A postcard from Vienna

Many people shared their holiday cycle impressions on social media all through the summer. I found it very interesting to see what people visiting the Netherlands showed to their home front. Now that the holiday season is coming to an end, with September rapidly approaching, I would like to share some of my own holiday impressions in this “short-post week”. At the beginning of August, I spent four days in Vienna. I’ve now visited the capital of Austria three times in the past four years. Of course, being a Cycling Ambassador, I cannot not look at a city’s infrastructure and things did catch my eye in Vienna. My camera is then never far away…

Outside the immediate centre Vienna has more elaborate cycling infrastructure. This intersection has many characteristics of a protected intersection. Unfortunately the phasing of the signals was strangely causing this cyclist and the van crossing each other’s path to have green at the same time.

Without knowing too much about the transport policies some things do stand out. Although there seems to be a huge volume of motor traffic (far too high in my opinion), I did see a lot of cycling in Vienna (even though I only spent most of my time in the city centre). There seems to be a healthy mix of men and women of all backgrounds and a wide age-range of people on bicycles. Vienna also has a bike-share system that is very visible and obviously well used. Vienna has an extensive public transport system (of which the trams are most visible) and some of the city centre streets have been pedestrianised, sometimes very recently.

The modal split in Vienna over the years. The city wants to reduce the number of journeys by private car to 20% by 2025. (From STEP 2025, the transport plan of Vienna in English.)

A quick internet search revealed that Vienna is a city trying to change its transport system. The city is growing fast to two million inhabitants, so it needs to switch to a more space efficient means of transport that uses up fewer resources. Contrary to what it looks like on the streets, the private car is not the dominant form of transport. In the last 20 years, measured by modal split, the car has been surpassed by public transport. It was good to find out the city wants to decrease car use even further. In a plan for 2025, dating from 2014, the city explained its transportation plans (PDF in English!).

“In coming years as in the past, Vienna’s traffic and transport policy will systematically promote eco-friendly means of transport (public transport, walking and cycling). Translated into modal split figures, the goal is “80-20”. This means that, by 2025, Vienna’s population should travel 80 percent of all trips with public transport, by bicycle or on foot, while the share of motorised individual traffic is to be reduced to 20 percent.”

You can see people of a wide age range cycling on the dedicated cycling infrastructure in Vienna.
This part of the inner-city ring has clearly defined space for cycling. Oftentimes cycling and walking are not so clearly separated, unfortunately.

To improve cycling, Vienna has built more cycling infrastructure. From a mere 190 kilometres, the network of cycleways had been extended to 1,298 kilometres in 2016. And it is still growing. Not all of that infrastructure was built to the highest standards and just 9.35% consists of separate cycleways (source). I also saw a lot of potential pedestrian and cycling conflicts, by design. Especially on the inner-city ring, where the cycle maps show separated cycling infrastructure. Those ‘cycleways’ turn out to often only mean paint on the areas for walking, also switching from one side to the other. Sometimes the space is completely shared with unclear signs, so nobody really knows where what should take place exactly. For a city where walking is such an important means of transport (and with a lot of tourists) it would be best if walking and cycling each had their own space, preferably at the expense of the private car. That inefficient machine gets far more space than is reasonable, judging from the mode share and the city’s own transportation plan.

People in Vienna also like to cycle for recreation in their city parks.

One thing that struck me in Vienna was the absence of children on a bicycle. It may have had to do with the fact that there were holidays or that the city centre is not the best area to see children cycling. But maybe the Austrian law also has something to do with it. You are only allowed to carry one child on your bicycle when you yourself are at least 16 years of age. Children up to 8 years old must be carried in a seat at the back of the bicycle only. Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to cycle by themselves. They can do that two years earlier, but only if they have a bicycle license, that they need to pass an actual test for. That is putting up a lot of barriers for children’s cycling. If the Netherlands had such laws many Dutch parents and children would be braking these laws! A shame they exist, because to increase cycling you need more people cycling and the younger you start cycling the more it becomes part of your daily routines that you won’t easily lose in the rest of your lifetime.

