Felix Weisbrich, head of the Parks and Road Traffic Office in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, saw the opportunity presenting itself for bicycle traffic due to the coronavirus crisis. Since minimum distances could not be kept on most bike lanes, he turned car lanes into pop-up bike lanes. It is a temporary solution that is to become a permanent set-up.
Bike lanes getting increasingly crowded
It’s like in a village, I thought when I stepped out the front door at about 8 pm. Maybe 200 meters ahead, two persons were walking. One car drove past on the two-lane road. Then – nothing else for quite a while. The lockdown enacted on 18 March had even turned Berlin into a village. The city had almost come to a standstill even during the day. Most companies’ employees were working from home. Staff at hospitals, transport companies, power plants, food manufacturers and other essential industries and activities, including inspectors and test experts from TÜV Rheinland, ensured that all indispensible facilities and services continued to work and remained available.
The city had rapidly adapted to what is called the AHA rule in German: “Abstand, Hygiene, Alltagsmasken” (“distance, hygiene, face masks”). Since keeping a safe distance to others was the order of the day, buses, suburban trains, underground trains and trams were almost deserted. Those who had to go to work or had something to take care of preferred to take the car or jumped on their bikes, causing bike lanes to become even more crowded due to the pandemic.
Taking swift action to widen bike lanes
Supported by a team of road construction workers, a previously unknown man suddenly stepped into the limelight: Felix Weisbrich, head of the Parks and Road Traffic Office in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Insiders at least knew that his intention was to change the allocation of traffic space. His plan was to create new and wider bike lanes for cyclists and reduce the space allocated to car traffic. Weisbrich, who is not a member of a political party, demonstrated his ideas at what was his first major public appearance. Everything happened pretty fast. The team of road construction workers at Weisbrich’s side carried only the equipment needed to secure a construction site. After the work was done, warning beacons and a solid yellow line marked the right lane in both directions to the left and right of the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg. The lane had been taken away from the space allocated to cars and turned into a temporary bike lane that was more than two metres wide, creating the first pop-up bike lane in Europe.
From forestry manager to transport politician
Until a few months ago, only friends, family and colleagues knew more than Felix Weisbrich’s name. Some knew him as a forester from Bad Doberan in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, others may have run into him during his time as an advisor in the Ministry of Agriculture in Schwerin. Today, all of Berlin knows the 47-year-old Office Head. Virtually overnight, the forestry manager became a transport politician sought after throughout Europe. And the innovative idea of establishing pop-up bike lanes catapulted Berlin to the top of the ranking of Europe’s most bicycle-friendly cities.
Corona crisis as an opportunity
Weisbrich’s disruptive idea turned the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity that has done more for the 2.3 million cyclists in Berlin within a few weeks than the coalition of Social Democrats, the Left and the Greens governing the city has achieved with its mobility law, which was passed a good two years ago.
Among other things, the law requires all main roads to have bike lanes protected by bollards. So far, however, almost nothing has happened, except that some bike lanes have been painted green.
cyclists in Berlin have more space
Now pop-up bike lanes, also known as temporary infrastructure, are being created from car lanes almost everywhere in the city. But temporary does not mean that the new bike lanes will disappear after the pandemic. The bike lanes are considered temporary until they are turned into a permanent construction.
What looked like guerrilla action at the end of March marks the beginning of a sweeping transformation in Berlin’s transport system for Felix Weisbrich. It is what the administration refers to as pandemic-resistant infrastructure.
The requirement to keep a minimum distance to others during the coronavirus pandemic is the legal foundation on which Weisbrich’s idea of pop-up bike lanes is based. He argues that bicycle mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic is only possible if cyclists can keep the required minimum distance of 1.5 metres to each other to prevent infection. Since the required distance can rarely be maintained when overtaking others on narrow bike lanes, being the responsible officer for road traffic, he was forced to act. He also wanted to prevent environmentally conscious citizens worried about catching the virus on public transport from switching to cars.
Towards a more equitable allocation of space
Weisbrich likes to use images and vocabulary from agriculture to describe the transport policy approach underlying his efforts: “If you sow infrastructure, you will reap more demand. If you build wide roads, you get a lot of car traffic. If you have dedicated bike lanes, you get cyclists,” explains Felix Weisbrich. Since the beginning of the year, bicycle traffic in Berlin has not only increased by 25 percent – cycling has also become safer.
the Berlin bicycle traffic has increased
Mobility concepts of the future
In the medium term, Weisbrich wants to ensure a more equitable allocation of space in mobility. Today, one third of all trips in Berlin are made by car, while two thirds are made by public transport, by bicycle or on foot. However, space is allocated exactly the other way round. Modern mobility concepts and the steady increase in bicycle traffic should and will help Felix Weisbrich to put things right.
Press Spokesman Berlin
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