Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mayor dismantles Budapest Transport Centre

Yay, cars! (Image taken out of context -- shamelessly -- from
It's taken more than a year, but Mayor István Tarlós last week finally managed to undo a key reform that had set Budapest on a course for a less car-centric, more sustainable city.

Tarlós sealed his anti-sustainability campaign by getting the City Assembly to dismantle the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK), the supra-administrative body set up in January 2011 so that city transport -- including roads, motor traffic, parking and public transport -- could be managed in a coherent, integrated way.

Tarlós criticised BKK for "overstepping its remit" and creating an "extremely public transport-oriented" environment. The mayor believes car drivers have suffered too much under BKK's stewardship, so he came up with a proposal that essentially restores transport management to what it was five years ago. According to the Assembly's decision, BKK will be stripped of its authority over roads and motor traffic, and will now look after just public transport and taxi regulation. It also keeps the task of strategic planning, while being in a much weaker position to implement plans.

Management of roads and traffic will be given to a separate administration, the Budapest Public Road Authority (Budapest Közút Zrt.).

Last week's vote was just the last smash up in a slow-motion car wreck that began November, 2014, when the City Assembly, at Tarlós's urging, voted to subsume BKK under a higher-level administrative body (Budapest City Management Center -- Budapesti Városüzemeltetési Központ) controlled by the mayor. A month later, Tarlos canned Dávid Vitézy, the 20-something wunderkind who headed BKK and tallied many victories for public transport. Tarlós publicly derided Vitézy because he didn't know how to drive, and also because Vitézy was achieving things too quickly. In an interview a year ago, Tarlós explained it wasn't that he didn't like Vitézy's changes, he just didn't like the speed of the changes. The mayor replaced Vitézy with a more agreeable and, presumably, slower manager, and with last week's restructuring, the BKK menace was buried. It takes effect in April.

BKK was a progressive umbrella transport agency modeled on successful global examples such as Transport for London and the Land Transport Authority of Singapore. With control of roads, BKK could effectively boost alternatives to the car by reprioritising road space and traffic management. For example, BKK created several priority bus/bike lanes in the downtown area and established new bicycle lanes and on-street bike parking. BKK could also give buses and trams traffic-signal prioritisation -- and we can already see in recent weeks how a lack of signal priority is undermining the potential of the new 19 tram line. In addition, BKK could enforce traffic rules to protect sustainable transport, for example by towing cars parked on bus stops, bike lanes or on Bubi public bike docking stations.

This gave the the city an efficient tool to make public transport faster, more reliable and, thus, more attractive to the traveling public. As Vitézy noted in a recent  response to Tarlos's move, revenues (from ticket and pass sales) for public transport grew by 20% during his four-year tenure at BKK, while fares stayed the same.

At first, BKK's castration might seem like a gift to motorists. But if it leads to a significant shift from public transport ridership and cycling to more car use -- and it's certain to do so -- traffic jams will get worse and everybody will suffer, including car users.

Lastly, this is sure to impair Budapest's ability to attract EU transport subsidies, because basic funding criteria favor projects that reduce congestion, save energy, improve air quality and combat climate change. Recent Budapest projects like the renovation of Margit Bridge, the new metro, the Fonodó tram project in Buda, and, of course, the Bubi bike share system, all received EU subsidies due to their positive environmental impacts. Tarlós's strategic direction completely contradicts these aims and just looks self-defeating.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Persistence pays

Potholes filled!
Posts about potholes don't make good click bait, but I had to note this development at my place of employment, the Regional Environmental Center in Szentendre.

For the past several years two big potholes have obstructed the entrance to the REC's parking area, and this was a big nuisance, even hazard, to the many staff members who commute by bike. This is especially true in winter, when sun sets before the work day's over . It was hard to see these holes in the dark and they were deep enough to throw you off your bike.

But this morning, with no advance notice, they were filled and smoothed over with asphalt.

