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Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

It's rush hour on a grey morning in the German capital and a stream of cyclists are gliding along Friedrichstraße, the fabled shopping street that runs through the city centre.

Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic
Cyclists near the landmark Brandenburger Gate in central Berlin on December 7, 2020. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“Move!” one of them yells after illegally mounting the pavement and charging at a defenceless pedestrian.

Bernd Lechner, a 40-year-old insurance clerk, manages to dodge the speeding bike just in time, but he's had enough of the “increasingly aggressive” attitude of cyclists in the German capital.

“It's getting worse and worse. I'm starting to become more scared of bicycles than of cars,” he said.

Berlin has long been known as a bike-friendly city, but a sharp rise in the number of cyclists during the coronavirus pandemic has been causing tensions on the road.

The number of Berliners cycling to work or to go shopping has increased by some 25 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to city authorities.

All good news for fitness, air quality and public health, since it reduces the number of people using public transport during the fight against Covid-19.

But at the same time, police have registered a sharp rise in the number of offences committed by cyclists and a surge in complaints about them from pedestrians, according to Berlin police chief Barbara Slowik.

Compulsory registration?

In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper in October, Slowik even proposed compulsory registration for cyclists to make it easier for the authorities to identify those who break the rules.

“More than 50 percent of all traffic accidents involving cyclists are caused by the cyclists themselves,” she said.

And some are paying with their lives: 17 cyclists have been killed in traffic accidents in Berlin this year, 11 more than in 2019.

But the idea of compulsory registration is unlikely to become reality because of the “immense bureaucracy” it would entail, Ragnhild Soerensen of Changing Cities, an NGO that lobbies for sustainable transport, told AFP.

Berlin has about 3 million bicycles, compared with only 1.1 million registered cars, she points out.

But the police chief's comments have ignited a fierce debate on the behaviour of cyclists in the city.

“We are being pushed around, insulted. Many people think they are better people just because they ride a bike… This anarchy has to stop,” the Tagesspiegel newspaper wrote recently.

Cyclists on the street leading up to Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on a quiet day of lockdown, April 1, 2020. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

'Denigrating cyclists'

According to Soerensen, critics are simply “trying to denigrate cyclists in order to distract attention from the delays in drafting a new transport strategy” to increase the use of public transport.

Just three percent of public space in the city is reserved for cyclists, but they make up 18 percent of traffic, says Anika Meenken of the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) transport association.

“Aggressiveness occurs when space is too tight, which naturally leads to more stress,” she said.

By way of contrast, cars make up some 33 percent of traffic in the city but take up 58 percent of the space.

But Oliver Woitzik, head of transport for the Berlin police, argues that “we can't just build roads, cycle paths and pavements everywhere.”

“What would help a lot would be for people to stop putting their own ego first, and also to know when to give up their rightful place” if there is danger involved, he said — a skill that is sometimes lacking among those on both four wheels and two.

In any case, cyclists who break the rules are more likely to be fined in future as Berlin is expanding its use of officers on bikes around the city, he told AFP.

Their number, currently around 40, is expected to “climb to 100 in the spring” and then continue to grow over the next few years.

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BERLIN

EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

Shops
If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

Leisure
2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

Hairdressers
For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

Transport
3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.

 

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