Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Need Your Input on Szentendre Bike Sharing

As mentioned in a previous post, Szentendre is studying the feasibility of introducing a bike-sharing scheme and this week, an online survey was launched to gauge public interest.

The short questionnaire asks you whether you would use the scheme and, if so, how often, during what seasons, at what times of the day, for what price and so on. The city needs input from as many people as possible -- including weekend visitors and tourists, so you don't have to live in Szentendre to take part.

Questionnaire is here -- you can switch to an English version at the top of the opening page. Please take five minutes to fill it out.

Parallel to this, there's a collaborative mapping tool where you can suggest locations for docking stations for the system or comment on already suggested spots.

If you'd like to learn more about the Szentendre bike-sharing idea and comment on it in-person, a public hearing will be held on the topic this Saturday (April 25).

What: Public hearing on introduction of bike sharing in Szentendre
Time: 10:15-11:15 a.m., Saturday April 25
Place: REC Zero Emission Conference Center; 9-11 Ady Endre ut; 2000 Szentendre
Language: Hungarian

The hearing is held in conjunction with the REC's annual Earth Day celebrations at the Szentendre head office of the Regional Environmental Center. This is a kid-friendly, open-invitation event in the REC's arboretum. The Earth Day event runs 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Szentendre City Hall Turns Bike-Friendly

In 2014, a service road opened next the the Duna Korzó that provides for car-free cycling with a view.
Szentendre's local government has apparently turned a corner on the subject of utility cycling. City Hall wants to make the town more bike-friendly, and it's reaching out to cyclists to find out how to do it.

This is a big change from five years ago, when some local activists and I did a 'hotspot' analysis of local cycling infrastructure. We recommended some basic remedies to the then mayor, but he told us flat out that nothing could be done that cost money.

But Szentendre has a new mayor, 47-year-old Miklós Verseghi-Nagy, and the winds have changed. My company,  the Regional Enivironmental Center, recently initiated a feasibility study on introducing bike sharing here. Just a week after the study's kick off  at Szentendre City Hall, we were invited back to provide input on another bike-related matter: the installation of public bike racks around town.

Our colleague Attila Katona attended a meeting with a couple municipal officers, the owner of a local bike shop and representatives of the local chapter of the Hungarian Cyclists Club. The results were better than we'd hoped.  The main outcomes:
  • The city agreed to install large portable bike racks (14-28 bike capacity) during the 5-6 warmest months of the year on the main square (Főtér) and the northern and southern ends of the riverfront cafe and restaurant strip (Duna Korzó). These could later become locations of permanent bike-share docking stations.

  • The city will take steps to improve bike parking at the Szentendre HÉV station. Although transport operator BKK controls the property, City Hall will lobby for the changes.
  • City Hall also wants to ensure bicycle parking is provided in front of high-traffic local businesses (grocery stores, banks, restaurants, etc.) The city might encourage this by offering subsidies, but may even compel owners to provide a certain level of parking based on the size of their properties (similar to the existing codes on car parking).
In general, city leadership is enthused about making Szentendre more bike and pedestrian friendly. A big first step will be expansion of the car-free city centre by banning cars during the summer on the korzó.

It's also eager to lift the ban of cycling on Route 11, the main north-south thoroughfare through town. Until now, cycling's been prohibited on Route 11 by the national road authority, Magyar Közút. At the urging of local activists, City Hall appealed to the authority to lift the ban and the petition has apparently succeeded.

According to the information Attila received this week, the legal barrier's been lifted and now it's a matter of following through with whatever signage and infrastructure that's needed. And their may be some personal motivation here: Szentendre's Vice-Mayor Dorottya Gyürk is a cyclist, and admits to a habit of riding illegally on Route 11.