Not sure how this miracle came to pass. But staff have complained about it for many years, and I have to credit my work mate and fellow bike commuter Jerome Simpson for leading the charge. You might be surprised how much time and effort it took to get two potholes filled. Jerome took this up long ago with REC management, who then informed him that this is actually a municipal issue because the City of Szentendre owns not only the street, but the REC's driveway and the whole front parking lot of our premises. So Jerome asked the REC to make an official petition to City Hall, and he also took it up with the REC's grounds manager. Leaving no stone unturned, when we got involved in a cycling promotion project with Szentendre City Hall, Jerome mentioned the potholes to the municipal staff who were represented. One of them, fortuitously enough, was the manager of city's equipment and infrastructure.

As I said, we don't know which straw broke the camel's back. But it may well have been the cumulative effect and repeated queries. Eventually, someone at City Hall must have gotten embarrassed.

The takeaway for cyclists, I think, is that this kind of direct lobbying does work -- eventually. Kudos to Jerome for sticking to it.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Budapest bike-movement leader dies

János was out on the night they marked the advisory lanes on the newly refurbished Margit Bridge.
This Sunday at 2 p.m., the cycling community will lead a memorial bike ride around Budapest to honour one of its most influential leaders, former president of the Hungarian Cyclists' Club János László.

János died December 23 of cancer. First diagnosed about a year and a half ago, he'd battled it to the end and continued his work with the cyclists' club (MK) until just more than a month ago. The club has posted a tribute to him on their homepage detailing his many contributions to not only cycling, but to the livability of Budapest and the development of civil society in Hungary.

János seemed to be everywhere where there was something going on in the cycling world, whether it be a demonstration, a conference, a meeting at City Hall or a bike fashion show. On the few occasions when I asked for his help on cycling matters, for instance taking part in a meeting to energize a nascent cycling movement in Szentendre, I was honoured that he immediately agreed to help -- and showed up in person to do it.

One of the last times I spoke to János, I asked him about prospects to create cycling lanes on Rákóczi út -- a proposal that activists have been pushing for probably 15 years or more. János shook his head and said, "It won't happen in my lifetime." János was so vital that I took this to mean it wouldn't happen for many, many years. Looking back, I guess he was probably intimating something about his illness.

János's work on cycling lasted barely a decade, but as anyone who's been here during that time can see, cycling in Budapest has developed by leaps and bounds over that time. Most people mark the start of the local cycling movement at the first Budapest Critical Mass in 2004, and János always acknowledged the importance of that moment. His own contribution was to give the movement a clear focus and course of action by establishing the cyclists' club as the country's leading lobbying group for cycling development.

Before János entered the picture, a couple cycling NGOs existed in Hungary, but they didn't really register on the political scene. They worked on an entirely volunteer basis and none of them had a proper office or staff. János took over MK in 2006 and scaled up its activities dramatically by getting a subsidy from Budapest City Hall and hiring staff, including people to run communications and campaigns and an engineer to look after technical issues such as infrastructure design and transport planning.

This enabled Critical Mass to achieve concrete progress beyond making cycling more fashionable. Under János's leadership, MK lobbied successfully for Budapest's first on-street cycle lanes on Alkotmány utca and the creation of the groundbreaking bike lanes on the Kiskörút (and the city's first automatic cyclist counter on the same street). Budapest got its first bike boxes (for instance, on Varsányi Irén utca) and its first "advisory" bike lanes (the chevron-marked lanes on Margit Bridge, ushered in with an MK-supported amendment to the national traffic code). János was also instrumental in the proliferation in downtown Budapest of contraflow bike lanes on one-way streets.

János is also credited for the inclusive way that he framed the cycling club's communications. He helped pacify some of the pugnacious tendencies of the cycling vanguard by insisting that the club wasn't simply for cyclists' rights, but rather for a more respectful and courteous relationship between all road users regardless of their mode of travel. The campaign of a few years ago featuring pictograms of a pedestrian, car driver and cyclist and the slogan "We travel together! (Együtt közlekedünk) was János's brainchild.

