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
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
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
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
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.