Good cycling experience in Graz

I cross the Mur, turn right and cycle along the water. Just before the park, there are roadworks. Fred wonders what I think of these as a Dutch cyclist. Then the park starts. Cycling there is pleasant: people sit in the grass between the trees in the sunshine, smiling. Then I head west through residential areas and via Jakominiplatz to the edge of the centre, where two of the four universities are located.

Not much earlier, the hotel employee gave me the key to my rental bike. For 10 Euros I bought Austrian October sun in beautiful Graz. It is technical weather. A good kick-off for this CIVITAS-week, focussed on cycling this year. 

After 16 years, the CIVITAS Forum returns to Graz. In 2003, the first edition of the CIVITAS Forum took place here. It had yet to become apparent that the CIVITAS Initiative’s annual meeting would turn out to be a rich tradition. Over the past few decades, this initiative became the label under which the European Commission researches and innovates ‘Urban Mobility’. Currently, more than 20 CIVITAS projects are active with themes such as mobility policy (SUMP), data, MaaS, urban logistics, cycling, electric mobility, and more.

One of these projects is CIVITAS ELEVATE. In the coming years, I will be responsible for the CIVITAS Learning Centre, in which we offer e-courses, summer schools, student projects and various training programmes. The aim is to train ‘mobility professionals’ and help them make their cities even more attractive, safe and sustainable.

This week’s program offers many different topics and possibilities. This year I choose “bicycle”. Recently I trained foreign cycling professionals to use Dutch principles of cycling infrastructure planning and design. I am very curious to see what is going on in Graz and CIVITAS in the field of cycling.

Cycle city Graz

Graz developed into the Austrian cycling capital. The share of cycling has grown considerably between 2013-2018. Almost 20% of all trips are now made by bicycle. Made possible by the 130 kilometres of bicycle lanes and separate bicycle paths. Graz’s development into a bicycle city resembles the development of bicycles in the Netherlands. Here too, the car flourished in the 1960s – 1970s. The change was initiated in response to the high accident rates among vulnerable road users and the noise nuisance caused by the ever-increasing volume of car traffic. In the 1980s, Graz was the first European city to set up 30 km/h zones. One-way streets (Einbahnstrasse) were also opened up to cyclists in the opposite direction. The then implemented ‘gentle mobility’ policy was successful. And it still is.

Review; Cycling in Graz

It’s time to put Graz to the test. I have a bike and have received some route tips from CIVITAS project partner Fred – who lives in Graz for more than 20 years. My experiences at a glance:

  • Coherence: the major routes (thick connections), often free-standing, two-way, situated on one side of the road, are coherent and interconnected. The routes connect the most important functions in the city. On the other hand, the coherence at intersections is not always logical and/or recognisable, so sometimes it requires some searching at these points.
  • Directness: the many ‘Einbahnstrassen’ set up over the years for bicycle traffic in the opposite direction are a strong point. This makes the bicycle network direct (and coherent).
  • Safety: on a number of connections there are no facilities. I find myself in the middle of busy traffic (multi-lane, 50km/h). It’s crowded, narrow and not very pleasant to cycle in those places. I wasn’t able to assess if there are alternatives. What strikes me, even more, are the obstacles I encounter, on (lighting mast) or directly next to the bike path (road signs).
  • Comfort: many bicycle paths are asphalted. It’s comfortable. Less comfortable is sharing the bicycle path with pedestrians and the limited space at some intersections and crossings.
  • Attractiveness: Cycling in Graz is really attractive. The Mur forms a blue vein through the city and is also the most beautiful cycling connection. Cycling is great on both sides. Especially the wide-open paths on the north side; in places next to the water, in the green, away from the traffic. Besides the routes along the Mur, the paths along Schlossberg and the park are worth mentioning. The route towards the university, in a kind of residential area with the many bars and restaurants, is enjoyable to cycle. A surprise you’ll find on one of the connections to/from Jakominiplatz. The road is red and designed like an athletics track.
  • Conclusion: 4/5 stars. It is wonderful here! I feel at ease, I get along nicely, and I feel at home among the many other cyclists. Of course, there are comments. I don’t look at it from the Dutch standard, but rather how I experience this place as a cyclist. Sometimes I have to search at intersections, where my route continues on the other side of the road. And mixing cyclists and pedestrians on the bicycle paths are not comfortable. But the great routes along the Mur (both sides) and the path along the Schlossberg are deciding factors for me to give 4 stars (instead of 3).

(Amazing) Insights

With these experiences, you almost forget to let the program’s bicycle lectures sink in. I gained several new insights and was amazed.

The contribution to ‘walking and emotion’ is surprising. The Technical University of Vienna researches how test subjects experience traffic situations and the environment. Not with a questionnaire, but by measuring emotion and stress. Subjects are equipped with sensors and asked to walk different routes. With insights, they want to further segment target groups and use insights for better planning. Interesting, for example, to investigate the attractiveness of bicycle routes. Or which situations or design features lead to discomfort or stress.

The bicycle fits in with the approach towards an energy-efficient mobility system. And with a climate approach. The story of shows the other side as well. What does climate change mean for cycling and plans for bicycle-friendly cities? Through urban heat and cycling routes analysis, insights are gained in locations where comfort and attractiveness may be compromised as a result of rising temperatures. Interesting of course. My pragmatic reflection: what can we do about this? Creating shade and shelter with greenery. You can start right away, and you should do that anyway, to make cities (more) attractive.

‘Financing bicycle infrastructure projects with motor vehicles gains. That is more or less the message of bikenomics. It was educational to refresh the basic principles of the micro-, macro- and welfare economy. An important lesson in my opinion – especially for auto dominant cultures – is that bicycle infrastructure projects have travel time benefits for the car. And thus, justify the investments for cycling. This principle can be questioned, but if you start building the creation and growth of cycling culture this way, then you should certainly not leave it out of the equation.

Following the SUMP congress in Groningen earlier this year, the CIVITAS Forum was the stage to present the final version of the new release of the SUMP guidelines. SUMP is a principle for the development and implementation of Sustainable Mobility Policy. The essence is unchanged. There are some adjustments in detail. My first impression: above all, a lot more information became available that describes, deepens and illustrates guidelines. There are no specific ‘topic guides’ and ‘practitioner briefings’. A bright point for the bicycle. Throughout this Christmas tree, there is a SUMP-practitioner cyclist briefing available. There are topic guides for traffic safety and health. With the continuous and high policy priority that European Commission allocates to SUMP, the bicycle will continue to benefit over the coming years.

All in all, it was an educational and inspiring week. Those ten Euros are earned back in full. Graz, Austria, Europe and beyond are on the move. Bicycles are in the spotlight. There is still a lot to do, but at the same time, a lot of knowledge and experience is available. For the Netherlands too, there is fun and useful insights to continue developing our knowledge base in the field of cycling. Who knows what we will be able to hear about this, next year in Brussels!