With his grey beard and long years of experience, János gave the movement a face of reason and seriousness. I think this gave extra heft to the club's lobbying efforts before decision makers, and it showed Budapesters that cycling as transport is not kid's stuff, but a choice for life.

It also gave inspiration to the movement's young foot soldiers. And this is probably János's greatest legacy -- the community of activists and experts who will pick up where he left off and strive to realise his vision for a more people-friendly city.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mayor outlines dismal vision of out-moded transport

Tarlos, left, is all about charisma and vision.
Budapest's conservative mayor, István Tarlós, gave the cycling movement a kick in the teeth yesterday, threatening to get rid of downtown's shared bike-bus lanes and consider compulsory operating licences for cyclists.

He also labeled as "dangerous" the recently introduced system of contraflow bike lanes, and promised to subject them to a review by a secret working group.

Further, Tarlós poured cold water on a marvellous conceptual plan, revealed just this week, that would create a pedestrian-friendly Pest embankment and establish two bike lanes on the Chain Bridge.

The mayor's proposals came during a transport-themed press conference Thursday, outlining, among other things, plans for future transport financing and the city's obligation to introduce congestion charging (no earlier than 2017, he promised).

The Hungarian Cyclists Club reacted in an open letter urging the City Assembly and the councils of Budapest's district governments to reject the proposals. If you'd like to express your personal disgust with these ideas, check the options at the bottom of the link.

The club's letter objected firstly to the closed process in which the proposals were developed. Tarlós said they came from a "working group" whose members weren't identified and who didn't consult with the cyclists club on its cycling provisions. Illiberal democracy in action!

Tarlós's ideas are based on his rejection of a basic principle of cycling development: that routes should be designed to give cyclists the shortest path between points A and B. This is the only way to make cycling practical and attractive as a means of transport. Tarlós complained that the city can't make this an "absolute priority".

Not that it ever has. The cycling movement has campaigned for many years to end the old-fashioned practice of creating circuitous bikeways that snake on sidewalks around hidden side streets. Long-standing campaigns to put bike lanes on the Nagykörút and on Rákóczi út are examples of trying to make cycling convenient and practical, and Tarlos's statement is a clear rejection of these proposals.

Paradoxically, Tarlós's anti-cycling agenda, and assurances of continued car-friendly transport, are wrapped in an overall concept that he calls an "extremely public transport oriented" system. He thinks cycling, the most space-efficient means of transport next to walking, is a main barrier to fast public transport.

This is why the shared bike-lanes need to be removed, he said. He provided no evidence that bikes are holding up buses, while ignoring the actual cause of slow bus service: traffic jams on streets that DON'T have priority transit lanes.

Tarlós called contraflow cycling lanes "dangerous", despite the fact that there have been no serious accidents on them. Contraflow lanes have been a success in cities the world over, not only making cycling more convenient, but actually enhancing safety because they allow for eye-to-eye contact between motorist and cyclist.

Tarlós also cited safety as a justification for operating licenses for cyclists, which he said could be implemented by 2018. He bases the idea, also unsupported, on his assertion that "eight out of ten cyclists run red lights." Tarlós declared: "Cycling culture is not developing at the same rate as cycling infrastructure."

In fact cycling culture has been developing and safety has been improving. Semi-annual observations organised by the movement have shown that more and more cyclists are using lamps after dark, for instance. And the overall incidence of serious road injuries and fatalities among cyclists has decreased in Budapest, in step with the increase in cyclist numbers. This improvement mirrors countless international examples: Promotion of cycling levels is the best way to improve cycling safety.

To cap off his dismal vision for a more retrograde city, Tarlós criticised the most exciting elements of a new development concept for the Pest embankment and Chain Bridge. The plan, focussed on the embankment between the Margit and Szabadság bridges, proposes a mix of motor-traffic reduction and elimination along different segments. Traffic on the Chain Bridge would be reduced to one lane for motor traffic heading toward Buda. The saved space would be given to bike lanes.

