(Part 1 of what I can only assume will be a four-part series. Part 2 is also now published.)
Although it’s true that I gave fair warning of an absence from this blog, it has been a little while since Annette and I got home from the World Congress on Conductive Education.
Since then, we at BQ have run our biggest event of the year, and there was also the little matter of National Ride To Work Day, which is squarely in my area of interest at work.
So I got home and got straight back into it.
But oh-so-many of my conversations since returning home have been people asking about our experiences in Europe. And I do want to wax lyrical in this space, because — really — the places we went to are excellent examples of what I would like to see happen in Brisbane, and indeed in other places around Australia.
And I am going to invite Annette to contribute to this piece as well, because she has a different perspective on bike riding, and because she rode a bicycle in Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam.
I sometime read criticisms of Brisbane’s CityCycles for being a garish yellow. The bikes in Vienna are a mix. There are yellow ones, purple ones, and orange ones. No less garish, that’s for sure.
We visited Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and Munich. I’m totally going to skip the touristy stuff. If you are my Facebook friend (and why wouldn’t you be? I think you probably are) then you saw way too many Instagram moments from me, and you probably also saw many albums of photos from Annette.
But for my lovely Briztreadley readers, the question is not “What did you see in Europe?”, but “What was it like to ride in _________ (insert Euro city of choice)”?
The first thing to say is that this was exclusively a utility/city approach to cycling. We did not “cycle tour”. All the riding was simply to get from place to place in the city, or to explore the inner city. We stayed as close to the CBD as we could afford in most places (thanks AirBnB). In Munich we had slightly different criteria, leading to some interesting different experiences.
But for Brisbane folks, it would be as if I am restricting my experience of cycling to just include a ring around Paddington, Spring Hill, Bowen Hills, New Farm, Kangaroo Point, the Gabba, Highgate Hill, St Lucia and Toowong.
And the second thing I want to say is that we made most of our decisions about cycling within the context of wanting to get from place to place easily and efficiently. So if we were going somewhere that had another means of public transport (usually S-bahn or U-bahn, but sometimes tram) that would make it easier to get there, then we would take that public transport.
However, on lots of occasions, it turns out that bicycle is the best and easiest way to get from place to place.
Let’s start in Vienna, because it was where my expectations were pretty low, and were quickly exceeded. Let’s also start in Vienna, because that’s where our trip started.
In Vienna, we used the City Bike scheme. It is a close cousin of the one we have in Brisbane, with bikes that are just a slightly earlier version of the CityCycles that I have often used. It is easier to get going with the Vienna version because it uses a credit card system instead of a dedicated card, which is a real advantage for visitors to the city.
Our flat was about 150m from Westbahnhof. So the U-bahn system was totally convenient for getting to almost any venue in the city.
And yet, even closer to our front door was a City Bike station.
We spent the first day or two just cruising around on foot, and via U-bahn. I don’t usually have a grand plan in these situations, so when we worked out which cities we were going to visit, I really didn’t expect to be using bicycles very much until we got to Berlin and Amsterdam, both of which I expected would be very bike-able.
But after a day or two in Vienna, we met up with a friend of a friend, an English ex-pat called Christian. Who was into bikes, and was a great source of local knowledge.
After our chat with Christian, at my instigation we began using the City Bike scheme a whole lot more. And we went to Prater, a massive park in Vienna that was a hunting ground for the Hapsburgs until 1920, and found the Hauptallee, the boulevard through the middle of the park.
We had a great afternoon, first just cruising along the Hauptallee and enjoying the freedom from traffic, and the outdoors, and the green space around us. Every outdoor activity that Vienna wants to engage in can be found along the length of Hauptallee. Frisbee golf? Check! Miniature outdoor railway? Yep. Tennis, amusement park, beer house, cafe, gardens for the feeding of ducks? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!
But both Annette and I wanted to see the Danube, and the Prater is pretty close to the Danube.
The funny thing is that Vienna turns its back on the Danube. There is the Donaukanal (Danube Canal) that is a man-made off-shoot of the river, and it runs through the middle of Vienna’s old town. But the main river, well there’s not much in Vienna that faces the river. And the freight railway line runs beside it.
So although we found the Danube, it wasn’t all that nice. And it made for some challenging navigation.
Eventually, on our City Bikes we made it back to Krieau, one of the three U-bahn stations on the length of the Prater. There we ditched our City Bikes and gratefully caught the U-bahn home (all of 10km!).
But by then we had the taste for the City Bikes. The next day, we were headed down to Schonbrunn Palace, which was a bit awkward to get to via U-bahn, so we took the tram, and walked through a park to get there. But we worked out for our trip ‘home’, that by far the easiest way would be simply to jump on a City Bike. So we did.
So in all this riding, we encountered a variety of conditions. Our main thoroughfare from Westbahnhof to the old city was MariaHilferStrasse, a lovely tree-lined boulevard with a mix on on-foot-path bike-path, and shared on-road low-speed traffic. It was about 2km from our flat to the Museum Quarter, which is not quite the centre of town.
MariaHilferStrasse, walking inbound from Westbahnhof to the City.
But further out from Westbahnhof, as we came back from Schonbrunn, the only bike facility on MariaHilferStrasse was a marked bike lane, and sometimes that even disappeared where the tram lines cramped the road space down to one traffic lane in each direction.
So in some ways Vienna was like Brisbane … the network is incomplete, which leads to sometimes finding yourself in a situation where a bicycle rider might have to mix it uncomfortably with dense traffic.
But … it’s also nothing like Brisbane, because those situations were few and far between for us, where in Brisbane you would encounter the need to mix in with the motorised traffic on almost every trip of significant length. And the traffic was almost always moving slowly, and accommodating to bicycle riders when it needed to be.
Vienna was also our first look at what I will call German-style bike infrastructure (yes, even though Austria is a separate country … my large Austrian readership might be up in arms, but I’ll just have to deal with that later).
The dominant type of bike path in Vienna, Berlin and Munich is a bike-only space on the same level as the footpath. In Vienna and Berlin, there is usually a flat kerb that designates the edge of the bike-only space. In Munich, it’s only the surface that differentiates. The bike space is usually bitumen, and the pedestrian space is usually concrete pavers.
These facilities are like an Australian footpath on steroids. They are just wide enough for a good bike path (usually 3m, but maybe only 2.5m sometimes), but that path is predominantly used in the direction of travel of the traffic. The pedestrian space is of course bi-directional.
When crossing side streets and driveways, the combined bike and pedestrian facility usually has the right of way. Chevrons painted on the road denote that both traffic turning into the side street from the main street, and traffic coming out of the side street, must give way to the bike-riders and pedestrians continuing on the shared path.
The limits of flow in such a bike and pedestrian system come at major intersections, when it becomes clear that the bike/ped facility takes a lower order of priority to the main road. But until those major intersections, the level of priority for bicycles can be pretty impressive.
There’s not usually this much priority for bikes … this was Ciclovienna, a happening on the Ringstrasse on the first Sunday we were there.
Next: cruising in funky Berlin.