Saved by the ‘Schlauchomat’

Austria’s First Free En Route Repair Station for Bicycles has Just Opened in the 7th District

There are few happier pictures of Spring in Austrian cities, I think, than that of a commuter jauntily cycling off to work, bike fresh out of the cellar and a song on his lips as he pedals through town. But there is surely no more melancholic tableau than that of the same commuter pushing his wretched bike back home, now a curse on his lips and a flat tire slowly rumbling its way across the tarmac – just one more victim of the sea of glass splinters that strew Vienna streets.

We should all cycle more, says the Austrian environment ministry, because it’s clean and fun. And this is true, of course. But they forget to mention how infuriating punctures can be, especially when the shops are shut and you haven’t loaded your rucksack with pumps and tools and glue! Just the memory of a past climb to Calvary with a flat-tire is enough to deter some people from attempting the pedal-powered commute ever again.

Luckily, Vienna also now a Good Samaritan to ease your pain: The country’s first free en route repair station for bicycles has just been unveiled on the Siebensternplatz in the 7th District – an orangey-yellow slot-machine wonderfully named Schlauchomat with a free state-of-the art pump station, with the rather uglier name of Heklucht.

The Schlauchomat works like of those old fashioned cigarette machines. You put your coins or notes in a slot and then pull out a brand new inner-tube for the same price you’d pay in the shops. The air pump is incorporated into a bike stand and repair tools are at hand. The Heklucht was developed in bike-mad Holland and has won international prizes for it’s unostentatious but handsome design.

Can their example revive cycling in Austria? A recent international comparative study put Austria in the bottom third of world-wide bike users. Only 5% of Austrians use their bikes as a regular mode of transport – a figure that the Austrian environment ministry, faced with the woes of climate change and ‘Feinstaub’ pollution, says it is keen to increase.

To be fair, much has been done. Environment Minister, Josef Pröll, famously donned a brain-bucket helmet himself last summer and pedalled around the Ring in his business suit, pointing out sternly to the assembled photojournalists that half our car journeys are over a pithy distance of less than 5km. Across the country, bike path networks have been steadily expanded, parking facilities stocked up and in Lower Austria, the government has even started giving 100 euros back to anyone who buys a new bike this Spring.

Showing me around the Siebensternplatz facilities on a blustery Wednesday morning,  cycling lobbyist Alec Hager of IG Fahrrad isn’t satisfied. He says it’ll take more than fine words and new white lines in the roads to really encourage people to get on their bikes:

“The Austrian government and the city of Vienna try to push cycling on the grounds of concern for the environment and climate change, but it’s just lip service,” he says. ”There’s still a lack of infrastructure and in my opinion the federal government lacks the political will to prioritize cycling.” many of the new bike lanes are used with apparent impunity as extra parking spaces for cars, he points out that, and others are ill thought out and dangerous.

He has an ally in Thomas Blimlinger, the chairman of the Neubau District Council, The pretty streets of the 7th district are apparently where progressive attitudes to cycling began, he says, beaming with pride. The councillor, who was instrumental in bringing the repair station to Vienna, agrees that you can’t just tell people to cycle, but also have to have something to offer them. On the streets, that means more bike-stands and more clever little innovations like the Heklucht and the Schlauchomat. It also means changing out-dated laws that currently ban people from keeping their bikes in the inner courtyards of old buildings.

“We need to encourage people not just to possess a bike but to use it regularly as well,” Blimlinger said.

When politicians talk about climate change, they like to talk big, so I suppose all this chat about inner-tubes and free air might seem like small potatoes. Should anyone really be excited about the Schlauchomat?

Above all it’s a symbolic gesture, says cycling lobbyist Hager. There are service stations for cars everywhere, so it’s important that cyclists have the idea that someone is also spending some time thinking about their needs.

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