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 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 the Women’s Cycle Forum

On Saturday I went to the Women’s Cycle Forum, organised as part of the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. The idea was to have a panel of women, unlike most cycling forums which tend to be male dominated with perhaps a “token woman”. Men were welcome to join the audience, and a few did, which was good. When I saw it announced, I thought I should sign up, because it was obviously a Good Thing, so I did. Then I began to worry. Given that I already cycle, I’m not someone that’s worried about cycling on the roads as they currenly are. I’m a bit of a scruff, mostly, so all of this Cycle Chic stuff leaves me a bit cold and feeling as though I’m letting the side down if I don’t cycle around with perfectly coiffured hair and elegant make-up (I have better things to do with my time than coiffure my hair, and I think I last wore make up for a wedding in April 2013). So what could I contribute? And what was I going to wear? I started off contemplating a summer dress, and then decided it was too long so went for jeans and a nice bright top and then realised that the top is Pink, and wearing pink is a bit problematic (that’s a whole blog post in itself) so then I went for a blouse that my sister gave me that has balloons on it.

Phew.

The forum itself was interesting. Each member of the panel introduced herself and said a bit about what she does & what her (cycling-related) interests are. I’m not going to talk about them all as that will be reported elsewhere. Then we got into groups – each panel member went to a table and we all split ourselves between the tables according to which person we thought we’d like to talk to. As far as I could see, the split between the tables was fairly even – which just shows how diverse people are, in terms of what they think is interesting and might like to talk about some more.

The discussion at our table is what I really want to blog about – this is going to be a bit of a memory dump as I don’t have a lot of time to craft this into anything better! I joined Rachel Aldred who is a member of the London Cycling Campaign and does academic research into transport with a particular emphasis on cycling. We talked about infrastructure and about how to get good infrastructure.

One of the people at the table was from Dumfries and she told us that there are lots of nice cycling paths there but they don’t tend to link up. She also said that there are just too many cars and if there were fewer cars then the roads would be more pleasant to cycle. She told us that they took some of their local councillors on a bicycle ride to see the good bits of infrastructure and also the problems and gaps.

The “token man” at our table was actually a very useful person to have the ear of, as he is the cycling officer (or something like that) at the council…  we talked a bit about the new project on George Street. Apparently it is being done as cheaply as possible, as an experiment. This is why it will just vanish at the roundabouts, because they don’t have the money to do anything better. I pointed out that getting on and off it, especially at the Charlotte Square end, is a problem. (In fact, I came that way to the Forum. To get on to George Street from Princes Street, you need to be in the right hand lane as you go up South Charlotte Street. The road surface is very bumpy, it is slightly uphill, the road markings have nearly vanished and it is a good idea to signal right as much as you can as well as cycling as fast as you can. I had a taxi driver overtake me on my left and then pull up in the ASL in order to get to the red light for the right turn before me. To be fair, you can’t really see that there is an ASL there any more… Is it very surprising that one of the women at our table (who’d come with her friend) doesn’t feel safe cycling on the roads? I don’t think the taxi was likely to hit me, but it was an unpleasant moment – and why would you choose to be cut up by taxis instead of sitting inside a car?) Anyway, the thing our cycling officer said was that we just have to keep campaigning for better…

Then there was free food and a chance to network. Unfortunately I had to go home and feed Wonderful Boyfriend, because we were getting up early in the morning to go to a triathlon (I was racing and he was helping). Next time I would make sure I didn’t have to leave in a hurry! Actually, next time I would try and persuade W.B. to come too. He conforms to all the stereotypes as a cyclist – fit, confident, fast, always cycled. Yet he is still at risk from being hit by a car. He would be much safer on segregated infrastructure. But that infrsatructure has to be really good for someone like W.B. to use it in preference to the road. And how do we get infrastructure that he can share safely with all the other kinds of cyclists there are out there?

Anyway, I am glad I went along to the forum. I think it was a success, and I hope there will be some kind of follow-up event. One thing I did think was that most of the discussion at my table was not really female-specific – if you saw a transcription of our discussion you probably wouldn’t be able to say much about the gender of the participants most of the time (apart from when I said to the unfortunate cycling officer “Oh, you’re the person who put out the document with the line about “less confident cyclists, including women”… ” – to be fair to him, I think the response he got to that line was pretty much why he was at the forum…).

On Pedalling on Parliament

This year’s Pedal on Parliament is on Saturday 26th April, starting from the Meadows at 12 noon. I wasn’t able to go to the first PoP, but last year I did manage to attach myself to the end of the ride. This year, however, I’ve got involved with helping with the feeder ride from Harrison Park. (Indeed, the more observant among you will notice that I’ve got a page about it on here).

