Cyclepaths in Berlin

intersection_2

I recently visited relatives in Berlin, Germany. One morning, I borrowed an old mountain bike and rode around town. I love Berlin, especially the neighborhoods away from the tourist bustle. It’s so down-to-earth and accessible.

bakery

Berlin mixes businesses and residential spaces even more than most German towns, so you’re never far from a bakery. I stopped at one that had two tables outside, and enjoyed a mid-morning cake and hot chocolate.

intersection_1

I was interested in exploring Berlin’s cyclepaths, since they are the type of facility that many U.S. cities are adopting in their quest to entice more people to cycle for transportation. Cyclepaths appeal to many Americans, since they separate bikes from cars. Berlin’s paths are off the street, but they also face the well-known problem of cyclists coming out of nowhere as they enter intersections.

Berlin really is ideally suited to cyclepaths:

  1. City blocks are incredibly long, since the city isn’t built on a grid. This means that there are far fewer intersections than in a typical U.S. city.
  2. German drivers are among the best-trained in the world. It takes dozens of hours of education (both in-car and in-classroom) before you are allowed to take the test, and even then, only two-thirds of the applicants succeed on their first try. This means that drivers know to look for cyclists as they make turns (photo at the top of the post). Even so, I witnessed a close call at one intersection, as a car turned right into the path of a cyclist.
  3. Cyclists travel relatively slowly, making them less of a moving target, and easier to predict.

bus_stop_2

Bus stops are another issue. Here, it’s just an inconvenience as bus passengers cross the red cyclepath without looking for cyclists like me.

bus_stop1

Here, it’s more dangerous. For now, the bus passengers wait off the cyclepath. But if they see the bus approaching from behind, they’ll step out into the path of the cyclist.

cyclist_street

No wonder this cyclist has decided to avoid the risk and ride in the street. In Germany, this now is legal, unless there is a sign requiring the use of the bike path. Berlin is the place where the Nazis created the first mandatory bike paths to clear the streets for cars. It’s nice to see that cyclists now have regained the right to the road after 75 years of being second-class traffic.

narrow_path

There are other reasons to avoid the cyclepaths. They are narrow, and passing slower cyclists is difficult.

almost_crash

I witnessed one close call, as a lady wobbled just as a man passed her. They touched briefly, but recovered without crashing (above). The blue sign indicates that this cyclepath remains mandatory, by the way.

newspaper

Not everybody is so lucky. Yesterday’s paper reported that two cyclists crashed after hooking their handlebars during a passing maneuver. One fractured his skull and injured his neck, and the other only suffered from abrasions.

Like many forward-thinking cities, Berlin has been working hard at getting more people on bikes. Their latest and most radical innovation is this:

door_free_bike_lane

It’s an on-street bike lane. Several people here told me how big of an achievement this is: Traffic planners now view cyclists as an equal part of traffic. What I especially like about Berlin’s bike lanes is that they stay clear of the “door zone.”

bike_lane_transition

It was nice to cycle on smooth pavement, without worrying about intersections, bus stops and slow cyclists wobbling into my path. But all good things eventually come to an end, and after half a mile, I was guided back onto the separated cyclepath.

However, as more streets in Berlin are being rebuilt, the city plans to add more on-street bike lanes. I hope the U.S. doesn’t imitate Berlin’s past (segregated cyclepaths), but it’s future (door-zone-free bike lanes).

Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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39 Responses to Cyclepaths in Berlin

  1. piffilus says:

    In Stockholm, Sweden there is also a mix of separate pathways and bicycle lanes on the streets like the ones on the photos above. An alarming rate of cyclists doesn’t obey the streetlights. The free newspaper Metro did a couple of weeks ago a check at a stoplight with a horrible result: 88 persons out of 103 did NOT stop for red light. The Police backs this up. At controls at three locations they caught 129 persons in a couple of hours for not stopping for red light!

    I don’t know if the situation is like this in Berlin or in the US. But it is a problem and I also read about spraying cyclists with windshield wiper fluid and other violent actions.

