Saturday, December 15, 2012

Observations from Berlin

Bikes are everywhere in Berlin, even in the famous food department of KaDeWe
Last summer I spent a couple of days in Berlin. I went to university there between 2001 and 2007 but haven't been back for a few years. Before moving to the US I did bike a decent amount, mostly for transportation, but would never have considered myself a "cyclist"--a bike is just what gets you around town faster and cheaper than the subway or bus. In addition to my changed attitude and behavior, cycling in Berlin has changed, too. The modal share has increased quite a bit and infrastructure keeps getting added or replaced. So it was quite interesting to be back and I wanted to share some of my observations.

The bike rentals

Bike rentals are everywhere, and they are dirt cheap. We rented from Lila Bike in Prenzlauer Berg and they charge 8 Euros for the first 24 hours and 5 Euros for every day after. We picked the bikes up on a Sunday and it was completely crazy with people flocking in by the second to rent or return their bikes. In addition to specialized bike rental places one could also rent from bike shops and even convenience stores. The bikes usually are heavy step-through city bikes with internal gear hubs, big, cushy saddles, dynamo-powered lighting (a legal requirement in Germany), fenders, a rack, and wide, puncture-resistant tires. North American cyclist might scoff at these bikes and they are certainly not meant for riding a century, but for riding around Berlin with its many cobblestone streets they work very well.
On one day we used our rental bikes to ride out to Pedalpower in Lichtenberg to rent a tandem. Pedalkraft makes their own tandems and cargo bikes, and for 25 Euros per 24 hours we got a step-through tandem with S&S couplers. Rental opportunities for other kinds of more specialized kinds of bikes exist, too.

Finally, Deutsche Bahn offers Call-A-Bike, a system similar to Bixi or Velib.

The sidewalk cycling and salmoning

Bike traffic can be heavy and unfortunately there is a large amount of sidewalk cycling. It is illegal and there is some enforcement (we saw someone being pulled over while we were on [or in this case: off] the tandem) but a lot of people don't care at all and ride on the sidewalk pretty aggressively. We stayed near Schönhauser Allee and this is both a sidewalk cycling and salmoning hotspot -- partly probably due to the fact that it is a big uncrossable street with the elevated subway in the middle.
Fahrradweg auf der Schönhauser Allee
Salmoning on the Schönhauser in action (Photo: GBiB; license CC-BY-NC-SA)
In 2008 the modal share for bikes was 13% for the whole of Berlin and I'm sure it has grown since then. As in most cities, the numbers change the farther away from the city center you go, but even the outer borough have a significant amount of cyclists. A high mode share combined with bad behavior and bad infrastructure creates a lot of tension but cycling is still a very safe activity in Berlin.

The bike shops

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a huge number of bike shops around town. I was looking for a couple of more or less exotic parts and for that reason visited a number of them. One really nice thing about them is that they can usually order every part that Hartje, the major German wholesaler, has in stock within 24 hours! And you don't even have to pay upfront.
Another great discovery was Cicli Berlinetta. They specialize in vintage Italian racing bikes and their shop is just a-m-azing! In addition to gorgeous frames they also have vintage components and apparel, and they also build their own custom frames and bikes. Even though I'm not the biggest retro-fan I can highly recommend a visit there!
Retro heaven at Cicli Berlinetta

Steel bike pr0n

The bikes

Pretty much any kind of bike imaginable can be found in Berlin. In comparison to North American cities, the proportion of upright city bikes is much higher and what is known as "hybrids" doesn't really exist as a category. The proportion of bikes equipped with dynohubs has increased significantly compared to when I lived in Berlin; sidewall generators, however, are still a common sight, as are ninja riders with no or broken lights.

The infrastructure

turning right truck brakes because of bicyclist
Situations like this are common in Berlin and kill several cyclists every year (Photo: quapan; license: CC-BY)
The types of bike infrastructure has a similar variety to the types of bikes ridden. In terms of quality it is a mixed bag, too. There are horrible cycletracks, probably dating back to the 1980s, which are narrow, have potholes and bumps galore, and put riders at a high risk of right-hooks (the major cause of cyclist deaths in Berlin). In general, the infrastructure built in recent years is not as bad -- mostly on-road cycletracks with somewhat decent solutions for the intersections. When riding by myself I would usually ignore the bad kinds of infrastructure but my significant other did not feel comfortable enough to ride on major roads. What has improved in the past years is signage: several bike routes, either leading to and from the center or on tangents, have been developed and they're well marked.
The legal situation in Germany is somewhat complicated: most basically, cyclists are obliged to use bike infrastructure -- but only if it is marked with certain signs, such as "Z 237". In principle these signs should only be put up in situations where there is an "objective danger" for cyclists but in the past local administrations haven't taken that requirement too seriously. Bike advocates have used the courts to get rid of a lot of the signs and in Berlin I have gotten the impression but the administration has gotten much better about giving cyclists a choice to use bike infrastructure or not.
Z 237: If you see this one you have to use the bike lane/cycle track

The helmets

My significant other had been told by someone at a conference that helmet use had increased significantly in Berlin. I was somewhat skeptical of that, as the statistics for Germany indicate that helmet use after a couple of years of growth is now stagnating or even declining. And that indeed seems to be the case. It's hard to guess accurately but I'd say that only 10 to 20 per cent of cyclists wear helmets.

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