Urban Tales

Isabell Eberlein

A portrait about the managing director of „Velokonzept“.

Isabell Eberlein lives and breathes bicycles. For her, the bicycle is not only a means of transportation, but rather an urban transformation tool. She also wants to improve the quality of life in cities among all road users and residents.

Make a difference together

My name is Isabell Eberlein. I'm 32 years old and managing director at “Velokonzept”. I studied political science and sustainable environmental policy, but I would rather call myself a mobility consultant or curator. I try to bring content and people together so that we can create and make a difference together.

Political cycling

I like to call myself a political cyclist. I am definitely not a sport cyclist, but an urban cyclist. For me, the bicycle is not only a means of transport, but rather a vehicle of transformation. That's what I want to work for. It's probably the only means of transport for which there is a so-called “critical mass”. It can also be used for a bike protest without the bike being the focus.

There have been many bicycle movements throughout history. It was once a mass movement and we even had whole bike cities. I believe in the empowerment of the bike that everyone can experience for themselves. But it also has a social component beyond the individual level. This is how you see it in the emancipation movement: Everyone has the right to ride a bike and can take up his or her space with it. There are also regions in the world where cycling is even prohibited for individual groups and especially for women. For example, there is this great movie “Wadjda”, in which protagonist does everything she can to ride a bike. This is such a great story. Or, for example, the Afghan cycling team, which has won the right to ride a bike.

The founder of “Velokonzept”, Ulrike Saade, once told me that in the 80s she started a movement in Germany that everyone and especially women should ride more bikes. At that time, however, the women first wanted to have the right to drive, just like the men. They didn't want to go without again. And using this logic, cycling could also be portrayed differently.

New urban (mobility) concepts

I always try to think holistically and at the same time rebuild our system disruptively. At the moment, our cities and our entire system are conceived and designed by the car and there we have to start to rethink things. And I don't want to start with the bike, as first and foremost we are all pedestrians. So first foot traffic, then bicycle traffic, then public transport, then environmental association, and then comes the car traffic. If we want to disruptively change the “whole thing”, mobility must not be the only focus. But at the very beginning, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we actually live?“, "what is our local supply for shopping?“, "how do we factor in the elderly and infirmed?“, "how good is local childcare?”, and so on. Our mobility system should and must be guided by these questions. So I'm not trying to banish all cars, but rather increase the quality of spending time within the urban space. This means that we must also rethink the public streets and squares. We can't just see “parked sheet metal” at every corner. The parking area for cars in Berlin occupies 17 times the area of Tempelhofer Feld. There's no human right that says that everyone is allowed to park in front of the front door or that everyone is allowed to drive a car anywhere. Urban spaces generally need to have less traffic. So we have to make it more difficult to go everywhere by car, because we actually have the opportunity to go everywhere on foot or by train and bike.

The question of why

We've always wondered how to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But the “why” was never really up for debate. Due to the corona pandemic, we learned a lot personally, but companies did as well, and they realized that you don’t have to fly through Europe for every PowerPoint presentation. I'm not saying that we should only meet in front of screens now, but a more conscious decision about whether and how to go down this path is a first important step.

And if we decide to do so, the question must also be asked how we can make this “mobility” more pleasant for society as a whole. Many drivers enjoy the separate, protected and quiet space in their cars. But how can we transform these spaces into the public sphere? Since 1990, we have seen virtually no change in these areas. That makes more than 30 years in which we have not managed to counteract the pressure of climate change. The turnaround in the automotive industry alone will not help us. We also continue to have the space problem with electric cars and we also have a huge resource problem associated with them, such as the production of lithium-ion batteries.

We must take all "stakeholders" into account. That means we have to look for the link to other mobility providers. This can also be a sharing provider for a car or a cargo bike, for example. In addition, however, interdisciplinary cooperation between economic, municipal and administrative stakeholders, as well as between civil society and science must be strengthened much more.

Velokonzept – More than just a (bicycle) agency

Velokonzept is an agency with a focus on bicycles. Our goal is to place the bicycle in the center of our society. For this, we focus not only on the bike, but also the effect it has. We want to have an impact. And to achieve this, we have three areas:

The first area consists of larger events or even festivals that we host. We want to offer a platform for everyone: for industry, but also for end customers and cultural initiatives. We're trying to initiate a soft change in behavior and hope to reach new target groups for cycling.

