20 November 2009

Bike hire cities 5: Hamburg

Had JFK ever come here, he'd've no doubt said 'ich bin ein Hamburger'. (The idea that he made a comical error in saying 'ich bin ein Berliner' is an urban myth; he was quite correct.)

Actually, Hamburg is a bit like a hamburger: flat, big, meaty, rather enjoyable. And recently reconstituted after being torn to shreds, because we bombed the hell out of the city in the war.

And Hamburg's new cycle hire scheme, StadtRad - it only started a couple of months ago - is probably the best model for London to watch as our own velorution approaches in May 2010. Hamburg's a similar geographical size to London. It's a lot more sprawling than you might guess. And it has a similar spread of places the A-to-B cyclist might want to get to. It also has a rather hit-and-miss system of cycle paths, mostly separated but abruptly disappearing or transforming into footpaths at junctions, and poorly lit. And there's loads of traffic. So the London cyclist feels pretty much at home.

The Hamburg system is the standard model: you register online, paying a nominal and one-off five-euro registration fee. The website has an English version (accessed via the easily-missed flag at the top left). To hire a bike from one of the 70-odd docking stations round the centre, you swipe that card at a hire station and follow some clear instructions (supplied in English if required) on the touchpad screen (right). Handy, free little pocket-sized maps have docking locations.

After a few seconds' typing in code numbers here, and onto a small electronic unit attached to the bike (right), you're off. (The instructions for using this small unit aren't entirely clear the first time - you spend five minutes looking for its screen and eventually realise it's under a metal flap.) The first half hour is free, then further periods rack up gradually in cost.

The bikes (top right) are really good, well-engineered, machines for town use: seven speed hub gears, saddle that adjusts from Hello-Kitty-sized Japanese exchange student to Dutchman height, wide comfy tyres, dynamo lights, and a mysterious rear rack that people mistake for a child seat, until the child keeps sliding off. The system seems popular - we always found a bike, but the half-empty racks suggested there were plenty in use.

Lessons for London: 1. Redistribution of bikes is a big deal. Commuter drifts wash lots of bikes one way in the morning and the other in the evening. A lot of people in Hamburg spend a lot of time in big vans shuttling bikes from crowded commuter foci back to near-deserted start points. London won't have docking stations quite as near train and tube stations as Hamburg, but with even stronger commuter tides, this is something we'll have to watch if we're not to end up with empty docking points.

2. There'll be teething problems. On our trip Hamburg was deluged by two days of rain. Something must have seeped into the wires, because the screens at the docking stations weren't working properly. You could check bikes out but not back in, and lots of anxious people were phoning the helpline worried that they'd be charged heftily for 'unreturned' bikes. We'll need to copy the Germans' friendliness, flexibility and generosity - and no I'm not being sarcastic: common sense prevailed and no unfair charges were levied on us. (When something like this happens in London, we'll just have to resign ourselves to the inevitable overreaction from the media.)

3. Make instructions crystal clear - Hamburg's are very good, except perhaps for that flap business mentioned above.

Hamburg's is the most successful of the five schemes I've tried recently. I'll be very happy if ours is as good. Hamburg has some fun cycling bits - the long-distance Elbe path, some parks, ferry hops round the heavily-watered landscape (above right), and a cool tunnel under the Elbe (right) that puts Greenwich's to shame - and offers you a polite, orderly, friendly and high-quality lifestyle.

But, ah, you find yourself missing that edge and dynamism of London, the free stuff, the cheap eats, the quirky history, the whatever-you're-into possibilities of things to do, the melting-pot whirl and the whoosh and the buzz... I may be from Yorkshire, but ich bin ein Londoner.


  1. I see from the display screen shown that the system is a DB system. I seem to remember reading that DB is trying to roll out cycle hire schemes throughout their stations in large/medium-sized cities. Do you know if that's somehthing that's still underway, and is it the same system (same registration?) throughout Germany?

  2. And... that's a really nice and clean website!