You might have heard of couchsurfing. Now try bikesurfing
In Berlin, Irishman Graham Pope has adapted the ‘couchsurfing’ principle to bikes
Two things bothered Graham Pope when he moved to Berlin in June 2011: not having a bike to get around, and not having a couch to offer visitors. The 37-year-old Tempelogue native is a passionate biker and an experienced “couchsurfer”, having travelled the world on two wheels while sleeping for free on the couches of strangers met through the internet community couchsurfer.com.
Now Pope has adapted the couchsurfing concept and launched BikeSurfBerlin. From humble beginnings a year ago, and just three bikes, the not-for-profit service now has 19 bikes on offer for free rental.
Would-be visitors to Berlin visit bikesurfberlin.blogspot.com, check each bike’s calendar to see what is available, and fill in the request form. One of the website organisers replies within 24 hours to tell them where their bike will be waiting and the combination for the lock. After a week cycling the famously flat German capital, you return the bike and, if you like, make a donation for its upkeep.
“It is a pretty obvious idea when you are part of the couchsurfing world. It’s an extension of that principle,” says Pope.
After leaving a well-paying, steady job as a pharmacist in a Dublin hospital, Pope says BikeSurfing is his response to the can-do, free-wheeling attitude in the anything-goes German capital.
Pope launched the scheme a year ago with a Spanish friend, and now a dedicated team has grown up to help out. They check the bikes’ roadworthiness, log them in the computer system and keep track of which bikes are where. There are three main sources for bikes: donations; long-term loans; and regular auctions of stolen bikes by the city police and the public transport authority.
As with couchsurfing, Pope says, there is always a risk that they will be ripped off. But the company uses several methods to mitigate against this. If the applicant is a regular couchsurfer with a good profile, the BikeSurfers are likely to trust them. If the person is an unknown, Pope or an associate arranges to meet them and explain that the concept works on the honour principle. “We haven’t refused anyone yet. Our bikes aren’t works of art; they are probably worth €50-60,” he says. “If you go to the trouble of stealing, there is little we can do about it.”
The BikeSurf buzz has spread through the internet, encouraging people who are leaving Berlin to donate their bike. Danish woman Emi Bryan handed over her bike, christened “Froginabox”, when she returned home after a year in Berlin.
“I really liked the initiative, and that Graham was doing it off his own back,” she says. “I come back quite often and can borrow it or another bike, which is nice.”
“We loved the concept and found it very convenient because Berlin’s very flat and there is very little traffic by comparison to other big cities,” said Zohar Bar-Yehuda, a recent BikeSurfer from Israel.
Agnès André, an early BikeSurfer, said she hopes the project encourages people to work together without exploiting the system. “Yes they are saving money, but they are also building trust relationships,” she says. “They are also not taking part in the economic market, and are discovering the city from another perspective.”
So, a few hundred happy BikeSurfers later, the burning question: have any bikes cycled off into the sunset, never to be seen again? A few, Pope admits, but not because of dishonest BikeSurfers. Instead, he blames “errors of judgment” on his part – in particular, trying to cut corners by using cheap locks, resulting in bikes vanishing before bikesurfers showed up.