    • Mic Hussey says:

      That Metro article was a joke – it was a particularly well chosen junction where the bike lane went along the top of a “T” junction.

      The design guidelines for bike paths says quite clearly that in such situations the red light should be on the left-hand side of the bike lane as there is no need for the bikes to stop when the traffic is stopped…

  2. I like this article, it is nicely nuanced. There is some factionalism between infrastructure-only believers who refuse to accept that cycling can be possible without dedicated and ideally segregated provision, and some of the more militant vehicular cyclists. In reality, I think you need to make it as easy as possible for everyone to cycle, and not send the message that cycling is only safe or practical if X, Y or Z is in place.

    I haven’t cycled in Berlin, I have cycled in Düsseldorf and in Belgium and Netherlands as well as the UK. I like to be able to find alternatives to riding on arterial roads (which is why I hate the “cycle superhighways” in London) but I don’t like being forced out of my way or made to wait at every intersection. Berlin seems to be converging on a pragmatic solution from a starting point of “bicycle Bantustans”, other towns are starting from the other end. Overall I think the average town will, eventually, be a place where consideration is given to all forms of transport – walking, cycling, driving, trains, buses, taxis and of curse personal jetpacks. Well, we can dream I suppose.

    • David Pearce says:

      Yes, well put, the “of curse” of personal jetpacks. Next thing you know, we’ll have to file flight plans and contact the tower to take-off and land. :-)

  3. Alexander says:

    Living in Regensburg, a city of 150000 in Germany, I can add some detail to this great piece. In fact the right to use the street is not real practically implemented. There has been a court ruling (here in Regensburg, but applicable Germany wide), that bike pathes can be made mandatory only in case of proven over-the- average-risk, cities are very very slow to implement this. When there is a sign you have to use the path. Only some cities, like Munich, actively implement the ruling. On the other hand many new bike lanes are built even along backroads and are made mandatory. Since they are often badly built for the needs of faster cyclists, this worsens the situation. Often faster cyclists use the road anyway, but this makes you legally very vulnerable if an accident occurs. Regarding well trained drivers: I am terrified that drivers elsewhere might be even less trained than German ones. My experience is that they anticipate critical situations with cyclists very badly. The typical accident at right urns crossing the bike path are very common. Most driving instructures are from the petrolhead community (obviously), so treating cyclists with respect is really not a prority. So: looking for good practices in bike promotion, I am afraid you have to look elsewhere than Germany.

  4. Jan,
    You have lived too long in North America. How can anyone prefer riding with cars rushing few centimetres away, rather than on pleasant cycle paths, is beyond the understanding of civilised Europeans.
    The painted cycle lane that you like would be much better if it were on the other side of the parked cars, so that the latter act as a shield from moving traffic.
    Your comments on bus passengers posing a risk are laughable. What will the guy riding on the road do when the bus stops? Is riding on the outside lane less risky than allowing bus passengers get on and off.
    German cycle facilities are much inferior to Dutch and Danish ones, but you are barking at the wrong tree

    • The accident numbers don’t back up your contentions. Cars rushing past a meter or more away don’t really pose a risk, unlike bus passenger stepping into the way of the cyclist. Berlin is on the right track by realizing that they need to look at real dangers, and not what some uninformed people assume is safe…

      • David Pearce says:

        This is pretty funny, and I’m with you on your ideas about bike lanes. I elicited (unintentionally) a somewhat contentious response from the Bicycle Dutch blog, when I asked if he ever felt segregated and inconvenienced by the cycle paths, and I hazarded that I felt comfortable cycling in urban traffic, for example going around the modest sized Washington Circle at 23rd St. & Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. in Washington, D.C. It was really just an honest question, but the owner took it at as almost an indictment of their system, which it wasn’t.

      • Andrea says:

        Jan,

        Are you calling the Danes and the Dutch “uninformed people?”
        Are you saying that most cycling deaths in Germany are caused by crashes with pedestrians?

        Don’t you understand that cycling is not just for 20-50 year old men but for everyone, and almost everyone does not find pleasant to ride in the same space as fast moving motor traffic?

