I went to Berlin last week to visit friends and see buildings. The city has a formidable array of modern architecture dating back to the 60’s. But the buildings are spread out from east to west, beyond walking distance even for a devoted walker like me. A friend told me that the city had some new public bikes that anyone could rent, and that they were located on street corners throughout the city. Apparently all you had to do was to find a bike, make a phone call, give them a credit card number, and pedal away. I had to check it out.
Within two blocks from the house where I was staying I found a bike, at the Hausvogteiplatz metro stop in the former East Berlin. The instructions were in German of course, incomprehensible to me, but the tiny flashing green light on the bike indicted a “go”, so I called the number listed on the bike frame. There was a recorded message in German, and I took a stab at pressing “O”. The trick of circumventing automated hell worked, and in less than a minute a living, breathing woman answered and spoke enough English to guide me through the registration process. She needed my credit card number and my email address. I think she said it would cost me a five Euros deposit and eight cents a minute up to a maximum of fifteen Euros for 24 hours. I was given the password and the instructions on how to lock and unlock the bike using a concealed computer screen display. She also said I had to drop it off on a visible crossroad in Berlin or the system would not let me sign off. The registration process was easier than pronouncing the name of the subway stop. In ten minutes I was heading toward Mies Van Der Rohe’s New National Gallery, a couple miles away in pre-unification West Berlin.
My Bahn Bike #3507 was a sturdy, simple five-speed design just right for the flat streets of Berlin. Click here for photos. The tires were wide enough to dropping into the ever-present tram rails. You could bounce up over curbs, ride on dirt paths in the park, stay upright while turning corners on slick, wet surfaces, and go anywhere. The gears were controlled easily with a thumb control, the seat was easy to adjust, a chain guard protected your pants or skirt from getting caught, and splash guards kept the mud off, so you could use the bike–as many Europeans do–with street clothes. The bike was unisex and very intuitive on all levels. There was a clever rear rack device with straps for a handbag, highly visible lights and reflectors for safety. The only flaw on #3507 was that the charming manual bell was busted. Pinging pedestrians and watching them scurry out of the way on bike paths is a special pleasure that I would have to forsake on this day.
Berlin’s accommodating street layout made it easy to find Mies’ New National Gallery. I rode up the ramp and circled the museum taking shots of the sculpture on the courtyard. (Artist names are listed in order of appearance below)* A muscular horizontal structure, the building serves as a symbol of modernism of the sixties. Yet fifty years after completion and despite the subsequent ubiquity of steel and glass structures, the Mies building did not feel dated, just classic. It is a piece of design that still asks you to rethink the form and function of a building. Here a great architect has left a powerful reminder that modern design stretches boundaries of materials and thought, makes a progressive and optimistic statement, and is, in a word, smart.
And “smart” is just the word I would use to describe the Bahn Bike. It is an excellent example of modern design, all the more so because so many designs today appear modern today because of their styling rather than their functionality. The function of modern design naturally evolves over time, and the best design today will use new technologies and materials to solve new problems: smart cars, energy efficient lighting systems, ergonomic chairs, effective public transportation, green buildings, and high performance, purpose-built gear like my rented Bahn Bike.
For half a day, I cruised Berlin on two wheels and saw the other modern buildings on my list. I never felt exposed without a helmet, and never had a honking at me. Best of all, for someone who spends too much time cooped up on airplanes, I got some much needed exercise. I returned the bike to the unpronounceable metro stop where I had found it. The computer sign off was a snap. When I got home and went online there was a note from the service and an English translation to confirm my registration and give me a service number if I needed it. The only unknown was my VISA bill.
The bad news came two days later in an email from Call A Bike:
Dear Mr. Forbes,
You rented CallBike 3075. Unfortunately, it was only belatedly returned by another Call a Bike customer in your stead. This resulted in the high price of 45,00 Euro. We therefore ask you to inform us of the actual duration of your ride, and if any problems occurred during the return of the bike.
Please keep in mind that we reserve the right to charge service fees according to our general terms and conditions.
p.a. Nina Bange
DB Rent GmbH, Call a Bike
Tel.: 07000 5 22 55 22
I sent back my explanation:
I only used the bike for half a day and I thought that I did everything correctly to sign off. I left it at the exact spot where I picked it up at about 5:30 PM (17:30). I assume that you will give me a refund and also explain what I did incorrectly to sign off. Thanks.
I received an immediate reply:
Dear Mr. Forbes,
Thank you for your E-Mail. Every ride with Call a Bike needs an entry call and a return call. This return call is neccessary because we need the information where you left the CallBike and how the recipte code is.
Your invoice get changed and the cost of this ride is now 15,00 Euros.
For further information, please do not hestitate to contact us.
p.a. Nina Bange
So the news turned out not to be bad at all. Who said the Germans are inflexible?
I have been noticing public-use bicycles for more than five years, but this was my first experience as a user. Paris has a similar system launched last July and other systems are spreading all throughout cities in Europe. I hope that they become as influential as Mies’ buildings, and that the US doesn't come too late to the party.
We’d like to get other first hand experiences from people who have used similar systems. Please post a comment below.
*Outdoor Sculpture Artists:
Joannis Avramidis 1965-8
Alexander Calder 1965
Richard Serra 1978
Alf Lechner 1978
Henry Moore 1965
Barnett Newman 2006
Eduardo Chillida 1975
George Rickey 1969