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Fixed-gear bikes spark police crackdown in Berlin

They’re sleek, fast and illegal in Germany: fixed-gear bicycles. Marc Young reports on how trendy fixie riders have sparked a police crackdown in Berlin.

Fixed-gear bikes spark police crackdown in Berlin
Photo: Andy Armstrong

In a country where cyclists are expected to have a working bell on their bikes, it was probably only a matter of time before fixies fell afoul of the law in Germany.

Evolved from indoor track bikes with no gears and brakes, fixies have long been favoured by couriers and other cycling enthusiasts in big cities around the world. But a surge in popularity in Germany has prompted an unprecedented backlash by traffic cops in Berlin in recent months.

“Interest in fixies has exploded in the past two years,” said Dustin Nordhus, owner of the Cicli Berlinetta bike shop in central Berlin. “Everyone sitting in an office all day thinks they’re cool these days.”

Nordhus has filled his shop with gorgeous high-end racing bikes that are street legal, but he also makes custom track bikes for a growing market of fixie riders.

Since there’s no freewheel on a fixie, the pedals continue to rotate as long as the bike is moving forward. This means the rider either has to slow the bike by fighting the momentum or brake by locking up the back wheel to skid to a stop.

Seeing what they considered a growing danger to traffic safety, Berlin police announced this spring they would begin cracking down on fixie riders. Since only April, they’ve confiscated 18 bicycles.

“Fixies have become a real problem,” Rainer Paetsch, a Berlin police official for traffic issues, told The Local. “It wasn’t a hunt, but we decided to do something to undercut this trend.”

To get their bikes back, cyclists have to pay a fine and convince the authorities they won’t ride them on the street anymore – or at least show an inclination to install brakes on them.

“For all I care they can ride them in their backyards,” Paetsch joked. “We just want people to realise it’s too risky to ride them around the city. Then we’ll be content that we’ve helped improve traffic safety.”

Excessive enforcement?

But one rider who lost his bicycle last month said the police were taking the issue too far.

“This criminalisation is completely overdone,” Stefan, a 30-year-old bike courier, said on the edges of European Cycle Messenger Championship in Berlin in early June. “I was stopped by eight or nine cops who looked totally bored. I tried to tell them they were taking away how I make my living, but they didn’t seem to care.”

As an experienced track cyclist, he said riding a fixie actually made him more aware while negotiating city traffic. But he admitted many people are now buying fixies just because they’ve become cool.

“It’s the trendiness that’s the real problem,” Stefan said, adding that he was slapped with an €80 fine and three points on his driver’s licence for traffic violations.

But Benno Koch, Berlin’s official ombudsman for bicycle issues, said all the hype surrounding fixies had left the police with little choice but to crack down.

“I’ve been getting lots of calls from worried fixie riders,” he told The Local, explaining that he had been able to defuse the situation somewhat by hammering out the conditions cyclists can get their confiscated bikes back.

Koch admitted that most of the city’s hundreds of fixie riders were probably excellent cyclists, but warned others from joining the fixed-gear trend.

“The people that ride these bikes have to know what they’re doing,” he said. “And in my opinion fixies really ruin your knees. You’re not young forever, how far do you really want to follow the hype?”

But anyone still choosing to hop on their fixie in Berlin might want to consider getting a brake installed soon – the police will start their next round of citywide traffic checks in July.

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TRAVEL NEWS

What we know so far about Berlin’s follow-up to the €9 ticket

After weeks of debate, Berlin has settled on a new budget ticket to replace the €9 ticket for a limited time. Here's what know about the travel deal so far.

What we know so far about Berlin's follow-up to the €9 ticket

So Berlin’s getting a new €9 ticket? Cool!

Kind of. Last Thursday, the Berlin Senate agreed to implement a €29 monthly ticket from October 1st until December 31st this year. 

It’s designed to bridge the gap between the end of the €9 ticket deal and the introduction of a new national transport deal that’s due to come into force by January 2023.

The Senate still hasn’t fleshed out the details in a written decision yet, so some aspects of the ticket aren’t clear, but we do know a few things about how it’ll work. For €29 a month, people can get unlimited travel on all modes of public transport in Berlin transport zones A and B. That means buses, trains and trams are all covered – but things like taxis aren’t. 