At the foot of the 1897 Giant Ferris Wheel an old picture with a bicycle. These children, and most of the children I saw in Vienna, are on foot though.

The automated bike share system in Vienna is very interesting. Started in 2003, CityBike now has 121 stations, that provide well over 3,000 spaces for the 1,500 bikes that move around all over the city. A full station will be a rarity with these figures. More than a million rides were made in 2016. And with 130,000 new users (an increase of 21% compared to 2015) the system is growing fast. Possibly because you can now also use your smart phone to operate it. (Data from the CityBike 2016 annual report.) You hurt some Viennese people when you say the system looks a lot like the one in Paris (that was started in 2007). That is not so strange, but it is the other way around! Paris copied the system from Lyon (started in 2005) that in turn copied this system from Vienna.

How can one not love these Viennese traffic signals for walking and cycling! Maybe they exist elsewhere, but I have only seen these pictures of a person on a bicycle -standing still and riding- on signals in Vienna.

I never cycled in Vienna, I could have seen myself cycling there, but I was able to reach everything on foot or by public transport. I am curious if the plan to reduce private motor traffic will become more visible in the streets. To me Vienna feels very much like a car city up to now. I would love to see that change.

Early in the evening this bicycle counter in Vienna had counted 4,458 people on a bicycle that day and 699,576 the entire year. Photo taken on 1 August 2017.


My video portrait of Vienna.




16 thoughts on “A postcard from Vienna

  1. I’m wondering about how to strike the right balance between cycling, pedestrian zones, and public transit? I’m a big fan of all three, but when I look at Dutch infrastructure (at least from your website) I feel that there’s a lot of cycle and pedestrian focused roads, but buses and trams are often left as secondary. Many disabled and mobility-impaired people just can’t ride bikes, yet I see bus lanes and etc being reduced or taken away. They can’t be expected to walk everywhere, surely?

  2. Personally I would advise anyone bicycling around a large city that does not have safe bicycling infrastructure to not do it. In the Netherlands an infrastructure exists as well as a century old bicycling culture. It’s a major difference and is only found in a handful of places in the world.

    Riding a bicycle is fun, healthy and practical but inherently dangerous. Still the government should not mandate anything that does not violate anyone else’s rights. Parents should make sure their children are safe. Society as a whole needs to create a practical and effective culture of safety. I would not have understood this clearly until after many years of daily bicycling I fell and broke my shoulder in three places and was almost run over by a car!

  3. Your interpretation of “Children up to 8 years old must be carried in a seat at the back of the bicycle only” is a bit off. Children who are younger than 8 and are being driven by an adult on a bike need to be seated in a childrens seat. If they are older then they can sit on a luggage rack on the back. Children under 8 years can drive on the road if they are accompanied by an adult. E.g. a five year old can drive on the road with its own bike whiles being accompanied by a parent.

      1. They bike every school/kindergarten day with me, but along our route there is no bike lane. I have taught them to drive an arms length away from a parked car. That would mean by this example they would be in the traffic lane and no longer in the “Mehrzweckstreifen” but if I remember correctly a court has already sided with a cyclist that that is lawful.

    1. And apparently I am wrong about sitting on a rack.

      Fahrradverordnung § 1 Abs. 1 Z 7. wenn das Fahrrad für den Transport mehrerer Personen bestimmt ist, für jede weitere Person mit einem eigenen Sitz, mit einer eigenen Haltevorrichtung und eigenen Pedalen oder Abstützvorrichtungen.

      A second person needs to have their own seat, bar and pedals or supports. Basically you need a tandem.

  4. The Austrians are even more anti children-cycling than stated as they have only recently introduced a mandatory helmet law for children.
    What the hell is wrong with these people!
    They really need to watch The Sound of Music again and again until their hearts return to normal like Captain von Trapp’s. Plus there’s that classic cycling scene of the children with Maria (singing Do Re Mi I think).

    I really liked this “short” post, especially the provision of the city’s mode share stats and your honest critique of what’s good and what’s bad and what needs to happen to make it better.


  5. Yes, it is a shame about children and the requirements for them to even get on a bicycle, let alone to help the city meet it’s goal.

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