Berlin is slowly becoming recognized worldwide as a cycling city. Formerly overshadowed by the behemoths of biking to its north and west—Copenhagen and Amsterdam—Berlin is increasingly getting the credit it deserves for being bike-friendly. With its thirteen percent cycling modal share, it is doing pretty darn decently in comparison to other major cities.
But it could definitely be better. That’s why Mike Harris has a question for the other eighty-seven percent who don’t travel by bike: what’s your excuse?
Harris is a Sydney, Australia-based landscape architect, urban planner, and co-creator of the “No Excuse Zone,” a simple, citizen-driven mapping technique that illustrates the reach of bicycle transportation in any given city. It started as a fun and casual test with a few of his AECOM colleagues in Sydney four years ago. One weekend, they decided to meet up in the central business district and each head outwards in a different direction from that point to see how far they got within thirty minutes.
Once they’d come back and mapped just how much of the city was reachable by the average citizen on a casual, relaxed ride, the map served as a twofold tool—first, to bring awareness to people about the real efficiency of bicycle transit in the city, and second, to spark conversation about what stops people from doing it themselves.
“Often people are really surprised that you can get that far in thirty minutes on a bike, in a fairly easy ride. But ultimately it creates discussion and debate,” he told me recently as we lounged on a grassy lawn next to Lab. “The whole idea of calling it the No Excuse Zone is that people come out and sometimes get offended by that. Then they’ll say, ‘Well my excuse is this, this, and this,’ which really is fair enough. Then people start to talk about what the barriers are. That leads to talking about how we overcome those barriers and the broader discussion starts about what we need to do to actually make it a safer cycling environment.”
Rachel Smith had invited Harris to the Lab to work with Berliners to create a No Excuse Zone here, making it the thirteenth city worldwide to host one of the maps. Others exist already throughout Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States, as well as in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
On Friday afternoon, Harris, Smith, and a handful of Berliners radiated out from the Lab’s location in Prenzlauer Berg, marking their accomplished distances at twenty and thirty minutes respectively on a map, or measuring it through a cycling app on their phones. When Harris mapped all the data together, the zone looked like this:
With the average thirty-minute reach on the map hitting about six or seven kilometers, the concept can, of course, be applied to any part of the city from any starting point.
As someone who gets around the city by bike no matter where I’m living, I can honestly attest to the fact that Berlin is a much better city than many to bike in. When it comes to even the most basic element of cycling culture—how other road users treat cyclists—the streets are far more respectful and civilized than many others (most especially the terrifying and antagonistic streets of New York, the Lab’s last location).
The distances are large, since the Berlin is quite spread out. But it’s also relatively flat, which makes the distances less daunting. Also, the fairly extensive train system and many stations with elevators make it easy to combine cycling with transit for longer stretches.
In terms of infrastructure, there are a lot of separated bikeways, but they are inconsistent, often poorly marked, and there are many major roads that do lack them, which leaves cyclists either in traffic or annoying the pedestrians on the sidewalk. It’s not enough to keep me off the road on two wheels, but clearly there is something keeping many away—the other eighty-seven percent—and it’s worth talking about what that is.
Are you one of that eighty-seven percent? If so, please tell us in the comment section below: what’s your excuse?
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Photos: by Luke Abiol © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York