Cycle City Vienna: Planning and Paving the Way

In Vienna, locals make only 5 per cent of trips on a bicycle, but city and bike enthusiasts are working to change that

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | May 2013

Cycling organisations were delighted when the Red/Green city government set itself the target of raising cycling participation to 10% by 2015.


"We want to make our city a better place to live in and bikes can play a key role," says Alec Hager of the Vienna Cycle Lobby. Green in an era of smog and climate change, healthy in an era of obesity, and economic in an age of austerity, a vibrant cycling culture can be a boon to any city.

But as the prime cycling season begins, the figures for bike use in Vienna are sobering. Between 5 and 6% of city journeys are made by bike, compared to 35% in Copenhagen and 40% in Amsterdam.

While the city is not yet a true cycling metropolis, Hager is on the whole ­optimistic: "Any city can become a cyclists’ city. It just depends on what measures are implemented and how much political will there is," he says, "We need goals and new plans to get there. We need to change the way we see mobility."

The cycling organisations were delighted when the Red/Green city government set itself the target of raising cycling participation to 10% by 2015. And 2013 has been declared the "Year of the Bike".

The official enthusiasm is important, says Horst Watzl of the cycling advocacy group Argus. "The Bike Year 2013 campaign is a broad campaign with coverage in the media as well as on posters in prominent public spaces. It’s not enough, but it will help."

Watzl’s colleague Andrzej Felcak agrees: "The city has invested massively in the Bike Year with events like the Bike Arena and the Bike Week. All these measures encourage people who don’t ride bikes to try it out."

Trends with benefits

"Half of all the car journeys are less than five kilometres," Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich told me at his office on the Stubenring. "These are avoidable trips: you can make them on foot, on public transport or on bike." Swapping a car for a bike for a daily 10 km commute would also save an annual €450 in fuel costs, he says.

Berlakovich is an advocate of e-bikes, a less strenuous form of cycling where your pedalling is supported by an electric battery. According to the Austrian Transport Club, (Verkehrsclub Österreich VCÖ), every 10th new bike sold in Austria is an e-bike, with 100,000 currently in use nation-wide.

While not carbon-neutral, e-bike riders in the Netherlands cover twice the distances of conventional riders, the VCÖ claims, making them a genuine alternative to cars with a significant impact of air quality. They could make the culture more accessible for the elderly and the less fit. And, of course, the image conscious.

"Some just don’t want to turn up sweaty at the office," the minister says.

While Vienna has long had a vocal and dedicated minority of cycling enthusiasts frequenting the critical mass cycle advocacy rides, the key now is to break out of cycling’s hipster image and become more mainstream.

The first green shoots are already visible: "This winter, which has been one of the harshest in recent memory, I have seen more people out on their bikes than any previous one," says ­Argus’ Andrzej Felcak. "I have a feeling that we are on the edge of a change in consciousness – partly due to cycling’s prominence in the media."

This May sees the second edition of the month-long, Austria-wide radelt zur arbeit ­ (cycle to work) initiative. Created by the cycling lobby IG Fahrrad, with the official backing and financial support of the Environment Ministry, it encourages bike commuters to log their journeys on a website. They can form teams, and if they cycle to work on half of the month’s working days, there is a chance to win bike-related prizes.

"We want to see people encouraging their colleagues at work to take part," says Hager, who helped initiate the scheme. They hope to see 15,000 people commuting to work by pedal power across Austria by the end of the month.

Hager, who has been encouraged by the sight of increasing number of cyclists "in high-heels and business suits" in Vienna, thinks the city could reach a 15% cycle participation over the next ten years.



A little less conversation…

"Cycling makes people healthier, so a threefold increase in cycling would bring massive savings to the health budget. These things have to be considered." And now, says Hager, is the time.

To count on these savings, innovations in city infrastructure will be vital. The most recent government statistics available suggest that 59% of Viennese adults own a bicycle. That’s much less than the 81% of citizens in the western province of Vorarlberg, but it still means there are around a million bikes in the city.

Yet concerns over road safety mean few people use them on a daily basis. Figures from the insurance group Allgemeine ­Unfallversicherungsanstalt (AUVA) suggest 1,300 ­Austrians injure themselves cycling to work each year. Hager says that the injury rate is relatively low, pointing out that the environmental ministry estimates around 150,000 Austrians commute by bike every day. Indeed most recorded injuries are superficial and activists say the health benefits far outweigh the dangers.

While Hager agrees that cycling needs to be safer, he stresses that it has to be perceived as safe. "This is where the politicians need to act rather than just talk," he says.

I joined the Vienna Cycle Lobbyists on a tour around the city to take a look at their suggestions to improve safety and make cycling more convenient.

They suggest creating "cycle corridors" to ensure speedy, uninterrupted access from the suburbs to the city centre on safe bike routes, establishing "cycle roads" closed to motorised traffic apart from residential traffic where cyclists could pedal side by side, and setting up a "green wave" system, which would synchronise traffic lights on certain routes for a cyclist traveling at 20 km per hour. Much of this is inspired by tested initiatives already proving ­effective in Copenhagen.

...a little more action

For some Vienna cyclists, these measures don’t go far enough. There have been calls for an entire lane of the Ringstrasse to be given over to cyclists and a radical reduction in the number of downtown parking spaces.

Yet Hager talks of evolution rather than revolution. Not focussing on the cycling cultures of the Netherlands and Denmark, he looks closer to home. "Like Munich. They have a cycling participation rate of around 16% right now. They started a push for better infrastructure in 2006 when it was just 6%." If the infrastructure is planned right, congested cities can become more space efficient, says Vienna-based cycling blogger Doug Culnane, offering efficient, door-to-door mobility so valuable in a time-conscious culture.

As the cyclists become more numerous, cycling culture is becoming more visible, and nowhere more so than the radlager, in the ­Operngasse, where I went to warm up after the chilly spring ride with the activists. Classic race-bikes, all for sale, hang as decoration on the walls of the coffee shop and there are spare inner-tubes on sale alongside packages of roasted Italian beans. When I entered, two couriers, clad in warm-weather Lycra, were munching on calorific chocolate brownies. At the back of the café there is a repair shop and a mechanic will tinker with your bike as you slurp your cappuccino.

"Coffee and cycling have always gone hand in hand," laughs owner Markus Böhm. "Maybe it’s because they both make your heart race!"

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