Changing Cities: How Berlin Got Its Bicycle Law

Nicole Nelson is a professor in Medical History and Bioethics at UW-Madison and a year-round bike commuter from Madison's west side. Thanks for writing this great summary of our event "From Madison to Berlin and Back: Civic Activism for a More Livable City," in cooperation with Downtown Madison Inc.

What would biking in Madison look like if we had a law that required the city to mitigate dangerous intersections, install safe cycling infrastructure on main roads, and even build bicycle “highways”? How would such a law come to pass? Dirk von Schneidemesser, a board member for the German nonprofit Changing Cities, spoke about Berlin’s experience with passing a bicycle law to a packed audience at HotelRED on January 4th.

Berlin is Germany's capital, with a population of about 3.5 million and about 13% of all trips being done by bike. Bicycle laws are a new phenomenon in Germany. Berlin’s bicycle law, passed in June 2018, was the first of its kind in the country. Now activists in cities across Germany are organizing to put similar laws in place. The Berlin law outlines the types of infrastructure that the city is either required or strongly encouraged to build. Some of these types of infrastructure will be familiar to many cyclists, such as the requirement that the city build 2m/6.5ft wide bike lanes on major streets. Others are more innovative—one provision requires the city to build 100km/60miles of bicycle “highways,” paths with relatively few intersections that allow cyclists to cover more distance in less time. Even though the law is quite recent, it has already resulted in policy change. The city budget for cycling infrastructure increased from approximately 15 million euros in 2015 to 50 million euros in 2019, and the city now employs two bicycle planners for each district, compared to two planners for the entire city before.

The 10 Goals of the Berlin Bicycle Bill
(1) 200 miles of new cycle streets that work for people of all ages
(2) 6.5ft-wide safe cycling infrastructure on every arterial
(3) 75 dangerous intersections ‘neutralized’ per year
(4) Transparent and efficient infrastructure repair
(5) 200,000 bicycle parking spots at transit stations and streets
(6) 50 "Green Waves" for buses, cyclists, and pedestrians
(7) 60 miles of Bicycle Highways for commuters
(8) Bicycle police units and special unit for bike theft
(9) Planners in city/district administration; create Central Cycle Administrative Office
(10) Awareness campaign for accommodating higher modal share of cycling

A ballot initiative organized by the nonprofit Changing Cities was an important step in making the law a reality. “Citizen’s initiatives,” as they are called in Germany, require that organizers first collect 20,000 signatures in a six-month period. The Changing Cities team set up 250 collection stations around Berlin, and in only three and a half weeks they collected more than 100,000 signatures. This caught the attention of city officials, particularly since the signature drive coincided with the beginning of election season for the city. Rather than continuing the “citizen’s initiative” process through to get a question on the ballot, Changing Cities opted instead to work directly with (and sometimes against) elected officials to get the bicycle law passed.

Counting signatures (Photo courtesy Volksentscheid Fahrrad/Norbert Michalke)

One of the most striking aspects of this story was the huge network of volunteers that Changing Cities assembled. Dirk estimated that by the time the law had passed, volunteers had put in more than 40,000 hours of work, equivalent to a single person working full time for approximately 26 years (!). Similarly impressive was the fact that this was all done on a shoestring budget. At the time Changing Cities had no staff and relied primarily on donations to fund basics such as the photocopying needed for the signature drive.

There’s a lot to be learned from the tactics that Changing Cities used to lower barriers to participation and grow their network of volunteers. During the signature drive, for example, Changing Cities asked local businesses to volunteer as “collection stations” where citizens could stop in and sign the petition. Not only did this get local businesses more involved in the initiative, it reduced the need to have volunteers staffing booths at fixed locations around the city. Volunteers could roam Berlin (by bike!), distributing information and encouraging citizens to stop in at a collection station when they were ready to sign.

"Taking a Dive" (Photo courtesy Michael Truckenbrodt/Volksentscheid Fahrrad)

I was also impressed by the variety of techniques the organization used to keep up the pressure on the city to get the law passed. When the city senate was obstructing progress, volunteers rode their bikes into the river to illustrate how bicycle transport and climate protection were “taking a dive.” These humorous and visually engaging protests made for great newspaper photos and headlines. When local merchants complained that the loss of parking spots on major roads would hurt business, Changing Cities worked with merchants to conduct a study of how shoppers arrived at their stores. The survey data showed that merchants tended to overestimate the number of people who arrived by car and underestimate those who arrived by bike, and these data were key to changing merchants’ opinions on the proposed bicycle law. While I’ve tended to think of showy media tactics and evidence-based policy reform as being in tension with each other, this story showed how one organization could do both successfully.

Dirk closed his presentation with a map of Germany showing cities that were currently working on bicycle law initiatives, and asked us—could Madison be next? Before Dirk’s presentation I would have answered that a bicycling law for Madison was a lovely, idealistic idea, but an impossible one. After talking us through the process, it now seems difficult but not impossible. As I write this, Cambridge MA (where I am living for the year), is taking its first steps towards passing an ordinance that would require the city to build protected bike infrastructure as described in the city’s own Bicycle Plan. A law that simply forces a city to follow through with its own plans may not seem as sweeping and ambitious as what Berlin achieved, but if successful it would transform the experience of biking in Cambridge. Pushing for legal reforms might not be the best path to success in all cities, but it’s certainly an option worth putting on the table.

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