Of course, to make Szentendre truly bike friendly, investments will be needed, and this is where many politicians balk. Even so, there's been a big attitude shift toward cycling at Szentendre City Hall, and this is great news.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Critical Mass Back under Reshuffled Leadership

The new CM is planned to look like the old CM.
After a two-year hiatus, Budapest Critical Mass will return this April 25. It sounds nearly identical to the spring CMs of yore--except for the proposed name: "I Bike Budapest."

There's a new face behind it, as well: Áron Halász, who has published the Hungarian Cycle Chic blog since 2009. He takes on the job as a member of the executive board of the Hungarian Cyclists Club, and he has the support of CM's former organisers, Sinya and Kükü, who are also involved with the club.

In a post on the Kerékagy blog, Halász explains that the ride's envisioned as a once-a-year "fiesta" as opposed to "demonstration".

In other words, it won't be like the old autumn Critical Masses in which participants rode in traffic in order to make a statement about their right to the road. Instead it follows the celebratory MO of the old Earth Day Critical Masses. It's being planned in cooperation with City Hall, it will follow a predetermined parade route patrolled by police, and every effort is being made to minimise inconvenience to other road users.

Public announcements and press interviews are being held well in advance to 'warn' those who won't take part. During the event, provision is made to ensure that the parade doesn't obstruct public transport or pedestrian traffic. Even motorists will be allowed to cross the ride route at larger, police-controlled intersections.
Áron Halász, left, is taking over the reins from Gábor Kürti, right, as point man for the new Critical Mass,
now dubbed "I Bike Budapest." Image taken from
Although they were firm about closing down Critical Mass two years ago, original organisers Sinya és Kükü (Kükü is also a cyclists club board member) of the Hajtas Pajtas bike courier company have pledged their support.

In 2013, they had argued Critical Mass had become obsolete, and that in order to take the next step, the cycling movement needed to refocus on professional lobbying.

However, as Sinya és Kükü explain in a jointly signed open letter, many cyclists felt CM played a big role in inspiring and sustaining the cycling community. Apart from the question of whether CM was an effective lobbying tool, it had spiritual value.

Sinya és Kükü agreed as long ago as early 2014 to support the ride's resurrection. But they had conditions: It should follow CM's basic ethos of being independent (no commercial underwriters, no political party bias), and it should steer clear of overt political statements. They didn't want it to interfere with or obscure the lobbying done by the Hungarian Cyclists Club (Kükü is a member of its executive board).

Even so, this spring's 19 km ride will cross three bridges (Szabadság, Chain and Margit) for the express purpose of highlighting the need for better cycling accommodations over all the city's Danube crossings. So it hasn't been completely defanged.

Sinya's és Kükü's post adds that the return of CM appeared inevitable with or without their support. They say some companies have been looking into creating a more commercial event to make money off the cycling community. The former organisers decided to beat the competition to the punch by backing a version more to their liking.

I'd argued back in 2013 that a more commercial-oriented event might have been a good thing provided that a good share of the proceeds were donated to the Cyclists Club or other worthy non-profit.That doesn't appear to be happening. Even so, I'm happy the Cyclists Club has taken up the mantle so that we can ride again on April 25.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Study explores bike sharing in Szentendre

Péter Dalos, the technical manager of Bubi; Gabor Heves, REC; Mónika Horváth, coordinator of the Szentendre City Architect's Office; Attila Katona, REC; Tamás Kollár of Óbuda University; János Virágh, representative of
the City Services Company;  and me, also REC.
A few days ago, we kicked off a project that could potentially result in a bike-sharing scheme for Szentendre.

The project is a feasibility study, co-funded with EUR 7,500 from the European Commission's CIVITAS Initiative. It will take six months, including a community meeting to gauge local interest, and conclude with a report containing recommendations and a business plan.

The kick-off meeting took place at Szentendre City Hall and involved 10 people: four staff from Szentendre City Hall, the technical manager of the Bubi bike share system in Budapest, a student from the Óbuda University who's both learning from and assisting us, and four staff (me included) from the Regional Environmental Center, based in Szentendre.