The second area is dedicated to industry, ministries and the public sector by means of trade fairs. We want to create networks between the individual actors, because we strongly believe in collaboration. At the moment, we are mainly focusing on sustainability and innovation. So how can we produce bicycles or bicycle parts more sustainably and how can we, beyond pure product innovations, drive real innovation and manage to take the bicycle to a whole new level? We're currently developing a so-called Velo-Lab, in which we try to bring together different manufacturers, but also to work with municipalities. We try to design new infrastructure elements or offer new digital services. One company alone cannot achieve this, but together we can advance the common cause.

As a third area, we have the consulting within our agency. We are convinced that we also need to provide competent advice to the decision-makers in order to achieve our goals. We focus more on the municipalities and the administration as well as on companies outside the industry. We're pursuing the goal of new mobility concepts and corporate mobility. We have identified this as a good way to get started, because the first path everyone takes is the way from home to work. Of course, we also use the service bike leasing model or the like.

Big city vs. rural area

At Velokonzept, we do not focus on any particular area. However, we see the greater pressure to act in the cities. The parking situation, the traffic in general and the noise are a big problem. But we also need to change the structure in smaller cities or even villages. We need to find solutions for companies and their employees in rural areas. Often a basic bicycle infrastructure or a well-developed sharing system is missing. However, this does not pay off in many places, so it’s often not offered at all. Here we need to get to the infrastructure and promote a cultural change. 

For example, I come from a small Franconian village and the existing infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists is available. But still, everyone drives a car. It’s just convenient to get in the car and drive the next four kilometers to the supermarket, then load the trunk. You could just as easily do that with a cargo bike. However, many people lack the motivation or the intial incentive to do so. In rural areas, bicycles are more likely to be regarded as recreational and sports equipment. In most smaller towns or villages, there's not much traffic, so you might not even need your own bike paths, but still the hurdle in your head is too big or the habit is already too engrained.

The greatest common denominator

The greatest challenge for me is that from a global point of view, everything actually goes far too slowly. For example, it's good and important to organize conferences and bring different people together, but it actually takes far too long for these conferences to actually have an effect.

To accelerate this, we need social as well as cultural innovations on a larger societal level. Each of us is only just beginning to develop a deeper awareness of the climate, but for example in the bicycle industry we are not going in a common direction. There is no overarching concept, which of course is also due to our current general understanding of economics. Each company tries to put more bicycles on the road on its own, but there is no overarching concept. The automotive industry is much more closed and focused. We're still a long way off from achieving this. And here, too, there must be a change in consciousness. Of course, we have different budgets than most car manufacturers, but the bicycle industry in general shouldn't be so small. We need to take the bicycle itself to a new level in the social context and for this the value and service of many manufacturers must be raised to a whole new level. If you bring different actors together, you can usually only agree on the lowest common denominator. My challenge is also to find a little more than just the lowest common denominator. We have to do things differently because it makes more sense. I always like to look to Denmark. In Denmark, people like to ride a bike because it's easier, faster and more comfortable. No one in Germany would say that. In Germany, people say: “I ride a bicycle because it's more sustainable and good for my health and because it costs nothing.” So it does not intuitively enter our culture, although we're considered to be the inventors of the bicycle. But in the world, we're actually known only as an autonomous nation. So there is a huge gap. 

But how do you create such a general change? 

I always like to take the Dutch queen as an example, because it's quite normal for her to use the bicycle. In Germany, we no longer have a monarchy, but every year the election takes place as the “most bicycle-friendly personality”. The winners are always men and usually not people who ride bicycles a lot in their everyday life. The fact that we even have such a choice to highlight such a personality says a lot about our general relationship with the bicycle.

Mini playback show in the elevator

I'm definitely not a fair-weather rider. I actually ride in any weather. In the Netherlands, people briefly stand in the house entrance, in the bus stop or wherever else and wait until the shower is over. But it also has something to do with social acceptance. For example, I have changed so many times in the elevator and felt like I was in a “mini playback show”. In the meantime, I also have real rain pants, because I finally found some that I like. So I can finally brave the heaviest rain. But I can also understand people who don't do that. We just don't have the structure for it. For example, you'll be in a hotel or office building right at the front desk before you have a chance to change if you get wet. Most applicants who apply to us, for example, do not come by bike, because they want to look somewhat "okay", i.e. not sweaty or wet. It should actually be the other way around. And I myself know that the rainwear of most manufacturers is not particularly beautiful or stylish. Here, too, there is an enormous catch-up need within the industry to produce such products, so that more people get on their bikes even in bad weather. Or we have to become more flexible in terms of the weather and not meet until after the next rain shower. I would like to see more innovative and creative ideas in this area.

