Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bikes on Trains - Letter from Berlin


As it is a European Parliament initiative that has raised the question of bikes on trains, Darlington Cycling Campaign felt it might be useful to observe how travellers in a bike friendly country handle the issue. By chance, one of our members is currently working in Berlin, and sent this photo of a father and his two kids using the city's S-Bahn.

In fact, all local trains in Berlin have carriages with flip-up seats that allow for bikes, prams and wheelchairs to occupy space. There is a small extra charge for bringing your bike on a train, but as so many people use public transport - and cycle - they typically buy an annual or monthly pass. A monthly pass costs 8 euros for a bike on top of normal fares. Students pay 145 euros for a full annual travel pass that includes a bike pass. All Berlin students are obliged to buy one. Given how little a monthly bike pass costs, and indeed an annual travel pass for students, the network is heavily used, frequent, and always being used by cyclists. As in this picture, there are often too many for the designated spaces, so cyclists use any other available open space on a carriage.

Bikes are expected on local trains - just as they are, interestingly on those Berlin pavements where a cycle path does not exist. Berlin is not the most cycle-friendly city in Germany, but the clear perspective of cyclists and non-cyclists is that cyclists can use their judgement to make joint use of pavements - and trains - safe for everyone. So rather than using restrictive travel laws that make it complicated and, judging by the previous post, impractical to take a bike on a train, here in Berlin it is a natural and easy part of getting around. And travel laws are flexible enough to allow cyclists to use spaces other than so-called "designated" spaces.

This essential trust in cyclists is what I think is badly lacking in the UK, due of course to the fact that so few Brits cycle, and this majority of non-cyclists stereotype cyclists around their chavs-on-bikes obsessions. Whilst the European Parliament debates compulsory designated space, those countries with a pro-cycling perspective are busy making it easier to use non-designated spaces. This picture, for the average thinking Berliner, is a sign of the success of their environmental policies. To the typical Darlington transport commentator, I suspect it is an outrage that should be punished with a £500 fine, skateboarder-style.

Comparing Berlin's approach to the debate in the UK, and the government's apparent desire to oppose compulsory space on trains for bikes, wheelchairs etc (could someone point to a website with the UK government's position - googling failed to come up with anything), it seems there is only one conclusion. The current regime of privatised railways - just as with our beloved privatised buses in Darlington - cannot deliver what is required in the 21st century. They are not fit for purpose. They badly need reforming so that they can actually serve our public transport needs.

All this sounds like very New Labour language. But New Labour seems so wedded to the companies currently delivering our public transport, that they have lost sight of their core ideology - to keep reforming and come up with something new. Is it too much to suggest that New Labour is the new Old Labour? And maybe even vice versa?

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