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Every now and again Beautiful Wife expresses the opinion that German food, while certainly filling, lacks a certain gastronomic variety, and that it’s time the boys experienced a little more of their maternal heritage. So last week we went of to visit the Asian supermarket in Stuttgart.

The catch-all Asian supermarket, like the informative bus stop, is a fairly new development in Stuttgart. Despite being an engineering centre the city doesn’t have an east Asian community anything like as big as the cities to the north, and it’s only recently begun to have a cosmopolitan feel. Last time I bought some Marmite I even had to order it from Cologne.

Possibly a bad example there.

The supermarket is on the main shopping street in the centre but hidden inside a large sportswear shop, of all things. Once  got past the piles of 2018 German football strips being sold off at reduced prices, we go down into the basement and landed in East Asia. Beautiful Wife went off in search of Green Tea ice cream and I went for a slightly nostalgic wander through shelves of “Healthy Boy Brand Chilly Sauce”, packed in what looks like glass lemonade bottles and source of some epic endurance contests amongst some colleagues in Thailand.

There were also assorted items I was quite glad to leave behind in Japan like the unfortunately named ‘Calpis’ sports drink, sold in concentrate, with the English boast that “with 1.5l you can make 7.5l of Calpis”, which never failed to amuse our boys. Not far away is the dreaded Natou (“Na-chow”) sticky beans, made -let’s be honest here- by allowing beans to ferment, ie, rot, packaging the result up and selling it as a delicacy.

But then being British means you can never be too cocky about other people’s tastes in food. As I was wandering about the cooking section which has the largest collection of woks I’ve ever seen, Beautiful Wife came around the corner waving a pot of Marmite.

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…

stuttgarttower

The tower from the main railway station in Stuttgart from outside the Opera House. There really is a three-pointed star on the top of the tower. It is lit at night and it turns slowly.

The crane in the background is for a hideously controversial rebuilding project called ‘Stuttgart 21’ which is a multi-billion euro rebuild of the railway station that will cause chaos for about five years, and if completed will actually reduce the station capacity from what we have now.

Station approach in Stuttgart

Station approach in Stuttgart, taken from the station tower.

Deutsche Bahn and the city of Stuttgart are getting into some trouble with their latest pet project, ‘Stuttgart 21’. Their plan is to rebuild the station in the centre of Stuttgart from the current terminus-like station with all trains coming from the north and reversing, to a shiny new underground through station on an east-west axis. The brains behind this scheme have decided that this will bring all kinds of advantages and is essential to make Stuttgart a major connection in the growing pan-European high speed network. And incidentally free up a huge amount of real estate in a very congested city centre. Not that this has anything to do with it.

At some point in the process someone working late one night in a parallel universe where trains are never delayed, came up with the equation that because Stuttgart has a 16 platform terminus at the moment, if you make it a through station, then it only needs eight platforms. This sounds like a POSAD: A Politically over-simplified Accountants Dream. Such an equation works wonders when trying to get a figure past a private sector budget sheet, “It can be so much smaller and cheaper for the same effect” but in the real world where points have a habit of failing and even German-built trains have been known to break down, we could well rue the day that we decided not to allow for a bit of slack in the system. British readers will think of Birmingham New Street at this point. And that’s assuming everything stays the same. Which is a very unusual business case: invest €X billion (I’ll come to the cost in a bit) to maintain the current traffic levels. Isn’t it just possible that after pouring billions into the railways of Europe to make a high speed network, there may be a couple more people travelling by train, especially with jet fuel prices going into the stratosphere? It’s going to be very entertaining to see how exactly an underground station gets the equivalent of a second runway.

And then there’s the cost. The federal rail authority has estimated this will all cost about €2,9 billion. A fair bit. Then in mid 2008 Martin Vieregg, a transport consultant from Munich, threw a spanner in the works by claiming the costs would be between €6,9 – 8,7 billion when we take into account rising energy and material costs. Which is a fair bit more, and that that was before oil prices went up and the economy dropped. Vieregg recently torpedoed the Munich Airport maglev project by showing how high the costs could run on that pet project, so he’s no small fry. DB’s response was along the lines of “er… no it won’t”, but they would say that wouldn’t they? Now the State Government quietly increased estimates to €5,08bn, and added a risk fund of €1,45bn, just in case. €5,08 + €1,45= €6,53bn. (Figures from “Stuttgart 21 wird teurer.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19./20. Juli 2008, page 6) And the State already has interest payments on debts of 80 million a year. Not including a few hundred million for little things like a junction near the airport that was seemingly forgotten first time around. Oops.

