Berlin Decides its Future

Copenhagenize - 14 April, 2016 - 08:42

This article is written by Copenhagenize Design Company's urban planner, Leon Legeland. Originally from the least- bicycle friendly city in Germany, Wiesbaden, he has lived, studied and worked in Vienna, Malmö and currently Copenhagen. He has a master in Sustainable Urban Management and is currently finishing his second master in Sustainable Cities here in Copenhagen. He has been working with us for eight months and is motivated to support and plan the needed paradigm shift in mobility in Germany and particularly in Berlin.

Mikael will be speaking at this year's VivaVelo congress next week in Berlin, on April 18, 2016, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the status quo and current buzz about urban cycling in the German capital.

In the 2015 Copenhagenize Index, we saw the city slip from 5th in 2011 to 12th in 2015. Still, Berlin is in the Top 20, but where is the city headed in the next few years? Things are happening in the city. Both things that make us optimistic and excited and things that make us want to throw up a little bit in our mouth.

If we look at the baseline, progress is slow and soooo last century.

There appears to be a total disconnect between the declared municipal strategy and what is actual happening (or not happening). The Senate in Berlin, on some level, understands that urban cycling improves the quality of life and that it has to be promoted and supported. The official bicycle strategy is full of promising initiatives and visions - more than many cities.

The city has a goal of hitting 20% modal share by 2025 and wants to invest in bicycle infrastructure and parking and to improve the overall bikeability of the city. The Senate initiated a collaborative online platform that identified and discussed fifty dangerous intersections that get will be prioritised for a bicycle friendly redesign. It was a clever move to get local insights about needs and problems with added subjective expertise. This all sounds fine and good, but the reality is far-removed.

Out of fifty intersections, only three intersections have been redesigned in the past three years. Safety in intersections is key. Since 2000, almost 200 people have been killed on their bicycles in Berlin. Tragic. No doubt about that. Instead, however, of accelerating the redesign of dangerous intersections and building Best Practice infrastructure along roads, the city decided instead to merely advertise their own lack of desire for change with large digital signs aimed at motorists (above - spotted on this Facebook group).

Texts included:

“In 2015, 15 cyclists were killed by passing cars. Minimum 1.5m distance”
“Every two hours a bicycle accident happens, keep 1.5m distance”.

We suppose the idea - however primitive - is good. Creating awareness among motorists that cyclists are present in the city. It is also a bold advertisment branding cycling as dangerous. There is little messaging that would encourage motorists - who cause many of the ills that cities suffer - to consider a shift in transport mode. Finally, it shows in no uncertain terms how outdated, flawed and incompetent the current traffic planning and road design is.

The solution is simple: build adequate, protected bicycle lanes and redesign your intersections. You won’t need warnings, you’ll avoid branding cycling as dangerous and you will save vast amounts of money on public health.

Since the city has already invested in the digital signs, why not use them for positive messaging? Off the top of our heads:

“Berliners spend 100 hours per year in traffic jams, take your bike!”
“Berlin is one of the most polluted cities in Germany, stop driving!”
“500,000 apartments in Berlin suffer from noise pollution from cars, take the train and bike!”

It’s one thing wasting money on digital signs, but what’s worse is that Berlin is not even spending its annual budget for bike infrastructure. The Senate failed to use €4.6 million that was available to it. The City spends €3.80 per person on bicycle infrastructure. Embarrassing considering that in Copenhagen, that number is €25. In Oslo, it’s as high as €35. But even cities like Paris, London and Madrid spend more than €12 per person.

Berlin is not even spending what they have, let alone finding more money to modernise their transport and keep up to speed with global trends. A recent investigation by Berliner Morgenpost newspaper mapped all the roads in Berlin in regards to their bicycle infrastructure. They found that 55% of all main roads in Berlin have bicycle “infrastructure”. That sounds nice, but it includes narrow painted lanes and bus lanes that can be used by bikes. The painted lanes are generally only 80 cm wide - far from the 2.5 meters dicated by Best Practice - and are often clogged with parked cars.

The study found that 338 of Berlin’s main roads do not have any bicycle infrastructure at all. Cycling in Berlin is not at all intuitive. It’s confusing and irritating. There is no uniform design or cohesive, comprehensive network.

In a nutshell, the municipality talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. Progress is painfully slow and there is little Best Practice design. Politicians blame the tricky administrative division between the Senate and the districts, as well as the lack of professional staff to get projects pushed through to completion. Basically, the money is there but there are no planners to use it.

