide range of neighborhood types, from dense urban to single family suburban. Outlying suburban districts like Spandau or Steglitz resemble Portland or Boulder, with bicycle trips composing around 6-12 percent of all trips.  Meanwhile, in Berlin’s dense urban core of Mitte, Tiergarten, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Schöneberg, and Fredrichshain—an area of 695,000 people with a population density 50 percent higher than San Francisco—bicycling comprises an outstanding 20 percent of all trips.

Berlin owes its success to equal parts bicycle culture and infrastructure. Bicycling education begins at an early age—every Berliner must pass a bicycle safety course in elementary school. This early education campaign feeds into what appears to be a surprisingly orderly movement of traffic—bicyclists tend to obey traffic laws and motorists tend to look out for bicyclists. Demographically, Berlin is Germany’s largest college town—it has three major universities and 135,000 college students, in addition to hundreds of thousands of 20-somethings who flock to Berlin from throughout Europe after graduating. Yet bicycling is not restricted to young urbanites. The ubiquitous grade-separated cycle tracks, bicycle boulevards, and other facilities make cycling attractive to schoolchildren and the elderly alike.

The recent snowball effect, however, has been the product of good long-range planning. Upon reunification, Berlin took a proactive stance to accommodate future growth in bicycling rather than simply meeting present demand. The city made a sustained long-term commitment to bicycling, currently investing approximately €5 million ($7 million) annually into bicycle infrastructure and programs. Whereas cities like San Francisco or Seattle seem to constantly be playing catch-up to bicycling demand, Berlin planned for success even when the demand was not there. The “if you build it, they will come” adage seems to ring true.

It is worth noting that Berlin still has plenty of room for improvement. Post-WWII redevelopment created many high-speed boulevards and mega-apartment complexes that eroded the livability of many neighborhoods of the city (especially in East Berlin). While the city has demonstrated a strong commitment toward encouraging bicycling citywide, these areas in particular have lagged behind in becoming bicycle-friendly. However, if there’s one constant in Berlin, it’s change: Its cityscape and culture are among the most dynamic in the world, and the city seems to reinvent itself every couple of years. With the rate of bicycle ownership (721 per 1,000 people) now more than twice the rate of car ownership (324 per 1,000 people), the role of bicycling in Berlin shows no signs of diminishing; further growth seems inevitable.

What is occurring in Berlin gives hope to metropolises across the world. Twenty years ago, Berlin faced the same challenges that countless cities face today: Bicycling was an afterthought, a niche transportation mode reserved for students and hipsters. However, the city’s sustained, long-term commitment to the 5 E’s of bicycling—Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation & Planning—has today produced a renaissance that’s pushed cycling into the mainstream. While New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles are too big to be the next Amsterdam or Copenhagen, they could be the next Berlin.

Daniel Jacobson is a senior at Stanford University studying urban planning. He studied abroad in Berlin for three months earlier this year.  His work is available at www.danielaaronjacobson.com.

  • Really great that this story has been written. Berlin is I think the city most relevant to NYC and SF in terms of the shift that has gone on there. Beyond the great mode shift they have accomplished and cycling facilities added, many of the streets are pleasant and engaging places to walk and bicycle on (unlike Portland or Boulder). Adding cycle tracks are not just an infrastructure approach but a part of the larger goal to create great streets.

  • Berlin needs to clamp down on people riding bikes on sidewalks. The city is an amazing place, but I got sick of getting run down by bicyclists while I was walking.

  • Riding on sidewalks is the regulation in Germany (albeit only on the colored strip on the sidewalk).  I agree that other cities have better solutions than this; I saw (and was almost part of!) a surprising number of bicycle/ped conflicts in Berlin.

  • justin

    “…given rising gas prices ($8/gallon in Berlin)”
    This says more than all the other words combined.

  • Jarrett M

    Yeah! 

    Does anyone happen to have a breakdown of the price of gas in Germany/Berlin? What kind of taxes go to what? What government authorities have the power alter the tax? Do gas taxes pay for the $7 million/year pot for bike projects? What are the other major sources of income for the bike infrastructure funds? 

    I know that was a deluge of questions, but I’m just curious! 

  • SeventhLaguna

    $7 million / year actually sounds pretty meager. Really speaks to the cost-effectiveness of bike facilities. I think we could achieve such a target in any major U.S. city pretty quickly with a bit more leverage.

