Berlin: Portrait of the future cycling city with CycleCompetence interview

After the high-profile „Volksentscheid Fahrrad” and the resulting law on mobility passed in Berlin a year ago, it is now time for implementation. In our exclusive interview with Wigand von Sassen, group leader cycle traffic at the Berliner Senatsverwaltung (the local government) and with other updates we are showing how far Berlin has gotten in realising the plans and which steps are still ahead of the German capital.

In 2015, the Berlin initiative “Volksentscheid Fahrrad” had used the election campaign as well as a unique instrument of the city’s constitution to force the local government with a collection of 105.000 signatures to come up with a legal framework for cycling locking-in actual targets and necessary budgets: 350 km cycling paths, 100 km cycling super highways, 100.000 cycling parking spots by 2025. Almost €100m were earmarked for this in Berlin’s 2018 and 2019 budget. This is almost €14 per Berlin inhabitant and four times as much as in previous years.

Presentation of the results of the cycling law dialogue in Berlin’s house of representatives, 2017

Additionally, the city’s cycling marketing is to be improved. As a model – as reported – the brand “Fahhrad Wien” used by CycleCompetence member Mobilitätsagentur Wien is used. It had been developed in 2011 by CycleCompetence member the katapult agency.

Cycling super highways through Berlin

High-quality, safe cycling connections were right up there on the list of demands made by the Volksentscheid. Following a public tender the local government (Berliner Senat) now commissioned the Danish company Ramboll to create six of the ten planned cycling super highways (Radschnellverbindungen, RSV) through the city. They are to have a standard width of 4 metres for a two-way cycle path. In Berlin-Neukölln possible routings for the first of the RSV were presented and discussed with members of the public: The “Y-Trasse” is to run over 16 km in the South East of Berlin connecting the districts Treptow-Köpenick, Neukölln and Friedrichhain-Kreuzberg.

Interview with the Berlin group leader cycle traffic

Current plans mean major construction work is awaiting the city and budgets have been increased accordingly. But how war is Berlin actually in implementing the new mobility law and how certain is the local government that the huge project will be a success? We put these and other questions in an exclusive interview to Wigand von Sassen, group leader cycle traffic in the department for environment, traffic and climate protection in the Berlin Senate. Von Sassen has long-term experience from his time in Munich where he coordinated the campaign “Radlhauptstadt”, i.e. cycling capital. This could also be a hint to where Berlin is heading: The German capital wants to be cycling capital again. Is this feasible?

CycleCompetence: Where do you see the main significance of the Volksentscheid for Berlin and how did the initiative generate so much energy?

Von Sassen: What was special about the Volksentscheid and the Berlin mobility law – in my view – was the real and very intense dialogue between committed citizens, the city administration and political decision makers on the subjects of urban mobility and cycling traffic. Additionally, the creators of the Volksentscheid had major backing from the public and the timing was just right with increased cycle traffic, Dieselgate and the local election campaign.

CycleCompetence: Which actual budgets are currently earmarked for the cycling sector on the one hand and pedestrian traffic on the other?

Von Sassen: For cycling traffic the five-year legislative period (2016-2021) has earmarked €200m in total. For pedestrian traffic the total sum is around €5m annually. But at the moment, I think, only around €3m are spent annually.

CycleCompetence: What makes the very ambitioned, tangible implementation volumes in the cycling sector feasible, especially the 350km of  cycle paths and 100km of cycling super highways? What has already been done to get their realization on the way?

Von Sassen: At the moment a lot of projects and topics are being pushed at the same time, e.g. in-depth feasibility studies for the 10 RSV at over 100km total length; analysis for the potential for safe cycle parking at public transport stations (target: 50.000 spots by 2025) and from the Senate, i.e. the city authorities, we are financing and supporting 200 cycling traffic projects at the moment. These are planned and implemented by the 12 Berlin districts on a communal level.

CycleCompetence: Where in general do you see the biggest challenges on the way to reaching the targets?

Von Sassen: The biggest challenge at the moment is to create the structures capable to turn Berlin into a true cycling city. Money alone does not build new cycling paths. We need well-trained, motivated people (mainly planners/traffic engineers) in the regional government and these are hard to find in the current construction boom. At the same time expectations in us are high because of the mobility law and the very ambitioned (time) targets it contains. But I think that the development towards a true cycling city is a task for generations and will not be achieved within only a few years.

Associations criticise local government

It is natural that such a major project including citizens is not running all smoothly when the legitimate expectations and the pragmatic implementation perspectives are diverging. This has also proven true in Berlin after we did our interview: Representatives of the Berlin section of the German cycling association ADFC and from the “Changing Cities” initiative have quitted the negotiations on the expansion of the cycling traffic network in March.

The “Changing Cities” initiative campaigning for the Volksentscheid Fahrrad in 2016.

The NGOs are accusing the local government of not making enough binding commitments and not including citizens enough in the process. Stefan Lehmkühler from Changing Cities said in a press release: “Central bases for expanding cycling traffic are broken up and dragged on into the next year. The process is lacking a binding schedule for citizens’ involvement.”

Green light for Berlin’s cyclists

Since the beginning of April Berlin is also testing the green arrow for cyclists on selected road junctions. Until 2020 it will be possible for them to take a right turn there despite it being red for the other traffic heading straight. The German road code would also allow for this exception to be granted for cars but because of safety concerns this is only implemented at very few junctions. The green arrow for cyclists, however, is considered a safe option also given the examples in Belgium and France – as our report shows. 


“We want to make cycling more attractive. Therefore we are now testing the green arrow allowing cyclists to get to where they are going faster. We will study the results of the test phase in detail” said Stefan Tidow, Deputy Minister in the Berlin Senate responsible for environment, traffic and climate protection, at the presentation of the road sign. This test phase implements a project promised in the left-wing and green parties coalition treaty the city’s government signed in 2017. The Berlin green arrow test phase runs parallel to similar tests in other German cities like Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and Münster

CycleCompetent event in Berlin

As part of the cycling academy held by the German Institute for Urban Studies (Difu), subsidised by the German federal traffic ministry (BMVI) and with content support by CyclingCompetence Austria a parliamentary evening will be held in Berlin on cycling topics: On 4 June starting at 6.30pm at the Austrian Embassy in Berlin, there will be presentations and discussion on “Cycling in rural areas”. From the CycleCompetence platform the following members will give presentations: Andrea Weninger (Rosinak & Partner), Robert Thaler (BMNT) and the regional council member of Vorarlberg Johannes Rauch.

Links to the Berlin mobility law and other political initiatives (in German):

Photos: Volksentscheid Fahrrad/Norbert Michalke, Senat Berlin, Wigand von Sassen, Michael Stoß, Netzwerk Fahrradfreundliches Pankow

Posted on April 29, 2019