Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, nor any one to ride (*with apologies to Coleridge)

Youbike station TaipeiVery frustrating first couple of hours this morning failing to hire a bike.

Apparently to use the Taipei Youbike system I need either a Taiwanese credit card or mobile phone.

The bikes are plentiful, the weather is warm, there are cyclists about and I am hoping to cycle about rather than use the MRT every day. In fact this Youbike station was huge – and full of bikes!

Plan B is now in operation – one of the leisure bike hire stations by the river.

*The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”

Not despairing in Budapest

Eurovelo 6 Danube Hungary

Eurovelo Danube Hungary

cannot believe two weeks have gone by since I was enjoying the sunshine of Budapest – it has a sort of “last summer” feel already with the mini-winter that has hit Belgium.

I realised that while I was musing on the Danube and food I didn’t finish my post about the cycling, which is somewhat of an oversight for a cycling blog. I thought I should complete the process because Budapest is such an important milestone in the Danube Cycle Route and a major part of Eurovelo6, the rivers route linking the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube so it may be of interest to fellow travellers. And I want to thank the campaigners at the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kerekparosklub) for their hospitality.

Whenever a league table of European cycling levels is published many people are surprised to see Hungary competing with Denmark in second or third place. In fact when I showed the graph to some Hungarians in Budapest they were surprised too.

This is because there are still really high levels of cycling in the rural areas of Hungary, largely driven by economic circumstances. But Budapest itself followed the trajectory of most of the Eastern European capitals after the Iron Curtain came down by embracing the car with enthusiasm. Not long later they had the joys of congestion and cars had overwhelmed residual levels of cycling. Unfortunately this rush to the car was also supported by the economic engine of the EU which financed a whole load of so called improvements in the form of new roads.

When I was first in Budapest in the winter of 2008 with the ECF board we were taken on several bike rides around the city which showed the first signs of a counter-revolution. There were lots of plans to improve the infrastructure and particularly to create attractive riverside routes for the Danube Cycle Route.

Eurovelo 6 Hungary

However back then it was very hard to imagine because what was in place was disconnected and dysfunctional.

Five years later you can see the benefits of that investment. It’s not a wholesale transformation of the whole city but it is clear that there is a really big change, especially along the river. OK, there is a heck of a difference between freezing December and sunny March too but there were also a lot more cyclists everywhere I walked and cycled. The confidence of the bike industry seems to be up too, the cycle show Bringaexpo which was hosting my visit has just moved to a bigger venue.

Eurovelo 6 HungaryAnd credit to the EU funding programme too, from previous spending on “roads to nowhere” a significant proportion of the EU infrastructure subsidy to Hungary has now started going on cycling facilities, especially where it can boost tourism. It means the job can be done properly, for example the Margit Bridge is a protected heritage structure so this tunnel through the bridge footings cost around 3 million Euros so the EU share meant it could be done safely and in keeping the integrity of the structure. There were also wide paths across other bridges, cyclists shared with pedestrians but with plenty of space for both.

HungaryIn the city areas there were fewer segregated facilities but the on-carriageway routes were wide, direct and seemed to be respected by the drivers.

Once we got further east towards the exhibition centre there was a nice ride through parkland which is symbolically important to the advocacy community here because it is the final point of the Budapest Critical Mass. This amazing gathering is not the underground movement of other cities, at its peak it had over 80,000 participants and was joined by significant politicians. Interestingly 2013 will see the last ever CM here because the leaders feel it has achieved as much as it can as a protest movement and it is now joining forces and trying to bring its energy to the broader cyclists groups. It was great to be at a meeting with them and see the injection of passion that comes from that direct action side of campaigning. Diary date 20th April if you happen to be able to get to Budapest – should be a good party.

HungaryAs a visitor who really appreciates the Danube and as someone who has always loved cycling and walking by water I can perhaps permit myself one moan. Like so many countries and cities the waterway is a corridor for other modes of transport.

Hungary Eurovelo 6 In the really bold cities like Paris we see city administrations trying to claim that space back for people. I think the authorities here have bottled it in places, for example south of Margit Bridge they have let fast roads keep the river bank and pushed

Hungary Eurovelo 6pedestrians and cyclists up onto a raised embankment. This means the views are nice enough but distanced from the calm of the water. Just look at these two photos. Stunning view of the Parliament building – then pull back the lens to see what the actual view shows.

t isn’t like this all the way along, but I can’t help but feel that was an opportunity lost.