Cyclists as victims

I don't find upgrading with high-visibility vests, reflectors, helmets or other equipment for cyclists to be overly goal-oriented. The basic attitude here is that the cyclist is always the victim. It's always about not disturbing the automotive system. However, the issue of mutual consideration should be at the forefront. I also stop, for example, when I see that a truck wants to back in somewhere. Ideally, I can even help him/her back in. It also has something to do with normal humanity. This must happen on both sides. Both for motorists and cyclists. However, the basic problem remains the general infrastructure and the set of rules that everyone should adhere to. Although I tend to think that cyclists should be given different or more sensible rules in some areas.

Freedom in bloomers

There are people who ride bicycles and do all the thinking. They just get off and write their article or something like that. It's not like that with me. I also resist listening to music while riding a bike or distracting myself in any other way. I'm just trying to perceive my surroundings. The bike has just the right speed. For example, I always pay attention to how many people are on the road. I don't have to be somewhere at the same time every day, so I always see different “streams”. For example, it can make a huge difference in terms of traffic flow, whether it’s ten minutes before or after 8 a.m. In general, I associate a great feeling of freedom with the bike. I'm not dependent on anyone and it's therefore a form of individual mobility. This is also the reason for many drivers. But in order to really live out this feeling of freedom with a car, you need space and an infrastructure that allows it. So in a city or in a dense urban space, you don't have that freedom. This is a factitious freedom.

One could also include the topic of “empowerment”. Before the invention of the bicycle, people traveled at about 3 km/h. Now you can drive 30 km/h and faster if you want. So it's a tenfold increase in the radius, which I can personally achieve with my own muscle strength. This physical empowerment can also be transferred to the women's movement. The fact that women wear trousers nowadays is probably due to the bicycle. At the time when the bike was invented and in a noble class, women still had corsets and skirts to wear. But of course you could not ride a bike with it. And as a result, so-called "bloomer pants" were invented, with which the women could then ride bicycles. So women have not only freed themselves from their corset in terms of clothing, but also socially.

Women in cycling

Unfortunately, there are no official figures, but I would estimate that the proportion of women in the bicycle industry is between 15 and 20%.

Many women in the bicycle industry, who have already been involved in the past decades, are often born into the respective companies and have then simply taken over the business. Women have not been directly supported in recent decades. The bicycle industry is quite a small industry and everyone knows each other. Many jobs are also handed out and you may switch from bicycle company A to bicycle company B. Unfortunately, the industry is not so open to external input. A lot of things work via “rope shafts” or a certain “old boys' club”. But women were always quite isolated.

In 2021, I co-founded the initiative “Women in Cycling”. I always thought that the women within the cycling scene would know each other, but many don't. We then set up a LinkedIn group, in which over 1,000 women from Germany, Europe and the world were suddenly registered. In addition, we have also opened an expert portal in which more than 500 women have already registered. Some of these experts are also willing to speak at conferences or similar events.

It's very difficult to show this visibility. Although women work in the industry, only the managing directors are usually present at the events and the large trade shows. There's also a big difference between male and female executives. In addition, the motivation to work in the bicycle industry is often different. Men often emphasize how much they like to ride a bike and how amazing it is on the MTB or road bike. For women, however, the motivation is often more in the social or practical area. And this is all the more important if you want to reach other target groups as a manufacturer. After all, what's easier than having the future target group in-house and being able to draw on this wealth of experience and knowledge?

It's simply important to take different perspectives, both entrepreneurial and personal. For example, one should not only think about the sporty cyclists, but also take into account older or younger people, or cultural differences.

Change of perspective of the bicycle

I was in Berlin for the first time at the age of four and probably told my parents that I would live here. Of course, I forgot that again and came to Berlin more by chance, namely for my master's degree. In the beginning, I also struggled quite a bit with Berlin, because before that I lived in Regensburg and there the “scene” is quite manageable. Here in Berlin everything is very fragmented. But the bike helped me to integrate into Berlin. After I was already in several activist climate movements and after my semester abroad in the Netherlands, I wanted to work more for my neighbourhood or for local topics. I then joined the “Bicycle referendum”. 

As a result, I not only met many different exciting people, but could also see the effects of my actions right on my doorstep. However, until we had fought for a traffic-calmed and car-free play street at Lausitzer Platz in Kreuzberg or a new cycling infrastructure at Kottbusser Damm, it was a long and tough road.

In Berlin you are of course also very well connected to public transport, but with a bike you get to know the city in a completely new way. In the beginning, I was only traveling by bus, train and tram, but luckily I also discovered the bike for myself. In the Corona pandemic, many friends and acquaintances of mine also started cycling. So they got to know Berlin all over again and also experienced a change of perspective. You suddenly noticed how many cars are actually on the road and how bad the bicycle infrastructure is in many places and why conflicts arise between cyclists and motorists.

