A postcard to Amsterdam. 5 reasons why so few people cycle in Vienna.

Recently Bicycle Dutch visited Vienna and sent A postcard from Vienna with a nice portrait of the cycling here from a Dutch perspective. The post card discusses infrastructure, laws, children cyclists, CityBike share system and modal split and finishes with:

To me Vienna feels very much like a car city up to now. I would love to see that change.

Which is a bit unfair because it is shaping up to be a public transportation city as seen in the post South Vienna´s Busses: Car, Public Transport, Cycling and Pedestrian. Even pedestrian traffic is set to be the 2nd most popular mode transport bumping car traffic 3rd choice. Disappointingly, cycling traffic seems to be stuck in the single digits.  Why? If the city has built the infrastructure, why do the cyclist not come? What unique problems does it face so that solutions from elsewhere have not worked?

verkehrsmittelnutzung-bunde
Transport selection daily or weekly for the Austrian provinces of Vienna, Tirol, Vorarlberg, Salzburg, Lower Austria, Styria, Upper Austria, Burgenland and Carinthia in 2015. Orange public transportation, green cycling, yellow walking and grey car. Source VCÖ and Statistik Austria

Why does Vienna have such limited amount cyclist compared to Amsterdam or Copenhagen, or even compared to Graz or Salzburg? Here my five reasons.

 

1st Geography:

There are roughly 100 ridges, hilltops and mountains in Vienna, from the highest Hermannskogel (542m) to the low (hilltop) Laurenzerberg (170m). There are river valleys that cut into the terrain and require you to cycle up and down. The highest mountain in the Netherlands is 322m, that is less than the difference between Laurenzerberg and Hermannskogel.

Vienna Elevation Model by Anita Graser aka underdark
Amsterdam Elevation Map
Amsterdam Elevation Model by Actueel Hoogtebestand Nederland (AHN)

Compared to a flat Dutch or Danish city, Vienna will always have a harder time motivating people to cycle.

 

2nd Weather:

Vienna does get 2000 hours of sun every year but apart from that number, the statistics all point to a less favorable cycling city. In January the average temperature in Vienna is -4°C, there are on average 84 frost and ice days per year, temperatures drop as low as -8 to -18°C. The average temperature in Amsterdam’s coldest month January is +3°C, the last time the canals froze was 2012. Amsterdam has an average of 766mm rain per year spread over 217 days, Vienna has 678mm of rain per year spread over 93 days (= more days with heavy rain).

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Vienna Winter Cycling by Christoph Hetzmann
amsterdam_winter-33_28846011273129
Amsterdam Winter Cycle by Ineke Huizing

An average of 49cm of snow falls every year in Vienna. It did snow in Amsterdam this year but that does not happen often.

 

3rd Cycling Almost Completely Died Out:

Vienna had the first cycling school in the world, it was part of all of the cycling booms between 1860 and 1930. But commuter cycling was virtually eradicated by the 1970s. In the Netherlands the cycling traffic share shrank but the community still was in place. Bicycle Dutch explains in How the Dutch got their cycle paths how cycling rebounded and what role the community played. The community was missing, the culture had died out and thus government was never pressured enough to muster the political will.

csm_wien_1818_39c35570d2
The Anton Burg’sch cycling school in Favoritenstraße 1818, from the Wiener Eipeldauer Briefen Archiv: Technischen Museums Wien.

 It is a lot harder to start from scratch. 

 

4th Government Policies:

It is no coincidence that the share of cyclists in Vienna dropped. It is more of a consequence of government policies. The federal and city government took it upon themselves to pass laws against cyclist interests. This combined with bike unfriendly road infrastructure and a general negative attitude towards cycling by the public and justice organs created a toxic environment for cycling. Even with the renaissance of cycling and the push to raise the traffic share, measures have mostly been half-baked or half-hearted token incremental improvements. The 1,298 kilometers cycleways in Vienna largely consists of bike lanes painted onto existing roads, often where the drains are spaced every 30 meters. The other large part consists of side streets deemed to be not that busy and thus “cycleways”.

 

5th the Public Transportation Network is Good:

If you look a the latest modal split of journeys for Amsterdam you will see that the share of car traffic has steadily been decreasing since the mid 90s. However it still was the 1st choice for mode of transport in 2014 with 29% (Vienna had 28%). The pedestrian share has dropped from 25% to 22% a bit below Vienna’s 26%. Public transportation ridership has stagnated in Amsterdam at 22% for the last three decades. In Vienna the share of public transportation has impressively increased to 39% in 2014. Most of the decrease in car traffic in Amsterdam has been picked up by the cycle share, increasing from 17% in the 80s to 25% in 2014.

schermafbeelding2b2016-02-052bom2b16-18-46
Modal split of total trips to/from/within Amsterdam by at cyclingacademics.blogspot.com

Modal Split Wien

The cycling share in Amsterdam has increased by half  in the last 3 decades, the share in Vienna has doubled! All the way to an unimpressive 7%.  The decline in car traffic has largely been replaced with public transportation. No wonder, if you live in Vienna you are likely to live close a bus, tram, S-Bahn or U-Bahn stop, you are likely to own a year card for 365EUR and you are likely to not bother cycling in the snow, rain, wind and heat. The cycling share is set continue to grow slowly unless the other 4 unique challenges to cycling in Vienna are solved.

