Mobility Excursion to Berlin (Part 1): "A Structural Problem"

The beating heart of an auto-centric nation, Berlin is also leading Germany’s transition to more sustainable modes of transport (“Verkehrswende”). The city is a kind of open-air laboratory that some of our colleagues at Mobycon had the chance to visit at the beginning of October.

Cycling is a powerful transportation option in Berlin for covering substantial intra-city distances. However, it is easy to realize the extent to which cycling in Berlin is currently constrained by a heterogenous cycling network that’s disconnected, difficult to decipher, uncomfortable, unsecure, or simply absent— not to mention the sometimes-degraded infrastructure. Cyclists, whose mental load is monopolized by navigating these challenges, experience increased stress, especially due to the speed of vehicles brushing past them, which hinders the experience of “flow.”

There are a lot of people who are potential cyclists but don’t dare as long as there are no good conditions to ride a bike,” says Melissa Gómez, head of transport policy at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad Club (ADFC) – the German cycling association. In addition to infrastructure problems, institutional barriers are slowing down the German “velorution”, including funding, know-how and legislation.

A lack of long-term funding is a barrier to the development of public policies. The German Cycling Plan 2021-2030 (“National Radverkehrsplan 3.0“) aims to increase national funding to €30 per person per year, up from €11. However, the ADFC considers the federal funding to be too imprecise and insufficient compared to the multiple potential savings associated with cycling. Reversing the financial imbalance appears to be a real challenge when we know that “the German automotive industry is the main driver of research and development in the automotive sector worldwide“. “German mobility policy is an industrial policy,” explains Melissa Gómez, explaining the importance of the automotive industry in the German economy, and by extension, its influence on mobility policies.

The second pillar of a successful “velorution” concerns the expertise necessary to rethink public space. After decades of car-centric traffic planning, Germany needs to develop know-how to design public spaces that promote active travel. Despite a cycling modal share of 11% in 2017, the country does not have enough infrastructure to guarantee universal cycling. At Mobycon, our mission is to develop knowledge, methods and tools related to Dutch cycling planning and to find the keys to adapt them to other countries with different socio-cultural contexts. This excursion was therefore a good opportunity to explore the German context and the present challenges.

There is little or no physical separation between cycles and cars on a transit axis

Finally, German road legislation is car-centric. The basic needs of other users are not considered to be on the same level as those of motor vehicle operators. The construction of cycle paths often hinges on proof of real danger for cyclists, for example. It is also difficult to deviate from design standards without providing strong scientific evidence, which hinders innovation, especially on subjective aspects such as perceived safety and the attractiveness of bike lanes.

Despite these obstacles, there are some positive elements. Waiting times at traffic lights for cyclists in Berlin are reasonable, in line with those of cars. Furthermore, German pedestrians enjoy excellent conditions compared to their counterparts in the Netherlands, thanks to well-planned urban layouts and a robust commitment to safeguarding pedestrian infrastructure during the urban design process, occasionally even at the expense of cycling infrastructure.

Efficiency and comfort are key to encouraging alternatives to the private car. However, the current balance of Berlin’s public space needs to be rethought to promote more sustainable mobility. The second part of this article will explore some ways to address this challenge.

This is Part 1 of 2 in the Jong Mobycon Visits Berlin series. Stay tuned for Part 2 this Thursday, October 26, 2023.

Anna Tailliez

“As socio-technical systems, our transportation modes have a big influence on human societies and the way our environment is shaped. Supporting the decarbonised mobility transition, in France and abroad, via for example the design of people-oriented walking and cycling infrastructures sounds for me like a very tangible and motivating mission!”

Mobility Advisor