Monday, March 31, 2014

Parliament Promenade


For the last couple years, the area around Parliament was a dusty construction zone walled off with chip board and fences. The boards came down a couple weeks ago -- in time for the national elections -- to reveal an enormous level space of concrete and cut stone.

Aside from a huge new statue of national hero Lajos Kossuth, it's as flat and open as the Hungarian Great Plain. Some would call it "austere" -- in fact, my wife said exactly that. But it got thumbs up all around for being closed to cars. The tram tracks look to be in the same place. The asphalt street has been replaced by a stone tiled surface with little bicycle pictograms etched in about every 20 metres. They're pretty subtle and the signage is spare, as well. It's basically designed as a shared space where cyclists and pedestrians co-mingle. Except at stops, there's no curb or other barrier to isolate the tram tracks. You have a feeling it'd be really easy for a child to step across the tram tracks at the wrong moment, but trams on Saturday were going quite slowly, probably for this reason.

For cyclists, this square used to be a bit of a hazard. You'd either ride on the narrow bike path near the Parliament -- and on weekends always contend with droves of camera-toting tourists. Or you'd go on the street where you'd be caught between speeding cars and parked tourist buses in front of the Ethnographic Museum. Now you have space galore. It's unregulated, and you have to watch where you're going, but it feels a lot more relaxed and pleasant.


Friday, March 14, 2014

New Docks on the Blocks

A newly installed überstation with 30 bike docks across from the Nagy Vásárcsarnok at the foot of Szabadság Bridge.
A cycling contact of mine saw my last post about how the installation of Bubi's docking points had gotten off to a late start, but he says HE heard the system will launch on time.

Russell Meddin, a contributor to the Bike-Sharing Blog, said:
I spoke with the owner of Nextbike (one of the technology last week while he was in Washington, Dc. He told me with almost certainty that Budapest will launch on 7 April!!! 

But then added:
Almost every launch I've watched has slipped a few days or so! 
In any case, I noticed a report this week of further stations cropping up in downtown, and Thursday afternoon I went out hunting for others. I saw a newly installed one across the street from the Nagy Vásárcsarnok and another one along the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út bike path.
Here's a new one at the corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út and Kálmán Imre utca.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bike-share docks hit the streets -- finally

Here's Sequoia modelling in front of the Bubi terminal by Kodály körönd.
The first docking points for Budapest's planned bike-sharing system were installed last week. Transport authority BKK had said the installation would begin in February, which puts the work a month behind stated schedule. However, the planned launch for the system remains in April. We'll see if they stick to it -- keeping in mind the timeline has already slipped three years (Bubi was originally supposed to launch in 2011). 

According to BKK's Facebook page, the first installed docking points numbered four, all in District VI. They're at the following intersections: Teréz körút–Király utca, Kodály körönd, Városligeti fasor–Dózsa György utca, and Andrássy út–Káldy Gyula utca.

I took a quick ride out Saturday and took photos of three of them. They're all installed on the street, displacing space formerly used for car parking -- cool! They have 20 bike docks each. The rent-out consoles aren't ready to go, yet. Looks like further electronics work is needed before they're operational. And no sign of any bikes, yet.

The entire Mol Bubi system will comprise 75 docking stations and more than 1,000 bikes, mostly in central Pest but also along the Buda bank of the Danube, Margit Sziget and on up to Déli station. Here's a map.

... at the corner of Teréz körút–Király utca.

... at the corner of Városligeti fasor–Dózsa György utca.
Docking point.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Still bike crazy after all these years

Is Central and Eastern Europe a hotbed of utility cycling? Conventional wisdom would say no, but a recent Eurobarometer survey on local travel paints another picture. Look at the graph below: There are 17 countries in Europe where at least 10 percent of inhabitants ride a bike on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, Scandinavia and the Low Countries dominate. But most of the others (Austria and Italy excepted) are "new member" EU states of Central and Eastern Europe.


This surprised a few of us who are taking part in an EU-funded project that is promoting cycling in Central and Eastern Europe. The mobile2020 project was predicated, partly, on the belief that the recent global fashion of "Cycle Chic" had not gained much ground here.

This is true, but the key thing to understand is that Cycle Chic is a big-city thing. It's all about popularizing bicycling as a fashionable, sexy mode of travel for urbanites. But in this region, big city cycling is a tiny part of the picture. The above study, based on surveys of 27,680 random households in the EU (about 1,000/country), shows that cycling levels are quite high in the region at the country level. There's little evidence of this in big cities. Clearly, smaller communities are picking up the slack.

Hungary is a good example. In Budapest, despite all the hoopla over Critical Mass and the significant increases in cycling in the city centre, the highest guesstimates of modal share are 4-5 percent. The countryside, comprising a handful of medium-size cities and scores of small towns and villages, is much more conducive to cycling. Distances are smaller, public transport options more scarce and motor traffic less stifling. Lots of people in the countryside go by bike, contributing to a nationwide portion of everyday cyclists of 25 percent.

It's no doubt true that a relative lack of economic development, and the inability of people to buy cars, is partly responsible. The Eurobarometer  survey notes that young people in Hungary generally aspire to have cars, even if car usage in Hungary is lower than anywhere else in Europe. So the danger is that as the job market picks up, more and more people will switch from bikes to cars.

In the mobile2020 project, our approach has been to transfer Dutch and German cycling know-how to Central and Eastern Europe. The fact that this region already has good cycling levels doesn't invalidate the approach. But it does narrow down what this region can learn from its northern neighbors: How to create conditions in which cycling is the preferred choice -- even when attractive alternatives are in the offing.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bike-share system ready for installation



The equipment for Budapest's bike-share system, set for launch in April, is in the warehouse and ready for installation beginning next month.