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6 comments

  1. “To me Vienna feels very much like a car city up to now.” You can give all the historical insights you want, but that not going to change how Mark FEELS! 😉

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  2. An interesting post and produced veey quickly. I trust you’re not going back in time to fix Vienna’s problem No.3, so of the remaining four problems I wouldn’t expect the weather and geography to be major factors suppressing cycling. That would be government policies in not providing safe places away from motor vehicles, and as you are aware this is far from a unique issue outside of the Netherlands.

    I don’t agree that good public transport suppresses cycling. Firstly, it’s in the name – public, which no matter how good it is doesn’t have the freedom of one’s own ready-to-go, door-to-door private transport that a bicycle provides. Secondly, a high PT rate doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “good” or better than Amsterdam’s, but could be due to cycling being suppressed. Perhaps Amsterdam’s is closer to optimal than Vienna’s? Thirdly, good PT and good cycling conditions have a symbiotic relationship, boosting both mide shares in cities as per the Netherlands.

    Something not mentioned is demographics. I suspect Amsterdam has a much younger average age than Vienna’s, which would probably affect the cycling rate.

    Anyway, sorry if the above comes across as highly critical as it’s not meant to. IMO your post is a great opportunity to revisit what makes and what breaks conditions for mass cycling.

    Cheers,
    Jim

    Liked by 1 person

    • Theoretically problem No 3. is solved again and there is a baseline community here that does push for improvement and the future cycling share might see a dramatic 5% increase in the next 5 years or so.

      To public transport suppresses cycling. I have an anecdotal story to this, a friend of mine when he first moved here, was determined to bike for his daily trip into town. If it was really cold or bad weather he would pay for a day card and leave the bike home. He kept it up all the way into December. But then he bit the bullet and bought the 365 EUR year card. When springtime came he continued to commute by subway and we lost another potential commuter cyclist. There are projects that aim to create a symbiotic between the two, e.g. cycleways to subway stations with a bike P+R.

      To Age. Some parts of Vienna are quite old, but on a whole the city is fairly young and growing.

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  3. Thanks for the article.

    I cycled in Vienna and Amsterdam.

    Per geography: Vienna is a bit hilly compared to Amsterdam… but nothing that isn’t doable with a 7-8 speed bike without being an athlete. At worst, people can get an e-bike.

    Per Weather: Riding provides warmth. Besides, most people’s commute by bike is shorter than 30mn. It also snows in Copenhagen, where the bike modal share is very close to Amsterdam’s.

    > All the way to an unimpressive 7%

    This is what you get when the bike infras aren’t there. Same issue in Seville, Spain.

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  4. From what you write, I think you are right that the focus has been on improving public transport, and on getting car drivers to switch to that. That seems a good strategy for a hilly city, and from the modal percentages you report, it seems to be working: good for Vienna.

    I’ve never been to your beautiful city, so maybe the next thing I noticed is completely stupid, but your points about geography and weather raised some questions in my mind.

    Geography: you make much of the high hills your city contains, but your elevation map shows the city to be divided in half, the southwest being very hilly and the northeast being flat (10 m height difference spread over a large area sounds comparable to me to a fairly usual 3-5m height difference going over bridges or through tunnels for all the Dutch waterways). Maybe all the interesting bits of town are in the hilly area? Though at least one contains the historic castle I’ve seen in pictures of Vienna, which I would not guess to be a daily destination for most of the people who live there (more of a tourist destination).
    Or is there much more cycling in the flat area, and is it only the hilly area which brings down the numbers for the city as a whole?

    You have slightly less rain than Amsterdam, but spread over a lot less days: more days of heavy rain, as you say, but doesn’t that also imply a lot more perfectly fine days that have no rain at all? That would rather turn that argument on its head, as one could take the bus on those few rainy days (as people in the Netherlands do when the wind gets above Beaufort 7) and still bike on all those fine days…
    Also, snow by itself does not have to be a deterrent to cycling, as can be shown through numbers from Denmark (where it snows quite a bit more than in Amsterdam), though I wouldn’t like to bike on a hill in snow.

    I think your points regarding politics and priority for (investing in) public transport are much more critical that the weather and geography; as you yourself say, historically Vienna had a lot of cycling, and its weather and geography would probably have been rather similar to now (except the city would probably have been smaller – or was it confined to only the flat area then, apart from the castle?).
    Luckily, though geography and weather are hard to change, politics and priorities are purely human things that can be changed. I wish you luck and succes in your endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To the flat Northeast. You spotted that correctly, the north bank of the Danube, or Transdanubien is flat and more suited for cycling. The two outer districts, 21st and 22nd, there also do have a higher share of cyclists than the outer 23rd district in the South (but it is still very low). Here lies a big potential to raise the share of inner-district cycling traffic and a for combination of cycling plus public transportation into the city.

      To the size of the city. A hundred years ago Vienna had incorporate less of the surrounding towns and had less land surface but it had a population of more than 2 million instead of the 1.75-1.80 million today within the city borders, 2.6 million within the metropolitan area). Most of the factory workers commuted the 1 to 10km to there work.

      I did not want convey a defeatist attitude with my post here, I wanted to give insight into the (historical) problems that brought us to the position we are. There are many things that can and should be improved.

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