However if you are planning a ride down Eurovelo 6 or even just a short stretch of the Danube Cycle Route can I recommend you include the Budapest stretch and do take a few diversions across the bridges and out to areas like Hero Square, it is becoming a good place to ride a bike again. See my earlier post for just  taste of the architecture and history in Budapest and from what I heard the ride round Lake Balaton is a treat for future occasions..

And credit to the cyclists organisations and their friends and supporters. The movement is relatively small and underfunded compared to many in Western Europe however they have lots of creativity, bags of energy and a real willingness to work together to go forward. And they do some rather amusing campaigning, always good to see advocacy with a smile.

I look forward to more chances to visit them too, it really feels that I am among friends

 

Spring at last – a beautiful day in Budapest

Danube Budapest Hungary

Searing bright light, forcing me to squint, making sightseeing almost painful.

And it was absolutely wonderful. After weeks of overcast cold weather this spring day in Budapest was like a huge injection of life.

I wrote on Friday how much the Danube always impresses me. But now in the stunning sunlight with the architecture of Budapest on either side I just didn’t want to stop wandering and taking photos. Almost a shame that I had to go and talk cycling!Parliament Building Budapest Hungary Danube Budapest Hungary Church by Danube in Buda Hungary

Last time I was here was December 2008. It was freezing, overcast and we spent quite a bit of our time cycling in the dark. But even then I remember being impressed by the buildings and bridges of several eras overlooking the water, but today they were resplendent in spring sunshine.Chain Bridge and Buda castle Budapest Buda Castle, Budapest Hungary

 

As well as the riverside I had a short time to go into the centre too and I enjoyed the quiet squares just beyond the busy thoroughfares. These grand buildings and statues are typical of these central European cities that were once part of one of Europe’s greatest empires.

Budapest Hungary

Hungarians are a warm hospitable people too, with an extraordinary compulsion to fill visitors with enormous quantities of food. It doesn’t get much better for a hungry cyclist.

If you’ve not been, go.

The Danube always makes a huge impression on me

Margit Bridge

Even  though I am stepping out on a cold misty morning today the Danube never fails to excite me.

Partly it is the huge size, partly I can look down river and catch a first glimpse of the buildings of Budapest along the banks. But it has always done this whenever I have come to it on trips.

But also I think about this amazing corridor that links so many capital cities and countries, running from Germany to the Black Sea. How much human history has been seen along these waters. Something of the exotic perhaps? As a Brit we are often far removed and sadly uneducated about much European history, but when I get the Danube I always feel I should know more.

It is a long standing ambition to cycle the eastern section. Today I will have to content myself with this first view and some cycling along its great cycle paths later.

Hey dude, somebody moved the country

Walloon Brabant Belgium

We were pottering about last weekend trying to learn a bit more about our new home area, Brabant Wallon (Walloon Brabant in English) and we ended up in the pretty town of Ittre.

It is a small and charming rural town with a long history back to the time of the Romans and an impressive chateau which disappointingly has private grounds.Brabant Wallon BelgiumBrabant Wallon Belgium

But one of its main claims to fame is that it is the recognised geographical centre of Belgium, for which it has a pair of grinding stones topped by this proud marker right in front of the town hall.Ittre Walloon Brabant

However there is a catch. Sometime around 1990 the geographical institute noticed that they hadn’t updated the official geographic centre since 1919 when the German speaking communes of Belgium were added to the east of the country.

And dear Ittre discovered that it had been living on false pretences for nearly seventy years and the centre was moved. However the monument seems to have puffed out its chest and decided to carry on regardless and nobody is going to challenge civic pride by demolishing it. So Belgium has retained two geographic centres, the sort of compromise that makes this country work.Brabant Wallon Walloon Brabant

A tale of two sheds – or why my great new bike shed suddenly feels inadequate

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bouval/8474784196/in/pool-platform-duurzaamheid-dordrecht

Photo RienVal (All rights reserved)

I have never given a talk in a stables before.

But at the Dordrecht Sustainability Café (Duurzaamheidscafé) last week I was speaking in the former stables of a rich merchant’s house which is now the Weizigt Sustainability Centre. Next door was an even bigger and grander room which used to park the carriages when the house was built in the 19th Century.

To keep the integrity of the space there were even two fibreglass horses in the end stalls.Dordrecht Weizigt

Dordrecht Weizigt Sustainability Centre

And how those horses must have lived. Look at this place! Expensively tiled walls and each horse has its personalised drinking trough. I’d hate to say that these were from marble, but this was a carved solid stone trough out of something impressive. If you wanted to carve a trendy modern work surface for your designer kitchen then this is the sort of stuff you would use.

