Living in SF for almost 3 years, we’ve come to appreciate cycling and have developed an interest in exploring urban cities on our two-wheelers. Since our trips to Copenhagen and Portland (both good bicycling cities), we’ve made it a point to visit bike-friendly cities whenever we travel. My wife adores French culture but I had no desire to visit France again after an uncomfortable trip to Paris (I know, how can someone not like Paris? Well, I guess I can apparently.) unless it was to a city that is conducive for bicycling. The French city of Strasbourg had come up in one of her readings and upon further research, we learned that the city is actually quite bike friendly. But we were skeptical. There’s very little publicity about this city, the 7th largest in France, and we didn’t know anyone that had been there, so it was kind of risky. First we took a look at most of the streets using Google-street view (thank you Google!). Then we searched through youtube videos and stumbled upon this one short video (pay attention to what happens starting at the 0:09 mark). Did you see how that driver didn’t get angry and honk? He even put his car into a very dramatic reverse to make sure he wasn’t in the way! That part of the video finalized our decision to book our tickets to Strasbourg because it is a rare sight to see this kind of hospitality toward bicyclists.
One of the first bicycles (including bikes with derailleurs) was invented in France and with Tour de France as one of the top-watched sporting events, you would expect the entire country of France to be as bike friendly as the Netherlands, however that is not the case. So finding out about bike-friendly Strasbourg was wonderful. 15% of all commuting trips in Strasbourg are made by bicycle and women cyclists outnumber men by 70% to 30% (a number based on observations from Strasbourg Cycle Chic). So, why do you think the numbers show an accomodation to cycling and even more, why do women outnumber men by such a large margin? Here are some of the numbers that make Strasbourg, France’s bike capital:
- Strasbourg has 330 miles (500 km) of cycle tracks in a land mass of 30 sq. miles (78 sq. km). To understand this impressive number, we can compare it to SF. Strasbourg has 4 times the distance of bike lanes in SF, yet it is 40% smaller.
- Over 18,000 bike racks are installed and this excludes the secure bike parking lots (Veloparcs at tram and bus stations). The racks shown below were empty at the time of this photo, perhaps because they are located near the university and it is summer.
- A contra-flow system (many one-way streets carry two-way bike paths) in narrow streets which they have a lot of because the city was built way before cars were invented. This system helps with connecting the network of bike paths.
- I find it convenient that they have cycle tracks along the tramway which makes finding your way easy (bikes are allowed on trams except during rush hour).
- Some bike paths are incorporated into the sidewalks on the main streets (confusing) but pedestrians and cyclists share these spaces well and it does help keep cyclists safe from fast-moving cars. Notice the green and white crosswalks in the top left corner. The green crosswalk is for cyclists while the white is for pedestrians.
- Below is a bridge that allows only pedestrians and cyclists and there are few of these which also contribute to the network of continuous bike-ways.
I think the key to Strasbourg’s success in being bicycle friendly is their application of the urban planning principle of “filtered permeability”. Because of that, the city center has been transformed into a car-free wonderland that welcomes walking and biking. Pedestrians and cyclists can feel comfortable and safe. By doing this, they selectively “filter out” cars by reducing the number of streets that run through the center. The city center is calm and quiet and very pleasant to be in. Just biking through these linked public squares and bridges without any worries for cars is a great sightseeing experience and best of all, you can do “conversational cycling”.
Now I want to elaborate a little bit more on Strasbourg itself besides the bicycle infrastructure. It is the capital city in the Alsace region of France located close to the border of Germany. It is an old city and its history goes as far back as 12 BC. As you can tell from the photos, there is a lot of German influence in their food and architecture. The European Union Parliament is also located there, and it has the largest university in all of France. It is also known as the capital of Christmas because of their wonderful open air Christmas market and Christmas decorations and spirit. It is probably the most beautiful city I have seen so far in my travels and so it makes sightseeing by bicycle there a real treat.
I would like to end this with Thomas Jefferson’s praise of France, “Every man has two countries, his own and France.”