        Many German cycle paths are poor; the solution is to adopt Dutch standards, not to go the Anglo-American way which spells disaster for every-day cycling..

      • In Berlin, I saw mostly retired people riding, since it was the middle of the day. They seemed comfortable in the on-street bike lanes.

        At least in Berlin, it does not seem to be the case that riding in well-designed on-street bike lanes discourages cyclists.

      • marmotte27 says:

        You will be told that the ‘perceived risk’ is what matters, because it keeps people from cycling, and not the real one. The way people feel about riding with motorized traffic makes them think themselves much more in danger than they really are, hence the insistence on a real, ‘dutch style’ separation. That’s something very difficult to apprehend for someone who very habitually rides on the road.

        I’m myself not completely sold on separation, for several reasons, but mainly because I don’t see the political will it takes to do it properly. You really have to go the whole hog to do it right, like they did in the Netherlands, by starting to take away a significant amount of road space from cars. I don’t think that will ever be done in places like Germany with it’s powerful car industry and automobile lobby (the ADAC, the German automobile club with 18 million members is one of the biggest associations in the world…)

        So rather than having an imperfect separation system that forces cyclists onto badly implemented infrastructure and greatly accrues the hazards to them, I’m, for the time being, an advocate for cycling on the road as much as possible.

    • Alex says:

      Andrea might be thinking about his home, London, when criticizing cyclists & motorists moving on the same piece of macadam, but as an American living in Berlin, I’m all for the new changes Jan rightly praises. The cities are of course very differently laid out; Berlin’s streets are generally much wider. And yes, pedestrians alighting & boarding buses are a risk I encounter about every 30 seconds on my commute, as a cyclist can travel as fast as a bus at peak times (cyclist only stops for lights – and bus passengers!).
      It would have been good to meet up, Jan! ;-)

    • Alex says:

      These are the current accident statistics for Berlin in June 2013:

      http://www.rad-spannerei.de/blog/2013/07/05/fahrradunfaelle-in-berlin-im-juni-2013/

      and in english:
      31 serious accidents (involving hospital stays longer than 24 hours, 3 of these were deaths).
      of those 31, 20 involved motor vehicles.
      Of those 20, three happened riding next to traffic (fliessverkehr //which doesn’t include intersections as they are classified differently//: one caused by a truck coming too close to a cyclist; two involving cars). none of the fatal accidents involved cyclists riding straight next to traffic.
      the largest proportion (38%) of those 31 serious accidents mentioned above involved cyclists between 20-29.
      Berlin has a pop. of ca. 3.3 million.

  5. Gary Cziko says:

    Thanks for the very informative report from Berlin.

    The on-street bike lanes certainly look like an improvement for most cyclists over the cycle paths. But unless parked cars in Berlin all have very small doors, they don’t look quite free of the door zone to me–the buffer seems too narrow.

    For information about designing truly door-zone free bike lanes in the U.S. check out:

    For right-buffered bike lanes without parking, see:

    There is lots of other useful information about equity for cyclists at the I Am Traffic website:

    http://iamtraffic.org

  6. David Pearce says:

    I love your cycle essays.

    I wonder if the following topic has already been covered in Bicycling Quarterly: Bicycling & photography. I feel right now is a kind of new golden age for bicycles, and a real nexus is developing between outdoor activities and photography, what with cameras like the GoPro and others, longer on times, the availability of the internet for sharing. What can you suggest? Do you have a camera mounted on your bike, or helmet? What’s your photography set-up?

  7. Edward says:

    This brings back strong memories of a teenage summer I spent in Berlin in the early 90s when parts of the wall were still up. We cycled everywhere, but most memorably to the Schlactensee for evening swims. Your observation of the mix of business and residential is spot on–what a livable place.

    Of course, nobody wore helmets back when I was there, but I am somewhat surprised not-a-one helmet in these pictures after 20+ years since I was there. I can’t help but think this would have avoided the fractured skull in the accident reported on. I wonder why helmets haven’t caught in Germany?