It was a great environment for the informal and interactive series of sustainability talks (the café) held each quarter where local groups can come together and hear presentations and discuss topical sustainability issues.

Dordrecht Duurzaamheidscafé

But I couldn’t help but think of my own animal shed. I have been over the moon since I moved to Belgium because the house I am renting comes with old farm buildings, including a milking shed with the cow stalls still in place.

So my bikes have been given their own stalls too.Kevin Mayne's Bike Shed

Only problem is that in this one the roof leaks and there is a howling wind blowing through the space, but it is the best bike shed I have ever had. I even had this sneaking temptation to start giving the bikes appropriate names like Daisy, Buttercup and Ermintrude.

However now I have seen the Weizigt centre all that is behind me.

How could I possibly match up when those Dutch horses each had a personalised brass name plate over their stall. Now that would be some bike shed.Flora's Stall Dordrecht Weizigt

 

The unprepared tourist – an afternoon cycling in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate Deutschebahn call bike

Last week I paid my first visit to Berlin. Fortunately around my schedule of meetings I had a few free hours to myself for an afternoon and the freezing rain relented just enough to make sightseeing a realistic opportunity.

I was horribly unprepared to be a tourist having done almost no prior reading. When I checked my usual source on such matters Tripadvisor’s main recommendations were all places that needed at least an hour each to do them justice. Given that my knowledge of Berlin is entirely made of fragments from spy movies and occasional news footage, not the soundest of starts.

Solitary woman cyclist Berlin

So it should come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that I hired a bike and pottered about with my camera just trying to get some impressions of the city.

I was able to top up my knowledge by chatting to colleagues the following day so I was at least able to answer some of my immediate questions, but here is a brief snapshot of thoughts and feelings from a first afternoon cycling and sightseeing in central Berlin.

First orientation issue – am I in East or West Berlin? I am starting from the middle (Mitte), but checking the map tells me I am in the former East because the Berlin Wall actually encircled the old centre like a bump in its alignment. Not obvious to my eye which was which or that the East had been the poor half because my walk down Friedrichstrasse to hire a bike passed parades of shops and offices indistinguishable from any modern city.

Once a bike was obtained from one of Deutsche Bahn’s many bike hire stations I realised that the layout was very compact and it was a matter of minutes to turn down the main street of East Berlin Unter den Linden and head for the must see monument, the Brandenburg Gate. (above)

Not only an impressive monument but important for my orientation because this was one of the symbols of divided Berlin and I could follow the former line of the Berlin Wall from here, especially as so many tourism landmarks appeared to be along its route.

It turned out to be quite an odd ride, as if the city doesn’t quite know what to do with its legacy, or indeed it’s cycling. Heading south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz the road was obvious but almost all suggestions of the wall’s existence were gone. Instead the first landmark was the Holocaust Memorial, a sombre grey feature of large blocks laid out in a grid, completed in 2004. A moody place in the overcast sky and slushy snow.Holocaust Memorial Berlin

At PotsdamerPlatz I encountered my first evidence of the wall with some retained segments placed on the square covered with interpretation materials about the wall and its legacy. This explained more about what I was, or indeed was not seeing. In the transition after the wall came down many sections were demolished leaving the wide open spaces that used to be the former killing zone, the space left for the guards to see anybody trying to cross. Some are still undeveloped over 20 years later and appear as waste land, some quickly got developed or incorporated into road schemes and a few make the site of memorials and museums.

As I left Potsdamer Platz the cycle lane on the pavement disappeared, the road narrowed and I appeared to be on a very ordinary city street with no indication of history. My map said I was following the wall and should take the first left into another very nondescript small side street heading for the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a site called “Topography of Terror”.  It was all very quiet, few cars, few tourist trappings and not unpleasant cycling at all.

