Sunday, 3 April 2016

Commuting by bike

Remember when I said there were some exciting developments that I would report on my blog?

The exciting development is that I've started commuting by bike.

This time two months ago, I was still a bit terrified of even getting on a bike, for various reasons. I was only really confident about zooming around the tarmac at Tempelhof, my comfort zone - and even that instilled a particular genre of fear into me. But I soon learnt that depending on what time of day I went there, I could ride for 10 or 15 minutes with nary another bike passing me by. Nobody to make eye contact with. Good, because I was sure they could see in my face that I was an amateur.

It was fun, but with the goal of never again shelling out €80 for a monthly transport ticket - made slightly more achievable by the fact the warmer months are on their way in - I really wanted to get serious about cycling. Time to take the plunge onto the streets.

Photo: Matthew Orlinski
Kaninchenfeld, Chausseestraße, Berlin - memorial to rabbits on the Death Strip!

I may not be one of the blessed few who work just around the corner from where they live, but I can get to work by bike in a straight line in 30-40 minutes. As I said, it's the first route I've ever commuted by bike, so I don't really have anything to compare it to.

I start on Alt-Moabit, which is generally alright if you're heading eastwards, as it possesses an actual, decent bike lane. Once you get to Hauptbahnhof, the bike lane kind of disappears for a moment, and there are always tourists with suitcases blocking the path, making it a bit hazardous and having to shout "Vorsicht!" because my bell is puny and sometimes people don't hear it, which makes me feel like a bit of an arsehole. Invalidenstraße is fine in the middle of the day, when I start working (but on the way back, at night, I do feel a bit scared of the Feierabend rush hour). I continue down the quieter end of Invalidenstraße - the bit running parallel to Torstraße - and may even stop at one of the choice coffee outlets if I have time and some loose change.
However, when I get to Veteranenstraße, I just have to get off and push my bike up the steep slope, which feels a bit defeatist. On the flipside, when I go home I can zoom downhill - usually on Bernauer Straße, past the Wall. (I've only once tried it down Weinbergsweg, ending in Rosenthaler Platz... and nope, just nope).

What I hadn't really realised, in my non-cycling days, was that so much of my self-worth here was wrapped up in my ability to ride a bike. I would complain to someone I'd just met about how it would take x minutes/hours to get somewhere by U-Bahn and they would be like "Orrrr you could just bike there" and I would then have to admit I couldn't ride one and have to style it out as some kind of quirk (just like the fact I have never yet broken a bone, apart from when I possibly broke my toe but didn't notice). I would think, "Oh great, you as well? Another comrade lost". It's totally taken for granted here that everyone can ride a bike, so when I completed my first long journey in one piece, I finally felt like a worthy denizen.

But having a bike is like having a baby. You have to keep checking on it! Last week, I had attached my bike to a general rack outside a shop near my house overnight (couldn't be bothered to go the extra 10 metres to where I usually put it). I didn't ride for a couple of days, then came to collect my bike again only to find the rack had completely vanished! Weirdly, my first thought wasn't of panic, but simply "Oh well". Bike theft is something you come to expect in Berlin these days.
Luckily, I turned around and noticed that the rack had simply been moved to the front of the store. But that's not to mention the time I left the bike on the same rack on Saturday night, went to look for it on Sunday - when the store is closed - freaked out when I couldn't see it, started bargaining in my head about what I could have done to keep it safer, then noticed that it was inside the store, so close yet so far! I had no idea that this rack actually belonged to the store. Moral of the story: lock your bike to a lamp post or other stable ground appendage.

You have to keep your eyes and ears open, but this quickly becomes instinctual. When I happen to be somewhere as a pedestrian, I scope out which streets have bike lanes. However, there's some stuff you can't foresee until you're actually on two wheels - building work and sharp corners, for example. As someone who doesn't have a driving licence, this has been basically the first time I've had to adhere to the rules of the road. I think this is probably the source of most of my anxiety, but, like, two can play at this game - a bit of road rage oozes out as I see a white van or taxi parked in the middle of the bike path. This happens so much on the street where I live!

Even though riding a bike to work does have obvious financial and health benefits, I've had to accept that music and books will no longer be a part of my commute. Will I complete my 40-book reading challenge this year? Well, I'm going to have to make extra sofa and café time for that.

Like a lot of things, though, cycling becomes less fun when you see it as an obligation. For that reason, I plan to keep those four-single-tickets-for-€9 (4-Fahrten-Karten) with me at all times. I can park my bike somewhere and if, for whatever reason, I can't hack riding home, I've got backup. I hate buying day tickets because it then means you need to go on the train around the city all day - preferably somewhere that's out of cycling range - and in the end, spend even more money doing things just so you can say you got your money's worth.

This week I had various visitors in town, so I bought a weekly ticket. It lasted until Saturday, when the visitors were gone, and it was the first really beautiful day in a while - the kind where you wouldn't think twice about getting on a bike. I felt gross that I had to go somewhere far away, just to justify the money I had spent on the ticket!

Weather depending, it feels great to traverse Berlin by bike. It makes it seem so small, distance-wise - giving me a "Ha-ha! You haven't defeated me yet!" feeling - but obviously my body tells me the city is still large. The interesting things I pass as I ride remind me of how much there is left to discover, too. That is important, especially in the winter, during which I had my doubts about whether this city is worth fighting for. I've concluded that it is.

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