  • I took my bike to Europe a few summers ago, and rode around Berlin and Amsterdam, among other cities. Berlin was my favourite city to ride in, bar none. Beautiful, smooth, clear bike infrastructure. Not as many bikes as some of the other cities, but not so much of jarring and slow cobblestone paths you find in Amsterdam.

  • Ugh.
    I have lived in Berlin for three years – 12 times as long as Mr.
    Jacobson was here – and have two old and fragile dogs. Bunch of
    things right but imprecise and a lot, totally wrong:

    *
    Berlin having more trips than elsewhere is a ridiculous statement: It
    is not only per-capita that is important but who is cycling. In
    Berlin among people of European-origin it seems to be split equally
    in regards to gender, but there are a lot more details…

    *
    The varied cycling-rate in different districts is good to show and
    the analysis about the highway-like streets in parts of east Berlin
    is correct but Jacobson fails to de-construct this further: The
    central districts with the highest rates are increasingly gentrifying
    and the district of Neukölln is largely of Turkish- and other
    non-European immigrant origin, and – sorry – but if my eyes do not
    deceive me most of the cyclists in these districts are of European
    origin.

    *
    As others have commented, “…surprisingly
    orderly movement of traffic…” is a joke. Drivers of motor
    vehicles do tend to look out for cyclists but there is a lot of chaos
    on the cycling side, from simply not knowing the purpose of lights
    and bells and so frequently using neither, to simply aggressive
    riding on the pedestrian part of the generally poorly-separated side
    parts of streets. Indeed, the Geisterfahrer (ghost riders) are a
    well-known phenomenon as they travel everywhere they want, unlit and
    silently. It is huge stress for pedestrians and other cyclists, if
    not a serious physical threat. I lived in Prague for 7 years before
    moving here and due to the very low cycling rate there it was much
    easier to walk on the sidewalks!

    *
    “…. accommodate further growth…” is simply not true.
    The two main orgs. which work on this issue – BUND Berlin and ADFC
    Berlin – as well as the Green Party criticize the infrastructure here
    for precisely not accommodating growth. This is one of the main
    reasons while cyclists misbehave: Infrastructure is generally
    inconsistent and frequently poor with a lot of space taken away from
    pedestrians, both historically and more recently, and also due to
    this bad behaviour.

    *
    The writer also fails to mention that Berlin is one of the poorest
    Western EU capitals, if not the poorest. This is a main reason many
    do not have cars, or drivers licenses. 

    *
    “….every Berliner must pass a bicycle safety course in
    elementary school…” is a huge exaggeration. In fact it is not
    just European post-university types who emigrate here but a lot of
    “Americans”. Most Americans, but also e.g. Spanish and of
    course immigrants from elsewhere have had no formal cycle training.
    There is a very little of this for adults, though there are plans to
    increase it, pending political approval. It is not just Berliners who
    as children have a bike course at about age 8 – the age they are
    allowed to cycle in the street – but most children all across
    Germany. BUT any children who come to Germany or Berlin later in life
    will not have training.I guess that’s about it — I don’t know why Jacobson overlooked or generalized so much. It feels a bit like the typical “American” everything is good cycling editorial style, which Streetfilms – but not Streetsblog – tends to follow. Spreading positives and good examples is fine but they need to be presented in context.I have an article coming out in issue no. 4 of Cycling Mobility in December. which addresses these issues and proposes what I hope is an interesting solution. 

  • Anonymous

    Berlin is a great cycling city and the author gets at most of the reasons why. A few nitpiks though. What he calls “grade-separated cycle tracks” could really also be described as bike lanes on sidewalks. Although this kind of placement is generally not a good idea, they work pretty well in Berlin for a number of reasons. One is that at intersections the lanes do return to the vehicle surface level smoothly and with their own dedicated (and prioritized) signals. Also Berlin tends to have huge sidewalks. Despite this, bike/pedestrian conflicts seem pretty common. Cyclists in general ride at a slower pace than many North American riders which helps prevent too many serious crashes, but having the bikes switch back and forth from the road surface to the sidewalk surface does create issues.

    My main impression is that despite less than perfect infrastructure design, Berlin benefits from high enough ridership and a long enough history of ridership that people have just learned to get along pretty well. Cars watch for bikes watch for pedestrians and vice versa. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s a big lesson here other than to invest in promoting cycling over a long period and get a good, self-sustaining mode share. The $7 million a year figure is a bit misleading as well. Clearly they made huge investments early on building most of bike lanes and other facilities, but you don’t see much new getting put in other than a few painted lines on the street. I suspect the current budget is mostly maintanence.

