Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Few Good Snowmen

Snowmen keeping the peace in NE Portland.
Tuesday night's historic snowfall in Portland stirred up memories of wintertime hijinks when I was a kid in Spokane. Snowfalls like this were routine, but always an opportunity for fun. One snowy night in particular, some neighbor kids and I went out and rolled up a bunch of huge snow boulders in our front yard, and then proceeded to line them up across the street to block cars. We lived in a subdivision, and it was after dark and snowing hard, so cars were passing just once in awhile. That gave us enough time to build a quick wall, and then duck behind the bushes to wait for cars to come. Most drivers would stop in front of the blockade, get out, kick down part part of it, and then drive through. But I have a clear memory of a pickup coming along, and then hitting the gas and bashing down the wall Red Fang style. Very cool!

Last night in our neighborhood in Northeast Portland, the conditions were similar: perfectly moist, packable snow, and just the right amount of traffic in front of our house. At age 52, I actually had an idea to repeat the Spokane roadblock escapade of my childhood. But this time, not for the naked thrill of it, but because I'm fed up with the rat running traffic in front of our house. Our street is just a block and a half from the intersection of two big thoroughfares, Sandy Blvd. and NE 82nd Ave. During rush hour, a lot of drivers will cut up our street and around the corner in order to avoid the traffic light at Sandy and 82nd. They'll do this at speeds way too high for a residential street -- so this is a big nuisance.

Scene of the hijinks.

The snow patrols are placed so they discourage tight cornering -- which slows cars down.
Last night, while the kids were sledding on the walk and having snowball fights, I rolled up four big snow boulders and lined them up at the corner where the rat runners make their high speed turns. But when it came to it, I decided against creating a full-on road block. I was too concerned that somebody coming up the sloping street from Sandy would get stuck. And maybe it wouldn't be a rat runner at all, but a nice, responsible somebody who lives on our street. The barricade was too blunt an instrument, I decided.

Looking down the hill toward the big throughfare, Sandy Blvd.
Instead I created two tall snowmen right at the corner. They're placed a couple feet out from the gutter so that they constrict the traffic, but still allow cars to pass. As such, they're more like traffic calmers (or maybe, considering the materials, traffic coolers?). At any rate, I did notice that cars slowed down as they the came to the snowmen. This was helped by the fact that a car was parked along the opposite sidewalk, leaving a fairly narrow passage. I think it's also due to the nature of Portlanders: They're just very appreciative and respectful of anything that might be considered temporary public art. No more than five minutes into my little experiment, a big, obnoxious-looking pickup with a lifted suspension approached the corner from 82nd: unfamiliar vehicle and most probably a rat runner, I judged. The passenger window rolled down and I braced for vitriol. Then came a cheerful, female voice: "Hey, those snowmen are AMAZING!!" Totally took the wind out of my sails. "Thanks!" I said. So the tenor of my political statement seems to have been lost on the rat runners. Snowmen are too cute, I can see in retrospect. However, they do slow down traffic, so that's something.





Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bus bail out

Sequoia may not look it, but in this week's cold weather, she's much happier to ride a warm bus than to ride a half hour on the back of a cargo bike.
Some unusually cold weather struck Portland as school opened up after the holidays, making the morning commute a bit of a trial.

Normally, I take our first grader, Sequoia, to school on a cargo bike. It's about a half-hour journey and in good weather it's a pleasant way to start the day. But the temperature on the first day of school this year was below freezing and the howling wind coming down the Columbia brought the "real feel" down to the mid-teens (about -10° C).

Sequoia was a trooper that first day on the bike, but the next morning, she was begging to go by bus. And with the temperatures dropping rather than rising, I could hardly say no. My selfish hesitation was that the school commute is the only exercise I get all day. But then I remembered that Portland's buses have bike racks, and that would allow me to take along my bike so I could cycle on the return trip home from Sequoia's school.

When the rack is not in use, it folds up and out of the way.

