Since 2011 the Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index has been the leading global ranking index for bicycle friendly cities around the world, and last year it ranked Berlin in the top 10 for the first time. This was thanks largely to efforts from coalitions like Volksentscheid Fahrrad (Cycling Referendum) pushing for greater sustainable transport and more bike-sharing programs in the capital city. Among the activist groups currently working to improve Berlin’s cycling infrastructure is paper planes e.V., a non-profit organization responsible for planning and designing the ambitious project “Radbahn”, Berlin’s first covered cycle path.
The proposed path stretches 9 kilometers underneath Berlin’s elevated U1 U-Bahn line, from Zoologischer Garten in the city’s west to Warschauer Straße in the east, and connects the districts of Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain. The Radbahn concept briefing released by Radbahn Berlin (a division of paper planes e.V.) outlines plans to transform the cycle path into a public space not just for urban mobility, but also for eco-innovations and leisure.
A majority of the sections beneath the eastern portion of the U1 U-Bahn line are derelict spaces used for makeshift car parking. The potential of this unused space inspired Finnish entrepreneur and cyclist Martti Mela to first pitch his idea for a protected cycling path to architect Matthias Heskamp in 2014.
While biking to work Mela rode past the rows of parked cars beneath the U1 line when inspiration struck. “I realized the lane was wide enough,” says Mela, “and I wondered why this hadn’t been thought of before.” After talking to Heskamp, the two assembled a group of architects, cultural managers, geographers, and business strategists to quickly set upon the task of capturing “a piece of Copenhagen in Berlin.”
For the newly formed Radbahn Berlin team, it made sense to study the cycling infrastructure in Denmark’s capital for inspiration, as Copenhagen continues to claim the number one spot on the Copenhagenize Index year after year. Though Berlin is quickly advancing in the rankings, the German hauptstadt still requires years of civic development before it can compete with other top-ranked cycling cities like Amsterdam, Strasbourg, and Antwerp.
To that end, Heskamp sees the Radbahn as an experiment that will set a strong precedence for urban planning and transportation innovation in cities across the globe. “The rapid development of mobility issues will lead to a revolution in the next 30 years,” he notes. “Not only as a consequence of climate change, but also a change in values.”
Capitalizing on Berlin’s resurgent interest in green initiatives in recent years, paper planes e.V. presented their idea to the Berlin Senate in May 2017 in hopes of securing a government study to test the project’s feasibility. Despite earning praise and approval for study from the city council, project Radbahn has yet to receive any federal funding, with parsimonious skeptics citing the project’s 13 million Euro cost—to say nothing of the impact on motorized traffic—as a major consideration.
Even with the steep cost, Mela estimates that 80 percent of the infrastructure for the proposed Radbahn is already in place. “Some sections would require repaving,” he says, specifically in sections where diverting traffic and bridge crossovers are required, “but the groundwork has already been done. With minor modifications it could be converted into a bike lane.”
Thanks to its eco-conscious design, some of the Radbahn’s most promising features go well beyond protecting cyclists from rain and snow during their journey. The project designers also plan on incorporating various cafes, food truck stops, e-bike charging stations, beer gardens, and free service stations along the path for public use, transforming the area surrounding the bicycle route into a sprawling urban space that encourages leisurely activities and a more holistic cycling lifestyle across the city.
Additionally, Heskamp sees the Radbahn as the ideal space for testing other public works projects, including smarter traffic management. “We want to stop cyclists from racing and then waiting at the next traffic light,” he says. Instead, overhead displays inform cyclists of the optimal riding speed in order to keep hitting green lights at every intersection. In between these displays the design team wants to integrate an energy-harvesting technology that collects and stores electricity generated from bicycles rolling over pressure-sensitive pavement to power the overhead U1 train.
Though the Radbahn holds considerable promise for the future of urban mobility in Berlin, concerns over traffic interference as well as logistical construction constraints have considerably slowed the project’s momentum. With tentative plans to build a temporary showcase of Radbahn in 2019, the project team aims to boost public awareness and support in the interim so that their vision for a future-oriented cycling landmark in Berlin can be fully realized and enjoyed by all.