Berlin is not Germany

I like the freedom and the progressiveness of Berlin. This is where a large part of “progressive”, but also “normal” people live. This mix is very special. In general, there is just a lot of experimentation in Berlin, which we can then (hopefully) also establish beyond the borders of Berlin.

I am thinking, for example, of the former Princess Gardens in Kreuzberg, the theme of “urban gardening”. But the rent cap was also tried out here. With regard to the bicycle, the “pop-up”infrastructure is certainly worth mentioning. This was an idea that was simply tried out and quickly implemented and from which even partly correct bicycle paths have developed. But Berlin is also a very political place, as the Bundestag is located here and thus there's a proximity to actual decision-makers. Discussions here are very different from those in the rest of Germany. And as little as New York is representative of the entire USA or Paris is representative of France, Berlin is often not representative of the whole of Germany. There's a variety of spaces of art, culture, scene and politics that come together here and also promote this exchange between each other. Berlin is of course also international and you quickly get the feeling that you can make a difference here.

The road as a meeting place

I love going to the canal in Neukölln or Kreuzberg. I find somehow the area around the Admiralsbrücke to be particularly inspiring. Especially in summer, there's a special flair here. In general, life on the street in Berlin takes place a little more outside than in other places. For me, the street is a place of residence in public space. More citizens' meetings or exhibitions or the like should take place here. It should become more of a meeting place. But we must first of all feel comfortable and that's unfortunately not the case in many corners of Berlin. But Tempelhofer Feld is still a fascinating place for me. I'm not there every day, but every time I am, I discover something new. But for me it's also a very strong symbol of transformation. It used to be an airport and now it's a place of cultural diversity.

One evening in Neukölln

One evening I was with some friends in a bar in Neukölln. Before that I was in a very intensive yoga class and we really didn't drink much. But at some point I just couldn't anymore and I totally nodded off. I couldn't remember anything the next day either.I just knew I had my Schindelhauer bike chained up in front of the bar. When I wanted to pick up my bike the next day, however, it was no longer there. I went to the bar and asked if they might have seen a silver bicycle outside the door. They referred me to the next room and my Ludwig was chained up there. The waiter then told me that my friends took the bike key out of my bag, brought the bike to the bar and chained it there. Of course, they clarified this with the bar staff first. So my friends took care of my bike before they took me home. So the bike is already perceived as part of my personality. (laughs)

The door opener

For me, Schindelhauer stands for design, innovation and value. The “average” Schindelhauer riders may be more interested in design than I am. I'm not a styled, minimalist design person. I'm more practical, but I immediately fell in love with the design of the Ludwig. Since then, I've been attached to the bike and it’s now like an extension of me. I also often take it with me into conferences or offices. It's a good door opener for a conversation. When I see a similar bike on the road, I always look closely to see if he or she is also riding a Schindelhauer. And even then you get into a conversation every now and then.

But Schindelhauer also has a larger meaning for me. Due to the fact that the bicycles reach completely different target groups and sometimes also important decision-makers, you can bring target groups in connection with the topic of bicycles, which would have previously only driven cars. The bikes are often referred to as Ferrari or Porsche in the bicycle scene and are of course also a certain statement. But they can also be a good conversation starter between two very important political, economic or local actors.

I'll never go back again

Before I bought my Ludwig in Alu Pur, I had an ancient bicycle. With that I also rode distances of 10 to 15 kilometers and thought that this is actually a great bike. But my colleagues at the time have always looked at me strangely when I told them about it. 

The bike broke down at some point and I was allowed to borrow the old Schindelhauer bike of my then boss. And after that, of course, I couldn't get back on my old bike. (laughs) I actually had a big “aha moment”: “So cycling can be so amazing.” Before that I had no comparison and did not know the difference. A bicycle is often seen only as a “commodity” with which I have to get from A to B. Often, the buyers then make a decision too quickly, according to the motto: “Give it to me and let's go.” But that can come back to haunt them in the end. But I also found the story behind Schindelhauer exciting, since I also live in Kreuzberg. I find this local reference very important, as I now support a Berlin bicycle brand and thus secure jobs on site.

Through various previous events I have already met two of the founders (Jörg Schindelhauer and Martin Schellhase) of Schindelhauer personally. And that, of course, reinforced the personal connection. Although the bike bears the name “Ludwig”, it is not a classic men's bike for me. I am 1.79 m tall and for me it just fits perfectly. So I didn't find the bike, but rather the bike found me.

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