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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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