Vistula Bicycle Route, or how to reconcile tourism and flood control interests

Wiślana Trasa Rowerowa

Vistula Cycle Route

The project to implement a tourist product called the Vistula Beskids-Baltic Sea Bicycle Route was sanctioned on May 20, 2009. The letter of intent was signed at the level of several ministries: regional development, sports and tourism, and environment. The Vistula Bicycle Route is expected to eventually number approx. 1,200 kilometers and will largely run along the crest of embankments. The entire route involves marking trails on both sides of the river. This is a nationwide project, with 8 provinces working together. The peak in the implementation of individual investments was between 2014 and 2020, when most local governments reached for funds from the European Regional Development Fund. The Silesian, Kuyavian-Pomeranian and most of the Lesser Poland sections were then created.

Biking on the ramparts, or how the impossible became possible

An amendment to the Water Law in 2014 introduced the possibility of using dikes for cycling. Previously, according to regulations, cycling on the embankments was prohibited and risked a fine of up to PLN 500. At this point, it should be noted that, as a general rule, works or activities that may affect the integrity or stability of floodwalls are prohibited on them. It is worth remembering that their main task is to protect residents from flooding, and recreational considerations are in the background. There is therefore a general prohibition on carrying out any work or activity on the embankments that may affect flood safety, including driving over and along them. The legislator only made an exception for bicycle riding, so it is still not allowed to use quads or motorcycles there.

Water Law of July 20, 2017. has gone a step further and introduced an additional convenience for cyclists. In Article 395, the legislature exempted bicycle paths from the requirement for a water permit. As of 2018. For an investment involving the designation of a hiking or bicycle trail and the construction, reconstruction or repair of a bicycle path on the dikes, documents under the Construction Law are required without the need to first obtain a water rights permit.

Nonetheless, throughout the investment process, it is important to remember that a flood barrier is nevertheless a hydro-engineering facility that should guarantee safety first and foremost. The construction of a bicycle path there and the designation of a hiking trail therefore require the consent of the embankment owner. It is obtained prior to the start of the planned works. In most cases, the administrator of flood embankments is Wody Polskie, so it is to them that you should turn. Thus, the consent is a necessary document for the implementation of the project, and the exemption from obtaining a water permit is a great convenience and speeds up the entire administrative process.

Why on the ramparts?

A bikeway routed along the embankments is primarily an amenity in the form of straight, flat and safe sections. Among the most important advantages of the bicycle routes routed along the dikes is the ease with which one overcomes the overhangs, or rather, the lack of them. In addition, the sections run in cities are very useful not only for tourism, but also for the daily communication of residents. A certain complication may be the issue of ongoing maintenance of the bike path’s passability on the embankments, i.e. grass cutting and snow removal. While the embankment administrator typically mows twice a year, path maintenance may require more frequent treatments, including in winter. This aspect should be taken care of by the administrator of the bike path.

VeloMalopolska and beyond

There are many portals on the Internet depicting bicycle routes. We won’t advertise them, as each cyclist is sure to have his or her own favorite site. The nationwide bicycle construction program is growing rapidly. Thanks to the Marshal’s offices, which allocate not inconsiderable funds for the realization of individual sections of bicycle paths, kilometers of routes, including those on the embankments, are added every year. An example is the network of existing and under-construction VeloMalopolska routes, a map of which is available on the website of the Marshal’s Office. VeloMalopolska, along with VeloBaltica, VeloMazovia, VeloSilesia and many others, are part of the pan-European EuroVelo bicycle road implementation program.

Not just floodwalls

We can see equally interesting bicycle investments, using hydrotechnical facilities, at reservoirs. Among the most scenic routes is the VeloCzorsztyn, which is routed along an asphalt path excluded from automobile traffic, running close to the banks of the Czorsztyn Reservoir, and in part along its backwater embankments. In places closest to the shore of the reservoir, the route was protected by barriers.

Another example is the Dobczyce pedestrian and bicycle bridge, which communicates the castle hill with the crown of the Dobczyce reservoir dam. The project links the town’s tourist attractions with the dam, from where you can enjoy the view of the Dobczycki reservoir and the peaks of the Beskid Wyspowy. The pedestrian and bicycle footbridge from the dam to the Castle Hill in DobczyceJust a year after its completion was honored with the Sakharov Prize. Stanislaw Witkiewicz in the Public Space category awarded by the local government of the Malopolska Region. The justification reads: “The award for the sensitive integration of the engineering structure into the complex formal and functional context and the complex topography of the site, as well as for a modest form that does not trivialize the landscape.”

Solutions that have succeeded in reconciling tourism and bicycle functions with flood protection exemplify the interaction of various interest groups. It is expected that the reconstruction of the embankments as flood control infrastructure will be carried out by the Polish Waterways and will take into account the possibility of implementing bicycle paths. On the other hand, one should not expect asphalt to be laid there and signs to be erected. These are already the tasks of local governments. Seemingly mutually exclusive tasks, but with a chance of success with the willing cooperation and involvement of various units of the administrative sector. And cyclists will gain another kilometer of flat and safe bicycle routes.

Bikes to the tracks

Old, disused railroad tracks can be just as attractive as floodwalls. The established gradient of the railroad (usually up to 3%), with no steep descents or ascents, is undoubtedly an element that facilitates bicycle travel. The idea of converting former railroad lines into bikeways is being used in western and southern European countries. There are also many such trails in Poland, among others. Pomeranian “Trail of the Winding Tracks” or the Silesian “Iron Bike Route” near Jastrzębie-Zdrój. The slight gradients, separation from automobile traffic and scenic qualities make the disused tracks an attractive location for bicycle routes.

The journey from Zakopane to Gdynia by train will take about 12 hours. You need to remember your bike ticket and a few sandwiches, because rail catering is not among the cheapest, and on your way. We can cover the same route by bicycle. Admittedly, it will take us a few more days. To less seasoned cyclists, it may be a dozen or so, but it’s worth it. We will travel part of the route along paths along the dam reservoirs. Some along the embankments of the Dunajec River and later the Vistula. In part, we will move to the old railroad embankments, where we will enjoy our eyes with picturesque views. All sections have the unquestionable advantage of low gradients and safe separation from automobile traffic.

You can read about traveling along the Vistula, not just by bicycle, in our article “By wooden galley on the wild Vistula.” As you can see, tourism combines the interests of all water users.

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