Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bike Path Blockade

One man's commuting route is another man's parking lot. Bike path on east side of Road 11 just north of Szentendre Lidl.
Riding into Szentendre this morning (May 13), two vans from the electric utility, ELMŰ, were blocking the bike path. Not headline news, for sure. It seems that bike and pedestrian paths are the go-to parking solution for road-work and utility crews. They're not the only culprits, just some of more frequent offenders.

Parking on bike paths is standard practice and all the more annoying because of it. Although it happens all the time in Hungary, one can imagine a parallel universe, or even a nearby country, where cycling paths are taken seriously.

In this morning's instance, the utility trucks could have pulled onto the weedy strip between the path and the road. Easy, right? I've written a complaint letter to ELMŰ, asking them if they have any policy about this. I mean, their trucks almost never park on roadways. There must be regulations and guidelines about this. Is there no policy at all about bike paths? Or is this a non-issue for ELMŰ? We'll see what their response is.

ELMŰ sent a response to my complaint. Give them credit for being prompt, although sadly it doesn't acknowledge the problem and mainly aggrandizes the urgency of ELMŰ's service: "As can be clearly seen in the photo you sent, our workers didn't park their vehicles on the bike path, but were using them to complete PUBLIC UTILITY work." It goes on to say the tasks are being done to ensure a safe supply of electricity for you all, and it's all being done in compliance with Hungarian rules and traffic regulations.

In my complaint letter, I noted that ELMŰ vehicles frequently block bike paths, and that there are normally convenient ways to avoid this. ELMŰ's reply doesn't acknowledge blocked bike paths as a problem, much less ways to address it.

For the record, here is the verbatim exchange in Hungarian (Thanks to Attila Katona for the editing!):
From: Greg Spencer []
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2015 10:59 AM
To: Elmű-Émász Ügyfélszolgálati Kft._Budapest
Subject: Panasz a kerékpárúton parkoló járművekről

Tisztelt Hölgyem/Uram!
Ma reggel a 11-es út mentén húzódó kerékpárúton, Szentendrén, két ELMŰ jármű blokkolta az utat. Annak ellenére, hogy van más parkolási lehetőség, ez mégis gyakran előfordul, és nagyon kellemetlen - gyakran kifejezetten veszélyes - a kerékpárral közlekedők számára. Kérem a jövőben vegyék figyelembe a kerékpárral utazókat. Az iránt szeretnék érdeklődni, hogy van-e az ELMŰnél erre vonatkozó előírás?

Greg Spencer

Tisztelt Greg Spencer!
Mint ahogyan a mellékletben, az Ön által elküldött képen is jól látható: A kerékpárúton tartózkodó gépjárművek nem parkolnak, hanem az ott tartózkodó munkatársaink munkaeszközeként, KÖZÜZEMI munkát végeznek. Azért dolgoznak, hogy biztosítsák Önök számára, a biztonságos villamos energia ellátást! Az ilyen munkavégzésekre a törvény is külön jogszabályokban foglalkozik. (KRESZ közüzemi munkavégzést ellátó gépjárművek)

Kovács János
Gépjármű osztály
Budapesti Elektromos Művek Nyrt. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Public hearing supports bike-share project

Szentendre Mayor Miklós Verseghi-Nagy got Saturday's hearing started.
Our first public hearing on the idea of introducing bike sharing to Szentendre went off over the weekend with mostly supportive, positive comments from participants.
About 20 people attended, fewer than we'd hoped, although it was asking a lot for people to come to a boardroom discussion at 10:15 on a beautiful Saturday morning. And besides, we're also offering an easier online means of giving input. As of April 28, 220 people had filled in our short, online questionnaire (deadline is May 10).

The meeting was held as a side event to the REC's annual Earth Day celebrations, which this year attracted a couple hundred or more visitors. The mayor was on hand and, because the bike-share gathering in the REC's library constituted the biggest concentration of guests at 10 a.m., our side event became the venue for his welcoming remarks.

Peter Dalos, the operations manager of Budapest's bike sharing system, Bubi, kicked things off by giving an overview of the bike sharing concept, as well as the particulars of the Bubi system. His presence added a useful dose of gravitas to the event, with Bubi representing a "serious" investment of EUR 3.5 million and also a well-publicised Hungarian success story. Very popular and widely used, it has suffered little of the theft and vandalism that critics had predicted.

REC intern Attila Katona, who's heading up the Szentendre study, laid out the preliminary case for bringing bike sharing to Szentendre, including its benefits to the environmment, for the tourist trade and its potential usefulness to commuters.