When you need to use it, you unlatch the rack at the top. It folds down,
you pop in your bike and then pull a spring-loaded, extendable arm over
your front tire to secure the bike. Easy when you get the hang of it.
In Budapest, city buses are not equipped with bike racks, and I was told this was because of a European regulation that forbids it for safety reasons. Despite this, bike racks are a common feature on American public buses, and Portland is no exception.

The racks on Trimet buses are mounted on the front and have capacity for two bikes. They're quick and easy to use, although the first time I tried it I couldn't figure it out and started panicking because I was holding up the bus. The driver came out and did it for me, and the lesson stuck -- precisely because it left a lasting scar on my delicate male ego.

One limitation with the racks, of course, is that they hold only two bikes. In times of high demand -- like in a torrential downpour that coincides with rush hour -- these racks quickly fill up so you can't count on Trimet to bail you out of a wet commute. I've also discovered that the racks are not big enough to accommodate my Kona Ute longtail cargo bike -- one reason I'm using a regular-sized bike this week.

But for this cold spell, the bike racks have been very handy and there have been no capacity problems (knock on wood). Until it warms up, the plan for our school commute is to bus one way and bike the other.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Goodbye BP, Hello PDX

Taking a page from Budapest, bike racks displace car parking on Portland's trendy NE Alberta Street.

Back to the US

This summer, our family made a big, long-debated move from Hungary back to the US, where both my wife and I are from. We all loved Budapest but for various reasons, we'd agreed some time ago that we would come back. The question was when and how, and to what city. For a few years, the issue hung up on such details.

But it has to be admitted that in the family discussions, I was the lone  foot dragger. The kids were eager to permanently relocate to the land of grandma and cousins and awesome vacations. My wife had been in Hungary even longer than I had, and she was ready for a change. I, on the other hand, had serious doubts whether we could do better than Budapest. We had good jobs; good day care and school; lots of friends and a great centrally-located flat in a gorgeous city (upstairs from the Bem Mozi with a view of the Duna). And importantly, everything was easy to access due to the compactness of Budapest and its superb public transport system. I lived in Budapest for 20 years and never owned a car. I loved not needing a car and the prospect of having to get one -- as most families do in the US -- was one of my biggest doubts about moving back.

But when Kristin was offered a job in Portland, Oregon, world-renowned as the American Mecca of transport cycling, that was it. I'd already given my qualified assent to a US move. Now the when, how and where were sorted out in undeniably excellent fashion. This was the time to jump.

Lance joined me for a last Budapest cycling demonstration in July -- in protest of Mayor Tarlos's unilateral rejection of the bike-friendly elements of the reconstruction of Bartók Béla út.
Kristin moved out ahead of us in May to begin work and scout out a home. The kids and I joined her here on July 13. I've been thinking of continuing with my blog, just changing the city of focus from Budapest to Portland. Originally, Cycling Solution was a fish-out-of-water concept: a look at Budapest cycling and transport through the eyes of an American. I think the idea still holds -- now in reverse. I spent so many years working and living in Europe that I practically went native -- at least with respect to my views on transport. So the blog is still a fish-out-of-water thing: cycling and transport in Portland through the eyes of a pseudo-European.

I wanted to get a feel for the place before writing about it, and now that we're going on two months, it's time to start. I've already been cycling a bit, and have spotted impressive infrastructure and other measures that promote everyday cycling (e.g. an innovative bike-share system, "neighborhood greenways", "buffered" bike lanes with wide safety zones on either side to separate cyclist from moving traffic and parked vehicles, and a cyclist-friendly wayfinding system). However, it's taken time to appreciate this. My first impressions of local cycling conditions weren't so good, which surprised me because the press on Portland cycling is generally super positive.