    • marmotte27 says:

      Well, I’m glad helmets didn’t catch on more for everyday cyclists, as otherwise the danger to see the made mandatory would be even greater (it is already very great, after a recent court sentence in Germany shifting part of the blame onto a cyclist for her injuries after being doored, for not wearing a helmet).

      Look at the Dutch, no one wears a helmet there and they are quite right, cycling isn’t a dangerous activity at all (and if one insists on cycling helmets, one should equally do so for car drivers and even pedestrians, they both have a higher risk of head injuries).

  8. Ian Cooper says:

    It’s a pity that Berlin still has not learned the lessons of the 1987 Berlin Police Department study of bicycle crashes, which showed the inherent flaw in all sidepaths, or of the Grüne Radler review of the study, which said “…with increasing experience, it became ever clearer that the sidepaths are dangerous – more dangerous than riding in the roadway. There is a simple reason for this: the design and location of the sidepaths conflict with the most important principle of traffic safety, the slogan ‘Visibility is safety’.”

    Authorities in Berlin have known that these facilities pose a greater danger than the road for over 25 years, so it’s incredibly depressing to see such facilities still being made mandatory for cyclists – especially in a nation whose laws are so diligently policed and whose citizens regard the law with great respect. Bureaucracy being what it is, a delay of a year or two I can understand, but the fact that a generation of children have learned to cycle and then grown to adulthood while the government has continued to mandate the use of dangerous facilities ought to be a scandal.

    • Alex says:

      As Jan points out, Berlin has indeed finally learned & thankfully they’re changing from sharing the sidewalk (sidepaths) to sharing the roadway – and they’re moving quite quickly by German bureaucratic standards. Children under a certain age are still required to use the sidewalk but my children (yes they wear helmets) ride on the on-street bike lane (when i’m with them) if traffic permits. There are so many cyclists in Berlin now that drivers are well aware who they are sharing the road with.
      Accidents do happen, and if it’s a car/bike accident, it’s usually because one of the two ‘actors’ in the drama has assumed that theoretical rules of rights of way hold more weight than empirical observation at that moment.

      • ianbrettcooper says:

        The right of way vs being aware argument is a cop out. There is a responsibility to take the right of way as well as one to yield it.

  9. Goon says:

    Well, now we know who to blame for the segregated paths . . .

    One thing I always found interesting from reading the SZ, are the published annual figures for traffic citations issued to cyclists in Munich. It’s on the order of 5000, and suggests that enforcement is consistent and routine. This is a strong indicator that cyclists are accepted as fully vested traffic participants. Tickets average around $30 for failing to observe stop signs, violating right of way, etc., with surcharges if the violation results in an injury.

    Speaking of urban infrastructure challenges in Berlin . . . did you see any wild boar?

  10. Carlos says:

    I notice that no one is wearing a helmet. Did you see any?

  11. Paul Glassen says:

    The issue of mandatory cycle path use reminds me of one of my first such encounters four decades ago. I was riding along the Alki Beach in West Seattle. The direction I was going put me on the side of the road opposite the beach. As someone suggests, the cycle path was ‘inside’ the parked cars. I was stopped by a policeman who informed me I had to use the cycle path. I pointed out that it would put me on the wrong side of the road for the direction I was travelling – and that the path was full of people moving between their cars and the beach. Some drivers had even left their car doors open into the path so they could turn up their radios and hear them from the beach. I asked how fast he estimated I was going before he stopped me and he conceded I was “keeping up with traffic”. To his credit, this policeman was able to acknowledge the truth of my argument against mandatory cycle path use but fell back on “the law’s the law”. Sadly, not much has improved in cycling infrastructure design over forty years.

  12. Jan,

    Thank you for keeping this issue — transportational cycling, and cycling infrastructure — before us for consideration.

    Bob Cooper

  13. Matthew J says:

    Being Germany and all it would seem there has to be statistics on the number of kilometers cycled in Berlin along with accident records.

    Without such data it is impossible to tell from the article and comments whether Berlin’s approach is dangerous or not.

  14. Peter says:

    I’m not from Berlin but live in a smaller city in southern Germany. From my perspective, most of your analysis makes sense, but I oppose the conclusion that cyclists are to share the street with cars as a general rule.