Szentendre, 20 km north of downtown Budapest, is a bedroom community. More than half the town's working population of about 10,000 people, commute every morning to Budapest. A line of the suburban rail system, the HEV, offers a non-car option for Budapest-bound commuters, but on the Szentendre end, there's no public transport option for the "last mile" from end station to home.

A bike-share system could be an effective, and relatively inexpensive, way to solve this. And if the system was cleverly integrated with the HEV and Bubi (the Budapest bike-share system launched last summer), you could have an environment-friendly, healthy transport option door to door.

A full report is here
I gave an introduction to the project, in English. My colleague Gabor Heves interpreted in Hungarian, and seemed to  improve on the substance of the talk while he was at it. Thank you, Gabor!

Bubi's Péter Dalos (right) and Tamás Kollár (not pictured) went to the trouble of bringing two Bubi bikes up from Budapest. Both Mónika Horváth (left) János Virágh (center) took them on test rides after our meeting.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A game changer for the körút?

Parked cars are pushed into the interstices along the edge of the sidewalks. That'd give room for continuous priority bike lanes alongside the Nagykörút
Budapest could have a reasonably bike-friendly Nagykörút with small investment and minimum offense to motorists, according to a new proposal posted by the Hungarian Cyclists' Club.

The proposal would make space for priority bike lanes alongside the curbs of both sides of the road. The parking spaces currently on the  curbs would be shifted onto the sidewalk, between the trees, advertising pillars and signposts.

This solution would probably come at the expense of some parking spaces, but the proposal's authors say the loss wouldn't be significant. Pedestrian space would also be conserved as the empty space along the curb doesn't carry foot traffic.

The post describes the scheme as a temporary fix -- and I'd agree that having parking spaces up on the sidewalk is a bit awkward and unattractive. The holy grail would be to reprioritise the körút for tram users, pedestrians and cyclists and to reduce the volume and speed of car traffic.

However, the proposal would be a huge improvement over the current situation. Right now, cycling on the körút is unpleasant and frightening for most people. Having a bike lane would attract a much bigger segment of  the biking population, and provide needed links between the increasingly bike-friendly neighbourhoods in inner-Pest.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Everyone likes bikes

Hakan is fed up with Istanbul's car traffic, and who can blame him?
I'm involved in an interesting but sometimes exasperating EU project called Seismic. It's about the future of cities and how society can reform to address emerging challenges in an era of shrinking public purses. It covers cutting edge experiments in social innovation: social impact bonds, collaborative mapping, participatory citizenship and so on.

While many of the ideas are new and untested, i.e. of uncertain merit, one sure mental foothold is bicycling. In the course of the project, we had a "graphic facilitation" activity called Sketch. In this, artists accost random people on the street, and interview them about their gripes and wishes for cities. The artists sketch it down in charcoal pencil, and have so far produced 400 drawings from 10 cities in 10 countries.

As scans of each country's sketches go up on the project website, you'll see serious ideas about democracy: "Maria wants a public forum where citizens can express their ideas". And a few ideas out of San Francisco, circa 1968: a public park dedicated to laughing (Prague) and my favourite one from Brussels: "Pascal wants more naked dance!"

The ideas are rich and varied, but one thing loads of people from every country agree on is bicycles. Bikes, as much as ample green space, are widely recognised as key ingredients of the ideal city. I think this is cool, particularly since it goes against the grain of "innovation". Many EU research projects emphasise innovation, which I suppose is natural. Why spend research efforts on what we already know? Then again, when we're trying to find ways to improve cities, innovation is just one approach. Sometimes the best ideas are right under our noses.

Below is a small sample of the bike-related sketches in the Seismic project's archive.

Oliver thinks Queen Elizabeth should set an example and ride a bike -- as the Dutch royals do.

I agree with Grace. Tolerance is over-rated! At least when it comes to cars.
Peter shows that, contrary to popular belief, cycling's not just for masochists.

