There is certainly no shortage of bike-sharing systems available in Berlin, but are any of them actually worth using? We decided to put a few to the test.
words: Luke Davis & Ben Lubin (mobike)
The sharing economy is alive and well in Berlin. From people offering their rooms for short-term lets on Airbnb, to those giving away their old couches and fridges over Facebook, this is a city in which ownership is an increasingly fluid concept.
Take a stroll down an average Berlin street, and you’ll no doubt notice shared cars from apps like car2go or DriveNow, scooters from COUP or Emmy, and pedal bikes from Call a Bike, Lidl, Mobike, Obike and loads more.
A growing number of companies want in on the sharing economy action, and bike rental apps in particular have seen a boom in competitors, something we covered in our recent Guide to Bike Rental. These apps are supposed to make renting quicker, easier and more cost-effective, and they cater to a digital savvy generation committed to cutting out as much human interaction from the process as possible. But is this system really effective, and with so many apps now out there, how do you choose between them? We decided to brave the Berlin winter to try a couple out.
The ubiquitous blue nextbikes started appearing across Germany in 2004, and plans were unveiled in 2016 to roll out 5000 bikes across Berlin, with Deezer as a sponsor.
I downloaded this app first, purely because they were the ones I’d noticed the most. You pay 1€ for 30 minutes, and are charged 1.50€ for every 30 minutes over that. The crucial things to remember are not to leave it outside the S-Bahn ring (which one time I did), and to make sure that the bike is properly locked when you’re finished (which one time I didn’t).
While straying from the right geographic area is a relatively basic error to avoid, the second issue I accept less blame for. When returning your nextbike, it can take 1-2 minutes before the screen tells you whether this has been successful. In a rush to get to German class one morning, I left before the confirmation, and ended up on the phone the next day trying to talk my way out of being charged for a whole day. Thankfully, the Helpdesk switched to English after my German failed me and all was resolved after a few minutes.
Call a Bike/Lidl Bikes
Call a Bike was launched by Deutsche Bahn throughout Germany in 2000. In Berlin, the bikes are sponsored by Lidl, and operate in much the same way as nextbikes, only with an added yearly 3€ membership charge. A half hour ride costs 1.50€ with an extra 1€ for each additional 30 minutes, and you can helpfully take out two bikes at a time.
Like nextbike, the process isn’t always as seamless as it sounds. After putting my details into the app, my authorisation code never arrived, and again I had to call up a Helpdesk (thankfully, also English-speaking) to activate my account. The bikes themselves are slightly less clunky rides than nextbikes, with a greater number of gears and a smoother return system.
Mobike & oBike
In contrast to Lidl and Nextbike’s sturdy yet uninspiring bikes, the (m)obikes represent the cheaper quality end of the bike sharing spectrum.
After realising something was wrong with my bicycle one recent morning, I suddenly had the perfect opportunity to use one of the bike rental systems. After downloading the mobike app, I had no problem finding one of the small orange-wheeled bikes, only a stone’s throw from my apartment. Using the app was a breeze: I registered myself and my payment details (a €5 deposit was taken from my credit card), located a bike, clicked unlock and off I went (the bikes’ rear wheels are remotely unlocked.)
Locating and accessing a mobike is a headache-free procedure; however the scheme is let down by its cheap and uncomfortable bikes. After unlocking the bicycle, I was frustrated to see that the saddle height had a (very) low maximum height, making it impossible to ride comfortably and for a longer distance. Luckily, I only had to ride 1km to my office. After locking up the mobike from the app, I had a look around to see if all of company’s bikes are hindered by the same maximum saddle height issue: I was able to find other mobikes with greater available saddle height. The bikes are also let down by their slow, solid rubber (not pneumatic) tires, making you feel every tiny bump in the road.
Not satisfied to call it a day there, I thought I’d try a yellow-wheeled oBike. The bikes and registration process are almost identical, unfortunately hindered with the same comfort issues as the mobikes. Approaching the first U-Bahn station on my route, I decided to lock up the bike and travel to my first appointment by train.
So while these bikes are extremely quick and simple to access, you might want to think twice before renting one: they’re OK to get you home that last kilometre (if you’re small), but pretty useless for anything else.
There are an increasing number of competing app-rental bike brands clogging up the Berlin pavements, to the point that you start to wonder if we’ve finally reached peak pedal. If you’ve already taken ten minutes to download and sign up to one app, you’re unlikely to bother going through it again for another, especially if you’re just here for a weekend. Competition is positive, but with relatively little price or quality difference between the companies, you can’t help thinking it would be easier to have one universal system like in other cities such as London or Copenhagen.
The answer, however, could be upon us. After warming up back indoors, I came across myScotty, an app that lets users access a number of other companies’ fleets across the bike, scooter and car rental sectors. With the memory of my ageing phone under growing pressure, cutting down from three apps to one seems a no-brainer.
Here’s hoping they have a good Helpdesk.