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Integrated infrastructure in Stuttgart. Behind me, the cycleway is seperated from the footpath.

Integrated infrastructure in Stuttgart. Behind me, the cycleway is seperated from the footpath.

According to the local free paper (I know, I could put a sticker on the letter box so I don’t get it any more, but it’s good for lining the compost bin) Light Rapid Transit is in fashion at the moment with city authorities: in Germany alone Bremen, Düsseldorf Erfurt, Gera Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart are currently expanding their systems, and Frankfurt am Main, Jena, Kassel, Munich, Freiburg im Breisgau, and and Augsburg are making plans to do the same. Ulm currently has only one metre gauge line but is considering adding more.

Stuttgart has now almost completely finished the process of converting from the old metre gauge system which used GT trams from the 1950s, to a standard gauge ‘Stadtbahn’ with barrier-free access at most stations. This, on top of free off-peak bike transport has endeared the new units to me despite replacing the attractive old units which were full of character, but draughty, noisy and and featured street-level access up three steps.

As part of the rebuilding many sections of the line were rebuilt either on their own alignment or with priority over other traffic, so there is now much less street running, and in some cases the Stadtbahn is faster and more direct than driving, and you don’t get delayed by traffic jams- I’ve had one three minute delay in four years: how many car drivers can claim that? In places where the track now runs underground, people and bikes were given more space.

Best of all, the system can now (just) accommodate an Xtracycle, which is very good for the rare occasions I’m forced to go to Stuttgart and get anything. I can cycle in, and around the city pretty well exclusively on cycleways, and catch a tram home as long as I don’t decide to do it in the rush hour (although I can still use the rack railway then). I just have to find a station at street level, because I can’t fit the Xtra into a lift.

In fact, the only real gap in this excellent network is in my own village, but it is comforting to know that the rest of the country is waking up to the idea that not everyone wants to use cars. Perhaps with all this cycling infrastructure on their doorstep, our local councillors may notice soon.

A real bike lane

A real bike lane

A few days ago I was commenting on the huge difference in bike facilities between our home town of Ostfildern, and our neighbouring town of Sillenbuch, and how, in contrast to the busy street that faces cyclists here, the town has made sure that there is a direct cycle route running to the centre.

So what lies at end? A shopping centre that allows bikes to ride through, and a wide, segregated cycle lane, off the street and inside of parked cars. Who would have thought it? To be fair the town had an advantage here. There used to be a double track tramway along the middle of this street, but the tram was rebuilt as a Stadtbahn (metro) a few years ago and pushed underground. Faced with a sudden increase in available space, the council quite intelligently made a dramatically widened area for pedestrians and bikes: I can only imagine the the annoyance of motorists who were expecting an extra lane or two to race down to Stuttgart.

Bike friendly shopping centre early in the morning

(Mostly) bike friendly shopping centre.

The shopping centre isn’t bad either. I dislike shopping, which is why I end up doing it. The logic behind this is that if I go, I get what I need and go home as fast as possible, whereas if my wife goes she looks around and finds other things -usually chocolate- so it’s cheaper for her to send me. At least I think that’s the reason. The centre used to do the normal thing of banning people from riding bikes, which is understandable but annoying, but recently sanity prevailed and they let us in, which I imagine has boosted sales, judging by the number of bikes outside some shops. Unfortunately so far there’s not much to lock a bike onto, unless you count the portable wheel manglers put out by local shops. I quickly realised the Xtracycle is heavier than the racks, so now I use the stainless steel trolley racks that are firmly bolted to the ground.

Now, why can’t our village catch up? Surely it makes sense economically: if people don’t feel safe to ride they’ll walk or drive. If they drive they are as likely to go here as come to our centre, because there are more shops. Installing cycle lanes in Ostfildern would reduce pollution, and make it easier for people to shop within the village.

Bike lane in Sillenbuch

Bike lane in Sillenbuch

I’ve mentioned before that our home town of Ostfildern isn’t part of Stuttgart. To officially be in the city, you have to ride across a couple of fields and a small stream before you reach the outer suburbs at a place called Sillenbuch. But once across the stream, suddenly it’s a whole new world. We don’t have much cycling infrastructure in Ostfildern at all, and what we do have is often ‘shared space’: probably better than nothing but motorists still assume you’ll just move out of the way. The favoured method here is to direct cyclists onto less busy roads, (ie, get them out of the way) which is fine until you want to go to the centre by bike. I suspect this is a legacy of our former mayor. It remains to be seen if the present one will think otherwise.

If he wants ideas, our mayor need look no further than Sillenbuch, which is much more enlightened. They have an advantage because a lot of the town is fairly new, but they’ve thought a bit about what they’re doing and made the development more people friendly with a network of routes for walking and cycling, and less direct ways for cars. For example, this is the route through the town goes from the edge to the centre, and is completely separated from the local roads. It’s shared use with pedestrians. I think splitting it would be more sensible, but I’ve not had any problems with this and it beats racing trucks down our narrow main road. The path winds so you don’t drive fast, and has islands like these to slow you down without reducing visibility. I don’t know if I’m supposed to keep right. I generally do that anyway- it’s fun.

