I recently returned from a vacation in Europe with my boyfriend. To no one's great surprise, including my boyfriend's, I spent a lot of time thinking about bikes ... and riding bikes, and watching bikes, and photographing bikes, and coveting bikes, and striking up conversations about bikes.
You get the picture. I'm a bicycle-oriented gal. Our trip took us to a few different places in Germany and Belgium, and finally to Amsterdam, a Holy Grail for bike advocates around the world.
When I got back, everyone asked "How was AMSTERDAM?!" - expecting me to launch into gushing accounts of businessmen, kids, seniors, moms and everyone in between pedaling on protected bike lanes alongside the canals of arguably the world's most bicycle-friendly city, with rarely a car in sight. And I'll admit, Amsterdam is an incredible place for cyclists.
But as a Philadelphia bike advocate, I actually found Berlin to be more inspiring.
Amsterdam is exceptional - a unique canal layout, extremely progressive street design, the high cost of cars and gas, lack of hills, and its location in the middle of a very tiny country have all come together to make it one of the easiest places in the world to safely use a bicycle for daily transportation, and a broad cross-section of its population (and tourist base) does just that.
However, I would argue that because Amsterdam is indeed so exceptional, that actually makes it NOT the best model for us to look to as we strive to make Philadelphia a safer and more enjoyable place to ride a bicycle. While I loved visiting Amsterdam, it felt extremely foreign to me as a Philadelphian - more like a fantastical city than a metropolis that bore any relation to my own.
Berlin, on the other hand, is situated in a much larger country than the Netherlands (though admittedly still a lot smaller than ours). Germany has a strong culture around car ownership and use (think of the autobahn). Both of the Germans we spent time with in Berlin - our Airbnb host and a family friend who showed us around - owned cars and used them in situations where it made sense to do so (e.g. toting American tourists).
Despite there being plenty of cars in Berlin, however, a combination of somewhat better infrastructure and a significantly better culture of respect for vulnerable road users resulted in a city that felt pretty darn comfortable to ride a bike in. And moms, businessmen, kids, and seniors (and tourists) were doing just that, in impressive numbers.
My favorite design element on Berlin's streets was a bicycle left-turn lane. We encountered one on a bike ride to the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall covered in street art. The ride there was mostly on bike lanes, some of which were on-street and some of which were at sidewalk-grade. When we were almost there, we needed to make a left turn (from a street-level bike lane) at an intersection between two 4-lane roads.
To our great surprise and delight, the bike lane we were riding in split in two: the left half of it continuing straight through the intersection, and the right half of it dropping us off at the far corner, where we could turn ourselves 90 degrees and wait for the next light cycle to continue on our way (on another bike lane).
When I teach bike safety classes in Philly, we call this a "box turn" or a "two-part turn" - it's a great strategy to avoid finding yourself out in the middle of a huge intersection as a bicyclist. I had never seen them institutionalized in this way, though - definitely a case of "a little paint goes a long way."
Berlin's motorists, while plentiful, were extremely respectful of pedestrians and cyclists. I got the sense that they understood that a one-way street through a residential neighborhood is different than the autobahn (something I certainly don't always feel like South Philly's drivers understand).
Motorists kept their speed down, and watched for and yielded to cyclists regularly. It almost made me cry how simple it all looked for people using different modes of travel to just watch out for each other and get along.
Given how many cyclists I saw, I imagined that most of the drivers had also ridden bikes on the same streets - and perhaps had a better understanding of how to drive safely around bikes because of that.
This is not to say we as local bike advocates shouldn't look to Amsterdam as a model. To the contrary, I think the feeling of biking in Amsterdam holds a lot of power, showing us one version of what a city designed for biking looks like.
In addition, the history of how their bike culture came to be (through protest, public discussion, and Dutch pragmatism ultimately prevailing) is an important reminder that the streetscape and transportation system we have now is a political choice, not an inevitability.
But try as the Bicycle Coalition might, for more reasons than I can list, Philadelphia is NOT going to transform into Amsterdam next week.
(And in some ways, I don't want us to: I'll take cute 5th graders visiting Independence Hall over stoned packs of teenaged boys shuffling through the Red Light District any day.)
So for the moment, at least, I'm going to keep what I saw of Berlin in the front of my mind as I work to make Philly a more bicycle-friendly city.