How To Create A Cycling City
Only 9% of journeys in Vienna are made by bike. That’s a third of the journeys made by private cars (26%).
City space is dominated by parked cars and, despite improvements in recent years, town planning experts say the cycling infrastructure is still far too unattractive for Vienna to become a cycling city. Only a minority dare ride the streets. Children are ferried to school by car.
An Urgent Matter
Yet if Vienna, like other Austrian cities, is to meet its own climate targets, the situation will have to change very quickly. We are living through a climate crisis, an air pollution crisis and an obesity crisis. We badly need more active zero-emission travel. We need to encourage cycling.
The WHO says air pollution kills 400,000 Europeans every year. Vehicle exhaust emissions are still rising in Austria. The latest IPCC report said that global emission must start falling by 2025 or we face utter catastrophe. Let’s be honest: The situation couldn’t be more urgent. But the response is pitiful.
Outdated Fossil Fuel Era Politics
Vienna’s cycling ombudsman Martin Blum says the city is adding 17km of bike paths this year, but Ulrich Leth of the Institute of Transportation at Vienna says in terms of proper safe and new segregated bike infrastructure the real figure is only 5km. Given that the city is also investing billions in a massive new urban highway project – the Stadtstrasse – this car-driven traffic policy is entirely at odds with Vienna’s and Austria’s own stated climate goals.
Things have to change and they have to change quickly - but this is possible, says Jill Warren, the CEO of the European Cycling Federation. “If the political will and courage is there, it can be very quick indeed,” she told me in an interview at the recent Radgipfel, or Cycling Summit, that Vienna hosted this month.
APA/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix/Ida Marie Odgaard
Sources of Inspiration? The Old Masters?
We could look around for inspiration from the great cycling cities of Europe. Famously, around 40% of all journeys and over 50% of all work or education commutes in Copenhagen are made by bike. Amsterdam is another famous cycling Mecca. The Dutch and Danish aren’t preternaturally destined to be cyclists, pro-active infrastructure projects nurtured these celebrated cycling cultures.
But this culture and this infrastructure developed over decades. Given the urgency of the climate crisis we have to change our cities in months. And that’s why 5km a year of safe new infrastructure simply won’t cut it.
Paris, Mon Amour
Luckily there are examples that change can come more quickly. “I think the thing that blew me away the most was Paris,” Jill Warren told me. “I hadn’t been there since before the pandemic and I went there recently. And you don’t even recognize the place anymore. Cyclists everywhere. I mean, you just couldn’t have imagined that before because it was always so choked up with so much car traffic. So that really impressed me.”
Political Courage Pays Off
Paris is particularly interesting because it has shown how political courage can be rewarded. After she became mayor in 2014, Anne Hidalgo launched her “Plan Vélo” (Cycling Plan) aimed at making polluted Paris a more people-friendly city. She removed space for cars and boosted space for cyclists and pedestrians. A lot of analysts expected her to be punished at the polls, but in 2020 she was re-elected with a large majority.
“She was re-elected because of her traffic plans, not despite them,” noted Stefan Bendiks, an urban planner and director of the office Artgineering, based in Brussels. Bendiks has been tasked with making Graz cycle friendly with that city’s 100 million euro “Radoffensive”.
The cycling revolution is spreading
“Other cities in places that aren’t traditional everyday cycling places like Lisbon, like Milan, are making strides that would have been unthinkable five or 10 years ago,” added Jill Warren. “And that is really, really encouraging and exciting to see.”
But it hasn’t spread to Vienna yet.
What works? What doesn’t?
The successful models that have got people out on their bikes have been cities that have created space for cyclists so that they feel safe. In a recent survey in Belgium, where Jill Warren is based, 9 out of 10 non-cyclists gave safety concerns as a major reason for not using cycling as a mode of transport.
