Berlin Bans Brakeless Bikes

Not long ago, cycling enthusiasts took fixed-gear racing bikes out of velodromes and onto the streets, where they were a hit among bike messengers and hardcore urban cyclists. The appeal had to do with the stripped-down simplicity of the bikes. A skillful rider could bring a “fixie” to a stop just by resisting the forward rotation of the pedals, which eliminated the need for hand brakes. In some circles, fixie became a byword for hipness in modern urban life. Then the bikes edged into the mainstream, and that’s when the trouble started — in Berlin, at least. Police, citing safety concerns, have started a crackdown on fixies. Considering, as Jonah Berger writes, that “cultural groups abandon a taste when outsiders adopt them,” will the fixie crackdown, by stunting the growth of the trend, only reinforce the bikes’ street cred among the faithful? [%comments]


Andrew

Riding brakeless bikes on city streets is liking driving a drag racer on city streets. Stupid, pointless, and dangerous.

econobiker

Note: the linked NYT article was from 22 years ago- 1987.

One reason I could see the messengers would want the bicycles is to keep the regular bicycle riding thieves from grabbing the bicycle. It also benefits for removing extra weight for carrying the bicycle into buildings and taking out the extra complexity of brakes from the maintenance requirements for the bicycle...

Mike

BSNYC wrote a great piece on this yesterday, highly suggest reading it. I commute on a fixed-gear, albeit one with brakes. I couldn't imagine only being able to skid to a stop down a steep hill or in an emergency situation when I was worn out from a long ride.

DrS

1 thing I've noticed, hanging out with a lot of "cultural outsiders" who ride fixed gear bikes, is that using the term "fixie" is already an automatic label that you are a hipster and a poser.

So I guess writing about them by media outlets as popular as the NYTimes is more likely to kill the movement than police crackdown.

JohnO

Who cares about fixies' street cred? People riding fixies DON'T stop -- and they make it work for people in cars and for cyclists like myself, who do.

Brake hardware is cheap and effective. It should be mandatory. Berlin is doing it right. I wish Portland would too.

tim

I find it amusing about all the 'hate' toward fixies' bike users and actually believe banning the bikes will magically make bikers not do idiotic things on the bike.

Both drivers and cyclists (both which violate traffic laws on a daily basis) need to grow up and show basic respect toward each other and the laws of the road. But my guess is that is never going to happen.

Lambert

It's real simple. Whether it's a 'fixie' or a regular rear wheel with a brake, you only get about 20% or the braking power of a front wheel brake.

You need two brakes, the front to stop fast and the rear to provide stability.

Stephan A. Davidson

The "brakeless" bike is not brakeless and hardly new. My first bicycle had no hand brakes. This was in 1948 at the tender age of six. Most kids had them. They were called "American bikes." A few of the rich kids had "English bikes" with three gears and hand brakes. I suspect that the real problem is not the braking system, but the fact that they are ridden at high speed. In fact, hand brakes are probably more likely to fail. (And if only the rear hand brake fails, guess where the rider goes.)

LJ

I agree with JohnO, I too am from Portland. While I do not commute by bike, I've been nearly clipped by these people more than once--while walking. These people are a nuisance and give bikers who do follow the rules a bad name.

Brakesareforwinners

It's not really about "hate towards fixies" and their owners. Although, they tend to be the ones blowing through traffic stops and ignoring all rules of the road out of some recently-acquired hipster values. The fact is, that you're now a vehicle on the road. All vehicles on the road have brakes... so people can stop... when they have to. Even horses have the "whoooOOaaa!" brake. Grow up, buy brakes. You can still act like you've been down with Breaking Away for your whole life. I'm talking to you, Portland.

Emily WK

Stephan, a coaster-brake that is applied by turning the pedals opposite the direction of normal forward motion is still a brake. What is being forbidden is bikes that have literally no mechanism to apply friction to the moving parts of the bicycle to slow the forward motion.

As far as if the rear hand brake fails, the experienced rider goes nowhere. I almost never use my rear brake - 80-90% of my stopping power is on my front brake. I have never even come close to flipping forward over my handlebars.

tudza

Aren't you just dancing around what constitutes a brake? Hand brake, people agree this is a brake. Coaster brakes, which I also had before hand brake bicycles, people seemed to agree at some point this was a brake. Is it no longer?

So now, instead of whatever fancy mechanics you have in the rear hub for coaster brakes, you have "your legs stop the pedals from moving which stops the rear wheel from turning" breaks. Is this not a brake?

