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Much excitement in Stuttgart this summer: the bus company has fitted real time information panels on their bus stops. I appreciate that other cities in the world have had these since before the turn of the century -I can remember them in Tokyo back in 2000- but for Stuttgart a lag of eighteen years in public transport technology is pretty good really. We live one kilometre outside of the city so I expect it’ll be a couple more decades before our local authority hears about them.

Now that’s a great idea as far as it goes, but the information panels are tiny things to fit into the normal bus stop signs, so you can’t see them from a distance, for example as you get off the tram to catch the bus to work. On top of this, someone realised that when you have information panels you can put all kinds of useful messages onto them, so the actual bus times are sandwiched between lots of other helpful advice.

Because of the peculiar geography of Stuttgart -the city founders, in their wisdom decided that a series of steep sided malaria ridden river valleys was the ideal place to make a city- the bus wiggles back and forth for a leisurely ten minutes down the hill, taking in several other parts of the city and crossing the path of every confused, lost, or otherwise distracted driver around. The pedestrian route from the tram stop to work takes 12 minutes, which means that unless the bus is about to come through the stop, it’s as quick to walk.

Unfortunately, by the time I’m close enough to read the information panel, and it has finished telling us about engineering works and the flower festival in the park, then finally remembers what it is there for and imparts the information that the bus is due in ten minutes, I might as well just walk straight down the hill…

downdown_01I think I’ve got the ride to work sorted out, apart from a couple of little hiccups we won’t mention like the Xtracycle’s rear gear cable snapping on the one place where I have to ride uphill in traffic*.

I’d originally planned to use the tram for most of the route between our village and the farm, with a bike at both ends to cover the first and last bit, but apart from the security issue, Stuttgart’s tram system mostly goes from the edge to the centre, whereas I wanted to go from one suburb to another, and those trams ran only occasionally, usually before or after I wanted to travel, and often thirty seconds before I got to the station.

After an embarrassingly long time riding into Stuttgart and back out again, it finally occurred to me that I was travelling off-peak in both directions, so I could carry my Xtracycle on the tram for free (British public transport providers take note: this is possible without the sky falling). Now I cycle to the local tram stop, ride the tram to the highest part of the route, which rather conveniently is the last station before it goes down into Stuttgart, and ride the rest of the way. Coming back I catch any Stuttgart-bound tram on the other line, hop off again near the top of the hill, and pootle back through the forest. No bikes are left to the predations of local vandals, and I get to ride the Xtracycle. Everyone wins.

Until it snows, but let’s not worry about that yet.

*It turns out that with some pliers and a lot of swearing I can -just- get a normal, standard-length back gear cable to fit on an Xtracycle. I’m probably the last Xtracycle user to find this out, but I put it out there anyway.

My original idea for commuting to the farm was to have a bike at each end of the tram journey, cycle to the the local tram station, ride the tram across town, and pick up another bike to cover the last bit to the farm. This sounded great when I worked it out, but in practice there’s all kinds of problems, mainly that it relies on me being able to finish work, sweep the workshop, clean the privvy, unlock the bike, ride to a house within dashing distance of the station, lock the bike again, and leg it to the tram stop to meet the tram.

You will not be surprised to find this doesn’t work very well.

Of the three direct trams back from the farm, the first is long gone before I’m finished, the second usually leaves the station just as I come sprinting around the corner, and the next is far too late. If I even miss that one, we enter the twilight zone, that period the powers that be have decreed to be Off Peak, when no-one needs to travel, so the wait until the next connection is best measured with a calendar.

There are other trams, but they involve travelling into Stuttgart, changing and coming back out again. Either way I end up doubling the journey time. I know this because I missed the tram every evening so far.

So now I’ve come up with Cunning Plan 2.1. I can take a bike on the tram off-peak, and the farm opens mid-morning, so I can ride to the station at this end, carry the bike on the tram, ride to the farm, and then in the evening simply cycle home, thus saving all kinds of frustration. It would also mean I can use the Xtracycle, which solves the problem of the disintegrating panniers.