The fact that we need to have a feeder ride to help children and less confident adult cyclists get from Harrison Park to the Meadows says all you need to know about conditions for cyclists in Edinburgh today. If I had to cycle with a child from Harrison Park to the Meadows, we’d go along the canal. That’s fine for me and one hypothetical child, but not for a big group; and the canal doesn’t go all the way to the Meadows anyway. The official cycle route comes off before the end of the canal, and then goes along a road with narrow, potholed cycle lanes, to a very awkward junction at the King’s Theatre. Here, you have to turn right, and then there’s a left turn onto a quiet road that takes you to the Meadows. It is the right turn that is the problem, because the traffic coming the other way also has a green light and there’s a fault in the lights so that the oncoming traffic gets a longer green than the traffic coming from the direction I’m describing. So everyone, drivers and cyclists, is hurrying to get through the junction before the lights change again. Oh, and the road surface is terrible, just to add to the fun.

With my hypothetical child in tow, I’d probably pull up on the left, get off our bikes, wait for the pedestrian phase and then walk across. But we shouldn’t have to do that, and it isn’t going to work with (what we hope will be) a large group. We hope we’re going to get some police help. To be honest, if we don’t, I think we should just stop the traffic until everyone is through the junction anyway. What are the Powers That Be going to do about it if we do?

I’m pleased that my MSP, Marco Biagi, is among the politicians who are going to come and meet us at PoP this year. I need to think of a question to ask him if I get the chance. Maybe I’ll ask if politicians will ever have the courage to take road space away from cars…

On getting angry

There’s a road on my usual Brompton commute which has many pinch points on a straight, wide road with a 40 mph speed limit – they are there only to slow traffic, there’s no reason to cross the road for most of its length. I try to take an assertive position through the pinch points, as I have no wish to be passed closely at 45mph (I reckon the sort of driver who is likely to think that it is appropriate to pass a cyclist through a narrow part of the road like that is also the sort of driver who thinks speed limits apply to other people…). Once through the pinch point, I’ll drift to the left a bit, but keep an eye behind ready for the next one.

So the other day I spotted a car coming up behind me fairly briskly, so I gave it a hard stare and carried on… once through the pinch the driver gave me one of the closest passes I’ve ever had. I made the gesture that the Nice Way Code says I shouldn’t make at him, and he stopped! So I stopped a bit back from him (I don’t want to get to close) and we proceeded to have a non-conversation, him saying that I should be at the side of the road and me trying to explain why I was not.

In retrospect I wish I had asked him why he felt the need to threaten a women with a tonne of metal. I also wish I’d pointed out that I’ve probably had a driving licence since before he was born. I was trying to keep calm (after the initial gesturing) and think I succeeded – but I don’t think either of us gained anything from the conversation. In fact, I wish I had got angrier with him.

That left me thinking about getting angry. This post from another (much more interesting) cycling blogger reflects some of the things I could get angry about as he does, and he starts by saying that he feels that “Anger is not generally a constructive or attractive emotion…”. Not generally, no, but maybe sometimes it is useful to get angry. By being “nice” to the young driver in Livingston, I don’t think I got through to him. If I had been more forceful, perhaps I could have got him to listen to me. And yet, once the anger is gone, one could be left with regrets about things said in the heat of the moment.

There are thoughts about campaigning here too. You get some organisations, like Spokes who have been around for many years and do excellent work campaigning for what is possible now. And then there are other groups, like Pedal on Parliament who are more “angry”, perhaps, more forceful, more concerned about the bigger picture and the long term goals and the bigger changes. And actually I think we need both, both the focus on the “easy” changes (and even those things are not at all easy, as I’m sure the people who do tireless work at Spokes will tell me), and also the drive to the bigger goals and the real changes in infrastructure and attitude that will ultimately be the only way that there will be a real change in the numbers of people cycling in this country.

So next time I have a conversation with a driver, I might allow myself to be a bit more angry. Or I might not.

On a moment of inattention

I’m very grateful to a car driver (an Audi driver, no less…*). If he hadn’t been paying attention, I would have spent Saturday afternoon in A&E. I was out on my road bike; I came to a junction, looked, waited for the car that was coming from my right, and when that car had passed, I pulled out, looking right again as I did so – to discover that I’d pulled out right in front of the Audi, which must have been “hidden” from me by the first car. He braked, I braked, we both stopped; I raised my hand to acknowledge that I was in the wrong and he raised his back. I got out of the way and off he went.

I’ve been going over it again in my head ever since. How did I not see the second car? Was he coming fast? (I don’t think so, otherwise he couldn’t have stopped.) No, I didn’t see it because I didn’t look right a second time before pulling out. Cyclists often say that regardless of who makes a mistake, we’re the ones who come off worse – well today I made a mistake and got away with it. I do think sometimes we’re very harsh on other road users who make mistakes, and lot of the things that go wrong on the road aren’t the result of maliciousness, just thoughtlessness, or a moment’s inattention. (That’s why I like the Think! road safety adverts.) I’ve cycled about 3000 miles this year, I’ve had a clean driving licence for over 20 years; I know how to use the roads, and yet I make mistakes. I suspect I’m more likely to make a mistake when I’m on the bike because I do that more than I drive – my increased vulnerability on the bike is balanced by an awareness that I pose a much greater risk to others when I’m driving.

