The roads are winding and full of cobblestones in Ljubljana, but in a relatively small city of around 300,000 inhabitants, it’s easy to walk from place to place. The cobblestones in the Old Town Center and the long detours I take to admire the mix of curls and swirls on the sides of buildings in the Austro-Hungarian style, compared with the more stark-looking Yugoslav architecture, makes the walk worthwhile. There is always something interesting to see.
One of the most interesting things to see, however, has less to do with the architecture, the bridge with four dragons which is aptly named Dragon Bridge, or the stunning castle on a hill which overlooks the whole city.
Instead, it’s the bike baths.
In several parts of the city, long red stripes are painted on the side of the road. More often, however, they’re incorporated into the sidewalk—or between the sidewalk and a row of parking spaces, allowing parked cars to serve as a buffer from moving cars to cyclists as they go from one part of the city to the other.
In addition to the buses being quite good, convenient, and frequent, Ljubljana has also added the cyclists’ version of the Zip-Car. Whereas I was wary to spend even a small amount of money on a bike earlier this year—preferring to walk, as it’s not such a problem, after all—now, I can cycl around the city for free (almost).
After paying a nominal 3 euro fee, I can swipe my bus card and take a bike from one of 30 bike docks around the city. For the first hour, I can ride for free. The second hour costs only 1 euro, and so on. Since the city is so small, however, it rarely takes me more than 20 or 30 minutes to get where I’m going, and I simply leave my bike at the dock.
In what is dubbed as Europe’s “smallest and safest capital city,” bike theft seems to be the only major problem, so it’s nice not to have to worry about that. And 3 euros is the equivalent of $5. Who doesn’t have that to spare for a bike rental which can get you from place to place for a whole year, without a fear of bike theft?
Of course, you pass the scenery on by a bit quicker when you bike rather than walk, and a bike is admittedly a poor substitute for a car (especially when you’re lugging groceries home), but the whole system seems a bit more feasible in Ljubljana, if not in most of Europe, than it would be in many cities in the U.S.
I’ve heard there are similar systems in some other U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., but the sheer number of bike riders—and the respect they command on the road—makes cycling a more feasible option here in Ljubljana.
Take, for instance, those red bike paths. While some are on the side of the road, the fact that so many are located on sidewalks or between sidewalks and a row of parked cars serves to protect cyclists as they use more eco-friendly forms of transport. I’ve seen more cyclists on the roads here in Ljubljana—and, in other European cities—than I’ve ever seen in New York, or Boston, or other major state capitals.
Not only is cycling more eco-friendly, but I’ve found through my now-frequent bike trips downtown that you can avoid a lot of traffic on the roads, passing cars by as they cluster at intersections and form back-ups on smaller roads.
Granted, Ljubljana is smaller than most state capitals—and a bike rental system would probably work just as well in an American city of 300,000—but there is something to be said that the Zip-Car is a more popular option in the U.S. than a bike rental.
Part of that, of course, is the fact that our lives require that we have cars, as shops and other places of interest are often farther from our homes in the U.S. than in Europe.
But I can’t help but wish that when I return home in July there would be some nice red stripes painted alongside the sidewalks and a bike rental system in place—because after a year of walking and cycling everywhere, I’ll miss the culture around cycling, the exercise it provides… and, of course, the views that I miss when I speed on by in a car.
Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.