Strasbourg: How they do it in a cycling city

Taking life a little too easy in Strasbourg

When we reached Strasbourg, our end destination on our cycling tour along the Rhine, I wondered whether we had inexplicably slipped into a parallel universe. A place where bikes, not cars, rule the roost.

Strasbourg is the dictionary definition of a pleasant town. Its city centre, Grande Île, which is surrounded by a canal, is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. The city is made up of medieval houses, small streets and squares and inviting little shops and cafes. What is instantly noticeable is the huge number of bicycles. After pedalling around for a day it is easy to notice exactly why this is.

Try to spot the one way street for cyclists

Another road where bicycles are permitted to travel in both directions and cars are not

If you ever visit Strasbourg there’s a fun game you can play. It involves trying to spot one way streets that also include a ban on cyclists. They quite simply don’t exist. Everywhere we cycled, around the town center, we saw signs and infrastructure on the street that allowed cyclists to travel in both directions.

The local authorities had obviously taken the permeability idea seriously and to its ultimate conclusion. Cyclists should be able to pedal in any direction they wish, in all of the streets of Strasbourg.

Actually, try to spot somewhere where cyclists are not permitted

Strasbourg

After starting off by cautiously pedalling around we quickly realised bicycles are permitted everywhere. They have the freedom to roam down one way streets, along the path of the tram lines and on pavements. It was liberating to have such freedom to enjoy looking around the city on the bike.

People have come to expect to see bikes everywhere and it all seems to work harmoniously. As with London, a few people abuse this freedom and you see them dodging pedestrians like it’s a game. However, they are a minority. Part of cycling around Strasbourg seems to also involve riding an old bike. It tends to help as pedestrians and other cyclists can hear you coming as you squeak along.

The simple bicycles are complemented with equally simple locking systems. Using my 2kg Kryptonite Lock, I felt somewhat foolish in Strasbourg. It was like I’d turned up with a personal body guard for my bike. Someone may have stolen my bike because they mistakenly believed it was worth something.

Something very sinister behind the scenes

Pedestrian as well as cyclist crossing leading onto a dedicated cycling path

The pleasantness of the city hides a shocking contradiction. The city is one of the most atmospherically polluted in France. This is caused its geographical position which provides very poor ventilation.

This perhaps explains in part, why the city is so keen to embrace green transport. It is hard to imagine where Strasbourg would be, had it not made those important moves towards a greener city.

Bringing Strasbourg to London

Two cyclists pedal next to the Palais du Rhin

In London we are struggling with our own pollution problems. Pedalling around Strasbourg it’s hard not to be jealous and you find yourself wishing what is being done here could be brought to London. What if we pedestrianized the Camden high street? Or turned Oxford Circus into a one way system?

Inevitably what people will then ask is: But what will happen to all the cars? How will people get around? Yet, the question we should really ask is what will happen if we don’t start to make these changes. We’ll continue to suffer the side effects of pollution and miss out on the benefits of liveable streets.

It certainly seems a greater task for London to work towards a greener future. After all, our city is far larger than Strasbourg. However, achieving similar changes in London can bring even greater benefits than those enjoyed by people living in Strasbourg.

If you are looking for a weekend getaway, then I can highly recommend Strasbourg. Just don’t forget your bike.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

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7 Responses to Strasbourg: How they do it in a cycling city

  1. Jon Rogers 24/08/2011 at 10:59 am #

    Interestingly, the DfT is looking at changing the rules on “No entry except cyclists”. Highways officers in Bristol have had a number of very positive discussions with the DfT, and we have had a number of our one way streets now amended to simply say “Except cyclists”.

    This is much clearer than the alternative, “no entry to motor vehicles” signs, which many drivers don’t seem to recognise or understand!

    • Chris 30/08/2011 at 9:35 am #

      Yes, it’s good that the DfT is minded to allow this practice without needing special authorisation.

      The situation in France is much simpler: since 2008 local authorities have been mandated to make one-way streets two-way for cycling unless they are too narrow or speeds are too high (ie, above 30 km/h).

      This is why so many contraflows exist in France.

      Even after the ‘no entry except cyclists’ sign combination is permitted, conversion of one-ways is likely to be piecemeal by comparison.

  2. Andy 24/08/2011 at 12:05 pm #

    I confess that I have once, due to closed roads and diversions I don’t understand, slipped the wrong way down a one way street. There was lots of room, no traffic in sight initially, and I only had a few yards to go before I could turn off.

    Then a taxi driver turned down the street – he swerved towards me (only to try to make it appear that there was less room than there was, he wasn’t trying to hit me) and began making flapping gestures with his arms, which I interpreted as:

    “I am a taxi driver, and I scrupulously obey all of laws of the road, while giving respect to pedestrians, cyclists, and all road users alike, and your flouting of the ‘one way law’ has really hurt my delicate feelings.”

    Had it been a taxi going the wrong way, i suspect he would have waited behind parked cars on one side for it to pass.

  3. Charles 24/08/2011 at 12:29 pm #

    What should happen with cars is to be forgoten. Just ambulance, buses and cargo.

  4. Phil 25/08/2011 at 10:23 am #

    You’re lucky in Bristol Jon; in Bath they paint ASLs at junctions on major roads with no access lanes to reach them, and drivers are never lifted for stopping in them. I’d be stuffed without the canal towpath.

  5. Samuel 26/08/2011 at 4:05 am #

    That’s my city, I am glad you like it… Thanks.

  6. Steve 26/08/2011 at 2:46 pm #

    This sounds like an idyllic place for cyclist however there would be a few issues in London, mainly the shear size and the cost of housing in central London means that most people commute a fair distance to their place of work. Also with the amount of cars we already have on the roads cycling the wrong way up a one way street is asking for accidents to happen, I’m currently recovering from being hit by a car whilst commuting by bike (no fault of mine) and would not want any other cyclist to go through what I am now.

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