Spend enough time sitting on random tram stations and this sort of thing becomes interesting…

The carpentry apprenticeship is starting in six weeks to a month, depending on whether I’m working at my employers from the start of September, or if I get a bit more holiday before the school begins on September the tenth. My contract is with my employer, who enrolled me with the school, (One of these days I’ll reduce your will to live by explaining the system) and I’d heard nothing from the school itself, so I wasn’t convinced that I was registered at all*, so I was quite pleased to get a letter yesterday morning telling me when to turn up, and enclosing my student ticket, which the transport authority insist on calling the ‘Scool’ ticket. And before you scoff, consider that 1: this is in another language, yet people get the joke, and 2: At least it isn’t named after a mollusc. So there.

I was also a bit suprised to read the small print on the season ticket that arrived yesterday, and dicover that not only is it a combined ticket for the bus and train into the college (integrated ticketing being entirely taken for granted in Germany) but also that after midday it stops being a ‘direct route only’ ticket and becomes an all zones travel card, on any train, bus, or tram in and around Stuttgart, and it’s usable on weekends and holidays; for the next six months, which is all rather pleasant: when I was a student living in the wilds of south-west Britain, I had a begrudgingly issued season ticket which was valid on school days only, for one route between where I lived and the college in the town. I couldn’t use the card to go into town after 1300, nor to go home before 1300, which was not helpful when I had one lecture ending at eleven. The ticket was valid on one company’s buses, and that company didn’t really want to take you either.

Of course there’s a flip side to all this generosity, namely that when I was in the UK, the earliest I had to get to college was 0900, and only when I happened to have a lecture, whereas here I’ve been told to get myself over for the first lesson by 0715, which means getting up and leaving the house at silly O’clock in the morning…

*Being the cheery optimist I am.

I’m busy getting my last-minute panicking started nice and early, and incidentally doing a few other things, which unfortunately aren’t very interesting when written down:

  • I’ve been fixing Bike N + 1, which went fine until the seat post broke: I have no idea how I managed that.
  • I spent some time buying a pannier/bag luggage set which when delivered was missing the panniers, so I’m trying to contact the company and see if they’d like to send me the rest of it.
  • I filled in paperwork informing the Job Centre I wouldn’t be at home, so they sent me more forms, and then had a hissy fit and said I’m showing dangerous levels of initiative and I’ll be away longer than paupers are allowed, so they will reduce my unemployment payments while I’m in north Germany. They then demanded a different form which has to be delivered a week after I leave.
  • I spent a day applying to thirty different hospitals and ambulance stations trying to get an internship, and several more days being inundated with refusals and worrying that I’ll have to go somewhere else for that part of the course which would mean (a) Not being with family, and (b) either losing all my unemployment benefit, or being naughty and not telling the Job Centre.
  • I watered the seedlings.
  • I ordered the train tickets with seat and bicycle reservations. I can get from here to within 30 kilometres of the school in one day, whereupon I’ll stay overnight in a bike-friendly bed and breakfast before riding the last bit.
  • I bought a map so I can find my way on that last bit, and a German-English medical dictionary, and then realised I didn’t understand half the English words either.
  • I’ll have to buy a mobile phone for the first time in my life so I’ve been getting advice, some of which I actually understood.
  • I’ve been dispensing hugs to The Boys, who have been staying noticeably close this week.
  • I was (rather suddenly) interviewed and offered a placement in an emergency room at a major children’s hospital as long as I don’t get in the way too much (I’ll have to wear a white uniform. Beautiful Wife finds this hilarious)
  • I read the electricity meter.
  • I lost some files on the computer, made a mental note to sort it out and forgot about it three minutes later, several times.
  • I collected our seed potatoes.
  • And a few minutes ago, I was offered an internship at an ambulance station, subject to an interview next week.

So things are happening fast, and I’m about to do something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, but the process doesn’t make for exciting blogging.

Thanks to the horrendously complex German electoral system the Green Party have managed, via an coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), to get themselves into the driving seat in our state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s not a great surprise: the natives have been getting thoroughly restless of late, mostly over a project called ‘Stuttgart 21’ to rebuild Stuttgart main railway station. The project briefly flashed into international news on September the 30th last year when police sprayed a peaceful demonstration with water cannon. This didn’t exactly get the population behind the project.

