Hundreds of demonstrators on bikes gathered in Aspern, in the Northern outer district of Vienna, to protest against a planned additional city highway. The project would cost at least €500 million in taxpayer money for initial construction, about €150 million per kilometer, and millions in maintenance over the decades. It is planned to tunnel underneath a state-protected natural resort called Lobau, one of Danube’s most important wildlife areas near the city. For years, activists and politicians worked to avoid advancements of the project, but car and construction lobbies kept pushing. This year looks to be the final stand-off.
I join the rally after an hour-long ride across the city, covering multiple districts. During this ride I come to appreciate the infrastructure friendly to non-motorists which has been built over the last 10 years, when Vienna rose to the global top of urban living condition rankings. I also understand that this development is not a given, since bike lanes vary distinctly in safety and comfort from district to district. When I cross the green Prater park, my ride follows quiet side roads covered in tree shade. After I cross the Danube on a tight two-way bike lane tucked underneath a 6-lane motor highway, my surroundings become more car-dominated.
Bike lanes end and restart in a random pattern, fewer people walk on the streets, and cars park randomly in any available space. When I ride below heavy concrete bridges that create silos of neighbourhoods and have a ghetto feel to them because of shacks that appear to be small industrial businesses, I come to understand how the rest of my ride would look like once the new highway is built. What is now a land mix of agriculture, small town living and small river arms, would become another loud and grey wasteland under tons of concrete.
The rally is a joint effort of long-lasting environmental groups seeking to protect the Lobau and the new and younger Fridays For Future crowd. The two mix well. Speakers acknowledge the different age groups, carefully being politically correct.
After looking out over the green land that would be converted into highway lanes, we roll off to another gathering point, accompanied by four police women and men on their bikes. They’re overwhelmed by the number of people showing up: Just minutes after starting to paddle along, we hit a literal roadblock. A gate can not be opened by the police.
We eventually pedal around it and leave the obstacle behind us, relieving fear of the officials that someone might get hurt. The police is surprisingly ineffective when it comes to directing car traffic along the route. Driver simply don’t recognise them as police because they’re on bikes and wearing bike helmets. This gets more apparent after we are joined by dozens more – among them my cousin and his friend – and a large group of protesters cycle further out of the city. The road is not closed, single cars keep approaching us like fish that swim against the current. What a metaphor.
It also means that people become more aggressive. Bikers complain that there even are cars and that the police let them through. Drivers start yelling behind their steering wheel at the unwanted disturbance on what otherwise is a sunny and peaceful Saturday. Only a few sit in their cars and wait patiently. The situation gets worse the more we bike through suburban small-town streets. A heavy traffic jam starts to build among the many cars driving to and from shopping. Police stops drivers at crossroads. Here’s where aggression reaches a peak. One driver starts a left-turn manoeuvre although the road is full of bikers. He honks and screams, his car pushing forward inch by inch, scaring the cycling families. The alert policeman is quick on his bike and puts himself between the parties. The driver doesn’t notice the police badge and keeps yelling. It takes a few minutes for him to understand he’s screaming in the face of law enforcement.
We keep cycling past dozens and hundreds of waiting cars. Most have their engine running, with no expectation of moving for at least 10 to 15 minutes. When they can go a few meters, the accelerate heavily and stop abruptly again. One steers over to the lane we bikes use and aggressively wants to scare us. He does. And he earns a finger or two.
It only gets peaceful again when we leave the road and reach farmland, where we cross over to the protected natural resort. There are way too many people for the small paths. Everyone is cautioned to be silent and listen to the one speaking. She keeps reiterating what we just whitnessed: That car culture needs to be cut back, and that another highway would invite more cars.
I leave through the forest, cross more traffic and head back home, hungry.