Bicycling Berlin Style

I’ve been cycling around Berlin for the past week, and I noticed something very strange. Car drivers, even the German equivalent of white van man, are very polite to cyclists. But that’s not all. The cyclists are very polite to each other, and to pedestrians. There is a cascade of on-the-road politeness, with the bus, car, van and lorry drivers giving way to those of us who are on bicycles, and the cyclists giving way to pedestrians.

It’s not perfect, but it works. It is certainly a lot better than the system in British or American cities where I have cycled and where cyclists can be extremely aggressive, trying to protect themselves and make sure drivers notice them. This cascade is one of on-the-road aggression, and it often makes British roads dangerous and bad tempered places. Of course there are cycle accidents in Berlin, but the city is much safer for those of us who like to be on two wheels. There are proper cycle lanes, properly enforced. In too many parts of Britain the cycle lanes are either non-existent or regarded as a joke.


Some British drivers regard cycle lanes as parking spaces.

Some local authorities seem to see cycle lanes as a bit of paint on the road and a sign, but not actually a means of transport.

There are places in London where the “cycle lanes” are actually a few metres long. Why would anyone want a “cycle lane” which goes from Nowhere to Nowhere?

After the war Berlin could clear the wreckage and plan for a different kind of city. London and other British cities have to change more organically. But the real difference between Berlin and London is the mind-set of everyone on the road. Even if we cannot re-plan our cities to make them more bike friendly, we could at least re-plan our brains. Here are three things to make life on our roads better and safer:

  1. Teach every road user to give way to the weaker and slower. Car drivers should be taught as part of their driving instruction to let bicycles go ahead; cyclists should learn to let pedestrians have right of way. This would take much of the aggression out of cycling.
  2. Make sure everyone understands bike lanes are not a joke. They are a public service. Give parking tickets to cars that park in them. Local councils which produce Cycle-Lanes-To-Nowhere should be forced to re-think.
  3. Berlin has bendy buses and buses of other shapes too – but unlike London the bus drivers do not see bus lanes as their private preserve. Some bus drivers need to be taught that cyclists are legitimate road users. As a cyclist friend in the NHS put it to me once, “In London, the nickname for cyclists is: Organ Donors.”

Rant over. I’m off to cycle to the centre of Berlin. It should take me about 15 minutes. Oh, and unlike the UK, cyclists here get on their bikes wearing normal clothes. I have yet to see anyone in Berlin bicycling with bright yellow fluorescent tops like a Lemsip on two wheels. I wonder why?