    Cycling on busy streets is only feasible for people already self confident in their cycling ability. It is more efficient and in many cases also safer to take the (car dominated) road (as you have pointed out), but this is not because taking the road is safer in principle, but because cycle lanes are often very badly designed (by people who do not understand the dangers cyclists face).

    To suggest that cycling on the road is the high ideal sounds absurd to me. The feeling of being treated as a second-class road user is ubiquitous.

    But instead of my further rambling, I suggest to read David Hembrow’s Blog [1], who is a Brit writing about the (excellent) cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands.

    [1] http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/

    • We have covered the problems with segregated cyclepaths in the past. It is true that cyclists who aren’t used to riding on the road often find the prospect daunting. However, the solution that many propose, including David Hembrow, of segregating cyclists from cars, works only until the next intersection. The photo of the “cyclist coming out of nowhere” in the blog illustrates the problem.

      Separate paths work well where the intersection density is low, but in cities, they have turned out less safe than no infrastructure at all even in cities like Copenhagen (before-and-after studies of streets where cyclepaths have been installed).

      We’ve discussed the benefits and problems of segregated cyclepaths in the past – click here to read the post – so let’s not rehash the general discussion, but limit ourselves to Berlin and its implications.

  15. John Duval says:

    The idea that it is cheaper to build bicycle facilities than auto facilities seems to play both ways. Berlin seems to have the history of getting bikes out of the way of cars with minimal investment. The lavish spending on roadways Germany is famous for is not at all apparent in these neglected singletracks. Note the many, many street lights on the roadway, while the cycle tracks are overgrown and apparently unlighted.

  16. Joseph E says:

    Well, sure. Berlin’s sidewalk “cyclepaths” suck, because they appear to be only 4 feet wide and are not clearly separated from the pedestrian zone of the sidewalk, and they do not continue across intersections. Compared to this, a 7 foot wide bike lane on the roadway would be preferable to confident cyclists and would likely be safer.

    But those of us in favor of good, separated infrastructure are asking for 8 to 10 foot wide bike lanes (or cycle tracks, if you prefer) separated from traffic by a 3 to 8 foot wide buffer, with separate bike signals at intersections, and clear priority of the bike over turning cars at all intersections. And many of the best bike routes shouldn’t be next to heavy car traffic at all, but on separate street where bikes are the main traffic and cars are infrequent and slow moving, or on dedicated bike paths. These bike routes should be shorter and faster than the route for cars, and bikes should be separated by different pavement levels, traffic lights/signals, or overpasses at intersections, depending on the speed and level of car traffic.

    This is how it is done in the Netherlands, and this is why that country is the only developed nation where 25% of all trips are taken by bike, in the entire country. This is more expensive than painted bike lanes,which are certainly a good first step, and can be done almost immediately with political will. Bike lanes and small improvements on side-streets, as done so far in Portland, will get you 5% or even 10% of trips by bike, with everything else in place, but will be needed for any city or region that wants at >25% bike mode share, and if you want to see school children and seniors cycling as much as young adults.

    • The utopia of cyclepaths that are wide, well-designed, and don’t have intersection conflicts is appealing. Even better (for cycling) would be a place without cars altogether. It’s nice to dream…

      However, in most places, we have to realize that paths like those in Berlin are the best we’ll get, and in that case, I’d rather have an on-road bike lane that is safer and more convenient.

      In my home town of Seattle, the latest “protected” bike lanes are a disaster – see the previous blog entry on the subject. Other U.S. cities are no better.

      Those are the realities and the choices we are facing.

  17. Joseph E says:

    Jan, you should spend a couple of days riding in the Netherlands, especially on of the cities with very high mode share like Utrecht, Groningen or Assen.

