When was the last time you had to move something that you couldn’t carry with your own two hands? Maybe it was a big haul of groceries, a new piece of furniture, or a large bag of dirt for your garden? How did you make that trip from the supermarket, the furniture store, or the garden center? My guess is that you took your car or, if you don’t have a car, perhaps you negotiated to borrow a friend’s truck or paid to take a rideshare.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my brother Michael, who’s lived in Berlin for the last couple of years, and he casually mentioned that he had just been to pick up a bunch of wood from the hardware store for a new bed he’s building himself. The mode of transportation he used to pick up that wood was a free cargo bike — one of dozens that are located all over the city and available for use from anyone who needs them.
This sounded like such a simple and brilliant solution to a challenge that anyone without a car (or who shares a car with other family members and can’t always use it) has probably faced. So I wanted to share a little about the program with you here. Please hold your “that’s Europe, we could never do it in America” judgements until the end.
To start with, let’s talk about cargo bikes. The ones in this Berlin program are simply bikes with a large open box attached to the front that can hold a surprising amount of stuff. They’re built to make pedaling seamless and easy with whatever load you’re hauling. As you can see from these photos, they can carry anything from a Christmas tree to a mattress to your children.
Michael explained how the program, called fLotte Berlin (“fleet Berlin”), works: You register online and sign a basic “terms and agreements” sheet. Then you’re free to peruse the live map that shows what bikes are available where. These bikes are housed at an assortment of shops and public places like grocery stores, parking lots, and even pubs. You can book immediately or reserve ahead for a future date. For his wood pick-up, my brother selected a bike that happened to be kept at a bookstore and when he arrived, he simply showed the bookstore employee his ID and she brought out the bike for him.
One thing Michael said he appreciated about the program is that, “it’s all day—not one of these ‘you can have it for 30 minutes and then it has to be returned’ things.” That made his trip easy because he didn’t have to worry about rushing back within a given timeframe. We all know how deliveries and pick-ups—especially with bulky objects—can take longer than we’d planned on by the time you’ve figured out how to maneuver the thing out of the store and into your vehicle. Based on photos of the bikes in use, I can also see that some people are using them to take day trips to go sledding or skiing — again, a situation where a full day of access simplifies things.