When we were planning this move to Germany, we debated about how we would get around once there, especially since D’s school is about 15 miles away from our apartment, in a neighboring town. We knew it would be hard to get around Düsseldorf with a car–tiny streets, many ‘one way’; lanes shared with street trains; hard to understand signs; limited parking. Of course we knew there was widely-available mass transit: light rail, inter-city rail, buses, but had no practical experience using them.
So, what to do? We had a feeling having our bikes would be useful, but shipping them seemed too expensive, and shipping my giant 50lb Dutch bike was out of the question.
Fortunately we arrived here in August with plenty time to experiment with the trains while most people were away on holiday. Taking the train to school was deemed doable, and in practice only takes about an hour, including switching and the 10 minute walk from the station to the school (wait–an hour to go 15 miles?! OK that does seem slow compared to a car! But a car may actually take just as long, considering the snarls of traffic I have seen approaching school every day). Still, it’s 15 stops and a bit tedious. Not to mention expensive (E 75.00/month for a discounted student’s pass; E160.00/month for an adult pass).
So, we had the train down. But what about all those bike lanes? And entire families on bikes, with cargo carriers, even (which we have always admired in Portland). We had many bike rental options, so we we started using these easy-to-find and use utilitarian bikes. And we found that it was much easier to get around by bike than we imagined. This was great for us adults, but there were no obvious ways to rent a kids’ bike. And boy oh boy was that kid ready to go-go-go on a bike. Or a scooter. Or a moped. Insert many many requests here for riding on any and all.
The bike culture is so strong here that there is a large market for used bikes (some more reputable than others). So J & D took on the flea market one Saturday, and viola, a suitable bike for D was had. Whew!
Now it’s not just the bike itself one needs, because if you’re going out to do anything you need a place to put the stuff you will inevitably purchase or want to transport. Plus, you will get thirsty while riding all those kilometers. And of course you need to protect the old bean with a helmet. Lest your bike be stolen, you now need a lock–not just any lock, my dears, but one that would prevent a chainsaw from separating you from your ride. Oh and one must have a series of lights, blinking and not blinking, to be seen in the early morning hours, and of course a gentle-but-firm toned bell to warn unsuspecting pedestrians that you are approaching, likely too fast, if you are D.
And so it was that with that first purchase of a humble used bike, the flood gates of purchasing opened and our kitted-out fleet was born.
I was next. With the help of J & D, I acquired a used bike at a state-sanctioned sale (we had to travel to Hamm to get it, but it was worth the hassle). This is easily a E1,000 bike that I got for E240.00, with suspension (essential for my ongoing concussion symptoms which are brought on by bounces and bumps), 8 very-smooth-changing gears, integrated lock, high end removable and lockable basket, bike computer and bright lights. It’s a large Dutch-style bike and not the most wieldy but it what I needed. It’s sturdy enough that I was able to put D on the back of it for the ride to purchase Jeff’s bike, which was purchased the same day, in another far-flung hamlet.
Jeff had been eyeing foldable bikes for some time, years really. He decided he wanted a bike made by a spin-off company of the well-known Bromely brand, which was known for high quality and safety. Not cheap (‘cheaper than a car’), but very useful and well-designed, and Jeff certainly has the most flexibility of all of us. In just a few seconds he can break this bike down and squeeze into a crowded train, should he need to.
Next challenge: boarding the train with bikes. We had a lot to learn there, but we learned it fast. Essentially one boards on the rail car designated with the bicycle symbol, which may or may not match the one slated to the be bicycle car on the electronic sign on the platform.
Oops, we got on the wrong rail car for my bike’s very first journey on an RE (regional express) train. Although we were very much in the way of those embarking (einsteigen) and disembarking (ausstiegen), we tried to be as nice as we could (there was no way to move to another car). And the Deutsche Bahn employee didn’t care; we expected a stern scolding but instead she just squeezed by us. Nor did the drunken young men who came through the car selling tiny bottles of alcohol (certainly an unsanctioned enterprise); in fact, they asked Jeff to hold their beer as they made sales. Bike in one hand, beer in another. No problem! See photo of Jeff returning said beer in slide show below!
(watch for another blog post here about All The Rules that are supposedly essential to follow).
So now, all 3 of us on wheels, we have a whole new perspective on our new city, which just got much much smaller. Emboldened by this new insight, we cycle to even remote places–including almost half the distance to school! Even on chilly mornings, with the right clothing, and all our gear tucked into paniers, baskets, and backpacks, traveling by bike is easier. Like having a car, we can come and go as we please instead of waiting for the train (which are now much more crowded, with everyone back to school and work) or bus (too many stops!). Most of our routes keep us on dedicated bike lanes that feel mostly safe (although D is still working on remembering to look left and right before crossing each intersection!). Sometimes we call the bike lane the ‘bike highway’ – as a pedestrian you certainly do not want to step into this lane, often on the sidewalk, without looking first!
And we have done a lot of riding; about 220 kilometers at last count since we arrived here. That’s about 135 miles!
During all of this cycling practice we have gleaned a lot, but are still learning to decode the posted signs and grasp bike etiquette; improving how we navigate cars (often almost silent in eco-mode), rambling toddlers, curious dogs and groups of people. Most of our cycling trips are very relaxed, however, and a great opportunity for D to practice responsibility and independence.
And, it’s fun.
There’s something about a bike…on a sunny and dry fall afternoon, with a gentle breeze and an ice cream cone in your hand, you can remember what it felt like to be a child: carefree, the world spread out before you, waiting to be discovered.