I quickly knew I was on the right road because a much longer section of original wall came up beside me. Behind it was a flat plain containing a low grey modern building and some open building foundations. No signs, no obvious clues as to what was going on until I found that “Topography of Terror”  was the site of the core of former Nazi control in Berlin, the seat of the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry and the building footings I could see were Hitler’s Bunker and Gestapo rooms. I found out later that the surface buildings had been demolished by Allied bombing during the war and its proximity to the wall meant it was just left as open space for over 40 years. Another uncomfortable memory to be incorporated into the city and the museum was perhaps suitably understated.Berlin wall NiederkirchnerstrasseDisplay Board Topography of Terrors Berlin

Its neighbour across the street could hardly be more of a contrast!Berlin

Shortly beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway between the American and Russian sectors which had appeared in many iconic Cold War images and is certainly more of a tourist hot spot now.  visiting Berlin by bike

The motif of the wall was used well to provide photographic displays on the approaching streets which gave the history of divided Berlin in news photographs and information boards.Berlin wall displays

But yet again nearby was one of those ambiguous memorials that really set me thinking – this time the museum of the infamous STASI, the East German secret police.Berlin

I spoke to a colleague later about these many memorials to difficult subjects. He said that because Berlin had stagnated for so long after the war there had been no systematic attempt to “move on” and certainly no civic regeneration programme to remove evidence of difficult subjects. And then after reunification it became recognised that Berlin should not be allowed this past so the city had begun to establish them as part of education and reconciliation. I had the feeling it was a sort of pact – you can become the capital city again but you cannot be allowed to forget.

There is certainly no avoiding the subject of the wall. I had assumed that when I left the central area some of the references would go diminish but later that evening on the S-bahn railway I learned about the ghost stations where North-South trains ran under East Berlin from two sectors of the West but didn’t stop at the pre-war stations. And the sections of that line that ran almost along the wall with platforms only open on the West side.

Back to my ride. Having passed Checkpoint Charlie I had my fill of wall sites so I swung North East to see more of the older city. First I followed a relatively large road across to Alexanderplatz which was a pretty nondescript public space in the growing gloom but I was then able to pick up the banks of the River Spree and circle around the hugely impressive Museum Island. What actually caught the eye here too was the amount of building going on, this looks like a city going though a construction boom.Museumsinsel BerlinRiver scene Berlin

I then used the river bank to retrace my steps back to a building I wanted to see, the Reichstag.  The historic parliament building became the seat of German government again when its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster was finally built into the older frame. Reichstag Berlin

Around it I discovered a huge modern civil service quarter built on the river bank and a series of waterways and parkland which looked really nice environment. If I had been organised I would like to have booked a visit to see the inside of the Reichstag because everything I have heard about it looks amazing. But for now the space in front of the Reichstag was vast, open and increasingly cold so I didn’t linger, I needed to keep moving.

From the Reichstag it was a quick trip through the Tiergarten park back to the Brandenburg Gate and the return of the bike to its hire station as the gloom came in.

Fascinating place – so many questions about the attitude to history, to culture, to monuments and a potentially days to spend. That is without touching the arts, culture, nightlife and even some of the suburbs – so many other things form which the city is known.

And what about the cycling?

Well I found as many oddities about cycling in Berlin as I did about the city itself.

I had been told that about 13% of trips in Berlin are made by bike. That’s in line with the German average which means well above the rest of Europe and especially the places I usually ride. But I have convinced myself I am getting the hang of this mode share business, I am beginning to be able to see what the differing levels look like.

empty cycle parking - February in BerlinBut in Berlin I couldn’t. Whether on my ride or looking at the rush hours I couldn’t see the significant flows I was expecting. Cyclists visible on most streets, yes, but not huge numbers. There were lots of bikes parked round the city but in fact much of the cycle parking was empty. So maybe the weather meant that cycling was quite seasonal I asked? Apparently not, but perhaps I was in the wrong place because the levels of cycling are highly dependent on the routes in from certain suburbs.

Fixie rider Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Just like everywhere else in Europe it is the middle classes and intellectuals who cycle the most and in Berlin it is the areas where the alternative cultural movement established itself in the sixties that cycling levels are highest. If this is the case then it might explain why cyclists in the city centre really did feel quite isolated.

However in the city centre what I could see was that other indicator of cycling health. Women on bikes are universally recognised as a sign that the population thinks cycling is safe. However maybe they think they are not quite safe enough because I did notice that nearly all the women wore the dreaded cycle helmets – but none of the men!Friedrichstrasse Cycling Berlin

Cyclist Berlin 1The other thing that will be a bit confusing for many cycling advocates was the lack of segregated cycle routes. The vast majority of cycling I did was on the carriageway – I could have been in Brussels or London. That certainly contradicts the message that you need a big segregated network to get cycling levels above 10%. However I rarely felt worried, the drivers were largely respectful of the cyclist and the cycle lane – now that is a big difference. Possibly my view was distorted by the time of day, I was just before the afternoon rush hour, but even the following morning I felt general traffic volumes in the city were really low compared to most large cities in Europe. Maybe Berlin drivers are less stressed than their equivalents stuck in traffic across the world? I still instinctively believe that cycle lanes are just one way of changing the relationship between rider and driver and Berlin seemed to support the notion that respectful driving is a valuable way to create a cycling environment too.