Public comments on Saturday were supportive, although, as expected they began with skeptical questions about basic cycling conditions in Szentendre. Road 11, the high-traffic thoroughfare connecting Szentendre to Budapest and communities on the Danube Bend, has long been a sore point with bike riders. Cycling isn't even allowed there and no bike lane or path exists over most of its stretch through town.

Szentendre's hilly terrain; the cobblestone streets in the city centre; and the awkward connection between the HEV station and the Old Town were other mentioned challenges.

These were fair enough points, and it was an opportunity to present City Hall's other measures regarding cycling. Concerning Road 11, the city recently won an appeal to the Hungarian Public Road Authority to remove the ban on cycling. It's uncertain how cycling will be managed on the road, but planning is underway. Regarding the awkward HEV connection to Old Town (currently a dingy underpass beneath Road 11, with steep flights of stairs on either end, this will be addressed with a pending investment that will include a surface crossing over Road 11. For the hills, there's the possibility of including electric bikes or pedelecs to the Szentendre bike share fleet.

These are all important points, however Attila underscored that the scope of our study covers bike sharing, not general transport improvements. The hope is that bike sharing will stimulate higher levels of cycling in town, which will stimulate political pressure for bike-friendly improvements, which will stimulate more cycling, etc.

This was the case with the Bubi project in Budapest: Before Bubi launched in the summer of 2014, the city implemented scores of small bike-friendly improvements to the streets within the system's area: contraflow lanes, new signage, bike racks and so on. This was also the case in London, with the blue "bicycle superhighways" following quickly on the heels of the Boris bikes. Barcelona was another example of a city that began bike-friendly improvements by launching a bike-share system.

The takeaway is that cities become bike friendly step by step -- rarely in a single massive project (with Seville, Spain, being the only exception I can think of).

Most of Saturday's guests seemed to understand this, and it was my impression they simply wanted us to understand the wider context of our project. Working and cycling in Szentendre for the last 12 years, and having been pulled over by police multiple times for cycling on Road 11, I can definitely say, I feel the pain!

A final public comment on Saturday was a vote of support for our "low-cost" option for bike sharing. At present, we're looking at two different models as the basis for the Szentendre system. The first is the multi-station model provided by Bubi and the majority of other modern bike-share systems. We figure that Szentendre is big enough to support a system encompassing three to 10 stations: one at the HEV stop, one or two on the Duna korzo, perhaps one at the Skanzen, and so on. We've posted an online collaborative map to see where potential users would like to see stations.

The other model is that of OV-Fiets in the Netherlands: It involves just a single station (in the Netherlands, it's always a train stop) and users check out bikes from and return them to this station. Rentals can be longer term -- a few hours or even a full day. This is a key difference to multi-nodal systems, which encourage short trips of less than 30 minutes. A big advantage of the single-node approach is that it is potentially much cheaper and simpler to implement. Although it can be automated with high-tech equipment and contactless cards, it can also be designed as a conventional bike rental, with the only necessary ingredients being a human attendant, a shed full of bikes, and a chip-card reader.

The comment on Saturday was that it might be best for Szentendre to begin with a low-tech, low-cost system, and see where it goes from there.

One thing that would be missing would be the connection to Bubi. At project's start, we had a vision of Szentendre hosting an extension of Bubi, with the same technology, same branding and same user card. I don't want to give up on this idea. However, it could be that this project, too, will have to be carried out step by step by step.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I Bike Budapest Reboots Tradition

Lance, Sequoia and Kristin pause for a foto at the end of the ride at entrance to Margit Sziget.
Of course, I joined the Ride Formerly Known as Critical Mass yesterday and had the usual good time. I have no idea how many people there were and couldn't find a head count in any of the media reports. Hungarian news agency MTI reported "several tens of thousands" -- which is a safe guesstimate.

We got out the door late, so missed the first couple kilometres from Bakats ter to the Chain Bridge. But from there, we completed the rest of the 19 km circuit. It was a pretty long ride compared to previous spring Critical Masses. The ride's facebook page reported there were more than 400 helpers out directing traffic at intersections. It's a credit to the organisers that so many volunteers could be recruited, trained and deployed so smoothly. It seemed they pulled it off beautifully. Other than a couple low-speed spills involving children (including our 10-year-old), I didn't hear of any big incidents.

My family and I took a little more than two hours to get to the finish at Margit Island -- and then Kristin took the kids home because they were wiped out and needed to pee. I rode onto the island to the big  grassy field where people were collecting, and I went to the Kerekparosklub tent to get a shirt (I Bike BP). Men's sizes were all sold out, except for smalls -- which I got anyway for a souvenir.

I hung around for half an hour but had to cut out before the bike lift. Happy hour date with Kristin in a nice quiet bar was the perfect way to cap off a great day.

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 and 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 and 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.

The two activists 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.

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 and 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.