by Tim Dawe
I’ve just spent six delightful days cycling along – more accurately, down – the Danube River, peddling through the spectacular scenery of forest and valley, punctuated by quaint villages and scrumptious cakes. But what really impresses is cycling at my destination – Vienna.
Forget the frenetic Tour de France; Europeans ride sedately around their cities, commuting to work, going to the market, meeting for coffee, or just getting around…millions of them, every day. And in Austria’s capital, with 1,200km of bike paths, they do that because it’s easy, it’s fun – and they can.
The first thing I notice in central Vienna is that cyclists are treated as legitimate road users on legitimate vehicles. Inner-city streets are rarely straight racetracks but meander, following former goat tracks. Drivers don’t regard cyclists as an intrusion on “their” road to be marginalised – literally.
The second thing is the bike path. Well rather, bike road; it’s raised above the street’s edge, paved and kerbed, with marked lanes and even bike traffic lights. It runs in-between the street and the footpath, safely separated from cars and pedestrians by a fence or vegetation. And by following arterial roads that flow into special pathways at roundabouts or over bridges, few stops at intersections are needed. When stopping is necessary for pedestrians to cross the road, the synchronised little bike traffic lights operate at handlebar level. It all gives the rider a sense of freedom and ownership. From my hotel on Praterstrasse in 2nd District I ride through busy central Vienna to the University (about 6km) on my own little “velobahn”, stress-free and unhindered. I only have to stop twice.
My third observation puts Vienna in a world of its own – its remarkable Ringstrasse. As the name implies, the Ringstrasse circles old Vienna and is not one street but several, named for adjacent important buildings such as Hofburg Palace (Burgring) and the Opera House (Opernring). In 1857 Emperor Franz Joseph dictated (“It is my will,” he declared) that the ancient city walls and moat be demolished and replaced with broad boulevards, grand buildings and beautiful parks. In town-planning the long-reigning reformer just bulldozed his way through – so to speak.
It’s cycling heaven. On a wide, tree-lined path I easily circumnavigate a large touristic city, trams and all, without a care in the world. All of Vienna’s imperial might and architectural treasures breeze past. I take excursions off the Ringstrasse losing myself in the winding back streets and popping up in unexpected places like the Naschmarkt or Karlsplatz/Karlskirche. It takes me some hours to complete the circle (the ring cycle?) yet I want to do it again.
My bicycle was hired in Passau, Germany, 350km away. For those arriving in Vienna without a bike there are plenty of options. Top of the list is to hire one from Citybike Vienna at one of 120 stations, many near a U-Bahn (underground rail) station; simply remove it from its “bikebox” and return it there, or to another. Hiring is quick and easy using the internet. The first hour is free, the second hour €1, increasing to maximums of €4 per hour, and 120 hours. There are also private companies and electric bikes. Some of the famous sites seen from your saddle include the Hundertwasser Haus, Kunsthaus (museum) and the Prater, Vienna’s landmark recreational area where, at night by that famous Ferris wheel, you can pretend to be Harry Lime.
There’s also the Opera House, St Stephens, the mediaeval cathedral that dominates the cityscape, Mozart’s monument, Heldenplatz, Hofburg Palace, City Hall, Schottenkirche, Johann Strauss’s monument in Stadtpark, and the Danube Canal. These are must-see places where you can dismount and get up close and personal. The splendiferous Schönbrunn Palace is just a 10km ride – or you and your bike could catch the train on Vienna’s cycle-friendly transport system.
Indeed, Vienna is a world-leading “velo city”. Yet it continues to plan and innovate. The city recently built the pilot Bike City – a block of 100 flats for middle-income people. It’s designed with wide communal hallways and lifts, a bike rack outside each door, and bike storage on every floor. Residents cycle 25% of all their trips compared with 6% for the city.
A world away, I consider Australia’s capitals and major urban centres – mostly at the crossroads regarding inner-city cycling. Our history, urban planning and lifestyle are streets away from Vienna’s. We live in low density suburbia; they live in high density urbanity. We build straight streets for fast cars, buses, trucks…oh, and cyclists; they separate space for differing road users while weaving streets around medieval monuments. We let loose Lycra lads and ladettes on high-speed, expensive racers for aimless weekend tours; they mount old-fashioned bikes in street clothes for daily, purposeful journeys to somewhere.
Yes, there are major differences. But with our increased inner-city living, maybe we should look to places like Vienna to improve our cycle infrastructure – and culture.