Berlin celebrates fancy pictures of its first protected bike lane. I’m a cyclist. Five reasons why I dislike them.

Berlin’s city council has presented plans and renders (read: fancy images with 3D-generated cyclists and flying elephants) for what it calls its first protected cycle path. Big media outlets celebrate this as a breakthrough development. I’m shaking my head instead. My dear hometown, you could have done better.

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Disclaimer: The featured image of this post is not part of Berlin’s new presentation, but rather was used by the campaign for a local referendum on better cycling infrastructure. Unfortunately so, since it’s a much better solution than the one Berlin chose to implement. Note also that I took almost all pictures from the Tagesspiegel article on the project.

Color clash

Bike lanes in Germany are red. They are red at most other places in Europe. They are green in the United States. But importantly: They are red in Germany if they need to be highlighted, and just uncolored otherwise. Berlin goes with: green. That is not only inconsistent with the rest of Germany. It’s also inconsistent with the rest of Berlin, where existing bike lanes on sidewalks are often red. They say that over time they want to change the color of all existing bike lanes and bike paths to green as well. But… why? It does not matter what color it is, as long as this color is consistent and noticeably different from black. So, anything but grey. Red was fine.

That’s not a first anyways.

Headlines and key sentences pick up the catchphrase that this is Berlin’s first protected bike lane. Or even a revolution. It is not. There are dozens of protected bike lanes that are separated from car traffic. Many of them are not separated from pedestrian traffic. But some are. For convenience, let me call them bike path as I move on. It is only the first time that one of the bike lanes that as of today exists only as paint on the street receives some sort of physical barrier without a major re-design of the road layout. Or to write that simpler: It’s the first time that Berlin does not build an actual bike path and yet tries to do something that based on existing evidence will increase safety.

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The experimental site is badly designed.

The first bit of protected bike lane will be added along the Hasenheide. That ‘bunny field’ (literal translation of the street name) is unfortunately less idyllic than the name suggests. There is a bike lane on that street in Western direction. There is none in the opposite direction. The East-bound lane has three lanes, of which the right-most one is used for parking. The side walk is narrow and cannot accommodate shared use.

The best intervention at this location would be to largely abandon the green strip that separates both directions. Carving off half of it would create space to build an actual bike lane. Under a paradigm of inexpensive interventions, the location still seems like a good choice for what they have in mind. All lanes are currently rather wide and could be narrowed down, so that enough space exists for cyclists without giving up any parking.

But Berlin… keeps the width of the lanes and instead abandons almost half of the parking on a 1,000m long stretch of road. At the same time, it switches from one to two lanes and back multiple times in order to maintain some parking in front of existing buildings. It’s easy to imagine how this will totally help with the traffic flow. But maybe that’s by design. Don’t get me wrong on this: if they decide to have only one lane, so be it. That will reduce capacity of the street, sure, yet it’s a clear statement. Just do it everywhere then! If you give a second lane, some folks will use it, and then need to get back into the single lane.

The poles are a safety threat for cars and cyclists.

Based on the renders, Berlin has opted for red-and-white poles that stand something like a meter or a meter and a half apart from each other. They look protective indeed. I find them scary. It’s the same issue that I have with many bike lanes here in Italy, where they have put wooden or metal fences next to the bike lane to separate it from the road. It certainly serves a purpose and it looks beautiful, but I get claustrophobia. I think that I’m rather skilled on a bike, and I can easily cycle straight on just 20cm of road shoulder for a long distance, but tall elements scare the shit out of me as much as steep trenches and slopes right next to the street. I don’t want to be the one who gets caught in these things with my handle bar. The idea that two cyclists will joyfully cycle next to each other and chat… no.

Furthermore, imagine that for whatever reason a car gets off track and bumps into one of these. That’s gonna look nasty. They are not meant to break. There’s also no margin for error. On neither side of the poles.

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The poles are impractical.

Ultimately, these massive poles will be in the way. Maybe not so much at this location. Nobody needs to get on the side walk there ever. At other locations, occasionally that might be necessary, let alone for emergency cars. Sure, they can just park on the right-most lane. But I understand that something more out of traffic is usually a more comfortable choice. And, sure, you can interrupt this bike lane protection at every drive way. But maybe there’s a way to both maintain flexibility and improve safety and protection. Note also that flexibility means additional safety for cyclists. Where would I go if just ahead of my another cyclist crashes? With these poles, I don’t have a chance to hover to the left. I can just hope that my breaks are good enough.

Instead…

…of these huge poles, Berlin could have gone with much more subtle cues that have been widely used with success in the United States (and elsewhere in Europe).

It does not need as many poles.

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It does not need massive poles.

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It does not need tall poles.

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It does not need poles at all.

Or.

…of looking at the other side of the Atlantic, Berlin would have been wise to take a look at how the Dutchies do it. Dutch cycling infrastructure is the best. Period. Kopenhagen might have a huge share of cyclists, but don’t be mistaken: Dutch have the better infrastructure. This knowledge is also readily available to anybody out there, thanks to a guy who for years writes and talks about it. He has a blog and a YouTube channel.

Also the Dutchies have unprotected bike lanes. Sometimes, they have (semi-)protected bike lanes like Berlin’s new flagship project where they can’t fit a real bike path, but feel they need to add something due to traffic density. They use flat, rounded concrete modules, about as tall as a normal curb. (They call them varkensruggen – pork back. I’ve learnt they are called turtle bumps in English.) Oh, and: red color.

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But, hey, at least it’s poles. No fence. Because fences… really. No.

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Sure. Poles definitely do their job and will prevent cars from parking where they are not supposed to. Something that admittedly not all shorter barriers can guarantee. But some can. I’m really not very excited about this prospect. Around Milan, all too often I find myself ignoring cycling infrastructure because it is made too safe, and became impractical. (Every municipality here does things different. Some are fantastic. Some are hideous.) And I’m afraid that Berlin might fall in the same trap.

In the vague hope that someone with influence reads this, I conclude with a reference to a neat and very easy-to-digest comparative chart of different ways to build a protected bike lane.

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