You look at Berlin these days and no doubt, it’s a cycling city. In fact, cycling has a 13% mode share, and has one of the highest ride-to-work proportions of any city with over one million residents. You probably think that it would have always been like that, right? No, wrong. Cycling in Berlin is a relatively recent development, and it happened by accident (you could say) as opposed to good planning.
Berlin is a dense and big city. Historically, people used public transport to get around. The tram and then subway networks could get you anywhere and it was all supported by many bus routes. And post-war, the car started to become dominant.
In 1983, the first German municipality (Buxtehude) implemented a 30-km/h urban speed limit. This initiative quickly spread to other cities. Over time, Berlin’s streets had their limits lowered, and that low speed limit applies to 75% of Berlin’s road network; the arterial and collector roads remain at higher limits. And with the speed differential between cars and bikes reduced, people took up cycling on the network of back streets. It wasn’t something that had been foreseen; it just happened. But once people were cycling in large numbers, there was a desire to also provide for cycling along the arterial roads with high traffic volumes and where the higher speed limits remain. The city council reacted to this situation by building cycling infrastructure along the arterials. It was the 30-km/h speed limit that got people riding, and because people were riding the council provided infrastructure.
Turning Berlin into a cycling city was an unintended by-product of comprehensively lowering the urban speed limit.