So Berlin by bike?

Flat, compact, interesting, well behaved drivers, loads of bikes on hire. Something I definitely want to do again. But better prepared and able to use the Call Bike system properly, jumping on and off to visit the main attractions properly!

Bike to Heaven

Memorial to Jan Bouchal Prague

On a relatively undistinguished junction in Prague a small but moving ceremony took place Thursday night. Under gently falling snow around seventy people gathered around a white bike mounted on a lamp column and a small group of candles.

Memorial to PupThe group consisted of local cycle activists, critical mass riders, walkers and supporters of sustainability group Auto*Mat. Speeches of friendship were made with quiet dignity and a minute’s silence was held, bareheaded in the cold near the banks of the Vltava River.

Every January for seven years they have gathered on this corner  to commemorate the life of one of their friends and colleagues Jan Bouchal, killed by a car on this corner in 2006. But this year the gathering had special meaning. After six years of campaigning the city council finally remodelled the junction to make it safer for cyclists and this year they have agreed to a permanent memorial to “Pup“ as he was known.

An open competition has been held amongst local artists to create a design and following a public fundraising campaign the design will be permanently installed on the spot. Echoing the spirit of the ghost bikes that have become a symbol of unnecessary cyclists deaths around the world a suspended bicycle will rotate around the column high in the air, called “Bike to Heaven”.http://www.auto-mat.cz/2013/01/pupuv-pomnik-jiz-na-jare-podporite-jeho-vznik/

I was invited because I was in Prague working at a conference to share the findings of the BICY Project, a three year project to develop cycling in central Europe. Daniel Mourek, our Czech ECF board member invited us to ride with the local critical mass and share the occasion with them, something of an honour to be a guest on their occasion.

But it was easy to feel at home with this group. As in so many countries and cities where cycling and sustainability is hard to promote the activist community is tightly bound and the cyclists fill a tribal niche. On the critical mass I recognised the forerunners that I have seen all over the world, riding fixies, cargo bikes, folders and recycled bikes in a number of designs. Prague is not an easy cycling environment. On average only 2% of local traffic is cyclists which in winter means almost none are seen on the streets and it is a battle to get the council to do positive things for transport cyclists. The city centre should be a great place for cycling as it is largely traffic free but I saw only a single cyclist while I was there apart from the group I was with.

Critical Mass Prague
In this tough environment Jan Bouchal was a real leader of the group, one of the founders of the Auto*Mat and it was clear by the way he was described as “our friend” that he was a very valued person. I wish his friends every success in their campaign to raise the money they need for the memorial but even more so I wish them every success in their campaigns to make Prague a cycling city.

Memorial for Jan Bouchal Prague

Not cycling – need some inspiration

Oreti Beach, Invercargill, New ZealandBeen a bit unwell, not riding my bike much except to the station.

Weather grey and horrible.

Maybe a bit of inspiration on line? No, the twittersphere and blog world are full of Lance Armstrong and his forthcoming appearance on Oprah.

I just need a couple of memories to cheer me up.

Number one above is for the bucket list I am slowly compiling. Something everyone must do is ride your bike on a remote beach. Even better let it be Oreti Beach near Invercargill, New Zealand. Ride some of the singletrack trails on nearby Sandy Point (world’s most southerly singletrack?) and then roll onto the hardpacked beach when there is a wind whipping up the whitecaps from the Southern Ocean.

Number 2 – mountain biking in Spain. Just because I love this photo and remember being there.

Near Amer, Girona, Spain

The Kingdom of Bicycles in video – flashback to an earlier China

Kingdom of Bicycles StillThis post originates from one of those unexplainable coincidences that life throws up. And once they have occurred I know I just have to talk about it.

I was thinking about a “bucket list” post for New Year, reflecting the many cycling experiences I would like to have or to share. I know it has been done many times, but it is a great concept.

On my “done it” list was one item that I feel is probably now impossible to replicate and I was going to challenge readers to suggest an alternative. In 1985 I had the privilege of hiring an upright black bike and riding the streets of Peking with my father. (Now more correctly called Beijing of course).

The only way I can capture the feeling today is to imagine a flock of black birds. The flock wheels and turns, seemingly at random, but somehow the birds do not collide and as a collective the flock becomes a thing of beauty. We two clumsy westerners were almost certainly a break in the harmony, but it didn’t stop it being a magical experience.