Biketown is the name of Portland's new public bike system. It just debuted in July.
On Portland's MAX light rail (akin to Budapest's HEV), you can take your bike at no extra charge (as opposed to the HEV, where you're charged double fare)
Neighborhood greenways are long stretches of secondary streets that prioritize cycling and discourage motorized through traffic. On a greenway, you can bike for kilometers on end without breaking stride while travelers on side streets are halted by stop signs topped with special bike emblems.

Great cycling city -- by American standards 

Although I have no doubt that Portland deserves its place among the top-rated cycling metros in the US (apparently 6% of work and school trips are by bike here -- higher than in any other large city in the country), Portland is still an American city. And not just American, but West Coast American, meaning it's much newer, more spread out and more car-centric than virtually any European city.

Portland has a small downtown core with taller buildings and apartment blocks, but most of the city rises just one floor, and the vast majority of residential development is single-family detached homes -- like the one we're living in now. We're about 6 miles (10 km) from the city center in a 100+ year-old neighborhood that looks quite a lot like neighborhoods a half mile from the center. There may be a duplex and multi-level apartment unit here and there, but most of it is detached homes with yards, driveways and garages.

This low density means that almost anything you want to get to requires a bit of a journey. For us, for example, the nearest grocery store is .7 miles (1.2 km); nearest park .6 miles (.9 km); and nearest post office 1.8 miles (3 km). We're by no means isolated -- in fact, because we're near a major thoroughfare (Sandy Boulevard), we have a bunch of nearby restaurants, bars and convenience stores (also pot shops -- marijuana being legal in Oregon). But it's not nearly as walkable as a normal urban neighborhood in Europe. On the other hand, it is bikeable. Our boy is biking to school, we bike for groceries and to get pizza and to go to judo and soccer practice. I bet with time, I'll find myself logging more distance by bike than I did in Budapest because all those trips I used to take by foot I now take by bike.

Longer trips are more of a challenge due to the comparatively scarce public transport. Again, we could do much worse than Portland. By West Coast standards, Portland is quite advanced in terms of public transport. Along with the bus system (which most cities in the US still have, at least in some vestigial form), Portland has a light rail network (connecting city to suburbs, like Budapest's HEV) as well as two streetcar lines (trams). The main public transport in our neighborhood are two bus lines along the nearest thoroughfares (buses 12 on Sandy Blvd and 72 on NE 82nd Street). The service on these lines is every 10-15 minutes during peak times and every 15-20 minutes during weekends and holidays. This service is categorised as "frequent" by the operator Trimet.

The sparse public transport in our neighborhood is another reason we're biking so much. Kristin bikes about 9 miles to work each way and I take our daughter to a school across town that's more than 5 miles away (two roundtrips a day). I believe in both cases, we save time over public transport. For trips where bikes don't work, we're relying on Uber. We've actually used Uber quite a lot, including some trips where we've hauled our bikes (for an extra fee, you can dial "Uber Pedal" and you get a car that can carry bicycles.)

Portland is certainly more of a car-driving city than Budapest. You hear about more and more people going carless, and the city has infrastructure and services that enable this if you're committed. But they'll need lots of development before car-free is the norm.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Cycling ban to be lifted on Szentendre Route 11

After years of being closed to cyclists, Route 11 in Szentendre will get advisory bike lanes.
It sounds as if the ban on cycling on Route 11 in Szentendre will finally be lifted. However, the timeline is murky and public authorities have made no public announcement on the matter.

Last week, a technical plan for the changes was presented in a closed-door meeting of stakeholders, including the Hungarian Cyclists' Club (MK).

As MK's staff engineer Miklós Radics explained in Facebook post, the ban will be lifted, but the road will be given only minimal cycling accommodations.

"They plan wide outside car lanes (at least 4.25m or more) with bike sharrows," Radics wrote.

Radics explained that the Szentendre section of Route 11 is not wide enough to accommodate the existing cars lanes and proper bike lanes. So the plan instead calls for sharrows, otherwise known as "advisory bike lanes", which motorists can drive on legally. An example of sharrows in Budapest are on Margit Bridge -- they're marked with chevrons and cycling pictograms rather than a solid line separating cyclists from motor traffic.