How about unicycles? Will we need to put brakes on those?

Nik

What will the compulsive hipsters do next ? Maybe bikes without tires are the next big thing among the painfully hip. Inflatable tires are for squares !

reason

I can't say I completely understand the logic here. If the problem is that a lack of brakes is unsafe for riders (which I am not saying it is) then shouldn't helmets also be required? If the absence of brakes is problematic only at high speeds, then shouldn't that be the issue? If it is the coincidental overlap of cyclists on fixed gear bikes and cyclists who break the traffic code while on the road, then they are already doing something wrong. For example, why regulate a fixed gear bike that stays on a sidewalk and acts appropriately with respect to fellow "pedestrians". Without dedicated bike lanes, bikes either need to act like cars or act like pedestrians, it would seem to me. And, to the extent that a cyclist is not doing either of those, then he is already a problem. But to mandate this seems a bit weird to me, as person who rides a fixed gear bike and is well aware of the braking capacity. Further, I don't understand why anyone vaguely knowledgeable on the issue of riding bikes would recommend using the rear brake. If you are more than 150 lbs and are going at any productive pace, you've just induced a skid. It is very difficult to go over your handle bars using your front brakes under normal conditions. I am not saying never use rear brakes, but they are hardly the *right* default.

I really don't have a problem putting a brake on my bike if it became necessary per fiat, but would that change the recklessness (or lack there of) of my riding? Where is the causal chain there?

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Brakesareforwinners

@reason, that is the least reasonable thing I've read in a while. Why are we debating the semantics of "braking"? I've ridden fixies, coasters, disc (mechanical & hydro), cantilever, etc, and everything els. But fixies are a problem. You cannot make sudden stops with a fixie, and you're kidding yourself if you think you're *that good* of a rider. These bikes were never meant for a closed course, not street riding. There's no use pretending it's anything other than a hipster fad, they are terrible to ride, nothing poetic or pure about it.

e

brakeless is fun, it makes riding more interesting. that, and the mechanical simplicity, is why messengers have been riding track bikes for 20+ years and will continue to. the present problem is the internet-driven "fixie" fad, which makes brakeless bikes the fashion accessory of 2009. so now we have thousands of new cyclists on bikes that are difficult to ride safely. soon enough people will put themselves in emergency rooms and the fad will fade. the berlin police will have forgotten about this in two years and some people will continue to choose to ride without brakes.

Alejandro

The Freakonomics post, one of the articles it links to (on the Berlin "crackdown"), and several of the reader comments here incorrectly equate fixed-gear bikes with brakeless bikes. On a fixed-gear bike, the cranks turn as long as the rear wheel is turning (and vice versa). Slowing down the cranks slows down the rear wheel. (Road and mountain bikes, in contrast, have a "freewheel" that allows you to stop your feet without stopping the rear wheel.) This means it is possible to stop a fixed-gear bike without brakes, by bringing your feet to a stop. However, it does not mean that one cannot install brakes on a fixed-gear bike. I have a single (front) brake on my fixed-gear bike, which provides ample stopping power. So not all "fixies" are brakeless. I don't know of any reason why a fixed-gear bike with a hand brake is any less safe than a conventional road or mountain bike. Any safety complaint here seems to be with brakeless bikes, not fixed-gear bikes per se.

Part of the beauty of fixed gear bikes is their simplicity, and part of their utility is that they are so easy to clean and maintain. One doesn't have to try to clean around multiple gears, chainrings, and derailleurs, and one doesn't have to worry about keeping shifters and derailleurs properly adjusted and in repair (something most people don't know how to do) since a fixed-gear bike does not have these parts. A fixed-gear bike and a little mechanical knowledge frees the user from almost all dependence on professional mechanics.

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Rob

@Tim

No-one said that this will happen. You misread. And a lesson in sentence structure:

I [find it amusing about all the 'hate' toward fixies' bike users and] actually believe banning the bikes will magically make bikers not do idiotic things on the bike.

Probably not what you meant to say.

Jeffrey

Fixies are probably the best example of hipsterism inducing absolute stupidity. The idea that someone in a city like san francisco would consider using a bike without brakes, because it's cool, means that they probably deserve to be run over. I agree with Berlin's crackdown but then again, why bother saving these people from themselves?

nathan

how about let people ride whatever they want? I've seen people do really dangerous and stupid things on all kinds of bikes, I've seen people do even dumber things in cars. brakeless fixed gears ARE dangerous, but no more dangerous than riding with a coaster brake (if the rider is experienced.)