On cycling in Vienna

Well I have not blogged for absolutely ages, mostly because I have not had anything to blog about that other people were not blogging about anyway. I did go to Pedal on Parliament, and to the launch of the Women’s Cycle Forum, and I probably should have written about both those things, but I didn’t. So, anyway.

We (Wonderful Boyfriend and I) have just come back from a holiday in Austria, and one of the places we went to was Vienna. Almost the moment we stepped out of the U-Bahn (Underground) I discovered that Vienna has cycle lanes that are rather different to the cycle lanes I’m used to. So, over the few days that we were there I took some photos (W.B. thought I was very strange) as I thought I would write about my impressions of cycling in Vienna. As it happened, we also hired City Bikes (more on them in a bit) so I got to use the lanes as well as look at them.

(Note: I’m aware that there is a blog in English on cycling in Vienna – I deliberately have not sought it out as I wanted to give my own impressions first. I might read and comment on it once this post is done.)

The first thing to say about the lanes is that they are mixed in quality. I didn’t see any on-road cycle lanes like those that we are used to in the UK. What you get are a mixture of totally separated lanes and shared use lanes. How good the lanes are depends on how much space is available. There’s an inner ring road round the city centre – this is a nice wide boulevard, busy with traffic. In places there are rows of trees lining the road, and there’s space for a nice wide cycle lane under the trees with a separate pedestrian pavement as well.IMGP4700 IMGP4609However elsewhere on the ring road there’s a bit less space and the cycle lane is a narrow strip on its own “step” between the pedestrian area and the road. This didn’t feel very pleasant with fast-moving traffic right next to your elbow, and because it was only one bike wide it was a real problem for faster cyclists to overtake slower ones – in a British-style on-road lane the faster cyclist can simply move round the slower one (though I’ve heard of cyclists getting abuse for “riding two abreast” for doing this – there are some stupid people out there…) but you can’t move out of the Vienna lanes because there are kerbs both sides. What seemed to happen was that the faster cyclists would use the time when we were all stopped at red lights to move up.

IMGP4653A shared-use pavement – not enough space for cycling here.

These roadside lanes had their own traffic lights, small ones at cyclist eye level. Sometimes they treated the cyclists the same way as the motorists, for example if there was a pedestrian crossing then both cyclist and motorist traffic would be stopped. Sometimes at junctions the cyclists would be moving with the pedestrians, for example to cross the main road or two turn left (the equivalent of a right turn in the UK). This wasn’t usually confusing but I did at least once miss a green light because I didn’t spot it because I wasn’t used to looking for the small eye-level lights. W.B did get confused by a traffic light once – we were cycling on a road and the light was up in the air on cables between two buildings and he just didn’t notice it and went sailing merrily through a red light in spite of my yells from behind him; fortunately it was a very quiet road.IMGP4654Cycling on a pedestrian and cyclist crossing. Separation between the three modes exists here. Later, a big group on a bike tour came through and there wasn’t enough space for them all in the little waiting area.

Mention of riding on the roads will make it clear that the cycle lanes were not ubiquitous. There were a lot round the outside of the city centre and round the Prater (more on the Prater in a bit) and there were signed routes which used a mixture of lanes and quiet roads; but we had a very unpleasant time trying to cycle to the Schloss Belvedere – the road outside it had no lanes, and was busy with traffic, and had tram tracks for good measure. I found myself cycling in the door zone while being close passed at a reasonable speed (by someone cursing tourists, no doubt). Without the tram tracks I would have taken the lane, UK style (and no doubt annoyed someone even more), but I couldn’t move out because I didn’t want to cross the tram tracks. At one point one of the Fiaker (traditional horse-drawn carriages) came along and another cyclist and I just cycled slowly along behind it because no-one was going to cut us up while the Fiaker was there. W.B. actually overtook the Fiaker and then had to come back and find me because we’d overshot the entrance to the Schloss!

Some of the paths were not roadside and these tended to be shared with pedestrians. I thought they felt a bit more like some British shared use paths… there was one section which had lots of blind bends and narrow bits and which generally you had to take quite slowly because there might be someone (cyclist or pedestrian) coming the other way. This route, too, had some long waits at traffic islands to cross the main roads. However when we went over to the Donauinsel (a park on an island in the Danube, also a traffic free area) and back to the Prater we cycled some really nice traffic and pedestrian free routes. The bridges over the Danube were pretty cool – the cyclist and pedestrian area was tucked under the side of the bridge so you were totally separated from the traffic (just as well in one case as the road was actually a motorway!IMGP4722Crossing the Danube – note also the hire bike.