    In terms of layout and size, in some ways Berlin is actually a good comparison and example for Los Angeles. LA doesn’t have nearly as much of the dense, easy walkability. But it is also a sprawling, multi-centered city with plenty of space to put in real bike infrastructure without major impacts to driving. Despite its reputation, huge numbers of people do not drive and usually move around in a smaller area well suited to cycling. LA just isn’t ever going to become Amsterdam, but it could be Berlin.

  • Again, a well written story even if some readers take exception to some of what Daniel had to say.  That said, I would like to add one thing that I think is a critical element to the story. 

    After Unification, Berlin transportation officials had two options (I’m generalizing) to modernize the fairly decrepit east part of the city; build a very expensive U-Bahn system like that already in existence in the West or look at alternatives like modernizing the existing Strassenbahn and try to look at other alternatives, namely the bicycle, all at a fraction of the cost. 

    Since the Deutsche Bundesregierung (German Federal Government) was already strapped with the costs of modernizing the entire former East Germany, Berlin officials knew that they were not going to get the massize federal funds needed to extend the U-Bahn.  Left with few options, they went with the later choice with great success. 

    The story of the success of bicycling in Berlin even with it’s problems (as brought up in some of the comments), is a lesson for all the cities of the world.

  • I had the same experience, but on the other side of Germany. We cycled in Cologne, Maastricht, and Ghent, and although any one of them made cycling in American cities feel decidedly third-world, Cologne was our favorite. What it lacks in cycling-specific infrastructure it makes up for in a calmer attitudes promoted by street design. So many streets have comprehensive traffic calming, including intersections that physically bar autos from using a local street as a through street, that “taking the lane” required no boldness at all. On faster streets that were not so bicycle friendly, there was either an official or unofficial bicycle lane on the sidewalk. (Fetch the smelling salts for our sidewalk absolutists.) We walked on a lot of shared sidewalks and never had a problem.

    Another great thing about the street layout is there were relatively few traffic signals. If anybody wanted to bitch about cyclists running red lights, first they would have to find a red light. And then since the lights are actually serving a purpose you aren’t tempted to jump them as a pedestrian or a casual cyclist.

    So this is another vote for American cities to learn from German cities how to inclusively redesign their streets. Focus primarily on reducing the danger to all from autos, and cycling works itself out.

  • Tom

    Having just returned from Europe where I drove 3,500 miles and paid (for diesel) about $7.50/gallon, I can say that driving is cheaper there than here.  It cost me only $.17 per mile to drive around(as opposed to $.22 here). It the result of many factors: less stopping, the cars are lighter, they prefer manual transmissions and diesel, and the engines more efficient.  
    People do adapt, you know.

  • Tom

    Having just returned from Europe where I drove 3,500 miles and paid (for diesel) about $7.50/gallon, I can say that driving is cheaper there than here.  It cost me only $.17 per mile to drive around(as opposed to $.22 here). It the result of many factors: less stopping, the cars are lighter, they prefer manual transmissions and diesel, and the engines more efficient.  
    People do adapt, you know.

  • European gas taxes go into the general fund, without lockboxes like in the US; transportation is funded out of state or federal general funds, with some restrictions (e.g. intercity rail is not subsidized).

    The trend has been to raise gas taxes in recent years; Germany had a major rise in gas taxes in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the Green Party’s demands in exchange for joining the coalition.

  • 324 cars per 1,000 people isn’t that low. In New York the number is about 230. In Tokyo it’s if I’m not mistaken 200 in what’s considered the city proper (the 23 Special Wards). In Paris I believe it’s 250.

    Another thing: Berlin is much more of a transit city than a bike city. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn are well-run, with per capita ridership twice as high as that of Greater New York and about as high as that of Greater Paris. Out of curiosity, Daniel and Green_Idea_Factory, is that related to the bike share? In other words, are bicycles intensively used to get to and from train stations, as they are in Copenhagen and Tokyo?