Okay, but once it’s built, it’s built, and on a good (failure free) day everything will run like a Swiss watch. Except that another metaphorical tool of your choice has already been launched at the delicate clockwork by one Dr. V. Jung in 2005 who noticed that the whole concept is based on the idea that trains will only stop for two minutes. Anyone who has watched, or even been near to a 15 coach train when several hundred people are trying to get off, and several hundred more are getting on, can probably see the problem with this. We’re back in parallel universe territory then, or there will be a ban on wheelchairs and luggage.

The alternative- leaving the existing station as it is, would allow for more flexibility, absorb more growth in rail services, and probably cost about a third of the total, even including the high-speed link between here and Ulm. It’s been thrown out -so far- because it doesn’t serve the airport as directly from the centre. Assuming the airport doesn’t have grass growing between the slabs by then, this would seem sensible. At least it would if the Stuttgart 21 plan allowed for more than one fast train in three serving it, or if the airport station was actually planned to be in the airport, like the S-bahn station is.

There are plenty more things I could talk about, like the likely curtailment of rural services to places well away from Stuttgart to channel funds into this project, or concerns about groundwater in the city, or the partial demolition of the station building and total demolition of the station approaches, both of which are (were, as the demolition teams moved into the station recently) theoretically protected historical structures, or the way a lot of the discussions have been held behind closed doors, which is hardly surprising given the circumstances.

I’ll keep you posted. I had hoped this would gradually be exposed for the wasteful scheme it is, and would be quietly forgotten in the coming economic shake-up. However, although the sheer lunacy has been exposed, the politicians (who increasingly seem to be inhabiting the aforementioned parallel universe) are continuing to insist that the scheme should continue, and the building companies are already marking our cleared land ready to be sold off in small parcels at a huge profit.

Not that this has anything to do with it, of course.

It’s good to see good news about Germany and cycling, and the ever interesting Copenhagenize blog has provided some with News that the German government has started a campaign called “Kopf An, Motor Aus” (‘Brain on, Motor off’) which is appropriate as I seem to see drivers doing the exact opposite every day.

That’s enough of my cynicism. Several cities are involved at the moment, trying to get people to walk or cycle for distances of 6km or less, instead of using their car. Posters are “cheeky, fun, ironic or serious” according to the website and “found wherever cars are” Dortmund’s massive poster  “A huge thank you to cyclists” is catching most of the limelight for sheer drama, but my personal favourite is the flag Karlsruhe are using by cycle parking areas: “Reserved for climate heroes”. Of course, Karlsruhe is one of the better cities for cycling and public transport, so it’s fair enough in their case.

This year there are four cities involved: there is a competition for 25 more next year and some are local to us. But Stuttgart and Ostfildern are not. What a surprise. I expect if I ask we’ll be told the usual excuses a valid reason for this.

Another  initiative is free hugs for cyclists, pedestrians, and other climate heroes, but as the video shows, drivers need not apply.

I can’t help feeling that more infrastructure would be more profitable long-term, and the cynic in me resurfaces when I remember this is the same government that was paying people to buy cars earlier this year, but at least there’s a growing awareness that getting people walking and cycling is good for cities and for people. You never know, the tide may be changing. If things carry on like this, Ostfildern may even notice.

The website is at http://www.kopf-an.de/

While other German cities have networks of cycle routes, cycle highways, and traffic calmed streets, Stuttgart has a couple of lanes here and there and a catastrophe of a website that gives the option a four lane highway or a magical mystery tour through a forest to a set of traffic lights that change every Tuesday.

So when the now Green Party dominated city government announced last week that they are considering a plan to improve the infrastructure in Stuttgart, with the goal that by 2020, 20% of all journeys will be by bike, people say things like “about time too” or “We’ll believe it when we see it” or most likely “Get out of the way of my Mercedes”.

As the local planners don’t seem to know what a bicycle looks like, the city commissioned a Herr. Dankmar Alrutz, from Hannover to do a report. He did something remarkable: he got on a bicycle with his team and tried out the infrastructure for himself.