I have cycled the rush hours in Amsterdam and Copenhagen but it doesn’t feel the same even today. Maybe it was the touch of the exotic, the scale of the streets, huge highways full of bikes, or perhaps that there were so few cars in 1985 Beijing that the cyclists felt like kings. We certainly weren’t pinned to the side of the road in token lanes, we were the traffic.

I had gathered these few thoughts together in my head as part of this possible “bucket list” post when out of the blue Patrick Keating from Velocapital Partners circulated a report on cycling traffic in China, together with a link to this lovely film from China Central Television English Language service. It is 25 minutes long, so take a glass of something or more appropriately a cup of tea and enjoy the film and photography.

http://english.cntv.cn/program/storyboard/20120124/112052.shtml

Of course much of that cycle traffic has gone now and the rush for cars has driven cyclists off those boulevards in Beijing. Even in 1985 we found the centre of Shanghai to be so congested it was almost gridlocked by buses and taxis and by all accounts the transition in Beijing was rapid. Sadly I haven’t been back since 1985 but I doubt any experience can replace that day. However the film was a great reminder.

By the way Julian – riding your Flying Pigeon in Brussels doesn’t even get close. Sorry mate.

Quirky hotel in Stockholm deserves a mention

Gamla Stan Stockholm Old TownI have been very rude about some hotels encountered on my travels this year (click hotels tag below for more!) but to be fair I have had a good run lately.

All credit to the Hotel Sienna in Verona and the Dream House Hostel in Kiev which were excellent and really cyclist friendly.

However I just had to write about the Lord Nelson in Stockholm.

It is a tall narrow building in the old city fitted out with maritime themed antiques, especially those linked to the 19th century British navy. Yes that is a ship’s wheel on the first floor and the corridor to the rooms feels like a ship’s deck with its blue and brass theme and portholes.Gamla Stan Stockholm Old Town

Gamla Stan Stockholm Old TownBreakfast should have been served on deck, but actually was in a blue and wood panelled based on a cruise liner’s bar.Gamla Stan, Old Town Stockholm Sweden

Each room is designed as a cabin, which is a neat trick for disguising that the rooms are tiny, but I thought it was great.

Just to capture the mood here it is in black and white, feels really period apart from the TV. Apparently their chain in Stockholm called the Collector’s Hotels and Apartments; if you go there I recommend them. Actually I doubt they have room to store a bike, but in this case they are forgiven.Gamla Stan, Stockholm Old Town

Not despairing in Stockholm

SwedenI have only cycled once before in Sweden, and that was three years ago after Velo-city Copenhagen when my son and I took our bikes across the strait to Malmo. It was clear to see that there has been an extension of Copenhagen riding culture across the bridge because cycling levels were really high and well catered for.

So I was very interested to see what the capital city was like away from that influence, especially as I was doing an evening talk with the Dutch Cycling Embassy to a group of municipalities from the Stockholm region. It certainly helps to have ridden just a little bit before speaking to a cycling audience, if only to see where we have things in common, I am always reminded of the famous situation when the Beatles landed in the US and as they got off the plane a reporter said “So what do you think of America?”

Sweden cyclingFirst discovery was yet another design of bike in use for the public bike sharing, a rather odd looking beast with a small front wheel, and what turned out to be horribly uncomfortable saddles.

Throughout the two days I saw consistent streams of riders, obviously higher numbers than many places I know in the UK or Belgium, up there with parts of Germany but not quite reaching the critical mass of the Netherlands or Denmark. I was quite pleased with myself when I guessed a mode share of 10% as that turns out to be about right, I think I am starting to tune in now as I increase my exposure to different cycling environments. Swedish cycling

I was told that this is actually well behind many other Swedish cities and Stockholm may be holding the country back. It certainly was a mixed culture full of contradictions.

Encouragingly high numbers of women cycling which is always an indicator that cycling has been normalised and taken back from us macho types, but then more helmets than I have seen anywhere that doesn’t have a compulsion policy.

As we rode around we encountered every kind of cycling facility, without any rhyme or reason as to which would come next.  On road, on paint, segregated and shared use all in a small area and without any apparent strategy, or if there was I missed it. And almost no car free areas except a few streets in the touristy part of the old city, that really is a bit of a rarity now in forward-looking cities now.

Swedish cycling

Quality of the cycling facilities was pretty good when they existed, often wide and smooth, but there were some totally chaotic and confusing junctions to a newcomer.