Stuttgart central station is a Terminus, so trains have to come in and reverse out. German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB) thinks this is so very last century. The track to the station also takes up a very large area of Stuttgart city centre, which just happens to be very wealthy, very popular with businesses, and very short on prime building land. DB’s idea was to build a groovy new underground through station so trains could arrive under the city, stop briefly to drop off passengers, and whiz off to exciting other European places with none of that annoying reversing business. By pure coincidence this would free up a very large area of prime development land right in the centre of Stuttgart.(I wrote an even more detailed post about this here)

Building a whole new station and several kilometres of tunnel would be a tad expensive, of course, but Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came up with a nifty equation: the current terminus station has 17 platforms, so when that becomes a through station it will only need eight platforms because trains won’t reverse. And that’s obviously far cheaper. Sort of. If you say it quickly is sounds almost feasable.

Now the CDU is out, the Greens are in, German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB)paused in their attempts to turn the station into a hole in the ground, and everyone is expecting the Greens to stop them permanently. The question is how they’ll manage this when their coalition partners are cheer leading for the project, but there are a couple of possibilities. One is a referendum, if they can get enough signatures to make it legal. The other is the sleight of hand DB tried to pull a couple of years ago, which at the time I referred to as a POSAD: A Politically Over Simplified Accountants Dream.

After the water cannon episode last year news got out that where old people and children were injured and things were getting out of hand, so a mediator was called in before people started turning cars over. He told Deutsche Bahn to go and find check their shiny new station really could work with eight platforms at peak times. This looks very unlikely, so they’ll be told to go and redesign the station with ten platforms, at which point the whole business case falls to pieces. The report is expected in May.

I can keep you posted if you aren’t bored already.

Normal ramblings to continue next week.

I’m in Freiburg again this weekend but I’ll reply to comments next week.

On the numerous occasions I tell people that I’m hoping, one day, to move into the countryside, they roll their eyes.
“But, you odd person” they say. “Apart from the fact this is a village of five thousand people, albeit only fifteen kilometres from Stuttgart, how will you live in the countryside without a car? There’s no public transport…”

I don’t know where people got this idea. Of course, I come from the UK, where the village bus turns up at half past three on the second Tuesday of the month*, hangs about for exactly seven and a half minutes and then disappears, but I’ve found the local public transport in rural Germany is pretty good, and in some cases better outside the towns, especially if you want to combine it with using a bike. Okay, so you need to pick your future abode carefully to be near to a link, but still.

Take our village as an example. We’re within the Stuttgart urban transport network with all the convenience this implies. Except that our village is served by a bus which runs to our county town of Esslingen, stopping on the way to deliver people to a Ü-Bahn (light rail line) to Stuttgart. Alas, the bus goes on a 40 minute mystery tour to Esslingen, and doesn’t connect very well with the Ü-Bahn either so we often end up waiting twenty minutes at the station for a three kilometre bus journey home. We can’t even cycle home because there’s no secure bike parking at the station. I used to get around this by parking the bike at a friends apartment, but then he went and moved and I lost my exclusive parking space.

Contrast this with the time I needed to get home quickly (another badly timed bike ride) from Obermettingen, a village the size of ours out in the allegedly public transport-free countryside. I got on the local train, which had a large, dedicated bike space, ran as frequently as the bus in our village, and got me 20km closer to home, whereupon I had to cycle the rest of the way because there’s no train to our allegedly well served town and the buses don’t take bicycles except off-peak. Elsewhere I’ve travelled on local trains which start hundreds of kilometres apart and meet at remote junctions to allow direct transfers for through passengers, something apparently impossible for our bus and metro system. And there’s secure bike parking in these places. And there’s less traffic so it’s more pleasant to cycle.

On the other hand, the cost of living in these allegedly transport-poor areas is much lower than it is here, because everyone believes that it’s more convenient to live in the suburbs of Stuttgart, so if you don’t mind, I’d prefer you to keep this to yourselves. That way, when we finally do manage to move out there, this urban myth will work to our advantage…

* In August




Middle Son watching the trams crossing the bridge and the cars below in Scharnhauser Park while on a bike ride with Papa. Cars are interesting to him in the same way as steam engines or dinosaurs are interesting to other children.