But Tarlós was clear in his opposition to the concept: "The city leadership does not plan for one-way traffic on the Chain Bridge or closing traffic on the lower Pest bank."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Week 4: Patch job accelerates ...

Path patch job is coming along, slowly but surely.
Three posts in a row about the Szentendre path patch job? That's obsessive. But whatever ... for the sake of documentation: The pace of the work has picked up. Maybe it had something to do with a colleague and I sending in impatient letters? Probably not. But the job has accelerated since then. At the beginning, the work crew came out just one day a week. But last week they came out two days, and this week they've come out three days already, and it's only Thursday!

Don't want to get too excited though.

My guesstimate is they've patched about 500 metres of path now. Let's hope for dry weather tomorrow.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Job could take awhile

Szentendre bike path work moves progresses slowly.
As mentioned in my previous post, I went ahead an contacted the Hungarian Road Company, Magyar Közút Zrt., about their recently started patch job on the bike path between Budapest and Szentendre. In my email to them, I explained that the work to date didn't look adequate. The path is 25 years old and in a terrible state of repair. I told them I've been cycling on it almost daily since 2002, and that I've busted many spokes, wheels and axles because of all the cracks and potholes on this path. It needs a complete resurfacing, not the sort of remedial patch job that's being done.

I sent that note on Friday (Nov. 13) and received a reply on Monday from Attila Tóth, Magyar Közút's supervising engineer for operations and maintenance. In essence, he explained that the Szentendre bike path does not belong to the Hungarian road network, but due to an "unfortunate administrative procedure," Magyar Közút was selected to maintain it. The company tried to hand it over to local governments -- by which he means, I assume, the municipalities of Szententre, Budakász and Békásmegyer -- but none of them manned up. Magyar Közút doesn't have dedicated resources for bike path maintenance, so they're expending only minimal energy on the current job, and only as weather allows. They're employing inefficient technologies ("by hand" he said), as their modern road-making machines can't access the path.

This response doesn't offer any solace or recourse to the users of the path. Just a long explanation of why the situation is shitty and why it can't be anything other than shitty.

On the bright side, I noticed this morning that a Magyar Közút road crew was on the job once again. As promised, the work is agonisingly slow. Last Thursday, they managed to fix about 100 metres of path and if they do the same today, that'll be 200 metres. At this rate (100 metres per week), we can expect the entire 10 kilometre path to be patched up in 100 weeks. But of course, work will cease during winter and when Magyar Közút is busy with more pressing work (i.e., anything else). So even if they stick with it, the job could take several years.

For those who use this path, I'd urge you to contact Mr. Tóth and tell him why this job is important:
Tóth Attila
Üzemeltetési és fenntartási vezető mérnök
Magyar Közút Nonprofit Zrt.
For the record, here's my email exchange with Mr. Tóth in Hungarian:

Tisztelt Magyar Közút Nonprofit Zrt!

Ma reggel kerékpárral mentem dolgozni a 11-es út melletti kerékpárúton Budapest és Szentendre között, ahol észrevettem, hogy a Magyar Közút munkásai már elvégeztek néhány javítást az út egy rövid, 100 méteres szakaszán.

Az iránt szeretnék érdeklődni, hogy mik a Magyar Közút tervei a kerékpárút javításával kapcsolatban? Az útvonal 10 kilométer hosszú, 25 éves, és a teljes hosszában nagyon leromlott állapotban van - úgy gondolom, hogy a kátyúzás nem fogja megoldani a problémát, egy teljesen új burkolatra lenne szükség.

2002 óta járok Szentendrére dolgozni és szinte minden nap ezen az úton kerékpározok. A repedések és úthibák miatt számos küllő, kerék és tengely ment már tönkre az én és kollégáim kerékpárján. Bízom benne, hogy a Magyar Közút olyan megoldást talál, ami hosszú távon is lehetővé teszi, hogy az emberek végre kényelmesen és biztonságosan tudjanak kerékpározni Budapest és Szentendre között.

