Velo-city Vienna

Velo-city at Vienna City Hall

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.

Cycling in Vienna

Vienna contraflow

Central city cycle circle

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 bike lane

Cycling in traffic, Vienna

Skinny wiggly Vienna bike lane

Vienna cyclist

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.

By the River Danube

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.

Mass bike ride, Vienna

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6 Responses to “Velo-city Vienna”

  1. Doug Culnane Says:

    Very good evaluation of the infrastructure here in Vienna, which I think is way ahead of the UK as you say. However there are fundamental issues that are not addressed which is frustrating enough to write a blog about… (http://crowize-vienna.blogspot.co.at/)

    PS: You are on the Radio: http://fm4.orf.at/stories/1719595/

    All the best,

    Doug

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Doug

      Thanks! It’s great to see your blog, and to know that there’s someone on the case in Vienna.

      Vienna clearly could be like Copenhagen, in terms of cycling (although I know your public transport system is good and popular). The main reason I say that is because it reminded me of Copenhagen in that Copenhagen also has far too many fast moving cars on far too many big roads, but has nonetheless managed to shunt in enough cycling infrastructure to make cycling normal (and the Danish capital’s next challenge, I’d suggest, is to make driving abnormal, so the city can move onto the next stage of the ‘becoming more liveable’ process, in which cars *everywhere* across the city cede right of way to pedestrians and cyclists). It’s very obvious that good efforts are being made in Vienna (some of these will inevitably be seen as wrong, whether now or in the future, but the broader trends – there as elsewhere in the more affluent parts of our globe – are in cycling’s favour so I think some mistakes in the name of figuring out what works locally are an acceptable part of the mid- to long-term process of re-making a city away from the car and towards the bicycle).

      Thanks for alerting me to my radio presence! I’d completely forgotten about that interview, and so hadn’t stumbled across it. (And nice to hear I didn’t say anything stupid! – always a possibility ‘-)

      Good luck with making Vienna cycle-friendly. I look forward to returning one day and seeing the improvements!

      Best wishes
      Dave

  2. Doug Culnane Says:

    Dave,

    I will be doing a bike tour of Copenhagen and The Netherlands this summer. So I will have a look at this myself in the hope of understanding this better. Your comments are interesting and so I will try to understand them in the actual context when I am there.

    Your interview was great and it was nice to hear some informed comments about Vienna rather than the blind pro cycling marketing or the cycle hate bashing, that we tend to get in the press. I hope the discussion will progress to the liveable urban use of public space and away from bike vs pedestrians or bike vs car driver blame-storming. However this may take a while….

    Let me know when you return I will be happy to help you if I can.

    All the best,

    Doug

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Doug, and have a great time in Denmark and the Netherlands; I’m sure you will! I look forward to reading your thoughts and observations upon your return.
      Best wishes
      Dave

  3. Andy Salkeld Says:

    Hi Dave,
    I thought about your observations on Vienna when reading this from Stephen Fleming – I met him in Seattle and passed onto him your blog details.
    http://cycle-space.com/?p=14717
    Andy

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Andy! I’ve checked out Steven’s website and blog, and have put a link to his website (from which you can easily reach the blog) under ‘Links to cycling advocacy’ (I couldn’t quite decide whether his work is closer to research or advocacy; I guess (I hope like mine) it could fit easily in both.) I must say that from my perspective his work is a real breath of fresh air – and it’s reassuring to learn that someone on the other side of the world is speaking such clear common sense. So thanks for making us known to one another! (It’d be ace to get out to Adelaide to meet him, and all other the amazing pro-cycling Australians I know are out there, at next year’s Velo-city, but it’s so very far and so very (ecologically & financially) expensive I just can’t see it happening; can you?)

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