Cyclists are moving into the fast lane

Do bicycles have a place in the city of the future? Whatever the answer, many Swiss cities are focusing on more bikes and on doubling their share of overall traffic. Muscle-powered travel gives rise to new hopes but also triggers defensive responses.

Photo: Rental bikes from providers such as O-Bike and Limebike are causing a stir on the streets of Zurich. Photo Keystone

Two hundred years after the invention of the bicycle by the ingenious Karl Freiherr von Drais, this engineless mode of transport is causing a stir in the cosmopolitan city of Zurich. It is not that Switzerland’s largest city has just discovered the bicycle. But one particular trend has become a hot topic of conversation. Rental bikes are appearing all over the place. There are hundreds of them. They are also found in places where they seriously infringe upon the people of Zurich’s expectations of orderliness.

The situation in Zurich is indicative of what is currently going on in other Swiss cities, too. Resourceful companies are pursuing the business strategy of flooding urban centres with their rental bikes without creating parking facilities for them. Instead they provide smartphone apps which enable available bikes to be found and unlocked. Customers who no longer need the bicycle after their journey can park it anywhere. At least six providers are vying for business from cyclists in Zurich: O-Bike, Limebike, Züri rollt, Züri-Velo, Smide with electric bikes and Carvelo2go, which hires bikes to transport goods. The Danish company Donkey Republic is also considering entering the rental bike market in Zurich.

In other cities, Nextbike, Velospot and PubliBike are shaking up the market. They are causing a stir and not just because of the revolution in transport. Great scepticism is being shown towards the Singapore-based company O-Bike in particular. O-Bike’s bikes tend to be of low quality, so the company is coming in for criticism, with people saying that its primary focus is on gathering useable and sellable customer data. More fundamental issues are also inflaming passions. There is major discontent about the commercial appropriation, constriction and “blighting” – a quote from the NZZ – of public space. Others, on the other hand, proclaim that rental bikes simply provide proof that sharing is increasingly becoming more important than personal ownership.

The bicycle in the Federal Constitution?

The current furore over rental bikes obscures the view of the bigger picture. Rental bikes may well become a firm fixture. Some rental providers may well disappear from the scene. But the importance of bicycles will undoubtedly increase in Swiss cities with or without the rental market. Many city authorities have put the promotion of cycling on their political agenda. The cities are going through a process of transformation. The “escape” to the country has long been supplanted by the desire to return to the city. The demographic change this entails is in turn putting pressure on the cities – including in terms of mobility. If they do not wish to suffer the impact of individual motoring to an even greater extent, they also have to promote “non-motorised transport” – walking and especially cycling – in addition to public transport. This has led to an ideologically charged situation. Left-wing and green politicians see the bicycle as a panacea in the fight against urban pollution, noise and confinement. In contrast, motorists feel patronised but understand that no new cycle paths can be created without reducing the road space dedicated to cars.

However, the general course has already been set. Under pressure from the popular initiative calling for the promotion of cycling to be enshrined in the Federal Constitution, the Federal Council has also yielded. Its counterproposal does not go as far as the bicycle initiative, but it does recognise the importance of cycling and its promotion. Adopting the same position as the Council of States, the National Council also backed the Federal Council’s cycling proposal in March. The Swiss people will have the last word.

Ever more car-free households

The politicians may well be lagging behind what is actually going on. Mobility in the cities has long been undergoing a process of transformation. In several of Switzerland’s larger cities, less than half of all households now still own their own car. The main reason for this restraint is the well-developed public transport infrastructure. However, expanding it is expensive and restricted by urban density. The promotion of cycling in the cities as a transport policy goal not only aims to restrict private motoring but also to take the pressure off the buses and trams which are often full.

Evi Allemann endorses this view. The President of the Swiss Association for Transport and the Environment and SP National Councillor, who has just been elected to the Bernese cantonal government, believes public transport is extremely important in Switzerland. The share that bicycles make up of all modes of transport will probably double to 20 % or more, particularly in urban areas, she says. However, it is unlikely that the figures of outstanding cycling cities, such as Copenhagen, will be reached in Switzerland. Public transport in Switzerland is simply too good for that. The burden on the cities will nevertheless be relieved by promoting cycling.