Válaszukat előre is köszönöm!


Greg Spencer
Tisztelt Greg Spencer Úr!

Köszönjük megkeresését a 11. sz. (Budapest – Esztergom – Tát) másodrendű főút 13+236 – 16+952 km szelvények közötti szakaszán az országos közúttal párhuzamosan haladó kerékpárút burkolat állapotára vonatkozóan.

Tájékoztatjuk, hogy a kerékpárút nem része az országos közúthálózatának, így Társaságunk részére nincs elkülönített, előirányzott forrás ilyen osztályú létesítmények kezelési és üzemeltetési feladatainak ellátására. Ezen túlmenően az országos közúthálózattal kapcsolatos feladatok elvégzése mellett korlátozott kapacitása és eszköze marad Társaságunknak ezen, rendezetlen tulajdonviszonyú kerékpárút üzemeltetésére, ill. karbantartására.

Tárgyi ügyben az évek során több megkeresés, illetve bejelentés érkezett már Társaságunkhoz. Álláspontunk továbbra is az, hogy a tulajdonosi háttér rendezetlen és Társaságunk csak egy szerencsétlen ügymenet kapcsán került üzemeltetőként kijelölésre.

Ezen rendezetlen állapot okán kértük az érintett önkormányzatokat, hogy vegyék át kezelésbe az érintett kerékpárutat. Természetesen az ingatlan-nyilvántartás rendezésében partnerek vagyunk és ehhez a szükséges segítséget Társaságunk megadja.

Mindezeket figyelembe véve területileg illetékes szentendrei mérnökségünk feladattervi lehetőségei alapján, a burkolathibák javítását - az erre megfelelő célgép hiányában, korlátozott technológia alkalmazásával kézi erővel tudja elvégezni, mivel a meglévő eszközeink számára a kerékpárút megközelíthetetlen – az időjárás és kapacitás függvényében folyamatosan végzi.

Kérjük tájékoztatásunk szíves elfogadását.


Tóth Attila
Üzemeltetési és fenntartási vezető mérnök
Magyar Közút Nonprofit Zrt.
Pest Megyei Igazgatóság
1134 Budapest, Váci út 45 D.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Szententre bike path being ... patched :-(

These are some of the patches done November 12, 2015 at northern end of Szentendre Bike Path. Work to date covers about 100 meters of the 10 kilometre path.
Looks like I got carried away. From the looks of the ongoing work on the Szentendre bike path, it's not being resurfaced, as I was led to believe, but rather getting a remedial patch job.

Actually, it's not clear what's going on. Yesterday, there was a work crew on the path at the Szentendre end. They told me they were just getting started on a repair of the entire length of the path -- from Szentendre to Budapest. But checking the progress this morning, there were nine patches over a short section of maybe 150 meters, and the work crew was nowhere to be seen. I don't know if this means they'll be back later to continue the work, or if they've already called it good. But even in the best case, it looks like I got way ahead of myself thinking they were doing a resurfacing. It's a patch job, the latest of several that have been done over the years. I'm planning to send a letter to the authority in charge, Magyar Közút Zrt., to clarify their plans.

In the meantime, I documented a few representative cracks and potholes to show just how dire the situation is. Sections of the path are so disintegrated that they're basically being reclaimed by nature. Like in photos of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
This section is about halfway between Budapest and Szentendre just north of the Renault dealership.
Here, the edge of the path has broken off and is gradually sliding into
the ditch along Route 11.
Several years ago, some pavement milling was performed to smooth out some of the more egregious heaves and buckles on the path. Normally, milling is followed by resurfacing, but in this instance, they milled a few spots and disappeared. The result was awful. In some spots, the path had become even worse. Which is saying something.
This is a fun one for the adventurous cyclist. The recommended line of approach here is on the right, about 20 cm from the edge. You can't avoid a bump, but you can cut your losses. 
Mars Rover view of volcanic perturbations.
Hoping the patch crew won't overlook this one.

As bad as this looks, the experience of riding on it is even worse.