Lessons From Biking in Berlin


Here in D.C., we have a growing population of proud bicyclists. They've got a reason to feel good too-- the district has the highest percentage of commuters in any (non)state of the union. But when only 3.13 percent of daily commutes happen by bike, it's hardly a figure that illustrates a bike-loving populous.

That's too bad because biking shouldn't be a special interest when it's proven to be beneficial for health and the environment. Statistics from Bikes Belong show that for every 1 mile pedaled rather than driven, nearly 1 pound of CO² (0.88 lbs) is saved.

In Europe, conditions are immensely more bike-friendly. Amsterdam, of course, is the gold standard: 38% of downtown commutes are made by bike. But catching up to a city that has promoted cycling for over 30 years is daunting. Maybe it's easier for D.C. to learn from Berlin, reunified only 22 years ago, but recognized as the 5th most bike-friendly city by the Copenhagenize Index. (For comparison's sake, Berlin is about five times bigger than D.C. in size and only a bit denser.) Currently in Berlin, about 15% of commutes happen on a bike and on any given day 500,000 cyclists might be on the road.

On a trip to Deutschland sponsored by Volkswagen, "bike culture" was not our focus. Instead, we saw clearly that Germans love their cars. Nearly 2 million people visit Volkwagen's "Autostadt" or "Car City" every year. It's something like a vehicular disneyland, complete with season passes.

Berlin resident and self-identified big-guy biker, Thomas Kohl, joked with me, "Oh I think some Berliners would rather marry their car than their wife." Add to that the inalienable right to free parking: "Paid parking is a thing that Germans wouldn't accept," Kohl says, "That's one of two things that would actually get Germans to start a riot."

It's possible that Germans love their cars as much as Americans do. That makes it even more exciting that they find biking important.

Though Berlin is a poor city, the government has found a way to maintain the free parking statute while investing heavily in infrastructure for bikes. Low finances haven't stopped the local government from investing about $7 million annually to improve its cycling infrastructure as part of an initiative to increase bicycle traffic though.

Simone Bröschke, representing the traffic division of Berlin's senate, told me in an email, "The development of infrastructure for cycling was and is central to the promotion of cycling in Berlin. The system of setting up bicycle lanes on the road way plays a particularly important role in terms of security, visibility and cost reasons."

Instead of waiting for cyclists to spring up and ask improvements, Berlin built the lanes so cyclists would come.

Thomas Kohl started riding again in 2006. When he did, He noticed some of these improvements, like more marked lanes on the streets. "Blockheads will remain blockheads no matter the lanes or the cycle traffic. But there are fewer instances of being honked at, [although] unfortunately passing to close hasn't diminished for me. The marked lanes are a really nice way to bring people onto the streets, unfortunately not everyone feels safe there [...]"

As for me, riding a bike in Berlin was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Not just because the city is flat, but because the cycling lanes were plentiful and full. In the early morning, as riders were commuting to work and school, they remained safe and polite. When a girl called out "Rechts! [Right!]" and I clumsily swerved into her path, she simply moved around me. Faced with similar biking buffoonery, I'm not sure that I would have reacted so cooly. But I've also never seen so many young children riding alone and in busy streets.

Back in the District, the ride is just as enjoyable as I remember, even if I do miss seeing little kids decked out in helmets. It's not always easy to share the bike love with all D.C. residents, especially when cycling carries a lot more symbolism here. But given the cycling resurgence in Berlin, it's clear American cities like D.C. can and should proactively pursue getting people to pedal through their cities.


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