Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference. I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.
Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.
This doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently round town later, I don’t.
Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike. Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These current and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.
The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some re-prioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.
But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.
Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).
Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base. One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It helped me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.
But the best vision of mass cycling came on the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mix of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation; I suspect many Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was talking about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and enables the city visibly to announce its support and ambition for cycling. Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.