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On the Streets of Berlin, Bicycles Have Enriched City Life — and Stoked Backlash



BERLIN—One of my first impressions upon returning to Berlin after four years was that there were more bicycles than before. 

Bicycles were just about everywhere, on streets and sidewalks, in parks and carried onto trains.

The growth of bicycle traffic followed two big events. First was a law passed in 2018 by the equivalent of the state legislature that required a major increase in construction of bicycle lanes. Second was the Covid-19 pandemic, which contributed to an increase in bicycle ownership across Germany and in many other places.

Now bicycles are such a prominent part of Berlin life that they have inspired backlash from newly elected local officials. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Plenty of large cities have taken steps to encourage people to get out of their cars and shift to walking, biking or using mass transit. Amsterdam, for example, puts most cities to shame with its bicycle infrastructure.

I can’t imagine any U.S. city becoming like Amsterdam, with the equivalent of bicycle highways. But Berlin could be a realistic role model, a major city in a car-loving country.

“We’ve certainly made progress,” said Dirk von Schneidemesser, a biking advocate who lives in the city. By day he is a research associate at the Research Institute for Sustainability, a think tank based in Potsdam, near Berlin.

I spent an afternoon with him, with both of us on foot and him walking his bike. I had interviewed him four years ago for a story that was part of Power Switch, my series of stories about Germany’s energy transition. Since then, I’ve written about how the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, initially dealt with the way the Ukraine war was disrupting his plans for climate and energy policy.

Dirk von Schneidemesser, a biking advocate, during an interview in Berlin. Credit: Dan Gearino

We started along Kottbusser Damm, a major street just south and east of the city center. The street had two lanes of traffic in both directions until 2020 when it became the site of one of the country’s first pop-up bicycle lanes.

Kottbusser Damm teems with activity, especially where we were, near the intersection with Maybachufer. It was a Friday, which was one of the two days per week that part of Maybachufer gets taken over by a street market with stalls selling produce, flowers and crafts, alongside food trucks.

People were everywhere, and many of those people were on bicycles. Kottbusser Damm now has one lane of automobile traffic on each side instead of the previous two, and one bicycle lane on each side.

The bike lanes on this street have been popular enough that the government made them permanent, with lines painted on the road and bollards in a buffer zone that separates bikes from automobiles.

The result was an 11 percent decrease in automobile traffic and a 40 percent increase in bicycle traffic on this street since the bicycle lanes were built in their current configuration, according to figures from the state government and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental advocacy group.

Before the bicycle lanes, cars outnumbered bikes on this street by about 10 to one. Now it’s about six to one.

The reduction in automobile traffic and increase in bicycle traffic has a palpable effect on the sensory experience of being in that place. There is less noise. The air is cleaner.

Kottbusser Damm is one of several examples of how Berlin’s major streets are becoming more accommodating to bicycles.

But what I found more striking were the many side streets that had been shut off to automobile traffic, creating havens for people walking or riding bicycles. Alongside these streets are signs that say “fahrradstrasse” or “bike street.” Some of these were new, but others have been around for a while.

When plotting a trek across Berlin, it’s possible to cover much of the ground on these streets, which also tend to be scenic routes, lined with businesses, parks and gardens.

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For me, as an outsider, the progress in Berlin is inspiring. It makes me want to ride a bike.

But von Schneidemesser views the recent improvements as small steps toward much larger goals. He thinks the city still wastes way too much space on parking, and that bicycle lanes need to continue to get larger and safer.

An example of his thinking: We walked along a street that had two lanes of automobile traffic on each side, with a large median. He would like to see a shift so that cars are on one side, with one lane in each direction, and bicycles are on the other side. Instead of cars and bicycles sharing the same road, they would be separated, and would each have about the same amount of space.

A shift to electric vehicles also will reduce emissions, and is an important part of the transition to clean energy. And, many people live in areas where they need cars. But there are a multitude of benefits for cities when people ditch their cars—including cars that run on electricity—and rely on bicycles or walking.

“We want to reduce car traffic,” von Schneidemesser said. “We want to reduce traffic violence. We want to reduce emissions. We want to reduce the sicknesses that come along with breathing those emissions.”

