Espiner's Berlin : The Ampelmännchen's protection is dangerous

Listen, I’m not bitter or angry that you Germans own Rolls-Royce, Bentley and the Mini. You make good cars. Even our ones. But I think some kind of car-love brings out the worst in you.

Mark Espiner

When I first came to Berlin I wrote about the little green man who has almost become a symbol of your city. I thought Ampelmännchen were a subtle marker of the former east-west border – that you could tell which side of the now invisible wall you were on by the appearance of the hatted chaps at the crossings. 

I’ve been walking around the city a fair bit and I realise I was terribly wrong. They’re all over the place, west and east. I started to ignore them a bit and with my impatient London pedestrian skills, began hopping across the street if there was no traffic coming even when the man was red. It’s got me into hot water, though. I had a fiery telling off from a middle-aged woman outside Kino International a few weeks back. I shrugged, pretended I couldn’t understand and secretly felt it was quite a good thing to break that rule. Berlin, it seems so relaxed and then you hit a huge knot of uptightedness.  

Had my German been better, though, I’d have pointed out that it’s just as dangerous to cross the road obeying all the rules. Last month, I nearly had a heart attack when a huge lorry swung round the corner as I was crossing the road apparently under the green man’s protection. I swore in bad German, threw a V-sign and got a torrent of abuse back. Was I in the wrong? The man was green. Green. 

A fellow roadcrosser explained that cars turning right can run over the green ampelman. What? Are you mad? 

To make things worse, while you’re crossing the road and have just got to the middle, the green man suddenly turns red. You’re left stranded there for ages while huge lorries roar past.  

Berlin’s traffic lights are definitely biased towards cars. 

Listen, I’m not bitter or angry that you Germans own Rolls-Royce, Bentley and the Mini. You make good cars. Even our ones. But I think some kind of car-love brings out the worst in you. Behind the wheel the most sensible people seem to become ruthless, selfish, speed-addicted cyclist and pedestrian haters. And even if they don’t, drivers shouldn’t have the unfair help of Berlin’s traffic light system too. 

It all seems geared to cars here. The roads cut through everything. Think how nice Tiergarten would be if it wasn’t a huge roundabout. Hitler’s only good idea was to put the traffic underground. In London the congestion charge, lack of parking and other anti-car measures might have enraged some drivers, but less traffic has generally made the city a nicer place. It’d do the same to Berlin. 

After my brush with death, I decided to saddle up my bike. I managed to avoid getting my wheel stuck in the tramlines and coming to a sticky end, but within only a few hours I had a puncture. The cause? Broken glass. Everywhere.  

So I took my bike to the shop to get a new tyre and they told me it failed all the new safety measure laws. I needed at least two yellow reflectors for the front and back wheel, a permanent lighting system connected to a dynamo, a clear sounding bell, reflectors at the front and back, a Z-rear reflector and pedals with yellow reflectors. This really made me laugh. When I swerve to avoid the broken bottle and get hit by a heavy-goods truck turning right at least my bike will have some bright lights on it. Or is this number of reflectors an indication that Berlin’s drivers are so reckless they wouldn’t see you without them. 

I cycled a lot in London and I thought it would be safer in Berlin than there. But last year Berlin had 11 cyclist deaths and London 13. When you think of how much bigger London is and how few cycle paths it has that’s quite a startling comparison. 

It can only be one thing, I conclude. The stupid turning right rule when the green man is showing, that’s killing the poor cyclists as they wheel their bikes across the road. 

Seriously, though, the turn-right-on-green rule is crazy and dangerous. In London when the little man is green you have absolute right of way. He doesn’t have a hat, but he really protects you. Why don’t you do the same?

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