And he’s not even Dutch.

He came back last week and told the city “beim Radverkehrsnetz besteht dringend Handlungsbedarf” which is German diplomatic for “It’s cr*p. Do something quickly.” He then gave a list of recommendations which some of his car-centric audience must still be recovering from:

  • A network of 141km ‘main’ cycle routes that connect the centre with the surrounding area
  • Another 100km of secondary cycle routes connecting the different areas in the city
  • Signs showing cycle routes to be updated to modern standards. (Pointing them the right way would be a start.)
  • Cycle lanes on the roads, but also some streets to be converted to cycle streets: cycles have right of way and cars are guests. This already happens a bit.
  • Bikes to be carried on trams at all times -often people cycle into the city and use the tram home.
  • Increase the stations for the successful Call-A-Bike bike share scheme and hurry up with the new scheme with bikes that have electric-assistance, because if you hadn’t noticed, Stuttgart is hilly.

Herr. Alrutz said that if Stuttgart invests about 1,8 million a year until 2020, ( Which is, let’s see, about the same as  it would cost to build 1.5 kilometres of highway), they can create an environment where one in five people will ride a bike for transport.  20% of journeys by bike. Not for sport, but for everyday transport.

So far signs are encouraging: the worst that even the more right-wing CDU party could manage was to suggest a ‘pilot scheme’ for bike transport on buses. Perhaps someone should point out that there was already a very successful one in 2004.

Bristol (UK) has just become the first city in the country to start a bike share scheme, and it’s getting all manner of flak for it. The main argument against seems to be that “Bristol is hilly” which is hardly an astute observation if you’ve ever been there, but apparently a shock to journalists from London.

Germany has several bike share schemes: I know this will annoy the French, but several cities in Germany had quietly embraced the idea years before it caught on in Paris. Stuttgart, which is possibly even more hilly than Bristol, has a successful bike share system run by German Railways (Deutsche Bahn, or DB). The ‘Call-a-bike’ network was launched in 2007 with 400 bikes at somewhere between 50-65 hubs around the city depending on who you ask. It works using mobile phones which has the advantage that they know who is using any bike at any time, Despite this Stuttgart is fussy about you bringing the bike back to the hub you got it from, but on the other hand the first half hour is free. The system has been an instant success and it’s been was expanded since it opened. (I guess that’s where the different numbers come from, so much for Teutonic accuracy).

Stuttgarts traffic is probably a bit safer for cycling than Bristols, but we also have tramlines on a number of streets, and other streets that are so steep they give up and become staircases. So can Stuttgarters handle hills better than Bristolians? I doubt it, especially after a few beers. The major difference in the two systems is the numbers of bikes. Stuttgart has 400 bikes in 60 Hubs. Now Wikipedia says the centre of Stuttgart (where the bikes are) is home to 590 497 people  (or at least, it was on the first of June 2008). My maths is a bit fuzzy but I think that works out as a bit less that one bike per 1500 people living the centre. And you thought talking about bike parts was as boring as I can get.

Hourbike‘, Bristol’s foray into the brave new world of bike share, involved much fanfare and eighteen bikes in four stations. Yes you did read that correctly. Eighteen. According to Wikipedia and my fuzzy maths, if the population of central Bristol all decided to join, over 23000 people would be lining up for each bike. That’s bad enough, but the four locations don’t include  the main railway station. Now call me obtuse, but if I was going to make a bike share system, I’d make darn sure it feeds the main public transport hubs. Last time I was in Stuttgart I found four hubs of about twenty bikes around the main station in the city, or to put it another way, more bikes than serve the whole city of Bristol, and there’s still 61 hubs elsewhere.

Bristol has a chance to prove everyone wrong and become a flagship city like Paris -and for the record, I hope they do- if it starts taking it seriously and stops faffing about. To get the same ratio as Stuttgart only requires 300 bikes, give or take, and perhaps a lot of publicity, and you have a prestige project begging for a politician to sponsor it. Any takers?

Contraflow bike lane. Better than nothing-or is it?

