Berlin's Bicycle Boom

In Berlin, less than half of residents have a car. People park their bikes all over the place. CBS / Christine Lagorio

CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio is filing weekly dispatches from Berlin while writing for the Financial Times Deutschland as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program.


One of the first lessons a visitor to Berlin learns is to stay out of the red.

This isn't a lesson in accounting; it has nothing to do with the exchange rate. It is about walking down the sidewalk.

Strolling through Berlin is at first like doing so in any U.S. city, whether your point of reference is Birmingham or Boise. That's until you hear a "bring brrring!" chirp and must narrowly leap out of the path of a careening bicyclist. Or five of them. Or ten.

A friend will warn: "Never, never step in the red area." And then you have learned the complete basics to Berlin sidewalk navigation: stay on the gray stones and out of the brick-hued bike lane.

In this city where less than half of residents own a car, bicycles are not only in vogue; over the past two decades it has become downright common to ride one every day. They are chained to every pole or knob on every major thoroughfare. They crowd apartment building lobbies. They dominate the flow of traffic in intersections. Bicyclists have power in numbers; a major fantasy of U.S. cyclists has come to pass in Berlin: cars yield to bikes.

Critical Mass
More than a decade ago, documentary filmmaker Ted White and bicycle designer George Bliss called one variation on this theme "critical mass." In the course of making the film "Return of the Scorcher" in China, they noticed that at certain busy unmarked intersections, cars would continue to zoom past bicyclists waiting to cross - until enough bikes amassed. Together they could all safely break into traffic, because due to their sheer number, cars would stop.

"Critical mass" was in fact a phrase that popped into my head when first seeing the interplay between cars and bikes in Berlin. Auto drivers and their two-wheeled counterparts shared the roads gracefully. This was something I'd never seen anywhere I'd in the United States.

I bought a bicycle for 40 euros ($54) at a flea market during my first weekend in Berlin. And I love it. I haven't taken the U-Bahn since, saving more than 70 euros ($94) on single-ride train tickets. And that's in just more than two weeks.

I also am a person who likes bicycling. I'm road-savvy but not die-hard skilled like the bike messengers who fearlessly dodge delivery trucks and who know where to find the few-and-far-between bike lanes. Back home, I love tooling around Brooklyn, but avoid the cyclist death trap that is Manhattan.

This contrast between bicycle cultures in New York City and Berlin left me wondering about the details, mainly how and why they have become so different. So I went to visit Wolf Schroen, an avid cyclist and expat who moved to Germany seven years ago from bike-friendly Austin, Texas.

Touring On Two Wheels
"The biggest difference riding in Berlin is that the drivers know what to look out for. There's no right on red here, so the drivers wait for the pedestrians and the bicyclists to pass at every intersection before going," Shroen said.

(CBS / Christine Lagorio)
He should know. Shroen opened the popular bike-rental and tour company Fat Tire Bike Tours in 2004. Since, he's given thousands of Americans their first Berlin bike experience, and many are floored by the ease of navigating the streets, where they also see everyone from a dad with two kids in tow to a professional toting a suitcase riding bikes.

"Some are just shocked at the amount of other bikers on the roads - that riding is so casual here," he said.

It is a vibe distinctly different from that in even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities. If you ride regularly - even as a commuter - in, say, Fort Collins, Colo., or Scottsdale, Ariz., (cities which were awarded the "silver metal" in bicycle-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists last year) you are likely to be viewed as an enthusiast, possibly as an athlete, and maybe even as a big nerd.

"Here (in the United States) bicycling doesn't have a very long tradition as transportation," White, the Amherst-based filmmaker, explained. "Bicycle shops have a tendency to be run by racers or super enthusiasts. So there is a narrow market being targeted."

And Shroen simplified from Berlin: "Here, biking isn't the least bit uncool. But in the U.S. you might be kind of a dork if you did it all the time."

That said, this is no Beijing, which has an estimated four million bicycles in use. And no Amsterdam with 600,000 bikes for 750,000 residents. Cars in Berlin still vastly outnumber bikes on the roads, and though the city has a perfectly bike-friendly geography - wide and flat - it is still in a period of post Berlin-wall collapse growth that makes some routes areas difficult to navigate.

Utility Cycling
In the United States, using a bike for transportation (or "utility cycling") is largely an outsider activity brought to popularity in urban areas by activist groups, sometimes organized by enthusiast bike messengers. The phrase "critical mass" (there it is again) has come to stand for intentionally disruptive bike rally-rides that do demonstrate the concept - but put motorists on the defensive. But cycling advocacy groups do tend to lobby change and funding for bicycle education and infrastructure on the city level, and have been at the root of a lot of change across the country - though that change is generally slow.

"If they spend a year just to get a bike lane on one street, what's that matter?" White asked.

In Berlin, the city has taken action and its philosophy seems to be "build it and they will come." Two years ago, city officials pledged to work toward bikes comprising 15 percent of the city's traffic by the year 2010. After devoting 2.5 million Euros last year to expanding on the bike lane system, the goal isn't far off. The city already has 80 kilometers of bike lanes in the streets and 50 kilometers of lanes on sidewalks. Recent numbers showed that cycling has doubled in the past decade, and now the city's 400,000 riders each day account for 12 percent of total street traffic, according to the green-living blog Treehugger.

In contrast, just 3.5 percent of the residents of Portland - hailed as the United State's top big city for biking - commute on bike, according to a 2005 Census Bureau study. And in bike-friendly Austin, Texas, to get a good map of the city's bike routes one must snail-mail in $2 to the city - and include their drivers licence number.

"Europe is one big fantasy land for riders in the U.S. That's why a lot of bike advocates go to Europe," White said. "Cuba is also big place to go now, because they've been very car oriented. But a couple decades ago when the U.S.S.R. fell apart they had a huge energy crisis, so people had to start bicycling."

Some critics say ending the car craze and starting a bike boom in the United States could only be spurred by an intense oil or economic crisis. And there is a historical model to that, which author Mike Davis noted in an essay called "Home-Front Ecology."

"Victory Bike"
During the World War II-era 1940s, the bicycle made a huge comeback.

"Less than two months after Pearl Harbor, a new secret weapon, the 'victory bike'-- made of nonessential metals, with tires from reclaimed rubber - was revealed on front pages and in newsreels."

But in Europe, no single factor was a lighting rod for the development of the bike culture (which is socio-economically diverse and a trend among all age groups) as it stands now. Experts give a gamut of reasons why people take it up, from its health benefits to environmental ones.

Schroen suggested one possible catalyst: "Berlin is such a young city, full of left-leaning open thinkers without a lot of money to spend who are open to trying new things and a bike fits really well into that lifestyle."

But the United States seems far from that sort of culture shift. Instead, the movement is slow and steady, White explained.

"The progress has been slow, but I feel that in maybe the 20 or so years I've been involved in bicycle advocacy, I've seen a lot of forward movement," he said. "And momentum is being built."
  • Christine Lagorio

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