Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Berlin Biking

Cyclists in Potsdamer Platz
One thing about moving to Berlin that I was most excited about before arriving here was the cycling culture. Having lived in the south of Europe where people prefer to get to their destination in a frenzy of blaring horns, traffic jams and smog, I was quite looking forward to arriving in a city that is “bike-friendly”. Having cycled in hilly and bike-unfriendly cities, I wasn’t disappointed. It was a breath of fresh air to see the system work so efficiently here.

Around 500,000 bike riders take to the streets every day in Berlin and cycling is the chosen form of transport for many of its citizens. Although I still don’t own a bike yet, I have itchy feet to get one. It’s green, healthy, free and quick, especially in a flat city like Berlin. Cycling is a great alternative to catching the metro or bus especially when transport costs are pretty high here (around 70 euros a month for a travel pass). If you don’t own your own bike, there are many rental places that rent bikes for the day and the cheapest price I have seen is 10 euros. Berlin also has a public bike system, "Call a Bike", offered by Deutsch Bahn (the national railway company) and many Bike Tours, Fat Tire, for instance, seems to be a successful and well organised tour company.

Certainly, you definitely have to “stop”, “look” AND “listen” (Remember the green cross code man?) when crossing the road in Berlin. Cyclists go wizzing past at high speeds, they come from all directions and they have complete right of way in cycle lanes (many, as I found out, are not very well ‘labelled’ by the way!). Germans religiously play by the cycle lane rules and will not stop especially for a meandering tourist!

Of course it is not all rosy because Berlin has its share of bike-related crime. In 2010, 19,942 bikes were reported stolen in Berlin! Add on all the unreported thefts and that is an impressive number! I have heard stories about people going to the Turkish flea-markets and having to buy their bike back from, probably, the person that stole it in the first place! If you do decide to buy a bike in Berlin, the cheapest option is to buy one for around 40-50 euros in the flea-markets but there is a high probability that the bike you are buying is stolen. If police find you with a stolen bike you can get into trouble!

We had a first hand experience of bike-theft in Kreuzberg in April. A woman came running up to us and started speaking in German. I quickly apologised for being “English” and she switched to my native tongue, thank you German language education! Apparently her bike had been stolen from right where we were within the last hour. In fact she interrupted our first game of table tennis in Berlin (there are a lot of public tables)! Anyway, we regretfully explained that we hadn’t seen any suspicious activity and so she walked away not really knowing where to go or how to get there without her bike! I felt sorry for her but I suspect it is a risk of leaving your bike in the streets of Berlin. I tip I suppose is to buy a decent heavy-duty U-lock and not just a flimsy five euro one from the same flea market you bought your stolen bike from!

Ghost Bike in Berlin
Cycling in Berlin does not go without a safety risk either. Although cycle lanes are pretty much everywhere, cyclists still have to cross busy roads, deal with pedestrians and lots of other cyclists. What was surprising for me is how many people don’t wear a helmet! I myself would never consider cycling without a helmet, no matter how silly I look (thanks Dad), but the majority of people I have seen do not hold the same view. I would say that 80% of the cyclists I have seen here travel without a helmet which is an astounding amount of silliness if you ask me! Each to their own I suppose, but I personally value my life and prefer to look a little silly and arrive at my destination with a red mark on my head rather than die on the roads just because I want to look cool. 

Many of the non-helmet wearing Berliners also manage all kinds of tricks whilst cycling including texting a friend, finishing a bottle of Berliner (one of the Berlin-brewed beers), eating a kebab, smoking and even a relaxed but speedy bike ride with no hands!

We were reminded of the dangers of cycling as we were talking a stroll home across Schillingbr├╝cke bridge in Friedrichshain at the beginning of April. We came across a painted white bike in the middle of an intersection, it is what I now know is called a "Ghost Bike". On closer inspection we discovered that a young cyclist had died in that very spot from a traffic collision in 2011. The bike was accompanied with some flowers and a photograph of the man with a letter from his family. It is a thought-provoking symbol and I take my hat off to the family for the memorial and I hope that it has had an impact on cyclist who maybe take unnecessary risks on the road. I’m not sure of the circumstances or indeed if he had been wearing a helmet or not but one thing is clear, you should always cycle responsibly and carefully.

This blog was not meant to be a call to action for all those irresponsible cyclists out there but it kind of turned into a helmet crazed rant, sorry. Seriously though, I hope that if you are reading this and you do cycle, maybe you’ll take a moment to reflect about the way you do it and whether you should be that little bit more careful, for your own safety.

This was actually meant as an introduction to our bike section! The bikes of Berlin give it so much character so we decided to start taking photos of some of the more interesting finds on our travels around the city. Over the coming months we will be sharing some of our favourites with you here on Berlin Explorer. 


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