I have a train to catch in Stuttgart, and being one for a bit of adventure I decide to go to the city by bike. Stuttgart isn’t known for being bike friendly, but there are at last two online route planning services, so I log onto both and see what happens. The results aren’t promising. The German cycle club planner apparently can’t tell difference between an bike lane and a heavily used urban road. Stuttgart city is slightly better, and suggests a pleasantly bucolic way through the forest and suburbs but warns the surface is gravel in some places: at least someone looked at it. I’m told to allow 45 minutes for this run, at 15km/h average speed.

Stuttgart is surrounded by steep wooded hills. The way to the city, therefore, is on forest roads: a mix of gravel and surfaced car-free streets. A complete lack of signposts though, so much consulting of map required. The route leads to a main road and here the problems begin. Further progress means crossing an unlovely 4-lane road and cars snarl past while pedestrians and cyclists wait for signals that change grudgingly after several minutes and then change back within seconds.

Between crossings and map reading stops -still no signs- I’m getting late, and the next bit doesn’t help either. It’s an indifferently surfaced forest trail, for 500m after which I need to re-cross the highway on it’s sinuous route down the hillside. This crossing has the centre reservation shaved to a fine point for the convenience of cars turning right, leaving a gap too short for a bike let alone the Xtracycle. Of course, the pedestrian lights trap me in the middle. A rush to the safety of the other side brings a short respite in the form of a contraflow on a one-way street, then yet another crossing -yup, same highway- with all the same features as before and some seriously impatient drivers. Then, like a mirage, a high-quality bike lane appears with its own lights and a red surface. Unfortunately it’s going in the wrong direction, and I’m left following a road with tram lines and parked cars and another minuscule bike lane that sends me off into some impenetrable suburbs, delaying me further.

This pattern continues all the way into the city: steep hills, busy junctions, no signs, and and a map that takes a perverse pleasure in sending me on left-hand turns across oncoming traffic. Eventually, after cycling through a dingy underpass and the city park, I climb up a delivery road and wind up at a sign saying „Welcome to Stuttgart railway station.“ It’s at the bottom of a row of steps, and by the time I get upstairs the train has gone.

Not the greatest introduction to cycling in Stuttgart, but the good news is that the Green Party have taken a lot of seats in the local elections: in other German cities where this took place, there has been a rapid change of transport policy afterwards, so hopefully they will begin to address these problems sharpish.

At the very least they may get some cyclists to test out the website and make reccomendations.

I could do it, for example, for a reasonable fee…

I’ve mentioned before that there is a harebrained scheme in the offing to lay yet more tarmac on the fields by our village, and last week there was an information evening where a local traffic planner was giving us details of what they were going to do. I naturally felt I had to go: I’m a local resident, I had a duty to both of my readers to blog about it and besides, there may be food.

We live in a fairly small village just outside of Stuttgart which happens to be between an Autobahn to the south and a port and industrial centre to the North. There is a bypass to the east and west, but we still have a lot of traffic through the village (about 13500 cars and 1500 trucks every 24 hours). Almost everyone wants a bypass because they believe it will ‘finally’ solve the problem. Like the last bypass was supposed to.

Now the city of Stuttgart is offering to build a nice new road under the village to connect to one of the existing bypasses. This will take the traffic well away from the village and the noise, and no-one will have their view spoiled.

Why would a city offer to spend taxpayers money on an infrastructure project in another administrative district? The answer is geography. The north-south and east-west autobahns meet to the West of Stuttgart, but none to the east, so traffic going from the North-west going to the South East has to curve around three sides of Stuttgart and climb a major hill.  For about 20 years the Strassenbauamt has been quietly working on a plan for a bypass to the east of Stuttgart avoiding the hill, and it’s a section of this road that will go under our village. The road isn’t for us, but for Stuttgart, and we are in the way, but that’s not quite how it is being presented.

The economy is now going fast down the toilet, and the transport industry is going with it. As the majority of the traffic is cars, and about half of that is internal traffic, we could reduce traffic in the village simply by making less parking spaces and more bike infrastructure, because traffic expands and contracts to fit the space available… I’m being rational, sorry.

Not that any of this matters, because no-one has yet committed to the €20-30 billion that this white elephant will cost, so I suspect it’ll be a while before any diggers turn up, but rest assured the Strassenbauamt is out there somewhere, building pointless roads to link up their fantasy network…

Freiburg looks ever more attractive…

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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