  • Mr. B – About 500 million dollars were recently spent on a 1.2 mile subway line here — from the new (as of 2006) main station to the Bundestag. Nothing is simple – there were multiple fcukups – but it is just a symbol of the grandiose mobility mindset of too many decision-makers here. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/berlin-grosse-premiere-fuer-kleine-kanzler-u-bahn-1839512.html

    Also to address what Alon Levy asked, the bicycle-parking at the main station is worse than its counterpart in Washington D.C. A lot of U-Bahn stations have lots of bikes outside, but tied down to everything but proper safe and secure racks — at the same time one can always take a bike on the S-Bahn and U-Bahn and  some buses and trams for a low monthly tariff. Some new stations have new parking facilities, but nothing of Dutch/Dutch Railway standards.

    The bikepaths are technically not part of the sidewalk in most places, but functionally they are, which means cyclists use the sidewalk as a expansion space, and also to go the wrong way etc. There is no change in level, e.g. as there is in Copenhagen.

    Sorry, I don’t know what the other commenters were smoking when they were in Berlin but facilities are simply not very good. There are also huge gaps which force people to cycle on the sidewalk all over town, and not just in the former East.

    The main point is that one cannot expect to easily have all or even most of the shifts happen which allow a city to get to an e.g. 50% mode share for bikes… there is no “Berlin” to aim for: There is only the best infrastructure, regulations and education, and Germany offers none of this which is not at least matched by what is going on in the Netherlands — I would rather have no infrastructure in an exciting city then great infra. in a place that is boring, but if a place is interesting and so on like Berlin it cannot be a reason to slack on infrastructure.

  • Alon, see my comment to Alan B’s comment…. 

  • Alon, see my comment to Alan B’s comment…. 

  • Nathan, Cologne is known as a sophisticated place, so what you say does not seem surprising. 

  • Daniel Jacobson

    Thanks everyone for your comments.  I’m not at all surprised by the variety of perspectives given that Berlin is such a huge city and the cycling experience can vary district by district or even street by street.  Where I lived in Kreuzberg (streetview: http://bit.ly/qYeiUM), bike facilities were plentiful, and I was able to make my 6 mile bike commute to classes (near the Frei Universitat in Zehlendorf) without ever leaving a cycle track or bicycle boulevard.  This obviously isn’t the case throughout the city, but no city has ideal facilities everywhere you go.

    As far as pedestrian-bike conflicts, in my experience all it takes is a little common sense to be safe.  Navigating the streets of Berlin, Amsterdam, or Copenhagen (or for that matter the Stanford campus) requires a level of awareness as a pedestrian and cyclist that takes some getting used to, since most people are only used to pedestrian-car or bike-car interactions rather than all three at once.  I think people are being a little hard on the cycle track design–while the lanes are on the sidewalk, they’re usually on the far edge separated by trees and street furniture, so they usually function with similar levels of safety and comfort (albeit with a little less capacity).  In three months I never had any conflicts as a bicyclist or pedestrian in Kreuzberg, Schoneberg, Mitte, etc.  Prenzlauer Berg seems to have the highest concentration of conflicts because it’s an extremely dense district with little road space and lots of cyclists, but in terms of traffic safety it never struck me as any different than the city centers of Amsterdam or Copenhagen. 

    Anyway, no city is perfect and designing a truly bicycle-friendly, pedestrian-friendly environment is not easy, but from my experience I’d say Berlin is substantially further along than any other major city out there, and there’s a lot of good things for other cities to aspire to.

  • MAA

    I appreciate your post and am
    interested to learn more. I am currently living in Germany to
    research sustainable transport and best practices in planning and
    policy after working on transport in NYC for the last 3 years. I
    especially liked best your point that Berlin might be a more
    realistic model for cities in the US trying to promote cycling
    (decrease the impact of cars). I lived in Berlin for a month after
    four months in Bonn (which I would argue is an even better city for
    cycling – though clearly not on the same size in terms of population)
    and am now in Hamburg (which is closer to Berlin in terms of
    population but not as bike friendly).The only thing I think
    should be clarified from your post is that many German cities (actually
    Bundeslander, of which Berlin is both) require traffic safety
    education from an early age, not just Berlin. When in Bonn this summer (which is in
    NRW) I saw a police officer at an intersection with a bunch of 8-10
    year olds all on bikes and he was giving them instructions on how to
    cross and signal etc. Some of my German colleagues have told me that it is pretty standard to have these classes at various ages. I get your point that education from an early
    age is key, but Berlin isn’t the only place doing it. You may not
    have meant that it was but it sort of reads like that.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I’ll have
    to check out that Mobility Report.

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