A team of urban planners, designers and architects have come together to develop an ingenious plan for a cycling paradise in centre of Berlin. Noa Technologies got in touch with them to get the inside track on their vision for bike-based travel in the German capital.
Imagine this: a nine kilometre-long stretch of land which runs straight through the middle of a European capital and lies unused with the exception of a few stray parked cars. It would be quite unbelievable, if it wasn’t true. But it is: in the centre of Berlin a stretch of land under the U1 elevated railway line is sitting vacant and the city has little intention of utilising what would be considered prime real estate in many cities. That is, until now.
A local team of Berlin-based designers, urban planners and architects have come together to create an ingenious plan to take advantage of this underutilised space: a cycling superhighway running under the entire length of this fantastic 19th Century structure, which would be protected from rain, sun and motor traffic. The line sets off from Zoologischer Garten and glides through Nollendorfplatz and Gleisdreieck before making its way through Mockernbrucke and Kottbusser Tor and rounding off at the iconic Oberbaum Bridge at Warschauer Strasse.
The simplicity of the idea is that so much of it is there already. A lot of the path under the U1 is already cyclable or could be soon with minor alterations, which would make the plan relatively cheap to implement. According to the Radbahn team, the route is “80% ready, 20% challenges”, which they maintain are all solvable. Amongst these obstacles is the problem of how to cross roads or non-traversable areas, such as the Landwehr Canal which cuts through the U1 line between Gleisdreieck and Mockernbrucke. To overcome this particular hurdle, the developers of the project have come up with the innovative solution of hanging lightweight cycling bridges from the railway line along which people could ride across without difficulty. We at Noa Technologies would love to see these put up along the Radbahn's route.
Unsurprisingly, separating cars and bicycles markedly cuts the number of accidents for cyclists, by as much as half according to some studies. In addition, accidents that occur on streets with bike lanes are 40 per cent less likely to result in death or serious injury for all road users. That’s important to bear in mind when you consider that the number of cyclist deaths in Berlin is rising, with 9 recorded in 2013 rising to 12 in 2014. The Radbahn could dramatically reduce this figure, as the districts which the route runs through - Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain - represent 4 of the 5 most dangerous districts for cyclists in Berlin. Moreover, the knowledge that Berliners could cycle safely, separated from traffic, would persuade more people to get on their bikes. Studies have shown that it’s not necessarily the actual danger posed to cyclists which deters people from travelling by bike, but the perceived danger. Supposedly, a perceived 10 per cent increase in the safety of cycling resulted in an increase in cycling of more than 10 per cent. An attention-grabbing scheme such as the Radbahn has the potential to convince many who are keen to cycle but have concerns about their safety on Berlin’s streets.
To further promote cycling other transport solutions could be integrated with the Radbahn. The team suggest that a network of bike sharing stations along the line would be key to the Radbahn’s functionality, stating they could “Encourage a bike-renting philosophy underneath. It means that you come down from the U Bahn, you need to connect quickly to the bar you wanna go to, so you grab a bike.” In combination with technology like Noa's, this could become a reality. They add that such a bike sharing network would “Just enhance the way of moving through the city using all sorts of means, which could be using cars, bikes or walking. The interaction of different types of movement through the city is a very important thing for the Radbahn.” If the plan goes ahead, it would be possible for people to drive from the outskirts of Berlin, catch the metro to the centre, rent a bike and cycle the rest of the way. A picture of perfect urban mobility.
Team Radbahn are not short of inventive ideas for servicing the route. At traffic intersections, another of the route’s potential sticking points, they suggest placing electronic signage along the way telling cyclists whether they should keep pace or speed up to continue cycling uninterrupted. Additionally, the Radbahn could be the testing ground for new and cutting-edge technology. According to the proposed plan, the power for the route’s lights as well as any installations along the path could be generated by pressure-sensitive material laid on the track’s surface, which would transform the friction from bikes’ tyres into electricity. This would remove the need to supply the Radbahn with external power sources; yet another reason why the Radbahn is a low cost project.
Such creative ideas illustrate how much the Radbahn is in keeping with Berlin’s startup culture. Perttu Ratilainen, a member of Team Radbahn, believes that a headline-grabbing scheme such as theirs would attract more cycling-based startups to Berlin: “It’s a well-known fact that startup employees are keen on cycling. So it would be one more way of attracting startups here in Berlin.” It may also support existing startups from Berlin’s scene which rely on bicycles for their operations. One of these is food delivery service foodora, whose delivery men use bikes to get their orders to hungry customers. If the plan is put into action, the Radbahn would provide an easy way for startup employees to move about the city and could work as a business artery, fuelling enterprises by connecting them with their customers. The route provides many other opportunities for businesses. Researchers found that businesses on sections of road with bike lanes generated more sales tax revenue (a measure of business success) than those without it. It’s thought that this effect arises from the fact that cyclists are much more able to make spontaneous stops at businesses due to the fact that they are not limited by having to find a parking space when they wish to stop. The space beside the Radbahn, which has also not yet been put to use, could be utilised for bicycle maintenance zones as well as recreational spaces, such as cafes or beer gardens.
At the same time, cycling’s benefit is not just limited to businesses along cycle paths, but the town as a whole. A journey made by bike means less money spent on fuel, which benefits the local economy as this wealth is not transferred to large fuel companies but spent locally. In Portland, USA, researchers found that residents' preference for two-wheeled travel stops an almighty €735 million ($800 million) from flowing out of town. Not only would the Radbahn be money well spent, but the money invested in the project flow back into the city’s coffers.
Often overlooked is cycling’s positive impact on motorists. Germans spend an average of 38 hours stuck in traffic jams every year, which costs each house that commutes by car €1,800 ($2,000) and the entire country an almighty €30 billion ($33 billion). A reduction in the number of cars on the road has the potential to decrease congestion and ease the average commuter’s drive to work. In 2008, the number of miles Americans drove dropped by 3 per cent; in the same year, congestion dropped by a whopping 30 per cent. In this way, the Radbahn’s potential to take cars off the street and replace them with bicycles would shorten and therefore, greatly ease the journey of those motorists for whom it is not feasible to travel by bike.
Team Radbahn believe that their plan has the ability to change cycling in Berlin as we know it: “Cycling on this proposed part in Berlin would be far more than only riding a bike as you are used to it. Maybe you would come there to just enjoy cycling underneath this structure. It is not only cycling your bike somewhere, it is cycling beneath a really iconic relic from the city.” There’s no doubt that renting a bike and riding it, protected from the elements by beautiful 19th Century architecture would be a pleasurable experience and one that would naturally attract large numbers of people. Matthias suggests that creating such a space would work towards the revitalisation of the city’s image: “Berlin needs a footprint to place on Berlin politics and achievements. What is Berlin known for? Less from things designed and planned and financed from the city itself. I think the most important thing to promote in Berlin is activities that come from the people.” Considering the enormous public support the Radbahn has received so far and the positive effects it would have on the life of the average resident in Berlin, Noa Technologies believes that the Radbahn would represent a positive change coming from the people, for the people. The Radbahn is not just a project that would benefit cycling, but all of Berlin.