This is a guest post written by Ella Kay.
It doesn’t take too long to notice to notice the ‘Pop-up Radwege’ peppered around covid-era Berlin. The rationale is straightforward enough and based squarely on the pandemic narrative – provide enough space for people to travel to where they need to go while minimising the risk of infection. At the same time, take pressure off public transport (and enable social distancing for users), and enhance wellbeing through encouraging activity in fresh air.
The first pop-up radweg was established on 25 March 2020, within weeks of an escalating global pandemic. Since then, dozens have emerged in Berlin as well as other German cities. The temporary nature of pop-up radwege has been on a bit of a sliding scale – first until the end of May 2020, then until the end of 2020, and now well into 2021. This ‘temporary’ quality is intentionally low cost, with a per kilometre cost average in Berlin of €9500 (about NZD$16,000). This brings the added benefit of using low-cost measures to test public sentiment before investing in costlier permanent measures.
Developing guidelines and approach
While responsibility for the ordinance relating to containing Covid-19 sits at the state level with the Senate for Environment, Transport and Climate Protection, districts retain the role of implementation of the measures. The Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district was the first to implement pop-up radwege, and did not hesitate to shape up some general guidelines in doing so. First, and quite importantly – a ten day timeframe for execution is recommended. This includes the identification of a corridor, incorporation of involved authorities, arrangement of the treatments and set up of temporary signage. Some key principles inform the design:
- Physical separation: pedestrians, cyclists/active modes and cars should be separated – including minimising crossings (left/right turn) of cars into adjacent streets.
- Verzeihende Infrastruktur (‘forgiving infrastructure’): minimise the risk of injury through the use of safety clearances (buffer zones) or separation elements.
- Predictability: Routes should be easily understandable and less complex.
- Network approach: Corridors should complement other parts of the network (and may relieve other corridors or sections).
What has surprised me is the bold amount of road space that has been reallocated through this scheme. The segments that I have seen are on typically arterial urban routes that may have had at least two lanes of traffic on both sides, and possibly parking along one or both sides. It isn’t just a measly 1 m or 1.5 m provision squashed into the corridor in a way that retains the existing vehicle capacity – it is actually a full lane (about 3m) on each side handed over to cyclists and active mode users.
Furthermore, several left/right hand turns into adjacent streets are now closed in order to minimise conflicts. I imagine this has quite an impact on how easily vehicle users are able to get to where it is that they are going.
The concept hasn’t been without some controversy. A lawsuit was filed in June 2020 questioning the legal basis of decisions to implement (at that stage) 8 pop-up radwege in Berlin without any reference or reasoning as to why those locations had been selected (e.g. real or perceived safety risks). The second prong of the argument was that the emergency grounds based on the advent of Covid-19 did not have a sufficient line of sight to technical transport or traffic assessments of the corridors. The case was at first upheld but then later dropped when the Senate for Environment, Transport and Climate Protection presented evidence to support determination of the identified corridors. As a result, it looks like the question about the legality of emergency transport or street measures in response to a pandemic remains outstanding.
So, how do the measures become permanent?
While I’ve read that the plan is to transfer the treatments from temporary to permanent measures, my understanding is that this step is governed by the Berlin Mobility Act (rather than the Covid-19 ordinances) and requires formal issuance by the roading authority (i.e. the Senate for Environment, Transport and Climate Protection) which triggers a formal hearing procedure. In several cases the corridors that have been treated already formed identified routes as part of proposed cycle network development, and that the introduction of the temporary measures in response to Covid-19 may have mirrored existing proposals. However, by now the ‘temporary’ measures have been in place in some locations for well over a year and the revised function of the street must be normalised. I wonder at what point the measures evolve to be considered ‘status quo’ and therefore hard to revert.
I’ve at least noticed the measures on one street this week being engineered up over a handful of days. I presume that this move must have been mandated to go from ‘temporary’ to ‘permanent’ per the Berlin Mobility Act process as I came across an announcement about the work on the district website here.
Cities around the world are shifting their mould to fit pandemic requirements, and it’s refreshing to see that something can be done both quickly and continue to be developed once in flight. A recently published comparative study of pop-up bike lanes in European cities in the context of Covid-19 claims that this type of intervention resulted in an 11 – 48% increase in numbers of cyclists between March and June 2020, yielding billions of dollars in prospective health benefits (especially if the habits stick). At a cost of €9500 per kilometre (at least in Berlin) these types of interventions represent good value for money.
I will be keeping an eye on the fate of the pop-up radwege in Berlin and will be scoping where it looks as though the temporary measures are being swapped out for permanent ones across the city.