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The Elder Son -who made his debut on this blog riding a bike with stabilisers- needs a new bike to go to work. This it a matter of some urgency because at the moment he’s using the commuter bike, and it is only a matter of time before ‘my’ commuter bike becomes ‘his’ commuter bike unless I find an alternative.

So we’re going on a bike hunt.

The charitable organisation I work for runs several local bike shops as a way to help people gain skills and get back into work. They also recycle bikes and at this time of year there are usually a dozen or so refurbished items in unfortunate colour schemes in front of the shop, perfect for the rebuild/repainting we had in mind.

So we went to see what we could find. There are two such shops on the other side of the city, so we’d have plenty to choose from. The weather report threatened storms from mid afternoon., but there was no sign of them after lunch, and anyway, we were following a tram route the whole way, so we could always leap on the tram and come back in the dry. We snorted in derision at the weather report and set off.

Of course, after we’d been riding about half an hour -ie, we were far enough away from the apartment that it would take a soaking to get back- it started NAR. This, UK readers will know is ‘Not Actually Raining’; a very gentle drizzle or spit of rain that makes it clear that a good soaking is entirely possible.

We arrived at the first bike shop. instead of the line of bikes I was expecting, there were three: a mahoosive upright town bike, a tricycle, and a pink bike with stabilisers and plastic flowers. I suggested to Elder Son that the pink bike would suit him, but he’s fussy about things like that and wouldn’t even try it out. Young people these days.

The second shop had no bikes at all unless you counted a pile of bent scrap frames out the back.

Then the rain finally came. Not the British style of spring rain, that falls solidly but gently for hours: this was a German ‘auditioning to be a monsoon’ rainstorm, which hits the ground so hard it bounces twice and cracks flagstones.

Thank goodness we were at the tram stop, we agreed smugly.

Then we found that the station was closed for repairs and there were no trams running for the weekend…

 

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The exams are over, certificates handed out, My new contract is signed and I am once more a commuter. For the next year at least.

I’m even sort of being paid, as this is a probationary year to get ‘proper’ accreditation so I’m only a ‘sort of’ Arbeitserzieher/Occupational Therapist. Of course the local transport authority doesn’t recognise this distinction so instead of having an ‘all zones’ student card I now have to pay more for a two zone commuter railcard. Still, it was good while it lasted.

I even have the luxury of two different routes to work -you’re excited, I can tell- but as one means going into the main railway station during rush hour (So… many… people…) I opted for the slightly slower way that trundles down the hill into the city to within a fifteen minute walk to work. There is a bus which in theory comes every eight minutes, but I soon discovered that bus timetables are a work of fiction when the drivers of Stuttgart all decide to go into the city at once. Besides the bus clearly likes to visit every corner of the suburbs before finally going to where I work, so there really isn’t much difference in time.

Of course, you will now be wondering why I don’t just cycle into the city, and it would be nice, as it is only about 12km one way, but Stuttgart is in a 200m deep valley, and in an effort to make sure everyone has lots of ‘choice’ about how to travel, the city has built several very wide fast roads which ensures that you can get there any way you want, as long as it is in a car.

Besides, most of what I’ve seen in my first month commuting has confirmed that the average driver in Stuttgart is not only unable to see a large yellow tram with three headlights from about ten metres away: they also have trouble noticing pedestrians, other cars, ‘no parking’ signs, mahoosive dayglo pink fire engines with flashing blue lights,¬† and the difference between a road and a pavement, so I don’t want to test if they will see a bicycle or not…

It’s one of my favourite times of the year again, when the weather department realises it is spring and suddenly we go from freezing cold and rain to sunshine, flowers, and very nearly not a needing a coat. This also means I can ride most of the way to college instead of using the tram, and thus avoid the centre with all its annoyances without getting too muddy.

Most of the route is on routes through the forest and across fields where cars are supposedly not allowed.They are therefore indifferently tarmacked or gravel, and used as a turning circle for tractors ploughing. (The local town once made a big thing about how they employed a sort of park ranger who apart from anything else should keep these roads clean, which gave us all a laugh).

Having mudguards helps of course, as well as an improvised mudflap which is surviving far longer than I dared hope, but it is good to know I can ride through the forest and not hit mud or puddles.

Which made last week just the wrong time for the owners of the local forest to decide to play with their big tractors, and close the routes to Stuttgart so they could mess up all the trails undisturbed. It gave the journey an extra edge of adventure, especially as they only reopened them when they’d made sure there were wheel ruts across the trails wider than some local cycleways.

