Achtung Velo!

Achtung Velo!

I’m cycling on a side street crossing a major suburban arterial road in Adelaide. At the intersection, I scan left and the traffic is banked up from traffic lights 300 meters away. To my right is a sizeable gap. Off I go. A shiny 4WD accelerates towards me, closing the gap faster than I thought possible, but nowhere near fast enough for panic. I’m across and his acceleration turns to fierce breaking as he approaches the banked up queue. He wasn’t trying to kill me, just making a point. He owns the fucking road and I’m no longer in Switzerland but back in the land of super-sized metal assholes and need all my cycling warrior skills to stay alive.

How did we get to this?

The bicycle racks at the Rapperswil camping and swimming center on Lake Zurich in Switzerland have mount points for 510 bicycles. Yes, I did count them. There are no marked car parking spaces, but you could park three or four in the little area outside the gate where delivery vans turn around.

This is a centre for children and families. There are wading pools. There is a water slide. There are about 90 permanent large tents complete with outdoor settings and BBQs. How do toddlers get to the centre? And whole families? Is it on a train line? Are there buses?

Achtung velo!

The Swiss call bicycles velos. Any Swiss 5 year old knows to call Achtung Velo as a cyclist approaches any group of walkers.

I laughed when I first saw the 510 velo parking points at Rapperswil. The weather was foul and they were empty like a derelict field of dreams.

We had arrived at the start of a month’s cycle-touring-camping holiday and everything was deserted. The permanent tents were empty. The huge glistening white shower blocks were empty. The place looked like a resort where the promoter had gone bust half way through. The mirage of Christopher Skase floated through my mind. A month later, at the end of our trip, we returned and the place was buzzing. It was nowhere near full capacity, but the weather was passable and there were a couple of hundred velos. There were velos with little trailers for toddlers. Velos with battery assistance for the not so young. Velos with big knobbly tyres. Velos with skinny racing tyres.

If it’s a nice enough day for a swim, why would you travel by car? That’s how the residents of Rapperswil and surrounding areas think. So that’s how the centre runs and it works. The manager tells us they get 3500 people on a really good day. Rapperswil itself has a population of less then 8000 so people are clearly travelling from surrounding areas.

Rapperswil doesn’t feel like a country town. Nor do the other little urban centres around it. The Swiss call them villages but I often couldn’t tell where one village ended and another began. Likewise, the city-country division is similarly blurred. On just about any road apart from some in the heart of Zurich, you could find yourself passing a vehicle that looks like a small petrol tanker but smells rather different. These vehicles carry cattle excrement in slurry form around to fertilise the fields. On some days in Switzerland we would smell this for most of the day during a 6 hour ride!

Swiss cities are small. Zurich has a permanent population of less than half the population of Adelaide. Basel is even smaller with just 166,000 people, with the Swiss capital Bern being slightly smaller again. An efficient rail system and bicycle parking at the stations make it possible to commute to the cities from farther afield, and people do.

But Swiss urban centres outside the cities are quite unlike most Australian towns. They are full function living centres. Embarrassingly, Australia’s biggest bicycle race, the Tour Down Under, often has finish lines in towns around Adelaide which don’t even have a bicycle shop, let alone a theatre, or a hospital, or a real museum. The Swiss don’t just talk decentralisation, they do it. They have more than twice as many hospitals as NSW despite having a similar population. This isn’t just a matter of public policy, it’s the way people live. A bicycle shop in a small town around Adelaide must compete with the bigger shops in Adelaide (and, of course, the Internet) because Australians will travel large distances to save small amounts of money. Few non-service local businesses can survive in such a culture. We found 3 bicycle shops in Rapperswil in 20 minutes despite it being just 35 kms from Zurich, but there are no bicycle shops in Tanunda despite it being twice as far from Adelaide.

In Zurich at peak hour, the traffic in the heart of the city is crazy … for cars. Many pedestrian crossings having no traffic lights and others can simultaneously give pedestrians and turning vehicles green lights. On the crossings without lights, pedestrians just step out without looking. They don’t do this as a kind of stupid mistake that anybody might make every few years while deeply engaged in mathematical contemplation. No, they just do it because that’s how it’s done in Switzerland. The drivers, somewhat astonishingly, just seem to accept this as a fact of life. They don’t swear and curse and get out and thump people with car jacks. They also pull up at pedestrian crossings in anticipation. At one point, while on foot, we were busy studying a map and happened to be beside a crossing. It eventually occurred to us that we had caused a dozen cars to pull up. There was nothing for it but to hurry across as if we had meant it.

Australian drivers are great at anticipation also, but it works a little differently here. Ride in a bike land and look even remotely like you want to turn right in Australia. Perhaps even give a hand signal. Pretty soon, cars from 100 metres behind will be accelerating in a rush to preemptively pass. More thoughtful drivers will slow down leaving their front bumber level with your back wheel and then wonder why you are reluctant to do a suicide turn in front of them. Exasperated and annoyed, they will then race off. In Switzerland, the equivalent action (remember they drive on the other side of the road) will see cars immediately and unbegrudgingly slow down and leave you a good safe distance to turn in front of them.

Cyclists breaking road rules in Australia, even in total safety, can drive normally mild mannered Australians to apoplexy. But Swiss car drivers seem totally unconcerned. It was explained to me that this is because most car drivers are also cyclists. But I have an alternative explanation. Think about it. A cyclist approaches a red light to turn left (remember they drive on the other side). If nothing is coming, then they just keep going. End of story. Had they obeyed the traffic light the odds are that frequently a car would be behind them or beside them when the light eventually changed. Now there are two vehicles, a car and a bicycle turning left. This impedes the car and puts the cyclist at some risk. So most cyclists just ignore the red light when safe to do so. The logic relies on cyclists going slow enough to reliably make good decisions on safety. Most are. In any event, the proof of the pudding is in the numbers. Switzerland has a road fatality rate per head of population that is half the European average and about two thirds that of Australia. This is despite (or perhaps because of) many narrow winding dangerous roads.

In a month on Swiss roads riding anything from an hour to eight hours every day, I saw exactly one dangerous hoon driver, I saw a single “altercation”. It involved a delivery van and a cyclist. Both parties were smiling and the whole thing looked more like an ingenious pickup attempt than a real dispute.

Climate change and peak oil will both drive an increase in cycling. Could Australia ever sustain the cultural shift required for a significant increase in cycling? Swiss people told me that the culture isn’t an accident but a result of decades of deliberate policy. Dutch cyclists say the same about Holland.

Interestingly, we met a French couple who go on cycling holidays in Switzerland but never cycle in France. They told us that the French are like Australians, they love cycling sporting heros but want the rest to bugger off. My post-holiday good humour certainly didn’t take long to bugger off once I was back on Adelaide roads.


Has anything changed during the 3 1/2 years since “Achtung Velo” was written? Yes. I think the moron-ratio may have declined and there’s a few more bicycle paths … lanes … greenpaint … all positive. Every car driver who does some cycling soon has a perspective shift, so we need to encourage more “cross cultural exchange”. And we need cyclists to also understand that not all drivers making dangerous mistakes are malicious. Every time a cyclist abuses a car driver, the most likely outcome is simply more ill-will toward cyclists. So if there is the opportunity to explain your perspective, then do it as politely as possible, but if not, hurling abuse as they sail past is most likely counter productive, so bite your lip and chill. That’s easier advice to give than follow, but it’s the right thing to do.

Header image: source