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27 May 2014

Woes of a bike commuter

When I joined Tudor I opted for renting a flat at walking distance from the office, in the city of Esch-sur-Alzette. This was the heart of the ancient steel industry in Luxembourg, the capital of a region that once hosted over 400 steel furnaces.

Some years ago the Luxembourgish steel company - ARBED - was sold to Lashki Mittal, who hastily dismantled the whole complex, moving entire furnaces to Asia. Acknowledging the demise of the steel industry, the Luxembourgish government designed a programme to replace it with an academic village, hosting a university, several research centres and a company incubator in an old industrial park in a place called Belval.

With works drawing to a close, the Tudor offices where I work were moved to Belval one year ago. I am no longer in walking distance, but the 4.5 km of bike lanes linking Esch-sur-Alzette to Belval make it perfect for bike commuting. Little would I know that this short ride would be anything but simple.

The journey starts along the Boulevard John F. Kennedy, a busy road enclosing the city to its south-east. After a "U" turn it becomes Boulevard Prince Henri, setting the city limits to south-west. On both sides of these wide streets there are bike lines stuffed between the side walk and parking lanes. This is where problems start, that vacant space between parked cars and the side walk is just incredibly handy, to park motorcycles or other small vehicles, for instance.

Who painted that bike on the ground? Another day, same story.

Cars can sometimes also make up the best of the bike line.

The bike lane is especially useful to park wide, ostentatious vehicles.

No. This is not the vanishing point, just parked cars progressively occupying the bike lane; the white line is merely suggestive. Where is the bike supposed to pass?

Could you close the door please?

The parking lane ends a bit before the Boulevard John F. Kennedy, but that does not mean cars can not park, there is a wonderful bike lane for that.

Another car of the same make almost in the same spot in a wintry day.

I never saw a parking ticket on the hundreds of vehicles parked on the bike lane I have bumped into. This practice is accepted even in front of the Police office.

There is a strange hiatus on the bike lane between the Boulevard John F. Kennedy and the Boulevard Prince Henri. At some point the bike lane comes to an end the rider is sent towards France.

The rider must perform a 90º degree turn and climb the kerbs in a space less than 1 meter wide. There is 10 000 € prize for the first to do it with 28 inch wheels.

With time it became obvious an accident in this bike lane was a simply a matter of time. The strange hiatus together with the death corridor like disposal of the bike lane translated into almost daily dangerous situations. As a first strategy I started leaving home half an hour earlier, to avoid the heavier traffic, but eventually I quit ridding in these Boulevards, the risk is simply to high.

Afterwards I started using an inner city street, the Rue du Canal. It is also a busy way, but the bike lanes are not stuffed, proving somemargin to avoid obstacles. Still, a white bike on a blue background means parking.

Both the Rue du Canal and the Boulevard Prince Henri end in a large roundabout under the overhead rail tracks. The bike lane merges with the side walk and the rider goes through the roundabout using pedestrian crossings. The vast majority of drivers gives way.

At the other end of the roundabout starts the Rue de Belval, leading to the village of the same name and on to the ancient industrial site. Along this road lays one of the trademark cycle paths of southern Luxembourg: the Piste Cyclabe de la Terre Rouge.

The first few meters of this cycle path are the most difficult of the journey. The cycle path is in itself quite safe, with a grass lane separating it from the road, but it is heavily used by pedestrians and of course for parking. Pedestrians are usually easy to avoid, cars not so much.

In some days cars block completely the cycle path and the rider is forced to go on the grass.

Even vehicles from the City Council are found blocking the cycle path, here at its very beginning.

Along this first meters of the cycle way there is a building that appears to belong to some utility. It has a private car park closed by a gate that opens to the outside. It is not uncommon to find this gate blocking the cycle way; it even has a pin to fix it to the ground.

Urgent phone call? No problem, just park on the cycle path.

Even when it is not urgent, the cycle path is just handy.

Cycle paths also seem a popular parking space in Germany.

This picture was taken just today, since yesterday there is a lorry parked on the Piste Cyclable de la Terra Rouge, completely blocking the way.

After successfully avoiding all these obstacles, the rider then faces a long stretch of cycle path along an abandoned industrial site and afterwards a huge dump site. This segment of the journey towards Belval village is safe and uneventful.

But closer to the village there is a long hedgerow that was let growing unchecked. At the end of last Summer it was already taking up half of the cycle path; crossing with another rider here became perilous.

Coming October, with the fair weather gone, the City Council decided it was time to trim the hedgerow. But to do it they had to block the cycle path.

Close to the village, the cycle path diverts to the south, leaving the Rue de Belval and going through the backyards and gardens. Especially on fair weather, this segment of the cycle path is used by the villagers as a mere extension to their backyards. Dogs, cats, small children, wheelbarrows, piles of midden, everything beyond bikes can be found on this segment of the cycle path .

In this section behind the village there are various spots where shallow tree roots have almost destroyed the path. They are particularly hazardous if the rider happens to be carrying something on the bike, say groceries.

Here an intermission just to note that these cycle paths and lanes are rarely cleaned, usually found littered with dirt and all sorts of debris. Punctures are common occurrences, a spare tube and an emergency pump are absolutely mandatory.

The cycle path goes through some weird twists to exit Belval village, with two narrow 90º turns that require good control on an adult size bike. The last of these turns is another preferred spot for parking.

To go from Belval village to the old industrial site the cycle path then foloows right through the fields. It is the best segment of the journey, no cars around and in spring small birds fly ahead of the bike. Unfortunately, this segment is also used by tractors during the harvest season. The following photo was taken on a frosty morning with clear skies; the ice mist was already rising.

The view from a bit further ahead; here the cycle path actually marks the border between France (to the left) and Luxembourg (to the right). Luckily the cycle path was ice free that day.

The cycle path enventually leaves the fields and rejoins the Rue de Belval. Neighing the ancient industrial site is a small logistic park composed of a few warehouses. This is another critical point, with the cycle path crossing the entrances to the various warehouses; drivers do not always look out for bicycles. And as usual, the bike path makes a great space for parking.

Another day, same place, same story.

They do not wash the cycle path, but they can surely block it with the street washing truck.

The trash cans from the warehouses are also used to block the cycle path. They are found on the way, or in complete barrage as below, several times per week.

More evidence that a white bike on blue background means parking in Luxembourg.

Almost there, but there is one last last obstacle to overcome: the rail tracks. This implies climbing up to the all modern, all futuristic Belval train station. On the side of the Rue de Belval the stairs have bike rails that ease access.

But on the other end there are no bike rails to be seen, the rider must take the bike on his/her back. There is a lift, but beyond missing the point of saving energy, it can be out of order for weeks on end.

The steel furnaces at last. Jump to Belval.lu to learn more about this exquisit place.

Foto by ArchiDuc.luc

In the member state with the highest rate of car usage (especially for short distances), bike lanes and paths seem to have been put in place for mere conscience sake. For the vast majority of citizens they seem little else than a nuisance, that might be taken for other purposes if needed be.

In 2015 the University of Luxembourg will be finally moving from the various temporary buildings it presently occupies in Luxembourg city to the Belval industrial site. Overnight, a few thousands of folk will starting commuting to Belval. Most will be students, young folk that either for budget constraints or environmental conscience are potential bike users. Considering the way cycle paths are currently used and abused, a recipe for disaster is on.

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