We were pretty impressed with the hire bikes. We’d seen them around but decided to hire them more or less on impulse. You can register on the spot with a credit card and with screens in English (we did) but it is a bit of a faff doing it on a touch screen (our touch screen was not working very well) – I’d recommend someone who thought they might use the bikes to register online in advance where it would be a lot less hassle. However the second time we hired a bike it was just a matter of putting in the credit card and a password, selecting a bike and cycling off. The bikes were heavy 3-speed, upright affairs, with a front basket, one brake lever and a back-pedal brake (I think the proper term is a coaster brake) – I didn’t like this at all to start with but very slowly started playing with it. The bike felt much less nimble than any of the bikes I’m used to, and I felt what my mother calls “de-skilled” using it – I consider myself a competent cyclist but I didn’t feel very competent or confident on this thing! I think if we’d had to fight with the traffic as well as deal with the unfamiliar bike it would have been most unpleasant, and I was very glad for the large amount of segregated routes we did use. The routes were signposted and we did find those useful.

The Prater is a large park to the north of the city centre, near the Danube. It wouldn’t be top of most tourists’ lists of places to go, but W.B. had reasons to be quite keen to go there, and the weather was far too nice to spend hours in museums, so we went. The main feature of the Prater is the “Hauptallee” – a 5km long straight – I have no idea what it was originally built for, but it is now tarmacked but essentially traffic free (apart from the odd police car pootling along – being a visible presence W.B. thought), and it is very, very popular with cyclists of all kinds from families with kids through roadies in full replica team kit to a couple of people on full Time Trial set-ups. There’s so much space on the Hauptallee that all these cyclists could do what they wanted to do quite happily without getting in one another’s way. Wouldn’t it we lovely if places like Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh could be like this, instead of full of traffic?

IMGP4724The thing with a roof on the right is a two-or-four-person pedal-powered machine – definitely something for the tourists – they looked good fun but we didn’t try one.IMGP4656

And finally – the ubiquitous photo of a cargo bike. Can’t have a cycling blog without a photo of a cargo bike these days, can we? IMGP4683

On meeting some politicians

Recently I went to an event organised by the Women’s Cycle Forum and a group called “We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote“, which describes itself as an umbrella organisation, formed to campaign on Active Travel issues in the run up to forthcoming elections in Scotland. They described the form of the event as “speed dating” – which was actually a pretty good description. There were five tables, and five politicians, and each table got ten minutes with each politician. It did feel slightly manic… I understand that they only had a limited amount of time so had to keep everyone moving, and they did do that successfully.

The five politicians were: Joan McAlpine MSP (SNP), Alison Johnstone MSP (Greens), Lesley Hinds and Maureen Child (Labour), and Joanna Mowat (Conservatives). The last three are all Edinburgh City Councillors and Lesley Hinds is also Convenor of the Transport and Environment Committee.

I’m struggling to work out exactly what I got from or brought to the event. I had two questions which I wrote on cards when I came in, as we were asked to, but someone then moved my better question off onto another table so I felt I could not ask it! That question was “How do we give our politicians the confidence to take measures that will be unpopular in the short term, in order for there to be a long term benefit?” We talked a bit about campaigning with Maureen Child and one of her suggestions was that you go to hustings and ask about active travel, because apparently this does not come up. I think I could do that. I just need to find out where our nearest hustings is, and how they work… Kim on my table said something about the process the Dutch went through to get their cycle paths, and something about riots on the streets of Amsterdam, and Maureen Child said maybe we need some riots… I am not sure what direct action would look like, and of course we are talking about breaking the law here, so…

The Women’s Cycle Forum describes itself as running “Women led, not women only” events. “Kim” is a male Kim, not a Kimberly. There were a few men in the room – more than there were at the last W.C.F. event I went to – and it did feel like the two at my table dominated the conversation somewhat. I am not sure that there are easy solutions to this – I like the “women-led, not women only ” idea, but if you don’t have a women-only space, how do you stop the men from dominating it? Or, to put it another way, how do you encourage the women to make our voices heard? I read somewhere that men are more likely to interrupt than women, and that a woman, when interrupted, is more likely to stop talking than a man is. (I use this information at work, where I have one colleague who is particularly bad at interrupting – these days I carry on talking and make him wait till I have finished…) The organisers were trying to get the men to talk less… one of them said they should have got the men to tweet what was being said, which is a good idea because it is quite hard to tweet and talk at the same time. On the other hand, Kim had lots of good things to say to Joan McAlpine who was going on about there being no money for infrastructure but would not take Kim’s questions about why we’re spending lots of money dualling the A9 when it isn’t at capacity for an answer.

