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Notes on a short tour on the mainland of Europe

Notes on a short tour on the mainland of Europe

This September Ulli and I took a well deserved holiday on the mainland of Europe. We took up the invitation to visit France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Here are a few things I noticed on my travels. First off, arriving at EuroAirport (Basel Mulhouse Freiburg), you clear passport control to enter the Schengen area, collect you bags and then have a choice of two exits through customs, you can either clear Swiss customs or EU customs to enter France/Germany. The airport consists of two separate parts, a French part and a Swiss part, and you can pass between the two parts without a ticket (but you must carry a passport or ID card, in case you are asked to show it). This caused us some confusion as we weren’t sure which side our host was waiting for us, also we didn’t know at that time you could just walk across the border within the airport.

Having exited into the Eurozone, we wandered out into the late summer heat of the Alsace, looking at views across the Black Forest to the northeast (more of which later). We were staying in a small French village with views (on a clear day) to the high mountains of the Bernese Alps halfway across Switzerland, ~140 Km away.

On a clear day you can see the high mountains of the Bernese Alps

Driving though small French towns to get there, I noticed there were zebra crossings everywhere, they seemed to be every 100m. Also where there were cycle lanes, they were separated from motor traffic with just solid lines, nowhere did I see a car parked on a cycle lane, or for that matter on the pavement (Footway).

Although we were staying in France, we spent most of our days out in Germany, visiting Staufen im Breisgau whose most famous resident was one Dr Faust who died there in 1539, having allegedly sold his soul to the Devil. The other thing the town is famous for is geothermal drilling controversy. Back in 2007 there was a plan to utilise geothermal energy from the depth of the Rhine valley for heating and cooling purposes. However, things didn’t work out as planned, in 2008 it was noticed that the centre of the town had sunk by about 8mm. This is thought to have been caused by disruption of the water table, as a result drilling was stopped. But this wasn’t the end of the story. In 2009 it was noticed that parts of the town had started to rise and by September 2010 some parts of the town had risen by up to 30cm. This uplift has been caused by water seeping into a layer of anhydrite, so causing it to convert into gypsum which swells when wetted. All the geological activities have caused massive cracks to appear in many of the buildings, some of which now have stickers which read “Staufen must not break”.

“Staufen must not break”

There is also a ruined castle on hill above Staufen which was burned down by the Swedish army in 1632 during the 30 years war. These days it is a pleasant to walk up to the castle though the vineyards.

Castle Staufen

The following day we went for a walk in a range of hills called the Kaiserstuhl (literally: “Emperor’s Chair”) in Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany, but I think that deserves another blog post. After our walk we visited Freiburg, which gave me more opportunities to observe the urban environment and particularly the cycling infrastructure. Freiburg is a cycling city. That said, the first thing that caught my eye after we left the underground car park next to the station was the display of air pollution data.

Air pollution monitoring station in Freiburg

Coming from a country where the powers that be prefer to ignore the issue of air pollution rather than facing up to it and taking real action to tackle the problem, this openness is surprising. But then maybe there is a reason, back in the 1980’s people started to notice that large numbers of trees in the Black Forest were dying. People started to put a visit to the Black Forest on their bucket list, to see the Black Forest before it died. The Black Forest wasn’t the only forest to suffer such damage but it was the most iconic, seeing so many trees in so much trouble caused waves of protest across Europe which resulted in EU directives to reduce air pollution. As a result the levels of long range pollutants were massively reduced and the Black Forest recovered. . Of course it isn’t just trees that are damaged by exposure to air pollution, people are, too, and local air pollution in cities can be very damaging. Maybe it was the experience of seeing the Black Forest dying that has made the people of Freiburg more aware of the issue of air pollution. Certainly they have chosen to do something about it, there is an extensive tram network in the city (powered by renewable energy) and active travel is encouraged, this is, as I have already said, a cycling city.

In the UK we are told that our roads are too narrow to accommodate separate space for cycling, here they just take the space away from the more polluting means of transport. It works!

Who says bicycles and trams don't mix?

Cycle lane in Freiburg

Who says bicycles and trams don't mix?

Streets of Freiburg

It’s not just in the city that you see lots of people on bicycles, you see them up in the mountains of the Black Forest, too, although the older folk sometimes need some extra assistance.

