Berlin streets are exhilarating on a bike. As a pedestrian I thought I’d never want to ride one in this city. That could be because we saw a bike accident within our first hour of arriving in our neighborhood in August. Not so much an accident as a slow-motion collision between auto and bike, the car backing up into the bike, the cyclist shouting at the driver, a mom with a small child strapped to a rear seat just a few feet away. The dad was still upright but getting dragged backwards as the car backed up. The driver quickly realized his error, threw it in drive and sped off, and the biking family was rattled but intact. A little unnerved, we continued our orientation walk in which I was planting all kinds of misinformation in my brain, mainly which direction was north and which was south, along with a renewed fear of riding a bicycle in traffic. I’m still trying to undo the faulty messages I received on that walk.
From the perspective of a pedestrian, it seems absolutely unclear where bikes are supposed to be. One moment they have a path alongside you on the sidewalk; at the next intersection they are back on the street in their own lane, or just alongside the traffic. Next thing you know, they’re back on the sidewalk again. I worried I’d get lost even more quickly on a bike than I do on foot—making even larger judgment errors faster, and soon I’d be many kilometers lost instead of just turned around on foot in my own neighborhood. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case.
Our professor friend here in Berlin recently purchased a new bike, an e-bike, one with a battery pack to help her coast along, and her traditional bike was sitting unused. She has loaned it to me to use during our stay. I could not be more grateful. Now I have wheels and I can reach almost any place in the city in little time, and I never have to pay for parking.
It turns out that from the vantage point of sitting on a bike, it’s entirely obvious where you’re supposed to be. Here is your brick path along the sidewalk; here is your curb cut and your own light telling you, cyclist, when it’s safe to cross; here is your bike lane in the street. Of course, every now and then your bike path will lead straight into a line of parked cars, and there will be a gap in input, and you’ll just cruise alongside the traffic like you do back in St. Paul. Works for me.
On Friday I took advantage of the good weather and rode my bike to the Tiergarten, a Central Park-like green space in the middle of the city. Soon I had covered the whole length of it and ended up at the Brandenburg Gate without much trouble at all. Fabulous! You can’t get too lost inside the Tiergarten, especially on a bike, because you are bounded by four streets, and no matter how much you meander through the park, you’ll land on a city street again soon enough.
I realized as I set off for the Tiergarten that I had no idea what to call out to alert pedestrians to my existence; I’ve never heard a biker here say any version of “On your left!” or actually ever say anything at all. That’s where the sweet little bell comes in, and I found myself dinging it now and then when I feared someone was going to meander into my lane, and a couple of times I rang it just to hear the pleasant “ding” it makes.
Biking back to our apartment I did make a slight miscalculation and ended up following a different street home than I’d intended. I slowed to a stop and took in my surroundings. I recognized the intersection by the street names—Martin Luther and Motz—but coming from the north I couldn’t place where I was. I pulled off to the side and took out my street map, and was somewhat mortified to see that I was only two blocks from home, just in a different quadrant than I’d expected. To orient myself I deliberately went out of way to see Viktoria-Luise Platz, and from there easily found my way back. Soon I said to myself, “There’s the brothel! Almost home,” and thought wow, I’m not sure I like the sound of that, but home again I was.
As a pedestrian in Berlin I feel at risk of getting whomped by any number of things, mainly fast-moving tiny cars careening around traffic circles, double-decker tour buses trying to make a light, and well-dressed cyclists bombing their way across town in heels and pinned-up hair. No one wears bike helmets here, except for children. No one wears lycra unless they are serious cyclists heading off for a long-distance ride. Everyone else is in street clothes with a purse slung over their shoulder. Not surprisingly, my bike loan includes the silver bell, front and rear lights, and a heavy-duty U-lock, but no helmet.
As a cyclist here I can almost taste my right of way. The path clears before me; pedestrians stay off the bike path, and I can see them taking note of where I’m headed on the street rather than crossing in front of me, hoping I stop. I don’t have to stop. That’s the beauty of being on a bike here. This is a biking town, and on a bike you feel it from the first moment you grab the handlebars; you’re the queen of the road, and the city is your oyster.