“The best kind of infrastructure that people feel safe on is protected and separated from car traffic,” she told me. “So whenever cyclists have to share the road with cars, that’s when they start to feel uncomfortable with that and unsafe and they start to think ‘I wouldn’t like my children to cycle there’. So the protected and safe infrastructure is really the key.”
So how much of that is there in Vienna?
I asked Ines Ingerle of the Austrian Cycling Lobby, the Radlobby, to give me a tour of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Bad (and the Ugly)
We started with the very ugly – riding down the Landstrasse in the city’s 3rd district. On a narrow strip marked only by white paint, we were squeezed between the moving traffic and an endless row of parked cars or parking cars.
Car doors were suddenly opened, forcing us to swerve into the moving traffic; delivery vans blocked the route. There were several terrifying junctions and the drivers seemed to take little notice of the white line “protecting” us, placing their right-sides wheels in our “territory”. My pulse was high, I felt anxious and stressed.
“It’s bad because as you can see, there’s a lot of traffic, a lot of cars. There’s an entrance to a shopping mall, so the cars are constantly crossing the cycle path,” said Ines. “The cycle path is just a bit of paint showing us that there are cyclists coming, but there is no clear separation.”
The Good (It’s Coming, But Too Slowly)
But I want to be fair here. A lot has changed since I first arrived in Vienna. Although safe infrastructure is still pretty much non-existent in my neighbourhood in Vienna’s 14th district, I rode into town along the route of the Wienfluss on large stretches of newly created segregated cycle paths.
When I spoke to Vienna’s cycling Ombudsman Martin Blum at the Radgipfel he spoke enthusiastically of new projects across the Danube in the 22nd district.
It is not that things aren’t changing; it is that they are not changing fast enough.
“The climate crisis is really huge and we have to speed up to build cycle paths to make our transport system more and more climate friendly, because the CO2 emissions of the transport sector in Austria are still increasing right now,” cycling ombudsman Martin told me. “This is the opposite direction than the one we need. So yes, we have to speed up and I hope it will work in the next few years.”
Hope is not enough, and we don’t have years to wait. But…
Perhaps the best way cyclists can help this process is to not just moan about when the city gets it wrong, but also applaud the short stretches where it has got it right. At Am Tabor, Ines and I reached a wide cycling path separated from traffic. I could almost feel my pulse relax as we entered this zone. And that is important: if more than a minority are to choose to cycle then it has to be a joyous, not anxious experience.
“Yeah, that’s exactly the point,” said Ines. “This sort of infrastructure opens up cycling. A lot of parents won’t let their children cycle to school, for example, because they’re afraid that something might happen to them and rightfully so. Because if we had cycling infrastructure like this everywhere in Vienna, then a lot more people would cycle. Also, children could cycle more independently, and that’s why we need more of this. So make it safe for everybody, for children, for basically everybody from eight to 80, 90, 100 - whoever wants to cycle should be able to and feel safe while doing that.”
But do we need cycling when we have great public transport?
Vienna can argue its ecological credentials against cities with higher cycling participation on the basis of its impressive and ever-expanding public transport network. Currently 30% of journeys in the city are made by public transport, so slightly more than are made by private car. A new underground line is being built.
But Ulrich Leth of the TU says that we need to expand both public transport and cycling networks, and cycling infrastructure is one of the cheapest ways to transform a city. Particuarly compared to the billions of euros Vienna intends to invest in the Stadtstrasse, a big urban highway project: “I think we calculated that for a third of such tasks, you could build the whole cycling network in Vienna that’s missing right now.”
A Cycling City Is A Happy City
Jill Warren of the European Cycling Federation says that increasing cycling infrastructure is good for all of us. “We like to say that the benefits of more cycling can be felt by everybody, whether they cycle or not,” she told me. “You have a more liveable city with fewer cars and you have fewer traffic deaths, you have happier people who get out and move more. You have more space for things like outdoor dining because you’re not reserving every available space for car parking or for car driving.”
Publiziert am 02.05.2022