Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Ma’ayan Dembo: Cycling in Berlin

This is the eighth post in a series chronicling Ma’ayan Dembo’s internship with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, for the Internship Capstone of the Urban Studies major at Stanford University.    

Although I finished my internship in late June with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the experience is still fresh in my head and occupying my thoughts. Wherever I go now, I know that I will be more mindful of bicycling infrastructure, usage, bike parking, and other related programs. These are now things that I notice whenever simply observing the urban fabric of a city.

For the next two months, I find myself in Berlin, Germany. My senior project relates to the criminalization of graffiti/ street art, comparing San Francisco and Berlin to see how the two progressive cities can learn from one another. Although I am here officially for this purpose, I can’t help but also notice how San Francisco can learn from Berlin’s attitude towards bicycles as well.

One of the main goals of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is to promote the bicycle as a viable method of daily transportation. Drawing its roots from a highly advanced infrastructure and sustainably-oriented culture, Berlin has wholly achieved this. People of all ages are constantly riding their bicycles for pleasure, running errands, and as part of their commute. Despite the incredible subway system, in these warm months cyclists are busily gliding throughout the city, to parks, grocery stores, and office buildings. Wearing spandex, suits, and/or bathing suits, Berlin’s cycling scene puts San Francisco’s to shame.

One of the main differences I’ve noticed is that cyclist’s lanes are on the sidewalks. Marked by red brick, these are usually one way (or marked as two-way by a striped white line) and run alongside the pedestrian sidewalk, usually with a cobblestone buffer, as seen below. When I first arrived, I was almost run over many times by cyclists, usually followed by an angry bell ringing or “allo?!” as they rode by. My friend explained to me this unusual road system and upon reflection, it does make more sense to place pedestrians and cyclists in the same sphere rather than cars and cyclists. Cyclists are generally biking at a pace (14 mph) closer to cars (25-35 mph) than walkers (2-4 mph). However, cyclists and pedestrians are much more nimble than cars– a pedestrian could easily step aside to allow a biker to pass, and a cyclist can more easily avoid a darting pedestrian than a darting car– in both instances, pedestrian surprises cause less bodily harm to cyclists than automobile surprises. Both cyclists and pedestrians are lighter and have fewer fatal accidents with each other than two-three ton automobiles. Having pedestrians and cyclists share roadspace reduces the number of fatal incidents, much lower than when automobiles and bicycles share the road.

In 2005, the Berlin Senate decided to make 15% of all trips by bicycles by 2010. In 2013, they have reached and wholly surpassed their goal, creating an inspiring cycling network as well. Including a plethora of on road bicycle lanes (the type found in most American cities), bicycle paths, shared bus lanes, and non-exclusive bike lanes/ bike priority streets, the network tops a whopping 390 miles of devoted spaces. In comparison, San Francisco’s bicycle network includes around 129 miles, 64 of which are only bike sharrows and provide cyclists little safety. Berlin has infrastructure within the city center, but also a radial structure of 8 paths linking to the suburbs of the city. San Francisco has a high concentration of cycling infrastructure in the North East quadrant of the city, with few paths linking the San Francisco to its surrounding counties or cities.

I look forward to discussing more differences in another blog post regarding Berlin and San Francisco’s cycling infrastructure, and how San Francisco can learn from this cycling-heavy city. In my next post, I will discuss bicycle parking, bicycle thefts, bicycles on the U-Bahn, and bicycle sharing programs that have been established here. Indeed, on Saturday, I am participating in a bike sharing program and receiving a fixie (never ridden one before, should be interesting) for 0.50 Euro/ day, for four days. I’ll also report back on the experience of cycling within the city then.

Its times like this when I reflect to see how much my internship experience affected the way I see cities. Throughout my coursework at Stanford, I’ve noticed how each class slightly shaped my perceptions of the built environment, but never before has something really taken over in such a drastic way. Its a cool feeling to notice that I’ve grown to become so passionate about urban cycling. Its something I can imagine myself doing on a day to day basis and wholly enjoy.

Sources: SFMTA State of Cycling 2012,  Bicycle Routes and Facilities by the Senate Dept for Urban Development and the Environment- Berlin, Bike City Berlin by Christine Lepisto for Treehugger.com


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