E-bikes are getting more popular with older cyclists
E-bikes are getting more popular with older cyclists

Following our trips to the Black Forest, we set off on the next stage of our tour, moving to the Austrian end of The Bodensee (or Loch Constance as we took to calling it). We were based in Lochau for a few days, the original plan had been to head off and cycle all the way around Bodensee. However we found we didn’t have the time to go all the way round (as we had been warned not to try it on a weekend because the paths get very busy), so we just went part way and took a ferry as a short cut. I think to do this ride justice, it needs to have a blog post of its own. Needless to say, cycling through three countries in one day (or rather half a day) was easy, as the infrastructure was seamless and the signage easy to follow.

On an Austrian cycle path, turn left for Germany, turn right for Switzerland.
On an Austrian cycle path, turn left for Germany, turn right for Switzerland.

A trip across the Arlberg (a famous pass) showed that going up hill was considered no barrier to cycling either, no matter what your age. Ten years ago, Vorarlberg was the federal state (Land) which had the highest cycling modal share in Austria. Since then, it has been overtaken by the states of Tirol and Salzburg, partly as these states have latched on to the economic benefits of getting people to ride bicycles for transport and/or leisure.

The next stop on our multi centre holiday (I mean tour) was the Tirol (or Tyrol if you insist). To get there we took the scenic route over the Arlberg pass rather than taking the tunnel. After all, once you have seen the inside of one alpine tunnel, you have seen them all, and the Arlberg tunnel is 14 Km (9 miles) long which is rather dull. You miss out on the views from the top and the chance to look for blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtilis) which are also called Arlenbushes, and there is a theory that the pass thought the mountains is named after them.

Of course, those who chose to travel by bicycle, have either to cycle over the pass or take the train, as they are not allowed to use the Arlberg tunnel (not that you’d want to). We passed a dozen or so cyclists on the way up the 1,793 m pass, even though it was mid September, outwith the main tourist season.

Having arrived in the Tirol, the weather then proceeded to change which rather limited our opportunities for more cycle trips (lack of mudguards). However, we did manage to get a couple in, including one from Ötztal to Absam along part of the Inn Radwag (the Inn cycle route), but I think that is also best covered in a blog post of its own, as this one is getting rather long.

A few final observations, in all four of the countries we visited, the bicycle was used by all sections of society as a way of getting about. Cycling on the mainland of Europe is normal, most people don’t wear helmets, I don’t think I saw a single child wearing a helmet. Most of those who were wearing helmets were adults engaged in serious sports, also the Austrian mountain bikers only wear their helmets for going down hill, when riding up hill or along the roads their helmet is mounted on the handle bars.

During the three weeks we were away, we crossed international borders over 20 times, although we carried our passports with us, we were only required to show them when entering the Schengen area at EuroAirport, and when leaving it again from Munich Airport and to get back into Scotland at Edinburgh Airport.

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The Sacred Driving Licence

The Sacred Driving Licence

Today saw the launch of the “Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020“. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, David Cameron had agreed to help launch the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety and managed to get Britain’s two Formula One racing drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, to join him. We also had the announcement from Transport Secretary Philip Hammond of the introduction of On-the-spot fines planned for careless driving, as part of the Strategic Framework for Road Safety. All of this sounds like the Government is keen to do something about reducing the damage done. The Framework clearly says that “Road deaths and injuries are a tragedy for all those affected. And as well as the terrible human cost, they impose a heavy economic burden.” This sounds all very well, but let’s just have a closer look:

First, why were two racing drivers at a photo call to promote “road safety”? Button has a number of convictions for speeding and Hamilton has been charged with speeding in the UK and reckless driving in Australia. Not good role models in a country where 40% of young drivers think there is nothing wrong with breaking the 30mph limit by 10mph or more.

Secondly, there is a major problem with the Strategic Framework for Road Safety in that its central theme is absolving the majority of those drivers from their responsibility for most of the danger on the roads. It does this by diverting attention onto the very worst drivers, but has no serious intention of dealing with these people either!

The new strategy says that, instead of drivers being taken to court for driving offences, police can fine careless drivers. Offenders will get a fine of at least £80 and three points on their licence. This is not about making the roads safer, it is about cutting costs, by avoiding taking people through the court system. It isn’t even intended as a deterrent. In a country where you can be fined £1,000 for dropping litter, why is it proposed that an activity which puts lives at risk should only attract a fine of £80? Why is there such a reluctance to deal with the issue of danger on our roads?

