While in Brussels, Zurich, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and Zagreb (and a few smaller cities in between), I couldn’t help but compare the conditions for cycling. They were all making a show of accommodating cycling, but that didn’t always entail giving it serious, practical support.
Public bike hire became a common sight, and not just in the capitals, like this station outside the cathedral in Vienna, but some smaller cities too, Like Basel and Salzburg. For these cities with small, historical centres, it’s become very easy to see the value of having less buses and taxis and letting people rely on these instead – though it seems strange when it’s not particularly cheaper than either.
Zurich’s old moats reminded me a little of Manchester’s canals, very pretty but with bad access, nobody was really using them so they probably became a little foreboding at night. The riverside paths in Salzburg, however, were always populated by a couple of people, it was very pretty too but also well connected. A mixture of people enjoying the view and others on their way to somewhere, some on foot and others by bike. Walking from the station at an ungodly hour, I had a lovely chat with some students crossing the river in their halting English and my vaguely intelligible German. Were it not for the odd person cycling over the dimly-lit bridge as well at midnight, I doubt we would feel comfortable talking to each other. When you are the only person using a towpath to get to work on an Monday morning, it can feel like you’re going to be one of those people in the news who discovered a body, a dubious category shared with dog-walkers and joggers.
Back on-road was a more varied story. None of these cities were really shifting significant space over from motor traffic, so conditions were largely dictated by the amount of drivers and their behaviour. You can’t really get an accurate picture of this from spending a day in a city, but I would say there was a more respect in some compared to others. Although these are all working cities, I would say the more historic or artistic the character of the city, the less likely a driver was to be perturbed at having to slow down behind a cyclist, apart from that drunk English people stepping off the pavement into your path may be as much of a hazard in Prague as it is on Portland St in Manchester. I don’t think we make up the majority of tourism there but we certainly do most of the volume.
Special mention unfortunately has to be made of Zagreb. Whilst the Croatian capital has many other attractive qualities, this is a what a typical lane in the city centre looks like. Usually it’s nice to have the lane on the other side of parking spaces to avoid doors and people pulling in, but this skinny lane still eats too much into the space for people walking, which was the way I saw most people getting about, and naturally they ignored these little red lines slaloming along the pavement.
It isn’t rolling out the red carpet so much as saying, ‘We think you are worth exactly this much.’ Compromises could be seen in all of these cities to some extent, and of course in the UK, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a network so blatantly focused on getting cyclists out of the way of cars rather than helping people get where they want to go, or even improve their safety. These unloved bits of bike storage are clearly supposed to be used from both sides, but the way it’s installed, one side will get your back wheel crushed by a tram. And if somebody were to consider using it, it would be an awful mess trying to attach a lock through that tight spiral, if your wheel fits. It seems somebody had to fill a quota of bike parking spaces, and I would very much enjoy seeing them try to stow whatever amount was planned here.
Despite many setbacks, I did see people cycling in Zagreb, mostly following the official precedent and going on the pavements. Though I am no fan of cycling next to the tram lines in Manchester, at least they’re not explicitly banning bikes on routes where apparently taxis are fine?
Hopping from country to country, I think you would sooner absorb the ticketing system and lines of each city’s various tram systems than grasp the different design quirks and conventions that cyclists are supposed to adhere to. So why is cycling so uniquely approached with a blank drawing board every time when there are places that have had the answers for decades? Is is particularly sensitive to the local context? Or do budgets and timescales make research unlikely, and whatever pops into someone’s head just sticks around? Is traffic engineering so dull and unrewarding that cycle routes unleash a creative beast for better or worse? The best solution is usually obvious once it’s there, but until you do, it’s anything but.