SwedenI am glad I was following Christian on my first day. The routes around the waterfront were lovely, the sort of ride that makes me want to get up in the morning.

And that’s a point – did I mention mornings? I had my usual hotel problem of waking up really early so I went out for a walk around 6.30. Big shock to the system, pitch dark without a hint of dawn and a wicked wind cutting through the buildings, suddenly you know you have come a long way north.

But as I wandered out of the old city towards the main roads I became aware of lots of traffic noise and discovered that rush hour seemed to be well underway, not just for cars and trains but for cyclists. I was later told that Sweden has quite a long-hours culture; or one where people like to start early so they can get home early. Whatever it was I don’t think I have seen quite so many early riders anywhere. I guess if you get used to cycling through a Scandinavian winter you are used to doing a lot of riding in the dark, but this was quite striking.Morning rush hour

Given that I see no cyclists on the roads in Brussels before 8am it was encouraging to see them out there.

Another nice feeling came around the Dutch Embassy, which conveniently happens to be on the busiest cycle route in Stockholm. As the street outside is car free and mingles bikes and pedestrians it could almost be home for the staff. Although the hill is a bit bigger than many of them would ever encounter! Great thing the embassy has in common with any Dutch organisation: When the ambassador talks about cycling in his welcome speech at least he hasn’t been handed the notes on a piece of paper, he has actually ridden a bike around most of his life, as they all have. Gives them enormous credibility as hosts and ambassadors for cycling culture.Netherlands Embassy Sweden

I’m looking forward to further invitations, this Dutch – Swedish relationship could go well and I hope to be back to see the results.

A cyclists view of Stockholm in autumn

Gallery

This gallery contains 16 photos.

I went to Stockholm a few times in my business career. I can honestly say I don’t remember anything except an amazing boozy harbour cruise at mid-summer. But charging into meetings and dashing around in cabs left me with no sense … Continue reading

Frustration and hope – cycling experiences in Ukraine. (Or “clueless Kev in Kiev”)

Randy Neufeld SRAMFlashback to last Tuesday. I am stuck at the side of a large road junction. I know I shouldn’t be here, I wanted to go straight on, but lacking confidence I have pulled over to the right and I am stuck against the barriers. Now there are two lanes of cars swinging across my line and I can’t get back to my lane.

And this traffic cop is giving me the eye. I don’t think I have done anything illegal, it’s just that I am an alien being in this landscape. He certainly isn’t going to help, that’s for sure. What I really need is another cyclist to follow, somebody who knows the ropes and does this regularly.

But there’s the catch. There aren’t any. This is Khreschatyk, the main street in upper Kiev and I am on my own. I’ve been out riding for over an hour and I have seen one other cyclist, and he was on the pavement (sidewalk). One of the fun parts of writing a blog that starts “When I see an adult on a bicycle…” is that I play a sort of game in every new city, being cheered by the first rider I see. However in 2 ½ days I saw just 10 cyclists, that’s like being back on the dark ages of cycling in Britain. The best comparison I could make was when as a student in 1980 I first tried to cycle from Durham into central Newcastle upon Tyne, a lonely and exposed figure on a morass of high speed roads and aggressive driving.

Before this turns into a rant I will say there are some positive things to say about cycling in Kiev, but it isn’t easy.

Generally I’m a pretty positive cyclist, maybe not in the category of the messengers but I have mixed it out in the fast lane of a lot of cities. And actually I don’t particularly feel in any danger here. It’s just that I am baffled and bemused. The previous day I rode with Randy Neufeld, Director of the SRAM Foundation from Chicago and he said that he felt hampered by not knowing what the rules or conventions were. I had mainly been frustrated by lack of continuity on that ride, but on my own I am just as destabilised.

To be fair I don’t feel like this down in the low town. The low city area of Podil has narrower streets and more congestion so it just feels like most older European cities that have yet to grasp cycling. If you can cope with London and Brussels you can cope with this. And the cobbled streets in the restoration area around Adriivsky may be hilly but they are much slower and tamer. 40 years of cycling instinct just kick in and I am happy taking my place in the traffic flows. But in the upper city the big roads are just un-navigable to a stranger.

The source of most bafflement from both days was how to make progress in a straight line. Having not seen any cyclists when walking the city centre Randy tracked down entrepreneur/activist Alexey Kushka  and his business Veliki  to hire some bikes out in the suburbs. From there we decided to try and head back to the city, allowing ourselves some exploratory diversions into the surrounding neighbourhoods and parks. The advice we were given was to stay off the trunk roads and ride on the pavements or try and get through the minor roads.