Don’t think stuff doesn’t get done in Berlin. The largest infrastructure project in the city - currently under construction - is the extension of the Autobahn 100 from Neukölln to Treptow. Yep. A highway! In 2016. Bizarre.

Do you know what the city will get for the €480,000,000 price tag? A whopping (not) 3.2 km long, six-lane highway labelled “Piece of Berlin”. They say the same thing as people have been saying for 60 years - that this highway will magically improve the city’s traffic environment, increase quality of life, economic growth and reduce automobilie traffic and congestion. Seriously. Despite the fact that no highway has done this anywhere in the past 100 years.

The only thing we’ve learned over the past century is this: If you make more space for cars, more cars will come. Traffic in Berlin will stay the same - and probably become worse. A six-lane highway cannot improve quality of life. Other cities are tearing out their last-century monuments to failure, not building new ones.

The extension of the A100 requires the demolition of a couple of apartment buildings, the felling of hundreds of trees, the relocation of an old landfill and is a extremely complicated construction due to high groundwater level, noise protection, and so on. This is a madman’s playground for German Autobahn engineering, not a “Piece of Berlin”.

Even more sad is the fact that a further extension of the A100 - adding on another 4.1 km - is currently being discussed and is expected to be approved in the next two years. According to some preliminary calculations, the cost may hit €1 billion, due to a tunnel under the Spree River. There will be the usual demolishing of buildings, the eviction of clubs and cultural institutions and more chopped trees. Let’s hope the people of Berlin can mobilise and stop this madness.

Wild, isn’t it? The municipal departments are able to plan, approve, finance and construct a complicated, monster highway for a total of €1.4 billion but they can’t seem to find money to move far more people through the streets of Berlin with a network of uniform, Best Practice bicycle infrastructure based on designs and experience over 100 years old.

Berlin - more than many cities in the world - is all about the citizens. They seem to get it. In the inner city, the modal share is 18% for bicycles. Car traffic is at 17%. Urban cycling is mainstream and is ready for massive growth. Cycling is growing by 5% every year - even though only 3% of all traffic space is dedicated to bikes. All Berliners need is a group of politicians currently residing in this century.

Citizens are also doing it for themselves. There is an ambitious group of activists, planners and regular citizens who happen to use bikes to get around and they are fed up with the inactivity of the Senate. The Berlin chapter of the national cycling NGO - called ADFC - were notorious for their displeasure with infrastructure. A hangover from this school of thought. Luckily, they are now supporting the referendum.

The Volksentscheid - Fahrrad is behind a cycling referendum that is currently shaking the Senate out of its drowsiness and insisting that more has to be done to make Berlin a bicycle friendly city. The group have established ten goals that are incorporated in the first German bicycle law. The goals include the transformation of 325 km of roads into bicycle streets, safe bicycle infrastructure on every main road, a safer redesign of 75 intersections per year, quick maintenance and fixes along bike lanes, 200,000 bike parking spots, fifty stretches with a green wave for bikes, 100 km of bicycle highways, police on bikes that ensure the bikeability, more bicycle planning staff in council positions and communications campaign that prepare Berlin to become a bicycle friendly city.

All goals are bound to a timeplan. There are great activists out there in the world, but this group has taken it to the next level.

This might seem a bit optimistic. But consider this. The ambitious goals of the Cycling Referendum will cost about the same as just one kilometre of the A100 extension. That’s it. Add to that the fact that one kilometer of cycle track is paid off in under five years and the referendum plans will be making money for the city in no time. The A100 never will.

Car traffic is the minority group in the transport paradigm and yet the City is spending obscene amounts of money to increase car traffic in Berlin.

The Cycling Referendum has jumpstarted a modern and much-needed discussion and put political pressure on the municipal officials. Instead of the usual, ineffective critical mass events, the group around the Cycling Referendum use a clever way to show their dissatisfaction - by offering best practice alternatives. This year, Berlin is electing a new Senate, and cycling is becoming a hot issue on the political agenda. The Cycling Referendum and its objectives get a lot of media coverage, which further fuels the political debate.

We at Copenhagenize Design Co. fully support the goals and plans of the Cycling Referendum (Volksentscheid Fahrrad). Berlin can do so much more and it is time to stop the backward-directed traffic politics. It is time for a paradigm shift away from a last-century, car-centric planning approach and towards a modern and inclusive one.Copenhagenize the planet. And have a lovely day.
Categories: Views

A ride from market to market

BicycleDutch - 11 April, 2016 - 23:01
A fast cycle route from ʼs-Hertogenbosch to Veghel was opened in November 2015. The route runs parallel to the canal between the two cities on what was a private maintenance … Continue reading →
Categories: Views

A failure of understanding

As Easy As Riding A Bike - 8 April, 2016 - 10:21

As odd as it may seem to British people, surveys of Dutch citizens that ask them why they choose to cycle for the trips they make very rarely find them mentioning ‘cycling infrastructure’ as a reason for doing so – be it in the form of protected cycleways, or filtered permeability that keeps levels of motor traffic low on streets that are shared.

