I was very pleased to see that Mayor Boris Johnson has launched a public bike hire system into London. Well, I say 'public' but it is called the Barclays Cycle Hire and the bikes all have the Barclays Bank logo on them. But a minor quibble - they have to be funded somehow. It's just that it would be preferable if it wasn't by a bank that had built itself up from investment in the slave trade, financed the apartheid regime in South Africa, and bankrolled Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Still, the bumbling floppy-blonde-haired toff done good!
(photo AP - used without permission, sorry! I'll take it off if anyone complains)
Berlin has its own Deutsche Bahn 'Call a Bike' scheme - as do lots of other German cities:
(photo Andie Gilmour - click for bigger)
Getting around by bike is surely one of the best ways to explore a city, though perhaps not so cool (though exponentially more expensive) as doing it by Segway. London and Berlin are both good cities for cycling around, being relatively flat and with lots of green spaces, and I imagine traversing the cityscape might be less popular in San Francisco, Seattle, or Rome.
I wondered what comparisons there were between the London scheme and the DB 'Call a Bike' scheme and here are my findings.
Accessing the Schemes
To access the two schemes; London's Barclay's Cycle Hire currently requires you to purchase a 'membership' key for £3, and then charges £1 for each 24 hour period. With a key you can release four bikes, for use by family or friends. Eventually you will be able to pay at the docking stations without requiring a membership key.
For Deutsche Bahn's scheme you first need to register on-line for a one-off fee of €5, of which €2.50 is credited to your on-line account. In both schemes you need to give your credit/debit card details and any rental charges are automatically debited from them. In this comparison, the DB scheme is cheaper, especially if you are going to hire a bike a lot. By the way, the London scheme is going to develop so that you don't have to purchase a membership key beforehand, greatly enhancing its potential for casual use by tourist visitors.
For rental charges whilst using the bike, the London scheme is better for short periods, as it is free for up to 30 minutes usage. If you return a bike to a docking station in this time, you can continue using the bikes for as many times as you want during the 24 hours for free. For using the bike for periods greater than 30 minutes, the costs are: up to 1 hour £1; up to one and a half hours £4; up to two hours £6; up to two and a half hours £10; up to four hours £15; up to six hours £35; and up to 24 hours £50.
By comparison, the DB scheme charges a flat-rate charge of 8 cents/minute, which works out as a whopping €4.80 per hour. Much better that you rent the bike for a full 24 hours, which costs €9. For a week's rental, the charge is just €36. If you have a BahnCard then you are only charged 6 cents/minute, but it is clear that there are opposing philosophies behind the two schemes: London encouraging short journeys, whist Berlin's is clearly for all day use. By the way, the DB scheme in Suttgart allows one hour free usage. I don't know why this isn't the case for all the German cities, but it would certainly be welcome I'm sure.
Pick up and Return
To rent a bike in London you need to go to a docking station, much the same as the Parisian Velib public bike hire scheme. There are lots of these, with more planned, and they can be located using this map.
By comparison, the DB scheme allows you to pick up and leave your hired bike at any road intersection. This map shows where all available individual bikes have been left at any particular ioment (click on 'Berlin' in the drop-down menu next to 'Stadt', and enter a street name if known). A good bet is that there are always plenty around places like Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, as well as the major train stations, but really, you do see them everywhere and anywhere.
At the moment it looks like the Barclay's scheme is concentrated on central London, whereas the Berlin scheme extends well out into the subburbs. This may well change in the future for London of course, as the scheme becomes popular. On the Berlin map there is a red zone where bikes have to be returned to, but looking at some of the outlying available bikes it looks like this isn't always adhered to!
With the London scheme, you just pop in your membership key in the slot in the docking point next to the bike to release it. The DB scheme is a bit more involved, in that you have to phone the (freecall) number on the bike, which includes the bikes unique id. You will be given a four digit code. You tap this number into the LCD touch-screen on the bike, and away you go. Be sure that the digital display on the bike has a flashing green light that means it is available. A flashing red light means that it still in use; a neat feature of the DB scheme is that the bikes have an inbuilt bike-lock and at anytime you can use the touch-screen to lock it temporarily. When you have finished using the bike for the day, take it to an intersection of streets within the red-marked zone on the map, and lock it. You use the touch-screen to tell it you are done, and it gives another four-digit return code. This you need to phone in again, also giving the two street names of the intersection, thereby ending you rental period and updating the website locator map.
The London scheme then is a lot easier to use, provided you know where the docking stations are. The Deutsche Bahn 'Call a Bike' needs you to have a mobile phone (the clue is in the scheme's name!), but allows you a great deal more freedom; for example, you could cycle out to the Grunewald forest on the Western edge of Berlin, and confidently lock your bike whilst you went for a bathe in the Havel or stop off at a Biergarten.
Comparing the two bike models, they both look solid, sturdy affairs. I think I would prefer the DB bike if I were going off-track. Also it has a handy carriage seat on the back for taking a child along with you, or carrying luggage; the dinky front-basket on the Barclays bike doesn't look so useful and I wouldn't fancy hauling the bike over my shoulder.
Alternative Bike Hire
As an alternative, there are many private bike-hire (Fahrradverleih) companies in Berlin and London. One such company has outlets in both; Fat Tire Bike Tours.
This is a photo I snapped of their shop under the Fernsehturm near Alexanderplatz:
As a comparison, Fat Tire in Berlin charge €12 for a day, but their strength is in their great guided bike tours and friendly (English-speaking) service. There are of course lots of other bike hire places in Berlin.
So in conclusion, I heartily recommend both initiatives. The more bicyles we can get onto our traffic congested streets the better. It might also encourage the building of more cycle lanes, though I must say I find Berlin has quite a good network. With the tourist in mind, I think the DB scheme would be much more useful and cost-effective, but then with the free first 30 minutes charge of the Barclays scheme I think it might get more commuters getting on a bike instead of clogging up the already over-crowded Tube trains. A disadvantage of the DB scheme though is that it all seems to be transacted in German. On the other hand, I can only find English on the Barclays Cycle Hire website.
Of course, it would be even better if Amsterdam's 'white bicycle' scheme from the late sixties had caught on, fifty white painted bikes left around the city by the anarchist Provos that anybody could just pick up and use for free. Unfortunately Reality is at variance with such a hippy utopia, but it does seem a shame that it is Barclays that is sponsoring the London scheme. Mind you, if they took over the DB scheme it would be rather interesting to see the reaction of people cycling around Germany on bikes prominently displaying a Prussian-looking eagle!
Prussian War Flag