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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.)

Today’s Greenlines: DC’s 1st Swine Flu Fatality, Biking News, Commuter Taxes + Fetal Chemical Exposure

DC has its first Swine Flu fatality and drug-Resistant Swine Flu Now in Virginia & Maryland, DCist reports.

Prince of Petworth poses the Friday question of the day: Do You Support a Commuter Tax for DC?

Richard Layman’s blog has new bicyling and transportation statistics and some thoughts on park planning.

The Washington Post has a story today on how some Virginians are taking the smoking ban hard.

Our exposure to toxic chemicals begins in the womb, according to a new study covered by Yale’s e360.

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 Greenlines: Clotheslines, Bike Paths, Farmers Markets, London Deforestation + More

This trend doesn’t seem to have hit DC yet, at least I haven’t seen many clothes hanging in my neighborhood, but people around the country are apparently fighting for their rights to clothesline.

The Streetsblog Capitol Hill picks up an AP story about how a majority of Americans recognize that they could play a role in helping the environment but don’t usually back up the talk with actions. Hmmm, the same thing could be said of world leaders.

A London exhibition of giant tropical tree stumps dramatizes rainforest deforestation. Check out the story and photo on the Guardian site.

The Washington Post reports from Indonesia on “A CLIMATE THREAT, RISING FROM THE SOIL”

DC Metrocentric gives an update on Penrose Square in Arlington, a rare example of an older suburban shopping center being revamped as a denser urban village with a pedestrian friendly mix of shops and housing.

The financially troubled Allegro apartments in Columbia Heights sold for $77.5 million, DC Metrocentric also reports.

We Love DC offers its five favorite bike routes.

DC nonprofits say they are seeing more demand and less moolah to carry out those services, Washington Business Journal reports on the survey.

Columbia Heights residents are meeting Saturday to discuss plans to bring a farmer’s market back to the neighborhood.

Coffee Time! Bikes, Pedestrians & Stinky Sewerage in Today’s Local News

First, the sad news that a bicyclist was fatally hit by a Bladensburg police car over the weekend. Here’s the WaPo story.

Speaking of bike safety, Borderstan offers a photo montage of street signs added along side the new 15th St. NW bike lane.

Meanwhile, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has a little problem on his hands thanks to his bicycling passion. Surely some District residents are overjoyed that their mayor has a healthy passtime for blowing off steam and maintaining his personal “sustainablity,” unlikely some … ehr, previous office holders, but should DC taxpayers be saddled with the bill for Fenty’s police escort? It doesn’t look good for the mayor, coming as it does after pool-o-gate, in which city officials installed a heater in the city outdoor pool where Fenty happens to swim.

Urban Places and Spaces offers a more policy-centric take on the mayor-on-a-bike phenomenon.

Given the recent bike fatality, you may ask: is it safer to walk than peddle? WaPo reports today that the DC region has received only middling marks in pedestrian safety from the just released national “pedestrian safety index.”

Here’s a link to the index.

Speaking of where DC pedsters should fear to tread, the City Fix has this post on pedestrian peril at U Street & Florida Avenue. NW

Finally, Frozen Tropics has this sink bomb buried halfway down the page in a post about the ANC 5B meeting last week: “a broken sewer line in the National Arboretum. It turns out that this line broke 6 months ago, but there was no public notice, and it was leaking raw sewage directly into a tributary of the Anacostia River. WASA repaired the break, but another break occurred recently. Again, there was no public notice of this sewer line break.”