How do we solve the fact that people make mistakes? Can we? On the railways, there is such a culture of safely that even a minor near miss like mine would be anaylsed to see what could be done to stop it happening again – because of course the next time I pull out of that junction without looking the car might not stop (not that I’m likely to do that at that particular junction – I’m still very cautious at a roundabout where I had a near miss that was also my fault many years ago).

Advocates of slower speeds will point out that if you hit someone then the slower you are going the less harm you will do – even if the impact is not your fault. And of course if the infrastructure keeps the more vulnerable away from the more dangerous, then impacts will much less likely to happen (though people are killed every year by cars that mount the pavement…)

Maybe there is a point at which, because we are human, accidents are inevitable. All we can do is keep on being alert and concentrating and remember that other road users just get it wrong, sometimes.

*my Wonderful Boyfriend always gives me grief for complaining about Audi drivers. I find some conform to the stereotype, and some are excellent.

On a weekend in the west (day 2)

Day two’s cycle was a bit longer. I parked on a minor road off the A85 just west of Dalmally (if I were doing this or something similar again I’d use one of the many parking places I found at the northern end of the A819) and took the minor road that runs down the eastern side of Loch Awe. This was a nice quiet road, with some nice views over the loch (it might be even better going north as you’d then be looking at Ben Cruachan). The road surface was a real mixed bag – the were some section of lovely new smooth tarmac and some bits full of potholes and gravel – I assume they’ll be next on the list for new tarmac! After an hour and three-quarters, I was slightly bored of Loch Awe and was glad to get to the end of it! I also came to a junction with a sign about a cycle route to Oban – I was glad I checked my map, as that took me back up the other side of the loch, and not the route I’d planned. I continued to the A816 and then turned north to Oban. I thought the A816 was a great road to cycle. Remember this was Easter Saturday – there really wasn’t that much traffic, and most drivers seemed quite patient. (I did get a couple of close passes from cars with Dutch numberplates!). The road does a series of climbs and descents and some of the descents were really fast and sweeping, on good tarmac. I’m not a very confident descender, but I did enjoy these, especially where the road surface was good. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, so I pushed on to Oban. It would be nice to come back sometime and explore that area a bit more slowly.

In Oban I got a sandwich and a coffee. I then had two options – the A85 which I expected would be faster to cycle but busy with traffic, and a minor road running inland which was marked as part of the Sustrans cycle route 78 (the same one I hadn’t followed at the end of Loch Awe). I expected that this would have much less traffic on it, so even though I thought it would also be slower to cycle, I went that way. I was right about the traffic, and I was also right about the cycling speed! It was a really small, up-and-down-and-round-about road. A lot of the surface wasn’t very good, and there were lots of cattle grids, which I hate. It did go through a really pretty glen, and when I stopped to take a photo of Ben Cruachan I realised that it was absolutely silent – the only thing I could hear was a stream. So as a one-off, that was probably the “right” way to go. If I had to cycle from Taynuilt to Oban regularly, I think I’d use the A85 – once I did get on to it it didn’t seem too busy, and it was mostly wide enough for cars to pass without too much hassle. I do wonder who Sustrans think use a route like that – it didn’t suit me in speed-merchant mode, but it is further than I would go on my Brompton. Tourers, I guess, who would be happy to take the slow quiet road over the fast busy one. But not all cyclists are tourers, and not all tourers pootle.

I found most car drivers on the single-track roads pretty good – there was the odd one who assumed we could pass in opposite directions at speed, but to balance them there were plenty who stopped and pulled over to let me come through, and who acknowledged me when I did the same. My biggest fright was someone who sounded like they were coming very fast behind me just when I need to give my full attention to a horrible bit of road surface – mind you they did have some piece of metal machinery on a trailer so it may be they were not as close as they sounded – I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road to look back!

I did have one final misadventure with the infrastucture. There’s a bridge over the railway that has traffic lights. I stopped at the red light, and waited. Nothing. Some cars came the other way. My light still didn’t change. I waved at the light. Still nothing. I rolled back a bit and cycled towards the light. It remained red. I had a bit of a look – was the bridge wide enough to cycle through against the red? I wasn’t sure. Eventually a car came, and lo and behold the light changed – but not for long, I only just had time to get through behind it before the light went red again – there was a bit of an uphil start which didn’t help for quick acceleration. I do intend to complain about it – not that I expect anything to be done, they can’t get many cyclists along there (or maybe they all just go through the red light… which is probably what I’d do another time…)