There's a lot of pent-up hostility toward cars.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Motorist Douchebagicus

Left-turning cyclist has temerity to move into lane's middle. Is hanging good enough for him??
The smart way to promote cycling is by being positive -- who can argue with that? As the old adage says: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

But this morning I'm going to follow another old adage: honesty's the best policy. Although I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I've gotten sick to death of motorists whinging about cyclists. Cyclists don't stop at red lights, they say. Cyclists scare children and the elderly. And, of course, the compulsory and bogus claim that cyclists don't pay for roads. (In fact, everyone who pays sales and income taxes pays for roads.)

A rising chorus of opinion makers behave as if the increasing popularity of cycling has introduced danger onto once safe city streets. Where peace and predictability reigned, we now have mayhem.

In New York, we hear complaints by the Wall Street Journal that the city's new bike-sharing system has "begrimed" the city and endangered the public. The New Yorker ran a similarly alarmist opinion piece in the wake of two freak traffic fatalities caused by cyclists (Look at the map of people killed by cars in New York in 2013. It was more than two.)

I don't deny that bicyclists are sometimes guilty of bad behaviour. I've run red lights, I've biked on the sidewalk, I've gone the wrong way on a one way. But looking at the relative harm and danger posed by cyclists versus motorists -- there's no comparison.

Cars spew noxious fumes into the air we breathe (50-90 percent of urban air pollution is caused by motor vehicles); cars maim and kill people (1.24 million traffic deaths/year worldwide; 30,000-40,000/year in US alone), cars take up the majority of public space in cities, cars isolate people from public interaction and habituate them to unhealthy, sedentary daily routines.

Motorists who whinge about cyclists bring to mind an article recently circulated on Facebook. The writer, an American sociology professor, proposes a specific definition of "douchebag" as someone who breezes through life with an obnoxious attitude of entitlement. The article uses the term in connection with racial politics:

The douchebag is someone—overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males—who insists upon, nay, demands his white male privilege in every possible set and setting.

However, I think "douchebag" works just as well in the context of transport politics. It perfectly describes a motorist (black, white, male or female), who—despite having free residential parking (as in Budapest), free-of-charge access to city streets, the right to pollute the air with no carbon or other tax, and a traffic management regime that overwhelmingly caters to private cars—goes into a tizzy at the slightest intrusion against motorists' free rein.

In Budapest, there is an officially registered lobbying group fighting against the cycling movement. They call themselves "Movement for a More Humane Parking Policy"—as if free parking were a human right on par with freedom from torture or freedom of speech. Some years ago, this group, which as far as I can tell is just two guys, held a demonstration on Múzeum körút, where they "occupied" a newly created bike lane by parking their car on it. They made a video in which a woman -- ostensibly a passerby, but probably the wife of one of the organisers -- complained, "These bicyclists are trying to push us out of the city!" If only!

But parking activists are by no means the only motoring douchebags in Budapest. Just yesterday, I had an encounter with a choice example. I was on my usual morning commute on Margit körút heading toward Margit Bridge. At the point where the road forks—either left to the bridge, or straight to Bem rakpart—I veered, as usual, into the middle of the right-hand lane, and hand signaled to the left. As soon as I got into the the centre of the lane, the motorist behind me honked, and then, just before I entered the turn, he accelerated hard and roared by just centimetres from my handle grip.
Cyclists -- they act as if they own the roads!!
Further down the road, I slapped his side-view mirror to get his attention—it worked. He pulled over at the first opportunity, into a bus stop, got out and demanded why I hit his car (shiny black BMW coupe). He said I had no right to be in the middle of the road. I told him I hit his car because he'd nearly run me over, and that I had every right to get into the middle of the road to take a left turn (In fact, the Hungarian road rules say you must move to the middle in this situation). The guy wouldn't have any of it -- the idea that a cyclist could impede him and his Beemer for even a second was an outrage. We yelled back and forth for a bit, and eventually he got back in his car and sped off. Douchebag.