Just a small reminder that for all the hot air, we don’t really consider bicycles to be a proper form of transport.

Meanwhile, our version of Stuttgart is developing, slowly…

city_01

The mural is getting there, slowly. The tiles in the foreground are complete and we’ve almost covered the wall colour on the rest of the picture.

We’re way beyond the alloted time for the project but the tutor is letting us continue. Probably because the alternative is a half-finished painting for the next eighteen months…

I’m also organising my work placement in September. It looks likely that I’ll get to work for three months in a theatre and arts centre based in an incredible art deco power station. The organisation also has a travelling company presenting theatre about drug awareness in schools.

The only thing that stops it from being perfect is that I’ll have to go into the centre of Stuttgart every day.

Never mind, you can’t have everything…

One of the best things about spiked tyres is the feeling you get when you swap back to normal tread again. Ah, the silence.

On the other hand, I discovered that the bell doesn’t work any more. I’m not sure how this happened. I mean, how do you break a bell? I didn’t use it much in winter because sensible people don’t go outside when it is below freezing, and anyway, the spikes sound like a truck driving on gravel so people heard them when I was some distance away.

So now I’m back to riding most of the way to college every day or so instead of sharing a tram with lots of dozy commuters. Of course that means I’m occasionally sharing the road with dozy drivers instead, but that may not happen for much longer because a community group in Stuttgart has brought a private prosecution against the Mayor of Stuttgart for “K√∂rperverletzung mit Todesfolge”, which translates as “Actual bodily harm causing death”. This is on the basis that the pollution is reaching lethal levels and he’s doing stuff all about it.

Apparently fifty years of giving cars as much space as is conceivably possibly need and then some in a city surrounded by hills has resulted in The Mother of All Traffic Jams and a fug of pollution so far above the European Standardised ‘Danger, breathe out only’ levels that when the City Government tried their usual tactic of sticking their finger in their ears and shouting “Cars are safe, Cars are safe, stop talking about this la la la, can’t hear you” they had a coughing fit.

Who’d have thought it?

German law allows for the government to ban motor vehicles in places when pollution gets so thick citizens can surf on the top of it, so our government could legally stop through traffic tomorrow if they wanted, but that may annoy some Very Important Drivers and a certain large car company who like driving big trucks back and forth to deliver to their main factories.

All that happened so far is a rather pathetic advertising campaign to get people to use public transport at half price. This is having as much effect as you’d imagine.

It will be interesting to see what effect the legal proceedings have. So far we’ve been entertained by a number of entitled motorheads having tantrums and demanding that people who don’t like breathing particles ‘just move somewhere else, duh.’ so they can keep driving where they want. Bless.

Meanwhile a rather cleaner version of Stuttgart is emerging on the classroom wall

mural_03

cafe_01It’s been snowing, with enthusiasm. The roads are cleared within a couple of hours and then ploughed every hour or so after that, and gritted in between so that the Very Important Drivers aren’t inconvenienced. Pavements are the responsibility of anyone living alongside them, if they can be bothered, and cycleways, well, no-one uses bicycles in winter. Well, no-one important anyway. Important people use cars.

I am a tad annoyed about this. Fighting to stay upright while bouncing along a rutted ice covered cycle lane in a gale, while drivers swish past on the cleared road does nothing for an even temper.

I’ll get over it. Doesn’t give me much to blog about though.

So, instead, I’ve got an update on our classroom art project, the one I got roped into last year. So far. People wanted a sketch of Stuttgart, but after making the more iconographic buildings things got a bit art deco and Steampunky, partly to give a slightly more utopian optimistic feel than you’d get from looking at the back end of Stuttgart as it really is, and partly because then no-one can say I got it wrong. I also have to design it so that everyone can be involved, so a lot of the city will be fairly simple shapes so that we can give people three colours and instructions on how to make base colours, highlights and shadow.

I still haven’t managed to get the Quadratura effect quite right, and the ‘cafe’ sign looks a bit lost. On the other hand everyone agreed to the idea, although that was probably because they knew they’d have to come up with another one if they didn’t.

Now I have to make a more detailed version ready for a projection, and a second window “with more forest and trees and stuff…”

Well, the pollution alarms are continuing: we had some rain so a lot of last months crud is currently heading downstream to northern Germany and ultimately the Netherlands (sorry) but apparently it didn’t get rid of all the muck so our elected leaders are getting to grips with the situation, and taking a proactive approach to solve the problem once and for all. Yes, once again, they are Putting up Signs. In this case they are very large signs facing the main roads suggesting that drivers might, just possibly want to consider using the half-priced public transport, maybe?

