Urban mobility: Berlin’s mean streets vs. Copenhagen’s sanity

Germany’s transportation sector has been called a “problem child” by Merkel. The problems are no joke, says Paul Hockenos: ten cyclists died in Berlin this year so far. Where’s the low-carbon, sustainable metropolis we were promised?

Author Paul Hockenos compares the bicycle infrastruture of Copenhagen and Berlin. As you might guessed lags Berlin far behind. What measures would be necessary for positive change?

Berlin’s bicycle infrastructure lags far behind. What measures would be necessary for positve change? (Public Domain)

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
– Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci

It’s a nasty shock returning to the streets of Berlin after a week cycling in downtown Copenhagen. Never in all my many years biking here (I first moved to West Berlin in 1985, never owned a car) have I experienced such tension, animosity, and violence in traffic than today. And it’s not just cyclists versus cars; it seems everyone on the move is at one another’s throat:  cyclists, pedestrians, street-front store owners, the drivers of private cars, taxis, trailer trucks, and commercial vans. Parked cars are a huge factor, too, clogging Berlin’s many narrow, cobbled streets. And the severity of the mess in Berlin appears even uglier when compared to Copenhagen, dubbed the world’s most bicycle-friendly city for good reason.

Berlin has ten cycling fatalities by way of motor-vehicle-related accidents this year, which already equals last year’s total. And the number of cycling accidents is set to outpace last year’s gloomy statistic of 7,111 cycle-car mishaps (for some inexplicable reason this figure doesn’t count the cyclists injured, sometimes fatally, by car doors suddenly opened in their path.) Berlin is ranked a lowly 36th of 39 German cities for biking infrastructure.

These days, I’m not on my bicycle for more than about 15 minutes in central Berlin without experiencing some kind of altercation, crack-up or near-miss. Yesterday afternoon on Köpenickerstrasse, I saw a young lady on a mountain bike (hipster get-up, headphones, no helmet) very nearly get blindsided by a large commercial van taking a right-hand turn. At the very last second, the van driver slammed on the brakes, the woman swerved, and bloodshed was only just averted. I glared at the van driver as I passed him; he shouted back something at me that I fortunately didn’t quite get. And then on the return trip a fellow cyclist on a (too narrow) bike lane near Alexanderplatz barked at me sharply for coming too close as I passed him. Meine Güte! This is an average day on Berlin’s streets – and the sidewalks aren’t much better.

Sure, cyclists blame the cars, the motorized classes curse the bikes, pedestrians shout at cyclists on their pavements, the bikers retort there’s no bike lanes on the hyper-congested streets. My colleague’s wife bruised her collar bone last week when another cyclist slammed full-speed into her (she on bike, with helmet.)

The crux of the problem in Berlin is that it’s a city in transition – see Gramsci quote. It’s a growing city, which was never made for hundreds of thousands of autos in the first place, and is transitioning to a low-carbon, sustainable metropolis in which the likes of bikes will one day replace motor vehicles, as has happened, partially, in Copenhagen.

This transition is part of the left-wing Berlin government’s mandate. In 2016, cycling proponents in Berlin gathered enough signatures (over 100,000 in 3.5 weeks) to hold a popular referendum that would have compelled the city to have two-meter-wide bike lanes on every major street, 350 km of lanes for children, 200,000 bike parking spots at public transportation nodes, 100 km of fast lanes for commuters, and other adornments.

But the Social Democrat-Greens-Left Party government that came to power negotiated with the referendum’s organizers to drop the petition and join them in formulating a “bicycle law.” City hall earmarked €20 million for new lanes and refurbishing older ones, and passed a so-called Mobility Law that prioritizes sustainable mobility in city planning. Ever more bike lanes will be protected from street traffic by iron poles that physically separate cycle and automobile traffic. The measures were heralded as visionary and deemed sufficient to catapult Berlin to the front of the pack in ten years, perhaps even enabling it one day to catch up with Copenhagen.

So far, though, there’s not much evidence of this happening. The increased traffic from the additional roughly 30,000 to 50,000 new Bürger that Berlin adds annually to its 3.6 million population renders any of the small-scale progress worthless.

And this gets to the heart of the problem: too many vehicles on the roads and parked on both sides of the streets. Berlin has to do what Copenhagen has done, not only create safe bike lanes and bike bridges but also make owning, driving, and parking a private car in the city prohibitively expensive. One notices immediately in Copenhagen that there are less cars; in fact, only 22% of households own a car. The city makes practitioners of the loud, polluting, climate-killing luxury of urban motorfare pay for it in taxes, registration fees, and parking. “Owning a car is very expensive in Denmark,” the website Expat Life in Denmark warns, “so if you do not really need a car on a daily basis, you are financially better off not owning one.” Newly purchased vehicles are taxed up to 150% of the sticker price. The portal estimates that car taxes and fees, including mandatory parking fees, can easily run to more than €3,700 a year, and more for older, dirty models.

Of course, these are also fewer car owners in Copenhagen because the bicycling infrastructure is so extensive. In both Denmark and Germany, surveys show that the majority of citizens say they’d rather bike to work than drive. In Copenhagen, they can because, say its urban planners, of the political and public will that turned it into a cycler’s Shangri-La . The making of a cycle-friendly city isn’t foremost a financial challenge, but rather an administrative one: one-way streets, parking on just one street side, and lots of white paint and metal posts.

In Copenhagen, I learned to my surprise, most cyclists don’t even wear helmets.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

1 Comment

  1. Fabian says

    I agree with your take on Berlin streets. But please do not personalize the issue. Planning is the problem, administrative execution, lack of political will in certain parts of the Berlin government.

    Then why start with the helmet shaming in the beginning? Did you know it does not even protect against concussions?


    Do you know how each one of the ten people on a bike died? Helmet would not have prevented any of these deaths. Have you ever been to the Netherlands? Helmets are not the issue. Ask Copenhagenize please and reflect which countries indulge in helmet obsession and what they achieve.

    It seems from the last phrase that you realized this finally, but why keep riding a dead horse and continue a silly meme?

    Head phones are legal as long as you don’t block the sound of your surroundings. Which is simpe, just get open headphones and listen to quiet music. Good for your stress level as well.

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