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Berlin by Bike

Bikers at Brandonburg Gate

It’s day-four of my unexpected extended stay in Berlin. I’m one of reportedly millions of stranded travelers waiting for the skies to clear of volcanic ash. While the upper atmosphere may be a mess of sand, glass and whatever else an Icelandic volcano can spew, the weather down here is perfectly lovely. Last week, when I was officially working as part of a journalism tour of green building and architecture in Germany, every day seemed to be colder, rainier and more dreary than the next. As if timed to coincide with our forced vacation, the skies have lighted and spring is in the air – perfect for biking. And I’ve been doing a lot of it. While the subway system – or U Ban – is excellent here, I’ve opted to the peddling life of millions of Berliners.

My new friends, Lauren Browne and Charles Redell, rented bikes at the city’s central train station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Sunday and rode all the way to the airport to rebook our flights. It’s about a 5 mile ride, nearly entirely on bike paths. If it weren’t for my unwieldly suitcase, I would would be tempted ride my rent-a-bike to catch my flight on Thursday (hopefully…) It might sound like one of those harrowing experiences in which you take your life in your hands, dodging and weaving through traffic. But nothing of the sort. I didn’t feel my life threatened once during the trip out there through Berlin’s stately cityscape, peddling along bike paths that aren’t the kind of here now, gone next block afterthought you find in Washington.

The DB “Call a Bike” service we used, is sort of like Zip Car for bikes or a higher-tech, touristy version of the District’s new bike share program. Each bike comes with a electronic locking system. We simply left our bikes outside the hotel overnight. I was almost surprised to find them still there in the morning. Now, on the third day of the rental, I found myself checking again to make sure the big red and white tank of bicycle is still there. It is! Another great feature is that once your done renting the bike,  you just drop it off outside a subway station and call a telephone number to report where you left it. It’s 9 Euro a day or 36 Euro a week, which is on par with the cost of sightseeing by subway and a whole lot cheaper than bus tours or taxis. Besides it’s a wonderful way to see the city, soak up a little local color and get some exercise.

The romance of biking

Everyone seems to bike here. While you do see a few people in those tight little numbers that so many Washington bikers don even for the most mundane commute to the office, I’ve also seen the old and the very young. One portly old gentleman in a tweedy suit and cap crossing a throughoutfare. An younger guy with his dog on a leash – talk about multitasking! Biking and walking the dog – Cool. Another lady had a sort of a tricycle with a wagonback. Inside her two dashhounds. Every now and then, she’d reach back and give one of them a pat on the head. (Charlie has a photo of this lady in one of his blog posts.)

According to the German government: “About 80 per cent of people in Germany own a bicycle which makes a total of around 73 million bikes which are being used more and more frequently.” That compares to about 27 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 16  – about 57 million people – according to a 2002 survey , cited by Bicyclinginfo.org.The subway trains have separate cars reserved for people with bikes. The bike paths are beautifully integrated into the cityscape. Sometimes you ride in a specifically designated bike lane on the street, sometimes the lane moves up onto the spacious sidewalks. I haven’t seen any mishaps with pedestrians. Everyone seems to have enough room. Though there is so much bicycle traffic that it is important to ride like you drive, remembering others are behind you or may be turning from side streets. There are even special traffic lights for bikes! It’s not a perfect system. You still have scofflaws, for instance. I did seen a few daredevils running the lights.

Berlin’s neighborhoods are full of little cafes and shops of all types. Perhaps another byproduct of a culture – unlike ours – that doesn’t revolve around the car. If you are on your feet or on your bike, you are probably more likely to do your shopping on your street or one nearby, anyway, rather than trekking out to Costco or a Wal-Mart superstore. I wonder if there are any studies or statistics on that? Anybody know?

(By the way, the green building tour that brought me to Germany was quite interesting; We visited, among other things, loads of “passive homes” – houses, coop-style buildings and schools that take extraordinarily little energy to heat, cool and light.  I’m getting around to telling you about that, but the drama – and fun – of being a volcano refugee has distracted me. I’ll get back to that soon, though, promise.)

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Today’s Greenlines: Recycle a Coat, Save a Theater, Bag a Freebee + Cycling Movies

The venerable Takoma Theatre on 4th Street NW, near the same-named Metro station, may soon be dust. The Takoma Theatre Conservancy is raising alarms about the Jan. 22 Mayor’s Agent hearing on demolishing the place.

