Vienna: On the Praterstern, where cars, buses and trams converge from several busy streets on a road that loops around Vienna’s central train station, a new digital counter stands under the eye of the Riesenrad Ferris wheel.

It’s about the size of a bus stop advertising hoarding and picks out passing bicycle wheels from a sensor in the pavement.

With a rumpled grey overcoat over his suit and a cycling helmet covering his grey hair, Wolfgang Dvorak excitedly explains that the 2,072 figure on display marks the number of bicycles that have passed this point so far today.

“This is great, great! Measuring cyclists is making cycling visible, making people notice,” says Dvorak.

“It’s very important, especially at city crossings like this. Just 14 days ago it was done, and the marking of the cycle lane here and the cycle signing. This is showing people that Vienna is cycling.”

Dvorak, the director of last week’s Velo-city, an annual conference that has brought more than 1,000 cycling experts and 330 speakers from around the world to Austria’s capital, is giving an impromptu tour of the city’s new bike-friendly spots, travelling by Citybike, a public bike rental system available at 100 stations around the streets.

There are dozens of new private rental bike companies springing up too, including many specialising in e-bikes, electric-powered cycles which can be charged for free across the capital.

Vienna is in the middle not only of its own Year of Cycling, but also of an ambitious five-year plan to tempt its citizens out of cars and on to saddles.

Faced with ever-growing traffic, as well as unenviable pollution levels and the rising costs of fuel, the city has determined to learn from progressive cycling capitals such as Munich, Malmo, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which have embraced biking.

Vienna is one of 60 cities to have signed up to the Charter of Brussels, which commits them to promoting cycling and setting clear targets in road safety and in achieving a 15 per cent “modal share”,  the percentage of trips made by bicycle out of the total number of trips made by city-dwellers.

Huge interest

In the UK only Bristol and Edinburgh, which holds its first festival of cycling this weekend, have signed up, but the interest from mainland Europe is phenomenal.

“We have now in Vienna about five per cent to six per cent modal share,” says Dvorak. “We aim to double that by 2015. We are working on many infrastructure changes to facilitate urban cycling.

“The situation in general is that we are a growing population and we have no room any more. We need to create space and stop congestion.

“Look at these terrible floods we are seeing at the moment; it is no longer an option to ignore climate change.”

The television news in Austria and neighbouring Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany is full of images of flooded homes and businesses, and the Danube and Elbe have swollen with record levels of rainfall.

Whatever the meteorologists and scientists say is the cause of the unseasonal weather, people here are worrying about climate change.

It is being reflected in the housing being built. Sustainability is a key factor and new developments are being planned around not just energy use but also the times of journeys to work and access to cycle networks.

For people living in cities, space to park a bike securely can be a major obstacle, which is why Vienna has just completed a pilot project called Bike City, a block of 100 flats for middle-income people, with wide communal hallways and lifts with bike racks outside each front door and bike stores on every floor.

Michael Szeiler, an Austrian traffic planning expert, is one of the first residents to have moved in.

“The rents here are affordable because the builders have saved money by not having car parking, they have built only 50 spaces, rather than one per flat, as is usual. People still have cars,” he says, “but people who live here make 25 per cent of trips by bicycle, as opposed to six per cent of other Viennese.”

Szeiler has been working on projects to link residential areas by cycle. At hotspots, traffic lights set with detectors are programmed to tell when cars are coming and to give priority for cyclists, so that they do not have to keep stopping and starting their journeys.

The city is investing in infrastructure, the second main shopping street is being made car free, with pedestrian and cycle shared zones, and local politicians point to the fact that at 4.5m it is only five per cent of the annual road budgets.

Maria Vassilakou is the deputy mayor of Vienna with responsibility for urban planning. “Vienna is the fastest-growing city within German-speaking Europe, and if we continue with the policy of one person, one car, then we will become one traffic jam,” she says.

Guardian News & Media Ltd