I didn’t warm to Lesley Hinds – she seemed too inclined to talk and not so much to listen. I felt a bit steamrollered by her, which is a shame as she was the person in the room with the most influence over cycling infrastructure in Edinburgh.

Anyway, all in all I am glad I went along and I hope that at least some of the things that were said will make a difference.

On profit above safety

As reported here: “Traffic Commissioner Sarah Bell has revoked the HGV operator’s licence for Frys Logistics Limited, saying it put profit before the law with a lack of regard to the rules which contributed to the death of End-to-End cyclists Andrew McMenigall and Toby Wallace 28 months ago.

Andrew was a clubmate of mine. I wrote about his and Toby’s death here, and the sentence handed down to the driver here. I don’t have much else to say, I just want to keep the link to the CTC article, which concludes:
The suspicion is that too many within the enforcement, regulatory and judicial process await the investigations and decisions of others, the consequences of which are delay, unnecessary distress for families of victims, and with HGVs, ongoing risk from operators whose licences need to be revoked.

On the tram lines

“Don’t mention the trams…” was a bit of a running joke around my office for a while. One of the people I work with, in particular, could be guaranteed to go off on an enormous rant on the subject with minimal provocation. Now that the construction has finally finished, the opportunities for tram-based rants have, thankfully, decreased, but they continue to cause me a problem.

Or rather, the tracks do.

I’m really nervous that I am going to slip on the tracks and fall off. Now a low-speed fall in itself might be OK (see my pothole accident), but equally might not be (I have slight but permanent damage to one thumb after falling off on what we think was diesel). But what I really don’t want is to end up in a heap in the middle of the road with people trying to drive into the place I have fallen in to. Especially in the dark; one disadvantage of relying on the lights on your bike to make you visible is that they are not so much use if you have become detached from said bike.

I therefore always take the council’s advice and aim to cross the tracks at 90 degrees. This is all very sensible, but it isn’t what the drivers of the cars around me are expecting me to do. Coming from the Dalry Road at Haymarket, the natural angle to stay in the line of traffic would be about 45 degrees across the tracks. If I start in the left-hand lane and I go at 90 degrees to the tracks, it takes me away to the left of the traffic flow, and I then have to try and get back into it again before the lights change and traffic starts coming from some completely different direction. I have found that it is actually better to be in the right-hand lane, which is actually the lane that the right-turning cars use, then when I move left I’m still in the traffic lanes. It causes all sorts of confusion behind me, of course, because no one understands what I am doing and I can’t signal because I need both hands on the handlebars while going over the tram tracks. There are nice yellow signs saying “Cyclists beware tram tracks” but nothing about “Motorists allow cyclists time and space to cross tram tracks safety”. That would just be too much to ask.

However the junction that I really hate is turning right from Charlotte Square into Princes Street. In fact I hate it so much that I have started going round a longer way just to avoid it. I get into the right-hand lane at the South Charlotte Street exit but once I have gone slowly in a straight line I’m really in the middle lane of three, which is a lane you’d take if you want to go left down Lothian Road. But I don’t want to go left, I want to go straight on into Shandwick Place. I can’t use the straight-on lane, though, because it is full of tram tracks and then there’s some dodgy surface between the tram track bit and the non tram track bit. So once I am over the tracks I signal right (and usually get overtaken on the right by someone who thinks I’m about to move left) and cycle along the divide between the two lanes, while drivers blast past me on my left with no space (while I’m in rant mode, why do people think it is OK to whiz past me with no space when I am waiting to turn right? I might have one foot on the ground, but that doesn’t mean that being close-passed at 30mph+ is a pleasant experience.) And then, assuming the light to go straight on to Shandwick Place is red, I have to stand at the edge of the lane while people drive past me within touching distance until I get a green light.


So, when I realised that I can go round Charlotte Square, though Hope Street and Queensferry Street and then left down Alva Street and William Street I was very pleased, even though it is a longer way round. That way, I get a single crossing of the tram tracks at 90 degrees. I can do that.

So, how would I fix these junctions? The first problem, of course, is that cyclists were not taken into account when the tracks were put in. But ripping up the tracks simply isn’t going to happen. My problem, certainly, is that I am having to deal with the tracks and traffic at the same time. In fact, I wonder if I find the two junctions particularly bad because I go through them after 7pm when traffic is lighter and people are able to drive faster and more aggressively. Certainly a simple fix, that would benefit existing cyclists though probably not attract any new ones, would be to add a 30 second bicycle only start phase to the Dalry Road lights. That way, if you were waiting at the lights, you could get over the tracks before the cars and so on started moving. I wonder if it would work? Or would everyone ignore it? You might need cameras to enforce it (cameras would be useful at that junction anyway, to enforce the yellow box…)

The Princes Street junction is much harder, though, unless you really reduce the amount of traffic going through there; or stop it altogether. But that’s a discussion for another post.