What steps are needed? The transport politician believes clearly marked and safe cycling lanes and paths are required as well as the improvement of danger spots. A perception of a lack of safety is preventing people from using their bikes in everyday life. Allemann: “Too many people say they are quite simply frightened.” A sufficient number of suitable parking places is also required, she says. Is she implying that the flooding of the cities with rental bikes without fixed parking places is a problem? “If anarchy reigns over cycling, this tarnishes its image.” “Clear rules” for everyone and binding agreements between providers and city authorities are needed. She also applies clear rules to her own mobility. She never drives a car and does not even hold a driving licence. Though this is actually no longer particularly unusual in Swiss cities, as already mentioned.

Swiss transport behaviour

Of the almost four million commuters in Switzerland who travel to work every day, 54 % drive a car or ride a motorbike, while 31 % use public transport, 9 % go on foot and 7 % cycle to work. Of teenagers and young adults in education 7 % also travel to their place of education by bike. The proportion of carless households is on the rise, particularly in the cities. The leader here is Berne at 56.8 %, followed by Zurich at 52.8 %, Basel at 52.1 % and Lausanne at 46.3 %. Lagging behind amongst the big cities is Geneva at 40.9 %.

Comments (6)
  • Rosemarie Silva
    Rosemarie Silva at 24.05.2018
    Great idea especially in good weather. Good for health and figure. HOP SWISS GET MORE ACTIVE!
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  • Peter Williams-Schaer
    Peter Williams-Schaer at 24.05.2018
    Look at the exmaple of Mexico City, and Guadalajara. Way ahead and organised by the state MIBICI.
    Show Translation
  • Madeline Murphy
    Madeline Murphy at 28.05.2018
    Zusätzlich zum Fahrrad könnte man, wie früher auch schon, einen autofreien Sonntag pro Monat einführen. Das sorgt für bessere Luft und erlaubt ganz allgemein den Familien den Ausgang ins Freie ohne Lärm.
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  • Mike Rigert
    Mike Rigert at 29.05.2018
    Bicycles are a great alternative way to get around Switzerland. Of course you have to have the infrastructure of dedicated bike lanes in large cities like Zurich, which involves politics and funding issues. It's nice that rental bikes are readily available but I'm guessing it's mostly tourists that use these or do residents rent them as well? Denmark is a great biking country to emulate. I biked around in Denmark for two years and it was wonderful.
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  • Ernst  Ruetimann, Trang
    Ernst Ruetimann, Trang at 17.06.2018
    Das Problem ist schon lange der immer mehr zunehmende Strassenverkehr. Die engen Strassen in unseren Städten erlauben keinen Anstieg von noch mehr Fahrzeugen. Und dann kommt das Fehlen der nötigen Parkplätze für die Autos dazu. Aber leider ist es fünf nach zwölf und der Zug bereits abgefahren. Man müsste, Zulieferer ausgenommen, die Fahrzeuge ausserhalb deponieren und mit dem ÖV oder dem Fahrrad weiterkommen; aber wer macht das schon - warum ich und nicht der Andere - wird immer der Schwarzpeter weitergereicht. Ich sehe dasselbe Problem hier in Thailand. Thailand ist zwar ein grosses Land, aber mit 34 Millionen immatrikulierten Fahrzeugen auf zirka 77 Millionen Einwohner (Ausländer mit eingerechnet) ergibt sich eine hohe Dichte. Und auch hier werden die Verkehrswege in den Städten nicht breiter, im Gegenteil: die Fahrzeuge werden überall abgestellt, wo etwas Platz vorhanden ist - frei nach der Thalphilosophie: dass mindestens noch ein Auto durchkommen muss! Kürzlich wurde hier in Trang ein markierter, grün gestrichener Veloweg lanciert [Stadtrundfahrt] ; und ja, Sie vermuten richtig: es werden Autos und Motorräder darauf parkiert und die Radfahrer müssen wieder auf den Rest der Strasse ausweichen.
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  • Daniela Malsbury
    Daniela Malsbury at 25.06.2018
    I am a Swiss citizen living abroad and I spend three weeks twice a year in Basel visiting my family and friends. I support the idea of reducing noise and pollution a and bringing people back to the city, being able to move around without depending on public transportation by using a bicycle. My experience, however, being a pedestrian in Basel, has been increasingly a frightening one. My last visit to Switzerland in May, has been actually overshadowed by half a dozen of near misses of almoast being hit by a bicycle at high velocity. I observe the rules and laws of traffic as a pedestrian and find that bicycles don’t necessarily respect these rules. I was more afraid of being hit by a bicycle, to be honest, than being hit by a car as a pedestrian. I understand that the impact of a car has far more serious consequences, but getting hit by a bicycle at a high velocity is not to be underestimated. I find some cyclists are disrespectful and aggressive in traffic without considering the consequences of their actions.
    Show Translation

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