    For those of use who can’t fly to Europe, these are great articles to read, with videos of bike infrastructure in the Netherlands, here there are safe, high quality routes everywhere: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/08/the-importance-of-mundane.html

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/10/consistent-convenient-high-quality.html

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2008/09/grid.html

    And riding a bike in town is faster than driving a car:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/speed

    When bikes are prioritized over cars, we are not made “second class citizens” by having our own infrastructure. Bikes become first-class, cars second.
    A 4 foot wide, or even a 7 foot wide painted bike lane next to parked cars, or next to a gutter is not first-class infrastructure, any more than a crummy 4 foot wide lane marked out on a sidewalk. That’s why in Berlin the mode share for walking is 2.5 times higher than the bike mode share, while in Utrecht or Eindhoven there are 6 or 7 times as many bike trips than walking trips. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_share).

    The mode share for walking in Germany is the same as that of the Netherlands (25% each), but the Dutch ride bikes 2.5 times as often, leading to 25% of trips being by bike instead of 10% in Germany: http://policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/pucher/TRNWesternEurope.pdf (page 2)
    Why do you think that is, if not the infrastructure?

  18. grrlyrida says:

    In LA we mostly have poorly designed bike lanes that are in the door zone. We get our first cycletrack next year. I for one am happy and I can guarantee it will get more women biking than a bike lane next to fast moving traffic. Like a poster mentioned above, it’s the perceived feeling of safety. But I don’t think bike lanes in LA are safe. I myself prefer separated facilities. Since we don’t have them where I live, I’m stuck with our poorly designed bike lanes. It doesn’t help either that LA is suffering from a rash of hit from behind hit and runs, with the cyclists being hit while traveling in a bike lane or on the road without a lane.

  19. Alexander says:

    I commuted for four years on cycle infrastructure that matches the Utopia: about 3, 5 m wide ad car free. It was in Nürnberg/Germany where a network of pathes along some small rivers exists. Conclusion: not so good as it seems: they are wide enough to make you go fast (many cyclists 30 km/h + , but they are used by children, elderly, dogs etc as well. Few room to manouver, narrow corners. I had a serious accident on one of those and witnessed a number of others. Only from this anecdotical evidence: infrastructure that gives you a flase sense of security (no cars) but is not in fact safe may be the worst of both worlds. Using 10 % of the street network as proper “cycle streets” as Jan described in a prior post may be the way to go. In addition a 30km/h speed limit in cities would help a lot. Unfortunately a European plebiscite initiative on that was largely ignored in the bike community and failed miserably.

  20. GuitarSlinger says:

    See now from my perspective ( Denver CO ) my definition of a Cycle path and yours were on two completely different pages . From my perspective a Cycle Path is like our Platt River Bike Trail … Cherry Creek Bike Trail .. I-470 Bike path… Bear Creek Bike Trail etc … Completely separate from the road all together with bike only underpasses for most intersections etc . What you’re showing in Berlin I’d of though was no more than a bicycle ‘ Lane ‘…. stuck on the sidewalks rather than on the road .. but obviously I’m in the wrong pendant wise here . Honestly …. looking at the Berlin definition of a ‘ Cycle Path ‘ …. I’d be off the path and on the road as well . Too narrow . Too many opportunities IMO to hit [ or be hit by ] a pedestrian … be hit by a car or bus when crossing …. etc . Which is to say … after seeing the above photos … I’m on your side of the argument when it comes to ‘ this ‘ style of Cycle Path … 150%

    Eeesh ! These ‘ Cycle Paths ‘ . One more thing IMO the Europeans ( much as I love them and their cultures ) can keep on their side o’ the ocean ;-)

  21. James Johnsen says:

    Just spent 2 weeks cycling in Koln/Deutz. Seems very similar to Berlin. Very safe city to ride a bicycle. Highly recommended

  22. svenski says:

    Thanks, Jan, for your careful observations in Berlin. With a cycling history here of 20 years (+2 in Barcelona), I fully support your conclusions. On-street lanes are a huge improvement, and it still is much safer to overtake the occasional parked car (as you’re flowing in traffic) than separate bike lanes that only work from one intersection to the next. The next good thing are smaller streets without any cycling facilities, at best turned into Fahrradstraßen” (cycle boulevards),where you just ride on the street.

    Would have been great to meet you here! Drop a note, if & when you’re coming around next time!

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