Judging by the numbers of traffic jams in Stuttgart, the signs aren’t really working. Traffic delays are the main subject of conversation at college: people are taking up to an hour and a half for journeys that only take thirty minutes before*.

I’ve also seen the traffic jams because I pass them on the way to college, usually on an empty cycle route.

I think that Stuttgart could save a lot of money if instead of making the ‘Please consider public transport’ signs very large to be seen from a speeding car, they make them postcard sized and put them alongside the road, so that drivers have something to read while waiting for the traffic jam to lurch forward another twenty metres. Something like “If you are reading this, you could have saved 20 minutes by using a tram”.

*When public transport is delayed by ten minutes this is evidence that the whole system is unreliable and that sensible people should use a car, but a traffic jam is simply an annoyance, the fault of all those other cars and evidence that the government should just build lots more roads.

There’s a great deal of hand-wringing at the moment in Stuttgart. It turns out that if you spend forty years building a transport system for rich people in private cars, eventually you run out of space, and rather more importantly, fresh air. Stuttgart is now registering the worst air pollution in Germany, and is breaking the EU limits on a pretty regular basis.

This of course has nothing to do with cars. Well, it is possibly connected to the numbers of cars, but it is really because Stuttgart is in a valley. Yes, that’s the problem, the valley. Not the cars. Anyway, we can’t really do anything effective to stop the pollution because that would mean stopping the cars, and we can’t have that. We just have to hope that the wind picks up and blows the particles outside of the city, which I’m sure will make the citizens of the next town really happy, or that it rains and washes all the muck down the drain, where it can flow into the river and be someone elses problem.

Unfortunately this hasn’t helped much, and neither has building more roads, so now the city has resorted to having a ‘Feinstaubalarm’ which roughly translates as a ‘Pollution alarm’, and on these days, adults can buy half-priced ticket, which should get people out of their cars.

Or not, if the traffic jam outside of my college is anything to go by.

Even so, the hotels association has started complaining that because of the Feinstaubalarm: people are ‘cancelling bookings’. When a journalist checked, this turned out to be about ten bookings in the last month cancelled because of the Feinstaubalarm.. perhaps. The Hotels Association demanded that the government should just sort out the traffic problem by ‘Making sure traffic flows freely’ and ‘Getting rid of traffic jams’.

That’s that, then. Problem solved…

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be allowed out alone.

Yesterday we had good cycling weather, so I cycled to the tiny tram stop at the edge of the valley to catch the tram down the hill. I’ve found this is far easier than dealing with the Scary Hill of Doom with impatient motorists first thing in the morning. The tram stop is hidden away in a quiet corner of the city, and comes complete with a convenient railing. I locked the bike to this (a bike rack would be preferred, but you can’t have everything), waited a few minutes, and got on the tram.

Leaving my cotton cap on the bench seat in the tram stop.

It wasn’t until I got off at the bottom of the hill that I noticed a distinct lack of headgear.

Fortunately the locals are too honest, or too wealthy* to be bothered with such things as a grubby hat, and ignored it for the seven hours it took me to come back and find it.

*Judging by the size of the houses, I suspect the latter.

I mentioned that I’d be taking the tram to college more often in future. This is a bit annoying as I’ve finally got the commuter bike working nicely, but cycling into Stuttgart is a steep learning curve.

Firstly there’s the scary hill of doom, the old road into Stuttgart now a residential street offering views across the city. I can get up on a rack railway, and very nice it is too, but going down a long steep hill is stressful enough without dealing with some of the drivers who I’m supposed to ‘share’ it with.

The route isn’t supposed to a through road, partly because it is narrow and there are several nice wide fast roads going the same way, but mostly, I suspect because the residents are wealthy enough to get what they want from the local government. This only deters the more law abiding drivers, leaving it as an unofficial rat run for the impatient entitled types who think they have a right to drive wherever they want, as fast as they want. Added to this the road is partly one way for cars but bidirectional for bikes, my least favourite kind of route because the ‘Bidirectional’ warning signs are tiny so drivers don’t see them and get upset when they see a bike coming towards them.

I’m getting better at the etiquette, but I’ll probably be cycling to a local station more often and taking the tram from there: some some drivers seem incapable of seeing those either, but at least in a tram/car collision the tram usually has the upper hand.

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