One of the key points I’ve learned from studying Germany’s energy transition is how change often inspires backlash and regression.

This has happened in Berlin, with some voters and elected officials displeased with the growth of bike lanes. In February, a center-right coalition took power in the local government. The coalition is led by the Christian Democratic Union, which installed leadership on transportation policy that has called for a moratorium on new bicycle lanes.

The CDU had won support from outlying parts of the city by saying that “demonizing” cars was the wrong approach, according to Clean Energy Wire. The party tapped into resentment that people in the outskirts of the city feel about the difficulties of driving and parking in many neighborhoods, and the sense that they were being made to feel bad about owning cars.

Attempts to roll back bicycle-friendly policies have been met with protests and threats of lawsuits. It’s not clear whether the governing coalition has enough support even within its own membership to halt the progress that’s underway, von Schneidemesser said.

He is confident that, in the long run, Berlin will become even more hospitable to bicycles, although it’s not happening nearly as quickly as he’d like.

Near the end of my time with him, we were walking along a narrow street, with a bike lane on the sidewalk and a narrow strip for pedestrians. He talked about how too many streets in the city were like this, with pedestrians forced to share a small space with bicycles and storefronts.

“This is terrible,” he said.

Then a bike bell rang and I jolted to my right just in time to avoid a collision with a woman on a bicycle who had come up behind me. She might as well have timed her ride to underscore von Schneidemesser’s point.

Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

A Year Later, Insiders Talk About Passing the Inflation Reduction Act: The largest climate and energy law in U.S. history turned one last week. I wrote a profile of Pete Wyckoff, one of the Senate staff members who, along with his boss, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), never gave up on passing the bill, even when it looked dead. One of the people who I quoted in the story was Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University who advised on parts of the bill. Jenkins tells his behind-the-scenes story of the process in an essay at Heatmap. “This is a personal account of the final days of the fight to pass the nation’s first comprehensive climate law, and of how the Inflation Reduction Act remarkably arose from the ashes of near-defeat,” he writes.

Foes of Biden’s Climate Plan Have Yet to Dig Up Scandal: Many Republican lawmakers would like to repeal or severely cut the IRA, but they are having a difficult time making their case. One reason for the law’s resilience is that there hasn’t been a major scandal, as my colleague Marianne Lavelle reports. This story is a compelling look at the law’s widespread benefits and lack of major problems.

Federal Regulators Approve Major Rhode Island Offshore Wind Farm: The U.S. Interior Department has approved the construction of a 704 megawatt wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island, which is the fourth major offshore wind farm to get a permit to move forward, as Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. The project, Revolution Wind, is co-owned by Ørsted, the Denmark-based energy company, and Eversource, a utility serving much of New England. Offshore wind is an important part of the transition to clean energy, especially for population centers on the East Coast where there isn’t much room on land for large wind or solar projects.

How Geopolitics Is Complicating the Move to Clean Energy: Indonesia is increasingly caught in the conflict between the United States and China over the supply of nickel, metal used in EV batteries, as Peter S. Goodman reports for The New York Times. The United States is concerned about Chinese influence in Indonesia, which is hurting the push by business interests to obtain a trade deal that would make Indonesian nickel eligible for U.S. tax credits under the IRA. This is one of many debates taking place as the United States tries to secure supplies of metals for the clean energy economy at the same time that the country is trying to counteract China’s leading role in that economy.

In California, Is it Better to Buy Solar Panels or Rent Them, or Are Both a Bad Deal Right Now? California’s new net metering policy has created a shift in the financial reality for people considering rooftop solar, as Jon Healey reports for the Los Angeles Times. The new policy reduced the credits that solar owners receive for delivering excess electricity back to the grid. The most obvious way for consumers to deal with the change is to buy a battery storage system, which would reduce the amount of excess electricity. But storage systems are expensive, starting at about $7,500. Healey’s analysis helps to show why the solar industry is so upset about the new rules, which are likely going to hurt sales at a time when the country needs to increase adoption of clean energy technologies.

 Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to

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