Two wheels are better than four, aren′t they? | Scene in Berlin | DW | 16.07.2010
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Scene in Berlin

Two wheels are better than four, aren't they?

There's a certain lawlessness about biking in Berlin, and it works. At least until the city's busybodies get involved.

Scene in Berlin

I don't own a car. Not for any high-principled carbon-footprint-reducing reasons, but simply because I dislike traffic and feel life is too short to have to run the gauntlet with a dozen other drivers looking for a parking space at the end of every day.

When people regale me, as they do in these weeks of extreme heat, with their nightmare tales of trying to get in and out of the city on roads so packed that it takes an hour to travel just a couple of kilometers, I think fondly of my two-wheeler.

I don't do tight shorts or Day-Glo, have no trouser clips and I don't - although I probably should - wear a helmet. But for all that, I'm a cyclist. I peddle about town on a no frills bone-shaker, which barring the occasional morning when someone has nicked the valves or stuck a knife into my tire, is about as trusty a means of transport as ever there was.

And Berlin is not a bad place to get around by Fahrrad (bike). Okay, so the cycle path network is a bit arbitrary, and it takes a while to get used to the abuse issued from the mouths of self-important drivers, but on the whole the city feels good from atop a saddle.

All the old cliches about wind in the hair and freedom of movement hold true, and there's something particularly poetic about keeping pace with road-ragers stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Oh, the joy of gliding on by. And on and on and on… because the unspoken rule of biking in Berlin is very much "stop for no one and ignore the traffic lights."

A cyclist in Berlin's Tiergarten park

Even Berlin has traffic-free places to ride

Everyone rides on the pavement especially when it means dodging red lights. And although both the police and the Ordnungsbeamter (public order officials) have the power to sting offenders with an on-the-spot fine, they are so outnumbered these days that they rarely seem to bother.

Plastic bag man

Not so the city's vigilantes. A few months ago I was biking over a quiet bridge - on a cycle path, I hasten to add - when a man with a plastic carrier bag determinedly stepped out in front of me. He held his hand in the air and told me in no uncertain terms that I was riding on wrong cycle path. Mine, he said, was on the other side of the road.

I did what I always do in such situations and pretended not to understand him. Once he clocked that I was foreign, he pointed to the rail tracks below the bridge and spluttered the words "up, down, up down, suicide."

Exactly what his floundering foray into English was meant to tell me, I will never know for sure, but I assumed he was warning me that I might end up beneath a train if by persisting in cycling against the flow, I suddenly no longer found myself "up," but "down." I blew him a kiss and went on my way.

I cross that bridge several times a week, and although for the most part, I still cycle on the "wrong" path, I do sometimes check to make sure plastic bag man is nowhere in sight. He never is.

If I were to meet him this summer, I doubt my crime would even stand out among the innumerable near misses between wobbling tourist cyclists and hardened Berlin bikers. The latter, it seems are not entirely happy about having to share their turf with hundreds of newcomers, who even I am willing to admit, are a bit of a liability.

Keeping it real

Still, that's no excuse for what I witnessed last weekend when I tried to escape the heat myself by taking a train to the Wandlitzsee lake. I got on behind a man in a wheelchair and took a seat in a spacious compartment which quickly filled with both locals and tourists. It was a bit of muddle, but it was okay until an unmistakable Berliner climbed aboard and started ordering everyone else to stand up and leave so as to make space for his bike.

Street sign indicating a shared bike and pedestrian path

Sometimes passersby like to help enforce the rules

"You're not the only ones on this train," he carped.

He was then joined by an equally grouchy conductor who ushered everyone out of the bike carriage. Everyone, that is, except the man in the wheelchair, who, as his wife politely explained, was not in much of a position to oblige. Rather than demonstrate any remorse for his evident faux-pas, the conductor insisted that the compartment, complete with 20 or so foldaway seats, was reserved for bicycles only. The disabled man would have to find somewhere else to park his two wheels.

That, I thought, is taking cycling too seriously. And just for a moment, I considered joining the other side and getting myself a car.

Author: Tamsin Walker

Editor: Kate Bowen

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