"It's not the best and most bike-friendly solution, but it's still a big step if we compare it with the nonsensical prohibition," Radics said.

"Moving the curbs and redesigning the whole road won't happen in the coming years. The municipality and the road maintenance company (Magyar Közút) will co-fund the budget for the repaint."

The plan was based on a study by the engineering consultancy Tandem Kft. on a commission by Szentendre City Hall.  Staff from Tandem revealed the study's results and recommendations last week to a group of select stakeholders, but neither City Hall or Magyar Közút have make any public announcement on the subject.

A representative from the Szentendre branch of the Hungarian Cyclists Club said they would prepare their own announcement on the scheme in the coming days.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mayor Kicks the Hornets' Nest

What was he thinking?
The April 23 cycling demonstration (formerly Critical Mass, now I Bike Budapest) is shaping up into a political showdown with Mayor István Tarlós.
Tarlós declared back in February that he believed cycling development in downtown had gone too far (while also claiming Budapest had become an "extremely public-transport oriented" city). In recent days, activists circulated an official document showing Tarlós's point-by-point plan of paring back pro-cycling measures. In it, the mayor declares he would:
  1. no longer prioritise the creation of bike routes that offer the shortest path from points A to B;
  2. no longer paint yellow bicycle pictograms on streets that also have separate sidewalk bike paths;
  3. revisit recently created bike contraflow lanes on one-way streets (about 120 such lanes in the city) and remove them except in exceptional circumstances;
  4. not allow bicycle traffic in bus lanes unless the lanes are at least 4.5 metres wide;
  5. on streets with bike lanes, prohibit cyclists from riding in bus lanes (undoubtedly, this applies to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, although the bike accommodation there is technically a "bike path" not a lane)
Afterwards, Index.hu published a point-by-point response to the proposals, explaining how all of them have improved the bikeability of the city, and how Tarlós's proposals would reverse this progress. The Index article follows a more exhaustive set of recommendations concerning the next 10 years of cycling development from the Hungarian Cyclists Club. Both documents were written with care, with all propositions backed with evidence and reasoned arguments.

The mayor's response could not be described as reasonable. It was rather hysterical. The short communiqué signed by the mayor's communications director called the backlash to Tarlós's proposals:
"... a mysterious defamation campaign instigated by the tabloid press whose claims nearly violate the criminal code and border on slander."
The statement goes on to say that the mayor has "never called for the ending of cycling development" and that over the past  20 years, cycling development has never been as good as it has been during Tarlós's term.

And then it claims that "rational cycling development" is not the same as "the unrestrained terror of a minority of radical cyclists".

It seems to me that the one guilty of slander is Tarlós. The people he's calling a radical minority are the organisers and participants of the city's most popular civil movement since the founding of the democratic state. The Critical Mass ride (now re-branded as I Bike Budapest) has always drawn tens of thousands of participants -- in 2013 it drew an estimated 100,000. It's mainstream. The Hungarian Cyclists Club is a well-established NGO -- the biggest cycling lobbying group in the country, not a radical fringe group. And Index.hu, although obviously differing with the mayor politically, is one of the most visited news portals in Hungary.

Tarlós has really kicked a hornets' nest with this one. And his timing couldn't be better. Expect a big turned out for I Bike Budapest.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pretext for removing bike-bus lanes?

The fast way to bike Bajcsy.
It looks like the mayor is getting set to close down Budapest's ground-breaking shared bus-bike lanes on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky ut. Mayor István Tarlós declared earlier this year that he didn't approve of the lanes -- or practically anything else that has to do with non-car urban transport. And in recent days, city road crews have been spotted conducting traffic counts of cyclists using the lanes, according to a post on the I Bike Budapest Facebook page. Looks like a pretext for shutting the lanes to bike traffic.