On getting away from traffic

I am a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist. Taking the lane, avoiding the door zone, tackling 40 mph roads with pinch points and keeping trucks at bay with a Hard Stare. Wriggly little back streets routes shared with pedestrians? Too slow. Not for me.
And yet. It is stressful, always having to fight for my space on the road. Having to be awkward, more awkward than I’d like to be, because I can’t trust drivers to treat my safety as more important than a few seconds of their time. So if the exaggerated stereotype in the first paragraph was ever true, it is becoming less and less so.

Take my journey to get to the swimming pool on Monday evenings. There are a couple of bicycle only cut-throughs that I use simply because that’s the most direct route. However when I get to the Meadows, I have a choice. I can stick to the road, which does have a painted bike lane, and is fine, a normal road with a painted lane, though in the summer in particular people often park (totally legally) in the lane so you have to move out and round them. And there’s a couple of sets of traffic lights, so you usually have to stop. The other option is North Meadow Walk, which was widened a couple of years ago and now has a cycle path on one side and pedestrians on the other. If it was in The Netherlands the whole thing would be twice as wide, of course, but for a British cycle facility it is pretty good. However I think my top speed along there is probably less than on the road because there are always pedestrians and as the faster and more dangerous path user I make sure to take plenty of care. I’m particularly cautious at the junction with Middle Meadow Walk especially since cyclists coming down the hill there can pick up a bit of speed.

So, my choices were usual road, or slower and mostly less stressful path. Sometimes I would go one way and sometimes the other. However, at the far end of the Meadows it used to be that you were back onto the road, and all the options involved having to take the lane because of parked cars, slightly uphill, on a poor road surface, with impatient motorists behind you, and lots of traffic lights. That was, until the Meadows to Innocent cycle route opened. (The “Innocent” is a cycle path on the route of the Innocent Railway. I don’t know why it was called the Innocent Railway.) When I first saw the plans my initial reaction was that this was a wriggly little back streets route that would be slower and less convenient than going along the road. Fine for families and less confident cyclists, but I’m used to the road, I will stay there. That was before I actually rode the route. Now I always go that way. Yes, it is further than going along the road, but the lights are pedestrian/cyclist crossings which change fairly soon after you press the button, while on the road you have to wait your turn with the traffic. But best of all, you are on quiet roads or little cycle lanes, so you don’t have to fight for your safe space. Those little cycle lanes are proper segregated lanes. Again, they are too narrow, but at 7pm there are not too many other cyclists and pedestrians around. I can imagine that if I was going that way at a busier time of day I might find the road more convenient.
The balance between speed and convenience is illustrated nicely by the fact that on the way home from the pool, when it is even quieter, I have so far always gone on the road. I should try the cycle route in the other direction sometime!

My choices when cycling from the station to the office in Livingston have changed, too. Up until recently, I’ve always gone along the roads, even though this means dealing with my 40 mph road with pinch points. I am not actually sure what has changed, there certainly has not been one particular incident that I can point to, I think I have just been worn out of fighting with traffic. So I have been using some of the shared use paths, away from the road, so that I can avoid the worst bit. (I could actually do the whole route on shared use paths, but the access to the office from the tarmac path is a little muddy path that I don’t want to use because I don’t want to get my bike and my shoes muddy. So I do the last bit on the road.) It is really very pleasant, away from the traffic, there are just a few dog walkers and some kids playing football, who asked me to name a footballer beginning with B – it took me a while to think of Gareth Bale – rather than impatient drivers who don’t think I should be on the road and don’t understand about passing space and pinch points. So I am sticking with going that way for now. However, when the ice and possibly snow arrive, I will be back on the road. The local council do grit and clear some of the paths, but I don’t think that the ones I use are among them. So I will be back on the road at that point.

