On Tuesday, I witnessed a gruesome accident. A skateboarder was rolling up the middle of Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße in Mitte at a very high speed. For no apparent reason he lost his balance and went flying off of his longboard. The young man hit the tarmac and was lying in the middle of the street screaming in pain. His girlfriend who had been following on her bike was shrieking in shock. The man’s lower leg had snapped in half. He lay helpless, in agony, unable to move as bystanders desperately tried to call an ambulance.
This strange, horrendous accident was a rare, unlucky case, but it reminded me of the precarious safety situation on the streets of Berlin right now. The tensions between drivers (protected by metal and airbags), and far more physically vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians seem to be on the rise this summer.
Every day I hear stories of drivers yelling at cyclists for no good reason, honking at them aggressively or deliberately almost running over cyclists or pedestrians’ feet to make a point. As the initiators of the #automachos campaign point out, some male drivers seem especially keen these days to use their position of power (with large metal dangerous objects as an extension of their overblown egos) to hurl sexist insults at female cyclists.
The statistics from the Kraftfahrzeugbundesamt (“Federal Motor Transport Authority”) are pretty damning: poorly behaved men account for 92 percent of all drunk-driving citations and 77 percent of speeding offences in Germany. But obnoxious car-owners aren’t all male, of course. The ultra-privileged SUV-driving soccer mom types you see from Charlottenburg to Friedrichshain are #automachos in their own right, if you ask me: double parking, stopping in bike lanes, polluting our air with their tank-like, turbo-charged Dieselstinker.
Berlin is growing. More inhabitants, more tourists, more cars. More bike commuters, more tourists on wobbly rentals, more pedestrians, more e-scooters and more segways and skaters crowding streets, lanes and sidewalks. But this being Autonation Nummer Eins, a lot of drivers believe it is their god-given right to act as if they were kings of the road and are unwilling to slow down and share our streets.
In 2016, 17 cyclists were killed on the streets of Berlin. Three cyclists have died this year so far. On March 25, an 80-year-old man was run over by a truck turning a corner on Yorckstraße; on June 13, a 55-year-old man was killed by a Saudi diplomat opening the door of his double-parked Porsche Cayenne on Hermannstraße; on June 28, a 31-year-old female cyclist who was hit by a truck on Danziger Straße died from her injuries later in hospital.
Wider bike lanes across the city are essential – and now, according to the first draft of the new Mobility Law (Mobilitätsgesetz) that was revealed yesterday – we’re finally going to get lanes that are at least 2m wide on all main arteries of the city. Measures also include making sure all main intersections can be navigated safely by bike. It’s only thanks to the ongoing pressure of the citizens’ initiative Volksentscheid Fahrrad that Berlin could finally get the cycle infrastructure it deserves.
As it implements its new mobility plan, the government should launch a “share the road“ publicity campaign. Aimed at both drivers and cyclists, many of whom systematically ignore every traffic light and street sign. Calmer, more disciplined cyclists could help change driver attitudes as well.
A lot could be done for the safety of pedestrians. The other day I saw a small girl almost get run over as she crossed Karl-Liebknecht-Straße near Alexanderplatz. This crossing is just one example of terrible planning: a busy tram stop between two busy lanes of traffic, surrounded by speeding cars, busses and bikes. Every “traffic participant” has to fight for space. Pedestrians try to battle their way across the street to get to Alexanderplatz but few drivers slow down. It seems obvious to me that there should be a zebra crossing here.
Until things improve, cyclists, skaters and pedestrians need to watch out for themselves. Slow down. Take extra care. Wear a helmet. Don’t ride if you’re wasted. The human body is a fragile thing.