Initially that was fine, two experienced riders shouldn’t have a problem. But quickly we hit the issue of big junctions. When the major roads meet there are apparently no ways across. Pedestrians are sent off down underpasses, but that doesn’t work for us. If we want to turn left across the traffic flows it is illegal for cyclists under the Ukrainian Road Code if the road has more than one lane, and frankly I wouldn’t want to do it, far too exposed. Cycleable neighbourhoods and pavements are like islands cut off from each other by treacherous torrents. So we zig-zagged our way along looking for pedestrian crossings to make a very indirect way to the city.

In addition to the frustration of leaving our islands we had the challenge of the pavements. They are potentially good news because they are wide and quite inviting, the basis of a great cycling network. Only we got there too late. Many bits of the pavement not covered in cars are dedicated to the apparent backbone of the Ukrainian economy, small stalls which serve every possible need.

And there is no visible parking restriction whatsoever. We were just standing on corners checking navigation when we were honked at by cars being driven straight up the kerb to head for a parking space. And all this appears to be not only legal but policy, certainly a lot of the pavement bays were marked out with white lines and “managed” by bulky figures in dark coats.

Randy Neufeld, SRAMwww.avk.org.uaBut I have to admit I loved it. Taking on a new city is always a buzz and when I did fly down to Podil or had my photo taken by a tourist on Adriivsky as I battled the cobbles I felt like young Malcolm in the surprise Youtube hit of the last two weeks. “Dad I did it”. And it was good to follow hosts and activists Ksenia and Ira as they moved in confident Dutch style around their city.

So what’s the good news? ”I do not despair for the future of Kiev despite not seeing an adult on a bicycle”? This dangerously close to a policy manifesto which I don’t do in my personal blog, but I feel strongly that I want to say something positive for the people I met in Ukraine.

The best hope is always those people. Margaret Mead, American anthropologist says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” The city is full, stuffed by the free-for all on the roads, the dreadful congestion and parking and everyone told me that the majority of society accepts that it cannot go on. That is fertile ground for change.

The energy and passion of the Kiev Cyclists Association members and all the activists, entrepreneurs and civil servants we met in Yevpatoria and Kiev was infectious and they are determined to bring cycling to their country. The evening talk I gave in Kiev was well attended and apparently we attracted a lot of new faces. The quality of questioning was as knowledgeable and passionate as any other country I visit even if there is an acknowledgement that this is a really tough environment to promote cycling.

Kiev, UkraineSo a few thoughts, not just for them but maybe for anyone thinking of doing some cycling when they visit.

It was clear that we had really not seen the best of the cycling community in the city centre. There are green shoots, popular cycling parks and some suburbs where there are regular cycling numbers. I was told Trakhaniv island is not only the cycling mecca at weekends it is a good commuting short cut and could be a place to start building a cycling culture for all types of users, I certainly found it beautiful and welcoming even in the mist. It also wouldn’t take a huge amount of sharing for Kiev Ukrainethe current cyclists to tell others how they get around. By sharing their routes and shortcuts so much of the complete bafflement I felt could disappear and a little critical mass could emerge. Given that there is almost no regulation some informal waymarking could be put in place and would last for years. Kiev Cyclists Association have already painted their own cycle lane in one spot and nobody has erased it, how we would love to get away with that in some other countries.

And no city can be so bad if it has a cyclists’ cafe!http://dream-family.com/en/dream-house/

Kiev activists can also take hope from the rest of the country. Crimea is a potential hot spot for tourism but there is clearly progress in places like Lviv. We know in many countries the capital city came to the party late simply because of size and inertia, but they can show there is nothing in Ukrainian culture that makes cycling impossible. For international cycle tourists and mountain bikers you can find lots of great places to go like Big Yalta.

Lastly Kiev has one extraordinary asset that most world cities would beg for, something money cannot buy. It has space. The streets are incredibly wide, the pavements and roads are wide enough for segregated bike lanes, there are plentiful parks and boulevards connecting them. But the space is just unmanaged. Look at this: four lanes of cars on the road – and six lanes of parked cars. Two lanes on the road, two on the near pavement, one on the other side and somebody double parked. Get hold of that and the potential for rapid change is high.

Right now it is a tough call to be an urban cyclist in Kiev, or a cycling activist but here is hope and enthusiasm not despair.

Cпасибі. Thank you.