The main entrance to all the local apartments open here, not onto the street, so children can run over to the playground without fear of being run over, and old people potter along happily. People feel safe, and as David Hembrow points out, helping people feel safe is vital to getting people on their bikes. But you don’t just feel safe on a bike- the number of children running about, people walking the dog and other cyclists lends the place a bustling, friendly air that a street with traffic rushing along can’t match.

But what happens when you get through this? Do you get dumped on a busy road? No you don’t. I’ll tell you about that later.

Bad picture of bike service station

Bad picture of bike service station

I’ve had a cold for a couple of days so I’ve not been feeling up to much cycling or writing, but a couple of days ago the local transport authority had their 30th anniversary on my birthday, and just for this I got free travel on their network for the day. I happened to go through Vaihingen, which is a part of Stuttgart, where I passed this rather innovative micro business run by the Diakonie, the charitable arm of the Lutheran Church. They offer bike care, parking, maintenance and hire. The sign says it’s there to create jobs for people, something which bike industries would seem very suited to. Even better, they’re located right in the middle of the bus/tram/S-Bahn interchange.

Seeing this and the network of bike routes near the station made me wonder if I’m being a bit hard on Stuttgarts’ cycling facilities. Although we live very close to the city, we aren’t officially a part of it, and it’s possible that I’ve been unfairly judging them on the basis of the (lack of) bike facilities in our village. This a wouldn’t be a surprise: towns are pretty autonomous as regards their own infrastructure so it’s common for one town to have great cycling facilities, which then stop abruptly at the edge. It could be that we simply landed in a more traditional town. I’ll keep an eye out for this and report on what I find.

Of course that means more cycling. It’s a tough life.

Stuttgart tram with trusty pre-Xtracycle M-trax on the bike wagon

Stuttgart tram. Pre-Xtracycle M-trax on the bike wagon

I really like Stuttgart, which is odd, because I’m not a city person. I think it’s because it is small. The city is hemmed in by very steep wooded hills on three sides, even standing in the centre of the Schlossplatz, you can reach dense woodland in 15 minutes. I also find it rather endearing that despite doing it’s level best to look like it’s all chic and cool,  it’s pretty eccentric a lot of the time.

It also has a rack railway which will carry your bike up out of the valley for the price of a normal ticket. I’m really keen on this as it means I avoid climbing up a 17% gradient at the end of the day when I’ve got stuff on the Xtracycle. Instead I can drive my bike on the wagon, wrap it thoroughly with a bungee and when the driver finishes his cigarette he gets on board and drives off. In some parts of the world -where I grey up, for example- the idea of people being trusted to get on a wagon and secure their own bike to it would be treated with great suspicion. I would probably have to wait in a queue for the Official Loader Of Bikes to do it for you, sign an indemnity and get a receipt to present to the Official Unloader Of Bikes at the top station, which of course would make the whole thing much slower and uneconomical. Fortunately in Stuttgart -and Germany as a whole- we still hold on to the eccentric idea that people are quite capable of looking after themselves, and people can cycle into the city and take the tram back up the hill without someone telling them what to do.

[Updated and corrected 29/09/2008 -thanks to James for pointing out the mistake…]

One thing you must understand about Stuttgart is that the normal rules simply don’t apply to Mercedes drivers. Pavements, bus stops and bike lanes are simple another place to dump their hunk of metal so that Mercedes Man or Mercedes Wife don’t have to walk more than 50 metres to the shops.

This is a prime example of the way Mercedes Man rises to the challenge of the city. As we can see Chrysler Driver inconsiderately took up the last parking space, and Mercedes Man faced the possible ignomony of paying to park and then walking perhaps a whole kilometre to the shops. However Mercedes Man is not your regular driver. Quickly he realises that there is a further parking space, (traditionally known as a pavement) and without hesitation, he launches his 1.5 tonnes of metal into the gap created by fleeing pedestrians.

My adopted city of Stuttgart is a great place, but it’s not that bike-friendly. It’s surrounded by hills for one thing, and has a very strong pro-motoring lobby who have a tendency to howl if anyone suggests something like road pricing that may inconvenience their wealthy members driving their SUV’s into the city -or force them to use public transport. Because of road vehicles the city has legacy of dangerously high particle pollution in the centre, (In breach of EU standards) but that’s okay because any decent modern car has air conditioning as standard.

Bike infrastructure is improving but still sparse: I’d give the system a grudging 6/10. Apprently this is due to ‘lack of space’. We can’t fit bike lanes in, goes the reasoning, because Stuttgart is an old city with narrow streets. This sounds plausible until you realise that Tübingen and Freiburg have both managed to have more bike lanes despite being much older with narrower streets. In other words,‘lack of space’ really means “I want to drive my SUV through there” There is plenty of space between the buildings but it’s currently wasted on the motor vehicle.

However, The Stuttgarter Zeitung reports that Stuttgarters are cycling more- lots more. Shops are reporting a 57% hike in bike sales, and even higher increases in bike repairs with people digging old bikes out of the cellar. There is also a big increase in bike rental in the centre as people come to the city by public transport and rent a bike to travel around the city while they go shopping.

A 57% increase in car use would set the planners working into the night with new road schemes. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for bikes -after all Baden Württemberg has just announced it wants to be the ‘Bike state of Germany’. As soon as I see new bike lanes being built, I’ll let you know.

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