This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One of my first impressions upon returning to Berlin after four years was that there were more bicycles than before.

Bicycles were just about everywhere, on streets and sidewalks, in parks and carried onto trains.

The growth of bicycle traffic followed two big events. First was a law passed in 2018 by the equivalent of the state legislature that required a major increase in the construction of bicycle lanes. Second was the COVID-19 pandemic, which contributed to an increase in bicycle ownership across Germany and in many other places.

Now bicycles are such a prominent part of Berlin life that they have inspired backlash from newly elected local officials. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Plenty of large cities have taken steps to encourage people to get out of their cars and shift to walking, biking or using mass transit. Amsterdam, for example, puts most cities to shame with its bicycle infrastructure.

I can’t imagine any U.S. city becoming like Amsterdam, with the equivalent of bicycle highways. But Berlin could be a realistic role model, a major city in a car-loving country.

“We’ve certainly made progress,” said Dirk von Schneidemesser, a biking advocate who lives in the city. By day, he is a research associate at the Research Institute for Sustainability, a think tank based in Potsdam, near Berlin.

I spent an afternoon with him, with both of us on foot and him walking his bike. I had interviewed him four years ago for a story that was part of Power Switch, my series of stories about Germany’s energy transition. Since then, I’ve written about how the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, initially dealt with the way the Ukraine war was disrupting his plans for climate and energy policy.

On the streets of #Berlin, #bicycles have enriched city life — and stoked backlash. #ClimateChange #ClimateAction #EnergyTransition

We started along Kottbusser Damm, a major street just south and east of the city centre. The street had two lanes of traffic in both directions until 2020 when it became the site of one of the country’s first pop-up bicycle lanes.

Kottbusser Damm teems with activity, especially where we were, near the intersection with Maybachufer. It was a Friday, which was one of the two days per week that part of Maybachufer gets taken over by a street market with stalls selling produce, flowers and crafts, alongside food trucks.

People were everywhere, and many of those people were on bicycles. Kottbusser Damm now has one lane of automobile traffic on each side instead of the previous two, and one bicycle lane on each side.

The bike lanes on this street have been popular enough that the government made them permanent, with lines painted on the road and bollards in a buffer zone that separates bikes from automobiles.

The result was an 11 per cent decrease in automobile traffic and a 40 per cent increase in bicycle traffic on this street since the bicycle lanes were built in their current configuration, according to figures from the state government and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental advocacy group.

Before the bicycle lanes, cars outnumbered bikes on this street by about 10 to one. Now it’s about six to one.

The reduction in automobile traffic and increase in bicycle traffic has a palpable effect on the sensory experience of being in that place. There is less noise. The air is cleaner.

Kottbusser Damm is one of several examples of how Berlin’s major streets are becoming more accommodating to bicycles.

But what I found more striking were the many side streets that had been shut off to automobile traffic, creating havens for people walking or riding bicycles. Alongside these streets are signs that say “fahrradstrasse” or “bike street.” Some of these were new, but others have been around for a while.

When plotting a trek across Berlin, it’s possible to cover much of the ground on these streets, which also tend to be scenic routes, lined with businesses, parks and gardens.

For me, as an outsider, the progress in Berlin is inspiring. It makes me want to ride a bike.

But von Schneidemesser views the recent improvements as small steps toward much larger goals. He thinks the city still wastes way too much space on parking, and that bicycle lanes need to continue to get larger and safer.

An example of his thinking: We walked along a street that had two lanes of automobile traffic on each side, with a large median. He would like to see a shift so that cars are on one side, with one lane in each direction, and bicycles are on the other side. Instead of cars and bicycles sharing the same road, they would be separated, and would each have about the same amount of space.

A shift to electric vehicles also will reduce emissions and is an important part of the transition to clean energy. And, many people live in areas where they need cars. But there are a multitude of benefits for cities when people ditch their cars — including cars that run on electricity — and rely on bicycles or walking.

“We want to reduce car traffic,” von Schneidemesser said. “We want to reduce traffic violence. We want to reduce emissions. We want to reduce the sicknesses that come along with breathing those emissions.”

One of the key points I’ve learned from studying Germany’s energy transition is how change often inspires backlash and regression.

This has happened in Berlin, with some voters and elected officials displeased with the growth of bike lanes. In February, a centre-right coalition took power in the local government. The coalition is led by the Christian Democratic Union, which installed leadership on transportation policy that has called for a moratorium on new bicycle lanes.

The CDU had won support from outlying parts of the city by saying that “demonizing” cars was the wrong approach, according to Clean Energy Wire. The party tapped into resentment that people in the outskirts of the city feel about the difficulties of driving and parking in many neighbourhoods, and the sense that they were being made to feel bad about owning cars.

Attempts to roll back bicycle-friendly policies have been met with protests and threats of lawsuits. It’s not clear whether the governing coalition has enough support even within its own membership to halt the progress that’s underway, von Schneidemesser said.

He is confident that in the long run, Berlin will become even more hospitable to bicycles, although it’s not happening nearly as quickly as he’d like.

Near the end of my time with him, we were walking along a narrow street, with a bike lane on the sidewalk and a narrow strip for pedestrians. He talked about how too many streets in the city were like this, with pedestrians forced to share a small space with bicycles and storefronts.

“This is terrible,” he said.

Then a bike bell rang and I jolted to my right just in time to avoid a collision with a woman on a bicycle who had come up behind me. She might as well have timed her ride to underscore von Schneidemesser’s point.

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