Editor in chief Tyler Brûlé was impressed by the free rein afforded to cyclists on a recent trip to Vienna. Does the refreshing lack of helmets on show suggest a legislation blueprint for other cities?
It’s morning rush hour on the first Tuesday in May and Vienna is unseasonably warm. The Kiwi newsreader on state-run radio station FM4 has reported the mercury might rise to 30C and many are claiming that it could mark a new high for the Austrian capital. Out on the streets children are heading to school (under their own steam, unsupervised), subway stations are ingesting and disgorging riders who’ve all had the good sense to dress for the weather (tropical weight wool suits, linen dresses and plenty of hats) and every café’s pavement seating area is packed with customers enjoying a little morning sun and a quick caffeine jolt.
I’ve decided to go for a late-ish run as I’m not on a terribly tight schedule and rather than jog along the canal or Danube I’ve scoped out less-travelled side streets to see what I might have missed since my last visit in 2010. After about 700 metres I’ve already concluded I’ve been away far too long and noted at least six shops and ateliers I must visit in the coming days. While I’m looking at bread baskets in an ancient bakery window and then lamps at another shop nearby, I’m soon aware of the reflections whizzing past behind me and the sound of gears shifting, bells dinging and wheels whirring.
Vienna, like so many other European capitals, has embraced the shift to two wheels and carved up the city’s streets to make way for bike paths that wind along shady tree-lined boulevards, run parallel to tram lines and somehow cut across complicated intersections. At the same time, city-planners have been busily working on pedestrianising more streets in the city centre and allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating into spaces that might have once been reserved as parking spaces.
On this busy, sunny morning, what’s striking about the movement of hundreds of thousands of commuters in the city core is the seemingly easy orchestration of it all, with private cars making way for cyclists, pedestrians given right of way by polite children on kick-scooters and trams zipping around silently. Rather than a battle to make it from A to B, the city has somehow curbed private vehicles from the city’s core but not banned them outright. Residents still need to make their way to their apartments with luggage and purchases, diplomats still require their drivers to get them to meetings at regional ngo offices and hotels require the services of taxi companies.
Likewise, bicycling here has an easy rhythm and none of the aggressive nature one sees on the streets of London, Toronto or Paris. Proper route-planning means cyclists have a sense of ownership in the commuter equation and it’s reflected in the way they dress and load their bicycles. Rather than cladding themselves in lurid hi-vis vests and jackets and mounting cameras on their helmets, elegant women are cycling in skirts and Ludwig Reiter loafers and men are riding about in sharp suits. In both cases they’re doing so with the wind tussling their hair instead of sweating under a helmet and it’s a wonderful picture.
Here, in the heart of Mitteleuropa, people are enjoying the basic pleasures of riding a bicycle: moving about at a decent clip under their own power, dressed in regular garments and feeling the warm breeze whip past their ears. They’re pulling up in front of cafés with woven pink chairs, dismounting and settling in for a coffee in one effortless movement instead of instigating an entire wardrobe change.
After 40 minutes trotting around Vienna’s parks and streets I’ve determined that roughly 10 per cent of the population wears a bicycle helmet. In part this is because there’s no legislation requiring them to do so but mostly because the environment feels safe enough to do without. Sure, anyone can fall in front of an oncoming tram (on foot as much as two wheels), silent Tesla or lumbering lorry and in some cases a helmet will help mitigate injury but it’s not going to prevent broken bones or a ruptured spleen. The Viennese are very fortunate that they’ve been spared the heavy hand of health-and-safety-obsessed legislators who busy themselves trying to eradicate risk while also stomping out basic pleasures and common sense.
Just as there are dangers in riding around on two wheels, it’s also a risk to wear a scarf on an escalator: it might unfurl, get caught in the gears and strangle the wearer. I feel sorry for children who live in cities where the law requires them to strap on a helmet even if they’re riding around on their driveway. I’m also saddened by a new generation of risk-averse twenty-somethings who refuse to get in taxis without working seatbelts. What happens when they go holidaying in Cambodia or the back country of Peru? Or do they avoid venturing out in the world, fearing there won’t be seatbelts and airbags in an open-top bus?
Good transport-planning allows for risks to be reduced but not eradicated. If we legislate that everyone needs to wear a helmet then we can be quite sure the next step will be a layer of hockey-player-style armour to prevent other scratches and scrapes. If you have further thoughts on getting around with the wind in your hair, drop me a note at email@example.com. Thank you for your support.
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.