Berlin’s Bike Culture: Cycling to Sustainable Urban Transport

Last month we were in the city of Berlin, Germany’s capital and one of the world’s most unique cities from a spatial history. Coming from London, a city almost twice the area size and over twice the population size – it was fascinating to compare and contrast two cities that both once had so much global influence.

Other than the grandiose cocktail of architecture from the Imperial, soviet, Nazi, post-soviet and 21st century era we noticed a distinct form of transport that was docked and in use on almost every lane...bikes. With the proliferation of bicycles, bicycle infrastructure and a culture of cycling – Berlin has rocketed to being one of the world’s most bicycle friendly cities, with a modal share (cycling rate as proportion of transportation) of 13% and as high as 20% in certain neighbourhoods.

The Evolution of Bikes

French engineer Pierre Michaux revolutionised urban transport with his 1860s creation of the velocipede, a forerunner to the early bicycle. The world’s first bicycle was created during Europe’s industrial revolution and only after this time was the world’s first mass produced car, The Ford Model T, created in 1908. Now fast forward over 100 years and we are faced with a desire to reverse high rates of air pollution that cars and other emitting modes of transport create. Many argue that cycling is a holistic solutions as it is extremely cost-effective; health improving and an environmentally friendly method of urban transport.

For a long time, would be cyclists would mainly have one choice to cycle: buying their own bike. However in a world of so much choice and a desire to reduce wastage, the sharing economy has helped to increase the use of this mode of transport in cities such as Berlin.

The sharing economy is an economic model popularised in the 21st century as an answer to resource depletion. It is based on the premise of reducing waste through a peer-to-peer or collaborative economy, in which goods or services are temporarily used by multiple people. From short-term lets on AirBnB, to car pooling on Uber, to bike sharing in cities such as Berlin.

Unlike London, Berlin does not have an official bike sharing platform such as Transport for London’s ‘Santander Cycles’, meaning the private sector has had to solely provide this service in Berlin. There are 16,000 docked or dockless sharing bikes from 7 primarily app-based companies which cover the streets of Berlin such as the Lidl branded bike pictured above. There is a battle between Asian companies such as Mobike and Ofo and European companies such as Nextbike or DonkeyRepublic, to take control of the streets of Berlin. However the widespread proliferation of sharing bikes, does not automatically equate to benefits and some have argued that Venture Capitalists have artificially inflated the market resulting in an over supply and mass abandonment of sharing bikes. As of March 2018, the Berlin city authority has gone as far to regulate the market by ensuring that “that providers in Berlin must collect or redistribute bikes within 24 hours if more than four of them cluster on Berlin's sidewalks.” Despite the potential risks of sharing bikes, Berlin has still been globally recognised for its growing acceptance towards bicycles.

Measuring Success

Urban Design consultancy, Compenhagenize, have a unique specialism of ensuring cities urban spaces are adequately planned for the use of bicycles. On their website Compenhagenize articulate their mission with the following:

In an age of increased urbanisation, strained public health and continued addiction to the automobile, modern mobility solutions are needed more than ever. Every city once used the modest bicycle as an important tool for successful urban mobility. We are intent on helping cities go back to the future and learn to simplify by building for bicycles.” (Compenhagenize.eu)

It is clear their promotion of urban bike culture is filled with passion, hence why they created a global bicycle friendly index for cities around the world to measure the best to cycle are. Amongst 13 other parameters to create their bike index such as bicycle culture; bicycle facilities; urban planning to bike share programme and most recently the prevalence of cargo and logistic bikes was added. In their bi-annual bike city index, it may be a surprise that Amsterdam once described as the ‘bicycle capital of the world’ was not ranked number 1, but instead has slipped to number 3 behind Holland’s Utrecht in second place and Denmark’s Coppenhagen in first place. Interesting the city we were in last month, leap frogged to make the top 10.

The Power of Pedal Politics
Compenhagenize’s research concluded that that the reason Berlin rocketed to tenth place was due to the activism of the Volksentscheid Fahrrad (Cycling Referendum) which helped to put cycling officially on the Berlin map through a democratic vote meaning city officials had to debate about the issue of cycling.

Through a combination of community engagement and political legislation a number of pledges have been created to continue Berlin’s momentum as a bicycle friendly city such as 350km of cycle streets which can be used by all members of the public or the creation of 200,000 new cycle stands both planned to be completed by 2025.

Lessons for Cities

In the face of increasing danger from air pollution which can even be fatal, urban planners, governments, communities and businesses need to think of ways of harnessing existing infrastructure to provide sustainable alternatives to traditional automobile transport. Cycling is one such alternative and the sharing economy is one method of normalising it, however if city makers are to avoid the pitfalls of app-based sharing bikes they must have a rigorous hands on approach with private companies to ensure waste is the last word to be associated with bikes.


By Chijioke Anosike

Founder of AltUrban