Take, for instance, this 2006 Netherlands transport ministry survey which examined (amongst other things) the reasons people cycle instead of drive for short trips under 7.5km (about 4.5 miles). It found that the most common reasons for doing so were (in order of importance) –

  1. cycling is healthy
  2. cycling is pleasant
  3. cycling is good for the environment
  4. I can cycle through traffic quickly
  5. I can park my bike easily
  6. cycling is easier, I don’t have to look for somewhere to park the car
  7. cycling is cheap
  8. other people cycle
  9. habit
  10. I don’t own a car

[The full table is near the start of the document, but it is in Dutch].

All these reasons, but no mention, at all, of protected cycleways, or of infrastructure in general. Does this mean that cycling infrastructure isn’t a factor in whether or not Dutch people might choose to cycle?

It’s highly unlikely. The reason Dutch people don’t mention cycleways (or low traffic streets, or the other basic components of high-quality cycling infrastructure) when they come to describe why they choose to cycle is in reality because cycling infrastructure is almost entirely invisible to Dutch people. Not literally invisible, but so mundane and ordinary they don’t even notice it. It’s just a part of the street, like drains, or lampposts, or bus shelters.

Just an ordinary, boring part of the street, invisible to Dutch people.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, imagine an equivalent survey that asked British people why they might walk instead of drive for trips of under a mile. I can think of several possible reasons that might be given –

  • ‘I enjoy being outside and breathing the air’
  • ‘I don’t have to worry about parking the car’
  • ‘I like the exercise’
  • ‘It’s nearly as quick as driving’
  • ‘I don’t own a car’
  • ‘I won’t be sitting in a queue’

And so on. (You might think of other reasons). But very few British people will say they walk instead of driving ‘because there are pavements’. It would just sound… weird, even nonsensical. Pavements are there – we take them for granted, because they are just a basic, ordinary, mundane component of British streets. If you walk to the shops, of course you are going to use a pavement, so why even mention that as a reason?

Of course, if pavements were taken away, and British people had to walk in streams of motor traffic, they would suddenly seem quite important. But we take them for granted, in precisely the same way that Dutch people take their cycleways for granted. That’s why Dutch people don’t mention cycling infrastructure when they are asked why they cycle, and why British people don’t mention ‘walking infrastructure’ when they are asked why they walk, even if that infrastructure is a fundamental component that explains why they are actually able to walk or cycle in the first place.

The CycleFisk blog explained this in a fairly similar way

Like cycle infrastructure, the presence of the Earth’s crust is pretty much ubiquitous in Amsterdam. Surprisingly, none of the survey respondents identified the presence of a crust above the Earth’s mantle as a factor when asked why they like cycling in Amsterdam. The logical inference is that the importance of the presence of the Earth’s crust to cyclists is overestimated.

Either that or, as a ubiquitous presence, the Earth’s crust is something which Amsterdam’s residents take for granted, and thus neglected to mention the Earth’s crust when asked why they like cycling in Amsterdam. A bit like the infrastructure really.

Nobody notices the earth’s crust when they’re travelling around, but (it’s safe to say) it is pretty important, in much the same way breathing oxygen is pretty important when it comes to staying alive, even if other more obvious things kill people.

Your average Dutch citizen really isn’t the best person to ask about the importance of cycling infrastructure, simply because they don’t appreciate it, for the reasons set out above. This isn’t meant as a criticism – it’s not a personal failing – simply an attempt to understand their point of view. I’ve spoken to Dutch people in Utrecht, and – as the conversation turned to why I was visiting (good cycling conditions) – their explanations for high cycling levels were completely different to mine, the kind of explanations we hear in Britain from the uninformed about why the Dutch cycle. ‘It’s flat’ (Dutch people will obviously appreciate flatness when they are cycling); ‘Our cities and towns are small, and close together’ (maybe so, but not of any great relevance); ‘it’s our culture’ (maybe, but let’s see how long that culture would last in British road conditions); and so on. Similar reasons British people might give to, say, a perplexed American from a town without any footways, who had never seen so many people walking before.

