When I was little, I didn’t like biking. I had a long string of second hand bikes, none of which ever seemed to work quite right — a complaint that had some merit but also one I used as an excuse to explain my otherwise irrational dislike of the activity. When I left home for boarding school at age 13, I took my bike with me and rode it exactly once a year. I soon stopped owning bikes and didn’t ride one for four or five years. After highschool, I took a gap year living and working in the outskirts of Portland, OR, where the buses run only twice an hour but the city’s cycling culture persists. It took my 9am job, the infrequent public transportation, and an old man named Lou to get me on a bike again. Lou gave me his old bike, helped me replace the numerous punctured tires, and switched out the yarn-secured milk crate on the back with real saddle baskets. I soon began biking almost everywhere I went. The change came from the necessity of getting to work on time, but biking quickly became integral to my happiness as well, allowing me to both mentally and physically distance myself from the stress of work. The movement had become a stabilizing habit, and, despite the physical exertion involved, it was easier, somehow, than sitting on a bus.
It took me a semester of living in Berlin to finally buy a bike. It was a semester filled with covetous stares at beautiful bikes parked along the streets and leg muscles longing to pedal rather than stand in the tram. Now, I have finally acquired a bike. Passed down through several other students, she’s a run-down one-speed with kick-back brakes that barely work, a messy neon-pink spray paint job left over from one of her previous owners, and a broken Mickey Mouse bell. I have added a wire basket picked up from the street, a dusting of gold spray paint, and a trash bag seat cover. Lou would disapprove, but the bike is light and comfortable and, most importantly, she is mine.
Despite the totally functional, good public transportation in Berlin and the bike’s bad brakes, I ride her to school and back almost everyday, and it’s amazing how happy the trip makes me. I can now see just how much my movement through the city has been dictated by public transportation. I know every stop on the M1 tram between my house and school, but my pre-bike knowledge did not extend past this prescribed route to the smaller streets lined with gorgeous blossoming trees and the occasional hole-in-the-wall shop. On weekends, or when I don’t have to be on time, I’ve taken to going places without real directions, instead scribbling a few street names copied from google maps on the back of my hand and hoping I eventually run into one of them and find my way. I often discover lovely parks, bridges, and alleyways on these wanderings, most of them places I have not yet stumbled upon again. It feels appropriate, somehow, to leave them at peace in my memories and the city at large, waiting for the day we find each other once more.
My bike has restored a sense of agency to my travels from place to place and instilled in me a greater appreciation for the city and a sense of ownership. There is such freedom in discarding my dependency on the machinery of trains, the programed times and places. As much as I appreciate the BVG, pedalling past the tracks — sometimes chasing past the tram — brings a sense of euphoria that sitting inside the yellow vehicles never will.