We all have the right to use the roads, on foot, riding a bicycle or riding a horse, there is no right to drive. Driving on the public road is a privilege only permitted by licence, this licence is granted under trust after passing a driving test. The driving test is there to ensure that drivers can drive to a safe minimum standard. It is well known that the majority of accidents collisions on our roads are caused by driver error. This is why there needs to be a clear hierarchy of liability, with those capable of causing the greatest harm taking a greater level of responsibility.

However, we have somehow allowed the situation to arise where the holding of a driving licence is increasingly being seen as a sacred right. There are hundreds of drivers on the roads with 12 penalty points. All too often drivers who have broken the law (and the trust placed in them when they received their driving licence) avoid a driving ban, by claiming such a ban would inconvenience them. The courts will not accept such a defence for any other form of criminal activity, car crashes have long been a greater killer of the young than violent crime, so why such a softly, softly approach to driving?

In this country you can legally hold a shotgun under licence, however if you were to accidentally discharge it over the heads of people in a public place, you would expect to lose your licence. No court would accept the defence that it was OK because no one was hurt, or that it was caused by a momentary lapse of concentration, or that you had been distracted by a phone call on your mobile, or that such a ban would cause you inconvenience. Before anyone complains that this is not a fair comparison, being hit by a motor vehicle is just as damaging as being shot, the level of kinetic energy is about the same. It doesn’t make a difference to the person who is killed or seriously injured, whether they were shot or hit with a motor vehicle, they are still dead or maimed either way. Drivers should never forget, cars can kill!

We have a situation where most people think that they are better than average drivers, but at the same time 40% of drivers feel that they would fail a driving test if they had to take it again tomorrow. Until we have a change of attitude, drivers will undoubtedly continue to blame everyone else on the roads but themselves.

Addendum:
Sadly the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke QC, MP, seems to be incapable of understanding the concept of dangerous driving. Apparently “ordinary dangerous driving” isn’t a serious problem, but then this is a man who doesn’t think all rapes are a crime. All rape is rape and all dangerous driving is dangerous, both destroy lives. I just wish Ken Clarke would stick to playing records on the radio and leave the serious stuff to people who understand the real world. My thanks to Joe Dunckley for the tip off.

More news has come to light, this time from Scotland, where at least 387 drivers have more than 12 points on their licence:

More news has come to light from Scotland where at least 387 drivers have more than 12 points on their licence

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Your views wanted on Active Travel

Your views wanted on Active Travel

The Scottish Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee is holding an inquiry into “Active Travel – walking and cycling”. The Committee is keen to hear your views on walking and cycling. The Scottish Government says that it would like to see 10% of journeys being by bicycle by 2020.

The formal remit of the Committee’s inquiry is to consider – the progress being made in developing active travel; any barriers to further progress; and the further action that may be required by the Scottish Government, local authorities and other bodies to ensure that significant progress is made in the development and implementation of active travel in Scotland.

You are invited to respond to the issues identified by the Committee and posed in the six questions below. You are free to answer as many or as few of these questions as you wish.

The six questions:

  1. What more can be done to encourage people to change their travelling habits and walk and cycle more?
  2. Is enough progress being made in developing and delivering improvements in the uptake of walking and cycling?
  3. If not, what are the barriers to progress? (for example, lack of policy development, lack of political leadership, lack of funding/investment, the lack of prominence given to active travel in transport policy development, project planning and construction etc.)
  4. Why do walking and cycling policies set out in national, regional and local transport plans not result in a greater modal share for walking and cycling?
  5. What further action is required by the Scottish Government, local authorities and other bodies to ensure that significant progress is made in the development and implementation of walking and cycling, particularly if transport is to make a greater and more meaningful contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions?
  6. What can Scotland learn from good practice/successful implementation in other countries?

The closing date for written submissions is Friday 11 December 2009. To make things easier I created a MS Word doc file you can down load here (16kb).

They ask that before you submit your views, that you read their policy for handling information received in response to calls for evidence (pdf 15kb). Information you provide will be treated according the Scottish Parliament’s privacy and data policy. Your views may be published by the Parliament and will be treated as a public document unless you indicate other. Your views will be made available to the Committee. For more information see here.

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Countries which I have visited…

Countries which I have visited…

I came across the World66 site by chance and thought it looked like a bit of fun. So here is a map showing countries which have set foot on. It makes me realise just how much of the world there is yet to see…

ADDENDUM this map is now out of date, but World66 isn’t playing nicely and won’t let me update.

You can [try to] create your own countries visited map: here.

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