A Renewed Right-of-Way

New transportation planning makes way for renewed bike paths in and around the city center in promotion of a Green city

Bike path in Vienna's 1st District

Ring bike paths weave haphazardly through trees in Vienna’s 1st District | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Bicycles will get you from point to point in Vienna faster than any other form of transportation. In fact, they have it all over cars: they’re environmentally friendly – no exhaust, no noise – and they are a great way to exercise. They don’t take up much space – no traffic jams – and there’s no stress looking for a parking space.

This is hardly news, but as the number of cyclists increases, the City of Vienna is realizing that something has to be done. As a result, they are updating old bike paths and repainting faded lines, and considering more incentives to leave the car at home.

The numbers are already startling. Cycling as a primary means of transportation has risen 25% over last year in Austria, according to the VCÖ (Verkehrsclub Österreich), an Austrian Transportation Association and insurer. With one fifth of the Viennese population driving fewer than two kilometers to work in 2008, this appears to be a promising beginning to a two-wheeled revolution.

But the infrastructure of the city – with crumbling sidewalks and more than the occasional pothole in some districts – is ill-prepared for such a large increase in cycling. It needs to be restored and modernized for bicycles – where they are planned for rather than merely tolerated – if that’s the direction the city wants to go.

And happily, that seems to be just what’s in store.

Looping around Vienna’s 1st District, danger turns up around almost every bend. Riding between Schwedenplatz and Stadtpark, following the train of bikers through the two-way, one-bike-wide paths that hug a pedestrian zone makes me cringe. Last Tuesday, when a cyclist attempted to pass without signaling, either to me or to the pedestrians ahead, an accident became nearly inevitable. In fear, I braked and veered from the path, just barely avoiding a group of camera-toting tourists buried in their guidebooks.

Scenes like this confirm the importance of setting the Ring bike paths at the top of the list – they probably need it the most, and we certainly do. At the moment, it feels as if your life is on the line; paths are often congested and visibility in places is dismal, at best.

“The Ring bike paths are at the heart of Vienna’s cycling network,” said Rudi Schicker, the Executive City Councilor for Urban Development, Traffic and Transport, at a press conference on planned innovations. He openly acknowledged the urgency. “They have needed to be restored and upgraded for years.”

What makes these paths particularly hazardous is the weaving in and out of pedestrian zones, which puts both parties at risk of serious injury, raising biker stress and increasing risks for the people on foot.

A second scene comes to mind: From the Opera to Schottentor, the path is wide, and sheltered with trees, where a first time cyclist lavishes in a free-riding feeling. In fact, there is little pleasure on this journey: The bliss cuts short when the path thins out and juts awkwardly through two trees, just as you approach the U-Bahn entrance where passengers are pouring into view, right in front of you. As the crowd of cyclists brake and a cacophony of bells sound, you can’t help wondering why the path would have ever been designed to run directly, unavoidably, in front of the station.

It’s all a question of numbers. On average, 2,800 cyclists use the Ring bike paths on weekdays going to work, training or shopping, according to the City of Vienna website. On weekends the number is about 2,000 bikers, and at peak times, more than 6,000 bikers are on the road in the entire city. The bike paths can seem like a sardine can.

Some new bike paths have been put in since last season, most noticeably along the Untere Donaustraße where a fine wide path is raised safely above the level of the street. Still, it peters out at Hollandstraße, forcing riders into the traffic lanes going across the Salztorbrücke or onto the sidewalk in front of OPEC and IBM.

Overall, the city’s efforts have fallen far short.

“The ad-hoc measures taken in recent years have not made the Ring bike paths any safer or easier to use,” Schicker admitted. “So a large systemic solution is being considered.” The plans also address the feeder paths that connect directly to the Ring, particularly in high-density areas.

The first improvements, which are scheduled for this year, will be between Stubenring and Parkring, on the Opernring, around the University, and between Hohenstaufengasse and Ringturm.

Schicker is delighted: “This year especially, the City of Vienna has increased the number of transportation programs, continuously trying to improve the viability of bike-lanes to make biking convenient,” he said. “With the renewal of the Ring bike paths, we see that a concern for cyclists in Vienna is once again being taken into heart.”

In the wake of the economic crisis and a Green Revolution, the VCÖ has also begun an active program of promoting cycling as a primary means of transportation. Understanding that many lack the motivation to lug a bike out into the street every day, they are tackling this directly. Sometimes it’s the money, sometimes the weight of the old clunker. Often it’s both.

To promote this change-of-heart, the VCÖ has begun to lobby for a €100 government subsidy for every new bike purchased. Their argument that a bicycle refund could be more beneficial than the recent measure to compensating people for scrapping their car, however, is a hard rock to move.

But the benefits could be huge: The VCÖ claims that an Austrian cyclist biking an average of 1,000 kilometers a year could reduce emission by nearly 180 kg of carbon dioxide.

So it appears that Austria is really in high gear to change the way its citizens’ commute. The timing couldn’t be better. Currently, 70% of Austrian households own at least one bike. If this number grows, it will increase pressure to build safe paths for those cycling.

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