The bike-bus lanes were created in spring 2013 as an alternative to the narrow two-way bike lane on Bajcsy's west-side sidewalk. For various reasons, many cyclists prefer to ride on the street on Bajcsy, but because buses are prioritised on the Bajcsy's outside lanes, cyclists were not allowed to ride there.

By law, unless cyclists are given explicit permission to share a bus lane, they're supposed to ride in the second lane over, and not along the curb where slower traffic normally belongs. It was a contradiction in the traffic regime: In order to ride legally, cyclists had to ride between lanes of faster motor traffic. It's a dangerous place to be and shared bike-bus lanes were meant to correct the problem.

The mayor has said he doesn't like cyclists to be in bus lanes because it slows down bus traffic. Which is an odd justification for a mayor who otherwise seems opposed to buses -- or any form of transport other than a single-passenger occupied vehicle.

Bad times for sustainable transport in Budapest. But a good time to be an activist.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Cyclists Should Speak Up on Szentendre Route 11

Szentendre City Hall's surveying for a scapegoat.
Apparently, Szentendre City Hall is trying to derail a years-long lobbying effort to allow cycling on the Szentendre section of Route 11.

Last month, City Hall commissioned a "technical study" to see if the 6.5 kilometer stretch of Route 11 inside Szentendre could be opened to bike traffic. This follows several years of lobbying by a handful of cycling activists in Szentendre who are fed up with being banned from the city's main public road because of their environment-friendly choice of transport.

Cyclists who ride on Route 11 (myself included, full disclosure) routinely get pulled over and scolded by police and some have been fined. You can get a fine for even crossing the road by bike, which is crazy, because you need to cross Route 11 to get from the Budapest bike path on the west side of the road to the Szentendre bike path just opposite. You can make this passage through an unlit service tunnel, but it's inconvenient and especially useless if you're carrying baggage (as touristic cyclists on Eurovelo 6 do in summer).

When cyclists first lobbied on the issue years ago, City Hall deflected the question to another entity, the Hungarian Road Authority (Magyar Közút Nonprofit Zrt.). But under sustained pressure by the local branch of the Hungarian Cyclists Club, the City Council agreed to appeal to Magyar Kozut to see if the ban could be lifted. The road authority, although reluctant to make the change, eventually agreed it would defer to the city's wishes. The local cycling lobby was told that the cycling ban had been lifted, and now it was just a matter of putting up signage and painting lanes to seal the deal.

But this isn't what has happened. Instead, the matter's is being subjected to a technical study and it's once again unclear whether cyclists will get their way. In fact, from the sound of the latest official communication, the new study is City Hall's way of deflecting responsibility yet again:

"Many would like to be able to cycle on Route 11, but according to others, the already busy, often congested road is not suitable for safe bicycle travel," the announcement states. City Hall, therefore, "takes no stance on the matter."

What's worse, according to inside sources, is that City Hall is pressuring the engineering firm undertaking the study to dampen the expectations of cyclists. Somebody at City Hall has actually scolded the firm for making "optimistic statements" about the study. The firm was told not to make any public statements on the study at all.

As far as I can see, the city had hoped deflect the question onto outside experts in the hope it could be rejected on technical grounds. This would relieve officials from making a political decision.

It's a ruse. The only thing that makes cycling unsafe on Route 11 is fast-moving car traffic. Barring big investments in separated bike paths (which will not happen), the city would need to make some on-road bike lanes and to reduce the road's speed limit, say to 40 km/h. This is not a technical challenge, it's a political one: Does the City Council support it or not?

A small glimmer of hope is that there is an element of stakeholder consultation in the study: It's being carried out in cooperation with Magyar Közút; City Hall officials and the Szentendre branch of Hungarian Cyclists Club.

Now would be a very good time for cyclists to speak up on the issue, telling the mayor they support the Cycling Club and its efforts to allow bike traffic on the street. If you agree, please send a note, in Hungarian if possible but no necessarily, to the mayor at polgarmester@szentendre.hu.