Biking in Berlin II: Ground Rules

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October 9, 2012 by anelim

Take a bicycle. It is, of course, a commodity. It has several characteristics, and let us concentrate on one particular characteristic, viz., transportation. Having a bike gives a person the ability to move about in a certain way that he may not be able to do without the bike. So the transportation  characteristic  of the bike gives the person the capability  of moving in a certain way. That capability may give the person utility or happiness if he seeks such movement or finds it pleasurable. So there is, as it were,  a sequence  from a commodity (in this case a bike), to characteristics (in this case, transportation), to capability  to function (in this case, the ability to move), to utility (in this case, pleasure from moving).

(Sen, Amartya, 1983. “Poor, Relatively Speaking,” Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 35(2), pages 153-69, July.)
Ground rules set in stone in the city’s infrastructure (Photo: Idle Ethnographer, 2012)


It’s all good reading Sen and thinking you understand anything. It took me actually moving to a new city and buying a bike to realise that capability lies not only in the bicycle, but also in the existence of bikeable streets. Also, of course, people need to be willing to get up on the bike and ride it. But the issue of bikeable streets is the more fascinating one, given that there is already a culture of moving around on two wheels. Just think about it: in this country the ground rules of urban behaviour are in fact enshrined in stone, inextricable from the very road on which even the most unruly and anarchist members of this society walk – and roll – every day. I wonder how many of the cyclists in Berlin notice the myriad little things that make biking possible. I made a mental list on my last ride:

–       First of all, the obvious. The roads are very good, straight, and smooth. If they had been a little less smooth, car drivers would not have noticed much difference, but a cyclist would. There are virtually no bumps or nasty unstable slates on the pavements (the so-called Sofia slate which spits water on the unsuspecting pedestrian or wheelestrian when you step on it…).
Софийска плочка (source:

–       There are dedicated lanes which are clearly marked and designed with the cyclist’s movement in mind in such a way that a relatively experienced cyclist needn’t stop at all, anywhere, for any reason, other than perhaps not being able to do the occasional full 90’ turn (bearing in mind that I am quite clumsy in general, I am relatively OK on a bike once I know it, but I’m not very agile on my new city bike yet). They are built into the road, and often laid out with meticulously aligned red tiles, or very smooth asphalt, painted red with a white picture of a bike in equal intervals, just to make sure no one thinks it suitable for slower types of wheels.

–       Then, smaller things. Very often at traffic lights there is a curb just the right height so as to allow you to sit on the bike with your right foot standing on the curb: a very handy thing for taller bikes and less-experienced cyclists because it allows you to start movement quickly and safely when the green light shines.

–       All pedestrian crossings are lowered in at least one place, allowing you to get on and off the pavement (while you’re not supposed to be cycling for long stretches on the pavement, it seems OK to do it for a bit, if you need to get to a shop, or if you don’t feel safe on the road for any reason. Apparently you can be fined for cycling on the pavement, but many people do it, so I figured i’ll take the risk…). This is not such a simple thing to do: it requires that stones of a specific shape and size are used for those parts of the pavement and road – something that isn’t the case in, say, Sofia.

–       I should check the tram line width in Bulgaria and here, because it seems to me that the lines here are narrower. At least for a fat city bike tyre, I’ve noticed there is no danger of falling over because your tyre has got stuck in the line, even if you are not careful. Luckily, I already have the reflex of cycling at 45’ or more degrees across tram lines but that was developed after a few unfortunate accidents.

–       The city is so flat that biking is virtually no effort at all in most places.

–       Automobilists seem to be accustomed to sharing the road with flocks of cyclists and are very accommodating. Not as many as in Holland, but a nice cosy crowd.

–       Curbs in general aren’t very high, so in most places, if need be, you can get on and off the road (e.g. to overtake a slow cyclist or to swerve to get to a particular shop). Also most seem to be lowered on purpose in at least one place. This feature in particular appears to be something that is very easy to be taken for granted – just like I used to take for granted the fact that most tiles or stones in the roads back at home are broken. Did I mention the Sofia slate?)
Ah, sorry for sticking another list on here. My mind works in lists and bullet points, which can be a bit of a nuisance (for example, my PhD supervisor didn’t like it, and I kept trying in vain to turn the bullets into nice linear text…). But I hope this post gets the message across – biking in Berlin could be much, much worse.

Posted using Tinydesk Writer iPhone app

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I will be no longer Berliner in..

July 31, 2013
October 2012
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