So where are we, after all this rambling? I guess partly saying that this cyclist who cycles regularly in traffic doesn’t necessarily enjoy it and would be happy to get away from it, and that even not very good dedicated infrastructure can be better than nothing. Rubbish infrastructure, however, is worse than nothing…

On breaking the law

I had a bit of a go at a driver the other day. She was on her (hand-held, obviously) mobile phone and I was trying to get her to stop. The last time I did this, the man stopped rather quickly, but he was driving a van with company details all over it… the woman was in a normal car with no particular identification (apart from the number plate, of course…). Anyway the woman seemed to think that if she ignored me I would give up. Unfortunately for her, we were both waiting at a red light. I can confirm that banging on the roof of a car makes a really satisfactory bang… To be honest, in retrospect, I probably came across as a bit of a nutter, and I suspect that it is just as well I’m female – I would not like it if some angry man started banging on the roof of my car… Another time, in a traffic queue like that, I might try getting my phone out and taking a photo to go for the “post it all over the Internet” option. The thing is, I don’t suppose I have changed that woman’s mind about using her phone while she’s driving, and so I didn’t achieve anything. I do think that we need to object to phone use, and point it out when we see it, if it is ever going to become socially unacceptable. I just don’t think I went about it the right way that time. One thing I am glad I did, though, is say (well shout, really) “Stop breaking the law.” Perhaps that will make her think.

It got me thinking, too. I have an illegal manoeuvre that I make very regularly. I cycle the wrong way up a one way street. It is only about 10 metres long – that might make it worse, because I can and do quite easily push the bike up it instead. So the cycling up is just laziness. I have seen the odd driver go up there – it is not a regular occurrence, though. The reason it is one way in the first place (apart from being quite narrow) is that the exit at the top is really awkward with poor visibility onto a busy road. Not such an issue on a much more maneuverable bike, of course, but it is still a bit tricky, and so when it is busy I usually walk round the corner and into an ASL from which I can make a right turn in the usual legal manner. But, at 7am you can usually make the exit without getting off your bike.

I suppose the questions I am trying and failing to answer are; is minor lawbreaking like my one way street or the drivers I have seen go through red lights on pedestrian crossings once the pedestrians have crossed really worth making a fuss about? And, is it ok for me to criticise someone doing something properly dangerous like my phone woman, when I am not perfect myself? I think the answer to the second one is yes (well I would, wouldn’t I?) but the first one? I am not so sure. You could argue that 80kg of me plus bicycle is less dangerous than a tonne of car, or that I am only really risking myself, but I still think that there is a principle in there somewhere.

Mind you, I am still too lazy to walk 10 metres up a one way street…

On a pothole

A few weeks ago I decided to go swimming before work. The pool opens at 7, so if I get up at 6 I can get a 40 – 45 minute swim in and only be about half an hour later at work than I would usually be. So I’d had my swim and was rolling briskly down towards the station. As always, I was aiming to pull up on the left and walk round the corner to where the station is. As always, there were two lines of traffic queuing for the lights. The traffic cannot turn left here (though I have seen a couple of idiots do it, straight into pedestrians crossing on a green man), so it is quite safe to scoot cautiously down the left hand side of the traffic queue.

Because I was later than usual, the queue was longer than it usually is when I get there, so I was moving left higher up the hill than usual, and probably carrying a bit more speed than sometimes. So as I moved to the left of the rearmost car in the queue, I hit a pothole, which was just the right shape to swallow the small wheel of the Brompton and off I came, ending up in a heap at the side of the road. Fortunately I wasn’t going that fast, and I got away with a hole in the palm of my hand (which bled quite a bit) and a scrape on one knee.

A nice gentleman came and picked me up (well picked the bike up out of the road), but accepted my embarrassed assurances that I was ok. However, something had knocked the rear wheel of the Brompton squint so that it rubbed and wouldn’t turn. I dragged it down to the station and got on a train and then got the little tool set out and managed to sort it enough to cycle for the rest of the day with just some friction… it took rather more faffing at home to get it fixed properly.

The scrape on the palm of my hand took a little while to heal. If I had been wearing gloves, they would have protected my palm, of course. I always wear cycling gloves of some kind on the road bike (or TT bike) for comfort. (Except if I am racing a short-distance triathlon, when time spent putting gloves on is time wasted. Except if it is really cold!) On the Brompton, I wear gloves when it is cold, to keep my hands warm. I did have a search around and found some quite pretty “cycle chic” fingerless gloves with a nice crochet style back. But in the end you wear protective gear because you expect an accident to happen, and I would rather cycle around looking as though I don’t expect an accident to happen. After all I have had the Brompton for 8 years now I think, and that is the first time I have broken skin falling off it. The only other bad fall I have had was this one. Mind you, those gloves are very pretty. Maybe I can get them as a Christmas present….

One thing I did do was report the pothole on “Fill that Hole”. I mentioned that I’d come off my bike as a result of hitting it, and it seemed to get filled rather quickly. Hmmm…