Wait – just zones A and B. Why’s that?

One of the sticking points in planning the new ticket was the fact that neighbouring state Brandenburg was reluctant to support the idea. Franziska Giffey (SPD), the governing mayor of Berlin, had annoyed her neighbours and surprised her own coalition partners by suddenly pitching the idea at the end of August – shortly before the €9 ticket was due to expire.

At the time, the disgruntled Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) complained about the lack of advance notice for a proper debate. He had previously ruled out a successor to the €9 ticket in the state. Meanwhile, the CDU – who are part of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – slammed the idea for a new cheap ticket as a “waste of money” and an attempt to “buy votes” for the SPD.

The blockade meant that plans for a Berlin-Brandenburg ticket run by transport operator VBB had to be scrapped, and the monthly ticket has instead been restricted to the two transport zones solely operated by Berlin’s BVG. Since zone C stretches into Brandenburg, Berlin couldn’t include this zone in the ticket unilaterally. 

Berlin transport zones explained

Source: S-Bahn Berlin

The good news is that zones A and B cover everything within the city’s borders, taking you as far as Spandau in the west and Grunau in the southeast. So unless you plan regular trips out to the Brandenburg, you should be fine.

However, keep in mind that the Berlin-Brandenburg BER airport is in zone C, so you’ll need an ‘add-on’ ticket to travel to and from there. It’s also not great for the many people who live in Potsdam in Brandenburg and commute into Berlin regularly. 

READ ALSO: Berlin gets green light to launch €29 transport ticket

How can people get hold of it? 

Unlike the €9 ticket, you won’t be able to buy it at stations on a monthly basis. Instead, the €29 ticket is only for people who take out a monthly ‘Abo’ (subscription) for zones A and B. If you’ve already got a monthly subscription, the lower price will be deducted automatically, while yearly Abo-holders will likely get a refund. 

You can take out a monthly subscription on the BVG website here – though, at the time of writing, the price of the ticket hadn’t been updated yet. According to Giffey, people will be able to terminate their subscription at the end of December without facing a penalty. 

What types of ‘Abos’ are eligible for the deal? 

According to Berlin transport operator BVG, people with the following subscriptions are set to benefit from the reduced price from October to December: 

  • VBB-Umweltkarten with monthly and annual direct debit
  • 10 o’clock tickets with monthly and yearly direct debit
  • VBB-Firmentickets with monthly and yearly direct debit 
  • Trainee subscriptions with monthly direct debit

People who already have reduced-price subscriptions, such as over-65s and benefits claimants, aren’t set to see any further reductions. That’s because many of these subscriptions already work out at under €29 per month for zones A and B. 

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train in Berlin

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train at Zoologischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Can students with a Semesterticket get it as well?

That’s one of the things that still needs to be clarified. It’s possible that universities will choose to refund part of the Semesterticket price like they did with the €9 ticket. The Local has contacted BVG for more information. 

Can I take my bike/dog/significant other along for the ride? 

Once again, this doesn’t appear to have been ironed out yet – but we can assume that the usual rules of your monthly or yearly subscription will apply. So, as with the €9 ticket, if your bike is included in your subscription, you can continue to take it with you. If not, you’ll probably have to pay for a bike ticket.

In most cases, monthly BVG subscriptions allow you to take one dog with you for free, and also bring one adult and up to three children (under 14) with you on the train on evenings and weekends. These rules are likely to stay the same, but we’ll update you as soon as we know more. 

How much is this all going to cost?

According to regional radio station RBB24, around €105 million is set to be put aside in order to subsidise the temporary ticket. However, this still needs to be formalised in a supplementary budget and given the green light in the Senate. 

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

OK. And what happens after the €29 ticket?

That’s the million – or, rather, billion – euro question right now. In its latest package of inflation relief measures, the federal government said it would be making €1.5 billion available for a follow-up to the €9 ticket.

The ticket is set to be introduced by January 2023 and will rely on Germany’s 16 states matching or exceeding the federal government’s €1.5 billion cash injection. So far, it looks set to be a monthly ticket that can be used on public transport nationally, with the price set somewhere between €49 and €69.

However, the Greens continue to push for a two-tier model that would give passengers the option of buying either a regional or national ticket. Under their proposals, the regional tickets would cost €29 and the national tickets would cost €69.

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