Peter reports from Berlin

Berlin: Cycling city

This story is part of our youReport series.

With the grandparents still bonkers enough to offer to look after our kids we decided on Berlin for a city break. It didn’t even occur to me we would cycle much there, or that it would be a good place for it. I’d imagined we’d buy a travel pass or whatever. It dawned on me as we took the train from the airport that it looked extremely flat and as we planned to eat well we’d better burn it off as we went.

As this article shows http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/10/13/berlins-striking-cycling-renaissance/, Berlin is a major cycling city these days. Significantly, it is a big city several times larger than Paris in area, with 3.5 million inhabitants, very different to other famous cycling cities like Malmö, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. It has a modal share of about 13%, and it’s more like 20% in the centre [ed. Newcastle has 2%]. I found the cycling infrastructure a bit clunky and unsophisticated compared with The Netherlands but certainly functional, I’d love to have it here in Britain.

The biggest danger seemed to be hitting a pedestrian rather than being hit by a car, but then most of the cyclists seem to be on cruiser type upright bikes; 3 gears, mudguards and carriers, dynamo hubs, chainguards so going pretty slow. Drivers seemed very respectful and patient and often had to just put up with going at the cyclists’ pace. We saw folks wearing helmets / day glo but wearing rates must be in single figures. Mostly cyclists had ordinary clothes on.

We rented bikes from a large Berlin bike tour company http://fattirebiketours.com/berlin, paid €10/day for a 3 day hire period. We locked them on the street outside our accommodation overnight like all the Berliners seemed to. I can’t think of a more ideal way to get around the city. The middle bit is pretty big and spread out, too big to walk and has things of interest stretching over about 5 miles. Navigation was pretty easy, you can pick up free maps everywhere. If you want you can take bikes on the light rail network for €1.20. We found we’d decide to head for a place and keep bumping into all sorts of other interesting things on the way, something that doesn’t happen when you use the U-Bahn. One day we wanted to visit the shabbily chic area of Kreuzberg, 2 miles away and finally made it 4 hours later via the Gestapo HQ, a remnant of the old wall, a museum and an agreeable gelati place. It’s a cheap city too; coffees cost about €1.80, lovely ice creams €1 per scoop, accommodation was reasonable compared with other big Euro cities and restaurants/bakeries excellent and good value [ed. and if you cycle you may just as well eat your cake too].

The middle bit of Berlin is all low rise. Streets are generally quite wide with 5-7 storey high apartments lining them. Parked cars line the streets, but there just isn’t enough parking for everyone to have a car so bike ownership is double car ownership. Many streets have been blocked off to cars, but left permeable to cyclists and pedestrians. I’d guess many trips over 2-4 miles would be genuinely faster by bike even at a sedate 15km/h, especially when finding parking is chucked in. There are quite a few cycle specific directional signs, but again not really to the Danish/Dutch standard, though cyclist do get their own traffic signals at junctions which start you off a little before the cars, reducing the chances of being sideswiped by turning traffic. I felt the infrastructure to be useable by complete novices, who would only feel intimidated on the really big through roads and busy shopping streets like Ku’damm [ed. full name Kurfürstendamm].

So if you get to Berlin, think bike.

Photos of cycling infrastructure in Berlin, continuous and protected, marked clearly.

Berlin - buffered bike lane

Berlin - bike path

Berlin - buffered bike lane