The District Department of the Environment is teaming up with area CVS/pharmacy outlets to distribute free reusable shopping bags ahead of the Jan. 1 deadline, when DC retailers begin charging customers 5 cents for every disposable bag. Click here for more information about where to pick up your freebee.

Andaman Islands, Creative Commons Attribution License

For those  feeling that – despite the obvious environmental boons – the bag ban is a big pain in the backside, consider this: even the tiny Indian Ocean territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are launching a plastic bag ban starting next week.

DC Streets Capitol Hill has a nice little roundup of news stories on road and transit projects stuffed into Congress’s pending jobs bill.

Recycle + Help a Needy Neighbor – There are a couple of coat drives this weekend that offer a worthy way to make space in your closets:

The organization Fathers Rock is collecting gently worn or new coats this Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM at the Metropolitan Police, Fourth District Station, 6001 Georgia Ave., NW. The coats will be given to families living in area shelters.

This offer is a little more specious, since donating a coat gets you a 20 percent discount off of new purchases – hardly incentive to reduce your carbon footprint. But ’tis the jolly shopping season …  so, here’s the skinny: To get your discount, bring a coat to donate to Urban Chic‘s Georgetown outlet. The coast will go to the Women’s Housing Coalition. Urban Chic, 1626 Wisconsin Ave. NW, b/t Reservoir Rd. & Q St. 
Thru Dec. 8. Thurs.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.

In a tribute to city fauna, Congress Height‘s The Advoc8te shot a deer … on video.

Lynn at Organic Mania is campaigning to send Diane McEachern, author of Big Green Purse, to the Copenhagen climate talks. Click here to learn more about the OM candidate.

City Fix DC alerted me to this news: This weekend, the Bicycle Film Festival comes to DC.

Today’s Green Lines: The Dalai Lama, Bike Lanes, Gas Taxes, Wind Power + Smokey-Room Bans

The City Fix reports on more bike lanes contemplated for DC streets.

In a case of better late than never, Virginia bans smoking at bars and restaurants starting today. And, Miles Grant, AKA The Green Miles, invites you to a smoke-free party to celebrate.

While influenza outbreaks nationwide remain high, Swine Flu cases continue to decline, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For all the stats on the H1N1 virus click here.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill
posts on the possibilities of increasing the federal gas tax.

In DC, construction of office and other commercial buildings to set a record this year before coming to a resounding halt with no groundbeakings planed for 2010, notes the Washington Business Journal.

Maryland’s Constellation Energy adds wind power.

After hearing last week about how the human brain is ill-equipped to fight global warming (more on that later,) this New York Times story on how “babies are innately sociable and helpful to others” makes me feel a little better.

This Times piece on the struggles of indigenous people against poachers, loggers, illicit gold miners and other outsiders in a remote Venezuela rainforest is also worth a read.

The Dalai Lama has joined the growing number of spiritual leaders calling for global action to address climate change. He talks about his personal conservation efforts and says protecting the environment should be part of everyone’s lives now.

Morning Coffee – Local Edition

The New Columbia Heights blog is advertising the free bike light giveaway by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association tomorrow at the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza and in Adams Morgan.

Why I hate DC complains about complaints from Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) that he and other residents were broadsided on this week’s 15th St. bike lane construction.  It posts the contents of a letter from Graham taking city officials to task for the lack of notice about the temporary loss of parking spaces on 15th street.

Over in my old neighborhood, the Park View blog urges residents to demand new green space as part of the planned redevelopment of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH). The retirement home’s lush rolling landscape is some of the only greenery in the neighborhood – too bad it’s not open to the public. The author, who has clearly perused many tedious DC planning documents, concludes things are likely to stay that way without a community outcry.

The Durable Human blogger Jenifer Joy Madden alerted me to her post on how locavores can save the world. You can find it here.

This Sunday, there’s going to be a conference on climate change at the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel. The subtitle: “Humanity’s Leap in the Golden Age.” The keynote speaker is Supreme Master Ching Hai, who is described as “a world-renowned spiritual teacher, artist, and humanitarian,” who “campaigns to promote a benevolent lifestyle without animal products.” A load of very esteemed academics are also slated to speak. I don’t know much else but it’s free – you gotta like that! Here’s the website.