I’ve been reminded of this failure of understanding by a couple of recent articles about cycling in London, one late last year (by a Dutchman), and one this week (by a Dane). Both betray a certain blindness to the importance of cycling infrastructure in their own countries, in a very similar way. Take the first article, by Henk Bouwman, a director of the Academy of Urbanism.

… the strategy of going Dutch [in London] seems strongly focussed on creating a safe infrastructure by separating cyclists from cars through segregated cycle paths. However, what we have learned in the Netherlands is that safety is by and large a result of behaviour, not infrastructure. Dutch car drivers are also cyclists so they know how to anticipate a cyclist’s behaviour.

If cycling infrastructure is ubiquitous, mundane and ordinary to you, because you have grown up with it, and it has surrounded you your entire life, of course you are going to underestimate its importance, and even go so far as to say that nebulous ‘behaviour’ is even more important at keeping people safe. This kind of comment is simply boggling to someone who has experienced cycling in a variety of street contexts in both Britain and the Netherlands, and is seeing both with ‘British’ eyes. What keeps me safe when I am cycling in the Netherlands is not ‘behaviour’, but a thorough and systematic approach to design that minimises interactions between people driving and cycling, and ensures that where they do unavoidably have to occur there is clarity about who should be doing what and as little risk to either party as possible.

most importantly, work needs to be done to encourage a behavioural shift amongst cyclists themselves to become more aware of other people on and around the road. Speeding men in Lycra still represent the majority and encouraging them through the roll out of cycle super highways only exasperates the challenge to transform cycling from a sport to transport. This shift in behavioural attitudes is so important that we believe it should be funded on par with infrastructure. [my emphasis.]

If you have a certain innate blindness to the importance of cycling infrastructure, then when you arrive in a different city and you see people cycling about in a very different way to the people in your own city, then of course you are going to see that different behaviour not as response to a very different environment, but as some kind of personal choice on the part of people cycling, a decision to cycle in a certain way that can somehow be beaten out of them.

People ‘speed in lycra’ in this kind of environment because they have to. Attempts to get people to cycle slower, or to abandon lycra, through simple encouragement will fail, and fail repeatedly, if people still have to negotiate roads like this.

Notice also in this passage that building cycling infrastructure on main roads is actually framed as a way of encouraging men in lycra – a diametrical inversion of what cycling infrastructure will achieve in reality, namely enabling everyone to cycle, in ordinary clothes, something that is already happening.

Children & parents joining the new infrastructure of N-S cycle superhighway #LDNCycleSafari

— Cyclist London (@cyclist_london) April 3, 2016

This inversion is again only explicable if the author fails to appreciate the fundamentally important role cycling infrastructure plays in allowing people to cycle, and to cycle in a manner they choose. A similar example is his suggestion (not in the article, but in a conference, reported via Twitter) that it is the absence of workplace showers in the Netherlands that keeps people cycling slowly. Again – this is a simple inversion of reality. Showers are (rarely) provided at workplaces in the Netherlands because they’re not needed, because people are already cycling more slowly thanks to cycling infrastructure. To argue it is the absence of the showers themselves that somehow compels people to cycle slowly is completely back to front. But this is what happens when you can’t see what is in front of your own eyes. If you can’t see cycling infrastructure, then people in Britain are obviously choosing to cycling fast, choosing to get sweaty and then take advantage of showers – building infrastructure will only encourage more of these choosing to cycle around fast in lycra, when we need to take those showers away and ask them to change their behaviour.

The second article – by Camilla Siggaard Andersen of Gehl architects – is eerily similar. Again, we see a suggestion that cycling infrastructure will reinforce the existing culture, fostering more lycra, and faster behaviour.

getting more Londoners on bikes is not simply a matter of safety, but of culture. What kind of culture is the Cycle Super Highways fostering – more or less lycra?

Why would anyone think creating safer, more attractive and more comfortable conditions to cycle in would lead to more lycra? Only if you have a selective blindness to the importance of infrastructure in enabling cycling – you will tend to believe that building it will only reinforce the existing types of cycling.

In Copenhagen, the cycling network is great. However, the actual efficiency of the network relies as much on behaviour as it does on the infrastructure itself

An almost exact parallel of the claim from Bouwman that ‘safety is by and large a result of behaviour, not infrastructure’. Both are looking at London, seeing a different ‘culture’ and ‘behaviour’, and failing to diagnose why that behaviour and culture is different.

We do have an awful lot to learn from the Netherlands and Denmark, but we should be wary of taking the opinions of people from these countries at face value, principally because the fundamental importance of cycling infrastructure will often tend to be underestimated or downplayed completely. Not wilfully; but because it is so ubiquitous and mundane in their own countries as to be invisible.


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