The battle for Berlin’s bike lanes in the era of Covid

By Gemma Casadevall

Berlin, Sep 16 (efe-epa).- Local authorities and environmentalists are pushing for more designated bicycle zones in Berlin as an increasing number of the German capital’s residents turn to the two-wheelers despite efforts from the political right to slam the brakes on the initiative.

Generally flat and free of traffic jams, Berlin is already one of Europe’s most bike-friendly cities and offers some 650 kilometers (403 miles) of bicycle paths and lanes for those who prefer to commute or burn calories on two wheels.

“There has been a strong increase in (bicycle) users in recent months. It’s no myth, the figures are verifiable,” René Filippek, from the German Cyclist’s Association (ADFC), the largest such affiliation in the country, tells Efe.

A year ago there were around 1.8 million cyclists in Berlin, a city of 3.7 million, but that figure has since increased by 26.5 percent to 2.2 million, according to the local government.

Somewhere between a lobbying platform and activist group, the ADFC is advising Berlin authorities on the design of so-called pop-up bike lanes, which are temporary and specifically tailored to accommodate the health and safety protocol required by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The local government has boosted the size of existing lanes on busy stretches of road so that cyclists can maintain social distancing on their journey. The initiative has already extended the city’s bike lane network by 25km.

It has become the flagship project of the local transport minister Regine Günther, who is working closely with ADFC. One of the most striking changes was to get rid of the traffic on Friedrichstrasse, a thoroughfare of the city’s Mitte district lined by luxury shops and terraces, by making it bicycle only.

“We set the path,” Marion Tiemann, from Greenpeace, says.

She has been involved in a project to create bicycle lanes in more than 30 cities without prior infrastructure.

“Our mission is to stop the pandemic from spreading to urban traffic, stop citizens from returning to the car because they’re worried about the virus in the metro or don’t like the vulnerability that comes with being on a bicycle.”

Greenpeace has been laying down its own bicycles lanes, often painted on the roads in the early hours of the morning.

“It’s targeted action, as is usual for Greenpeace. We lay out the lanes for a day and we dismantle them again at night,” Tiemann says.

While Greenpeace offers inspiration in its action, other organizations such as Changing Cities lead campaigns to free up urban areas currently dominated by motorized vehicles.

“We’re a creative organization, a platform in favor of ecological and healthy mobility,” Ragnhild Soerensen, a member of Changing Cities, explains.

The ADFC’s Berlin headquarters is in the government district of the German capital, next door to the ministry of labour and social affairs while Changing Cities has a more modest location in the modern neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg.

“The pandemic reinforced our arguments,” Soerensen tells Efe during a conversation in the association’s office as some of her colleagues reorganized their desks after three months of remote working.

But striking a balance between the interest of cyclists and pedestrians was a tricky issue even before the pandemic, with those traveling on foot complaining about the amount of bicycles mounting the sidewalk.

“If there are more bicycles out there, including those who ride on the sidewalk, of course it can lead to them becoming narrower. The idea to generate more space is not to become a detriment to pedestrians but to cars,” Soerensen says.

Even more complicated are relations between cyclists and car owners. Coming to the aid of the latter is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the third political force in the country, which has launched a legal case against the pop-up bike lanes.

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