This picture looked good in black and white somehow, but maybe that’s just my way of seeing things.


Last week I went somewhere by car. I can’t actually remember the last time I did that.

Anyway, I got culture shock.

I know in a sort of abstract way that when you’re in a car, you’re cosseted in a well designed, complete system designed to help you get to places with the least stress or worry, but for the first few minutes it was quite startling: we came to a junction, there was a sign with three options to get where we were going. Where the hills were steep, there was a way cut through. Valley ahead? There’ll be a bridge. When we were going to the autobahn the system (and the navigator) gently guided us there along straight smooth roads. Things which I find normal, like checking google earth for cycle routes that disappear into fields, a lack of signs*, carrying three maps all the time, and being suddenly sent along hideously indirect side roads, are not a part of the driving experience. Everything is done to make driving incredibly simple.

I guess this is on my mind because I was recently at a meeting of cyclists and civil servants in Ostfildern, where we were taken to the meeting point of ‘four major cycling routes’. These turned out to be a surfaced farm track, a segregated shared bike and pedestrian route which stopped abruptly at a bus stop, a residential street with a bike painted on it, and a busy main road. If a council built a road ‘network’ like that, there would be a small mutiny. Whereas cars have a network in Ostfildern, cyclists have cycle paths.

With my usual diplomatic brilliance I suggested that a better name for this would be ‘a collection of signs and some paint on a road’.

I guess that’s why I don’t get invited to those meetings very often.

*To be fair that’s improving, and you usually can expect bike lane signs in most places, and usually the routes are safe enough, but still…

Low point.

It’s tax time in Germany, which means that the ranks of the self employed have been carefully getting our information ready for the tax office, or in my case putting it off as long as possible. Most people will post their taxes off but I decided to take mine this year. I like to be sure the paperwork is with the tax advisor and isn’t in a sorting office in Ulm, and South Germany has a relational culture so it’s good to connect with people. The fact it gave me a good reason for a bike ride on a sunny day is entirely irrelevant.

I had to go through Hohenheim, which as I’ve said before, is the other side of a deep valley. I know some readers envy the hills, but the problem is that when you go down, you have to go back up, and in this case, it’s straight back up. Mind you, this time I was able to winch up without wondering if my lungs would explode, so I think I may be getting fitter.

The tax advisors office is stuck around the back of a delivery entrance, and the front has a slightly down at heel look, as if the door will be opened by a gentleman in a trench coat saying: “Mr. Tortellini is unavailable”, and the sounds of someone getting beaten up in the back room, but unfortunately for the purposes of a good story nothing of the sort happened. I dropped off the tax forms, spoke briefly with the tax advisor and as I wasn’t feeling up to a climb up the 25% hill back home, continued towards Stuttgart.

Möhringen-The Future is now.

Möhringen-the future is easy.

In Germany there’s relatively little sprawl, which can throw up surprises: you’re minding your own business riding along a forest trail which could easily be on the edges of the Black Forest, and then suddenly a you look left and across the valley there’s a glass and concrete skyscraper looking like that mysterious monolith out of ‘2001, Space Odyssey’, and then you turn a corner and you’re in a large town. It happens all the time, and it happened to me on this occasion: I turned a corner and there was the town of Möhringen. and suddenly I’m surrounded by high-rise buildings, lines of taxis and expensive suits -even a casino. The cycleway leads directly into the centre of the town and the metro station, which is a hub for metro trains serving this side of Stuttgart. Möhringen has caught up with the notion that public transport and bikes are a vital part of keeping the cities liveable and the Metro/bus station is in a pedestrianised area with cars restricted but a place for buses and taxis right by the station. There’s fair bit of free bike parking here, and shared use cycle/pedestrian ways cutting through the buildings. The air is clean, the roads are safe, and as I realised when I took some of this picture, it was so quiet that even with thousands of people passing by, I could hear the birds singing in the trees: It was like one of those utopian “Cities of the future” pictures from the 60’s, only with kebab stands. I don’t like cities, so I probably won’t move house and live there, but the next time someone starts saying how difficult it is to make a city people friendly, I’ll take them to Möhringen.

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