According to the kerekagy blog, the 1,000+ bikes and 76 docking stations are being tested at a Csepel warehouse, and will be installed, regardless of weather, starting in February around central Pest and along the Buda-side riverbank. The Budapest Transport Center (BKK) promises that after a short testing period, Bubi will open to the public in April.

For local manufacturer Csepel, this marks a debut in the bike-sharing business. The bikes look great, but how well they will stand up in daily operations remains to be seen.

When I first looked at the video, I was surprised that the user directions on the docking stations were in Hungarian only. Afterall, BKK has said the system is for anyone who'd like to use a bike in Budapest.

However, BKK's cycling affairs officer Virág Bence-Kovács assured me that English translation is being developed, and will be displayed alongside the Hungarian by launch day. (Then she asked me to proofread the text -- so, be careful what you ask for.)

In the video, you can see that bicycles will also be used as Bubi's service vehicles. Special bikes with trailers will be deployed to take Bubi bikes to and from the repair garage, and also to redistribute bikes from full docking points to empty ones.

I don't know if this is an untried approach, but for the systems I've seen (Paris, London and Brussels), petrol-fueled trucks are used for this purpose. Bubi's zero-carbon approach is cool -- and I assume completely practical considering the system's relatively small service area.

It's interesting to note that the Bubi service bikes are a Hungarian novelty. They're string bikes, which feature a bizarre (and relatively expensive) drive system. Their inventor claims the string bike drive shifts more smoothly and is more durable than the chain drive. It looks like Csepel, which recently started manufacturing the string bike for the mass market, is using Bubi to popularise the product.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cycling community rallies to return globetrotter's bike

Yoshihiro Shimada on the road with his Riese und Müller Birdy BD1
Most people, when they get their bike stolen, lose a little faith in the human condition. If they replace their bike, it’s often with something cheaper and more expendable than before. Shit happens – you can’t fight it.

But when it happened to Yoshihiro Shimada, a Japanese world traveler who biked into Budapest last week, he went on a crusade. He told people he wasn’t leaving the city until he found the bike.

Before Yoshihiro arrived in Budapest, he had been on the road for five years, riding across the Americas, Africa and Europe. He’d stopped here for a short rest and a look around the city. But during his first night at a hostel in District VII, his bike went missing. He’d parked it in the courtyard a building on Kertesz utca -- in the morning, the only thing remaining was a sheared cable and padlock.

Yoshihiro did not stew. He immediately reported the theft to police, who posted photos and other information about the bike in a national bike registration system. As you can see in the photo above, the bike’s a highly individualized folding rig featuring a unique front suspension and carrying capacity for mountains of bags. It also has emotional value for Yoshihiro. Over 50,000 km of hard road, it’s been his one constant companion. You can imagine how an arduous, solitary venture like his could forge a bond between man and inanimate object (see Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball in Castaway).

Yoshihiro also reached out to the local cycling community – and they responded by doing blog post after blog post about his predicament, and running big photos with the bike at the fore. The story appeared in bikemag.hu, the kerekagy blog, criticalmass.hu, the cycling page of mandiner.hu and many others. An activist group calling itself the Budapest Bike Mafia went a step further by collecting nearly a thousand euros to help Yoshihiro buy a replacement. All the support seemed to have emboldened Yoshihiro. In one interview, he was asked if he had a plan B – if he’d thought about giving up and just buying a new bike. Yoshihiro was resolute: he would look until the bike turned up.

Incredibly, over the weekend, it did. A tipster who’d seen the posts told police he'd spotted the bike at the Bakancsos Flea Market in outer Pest, some 15 km due east of Yoshihiro’s Kertesz utca hostel.

XVII District Police were notified, and on-duty officers were dispatched to the market. They IDed the bike, and asked the vendor who was selling it how he’d acquired it. The vendor related a predictably dodgy chain of provenance: he had gotten it from another vendor, and that vender had gotten it at an informal market on Mátyás tér in District VIII from some unknown person. News reports noted two market vendors were being interrogated, but no arrests had been made at press time.

In any case, it’s obviously great news that the bike resurfaced. I must admit I did not predict it would. Big kudos to the cycling community and others for stepping up and helping a stranger in need. And hats off to Yoshihiro for his faith that in Budapest, despite his rather bad first impression, venality would be trumped by kindness.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bike-friendly towns and employers get their due

Just completed this past fall with HUF 1.5 billion in EU support, a 27.7 km path now runs from Romania across the Hungarian border to Békéscsaba, officially the most bike-friendly large settlement in Hungary.
Twenty-three Hungarian towns and 28 employers were officially recognised as “bicycle friendly” on Wednesday at an annual awards ceremony sponsored by the National Development Ministry.

The awards were handed out at the Regional Environmental Center in Szentendre, with Pál Völner, state secretary for infrastructure, presiding.

To be considered for the award, the towns and companies must submit reams of data and documents proving their commitment to bike-friendly transport. Infrastructure and promotional efforts are the main criteria for communities; bike parking and other types of encouragement are top criteria for employers.

For companies, the payoff is prestige and fulfillment of corporate social responsibility. For municipalities, there's also material motivation: "Bike-Friendly Settlement" status gives them bonus points in applications for EU development subsidies.

The awards scheme is a joint effort of the ministry and the Cycling Hungary Association. This year’s award ceremony was hosted by the Regional Environmental Center and co-financed by the EU-supported Mobile 2020 cycling project, to which REC is a contributing partner.

At the event, Völner underscored that the ministry sponsors the scheme for the same reason it backs Hungary’s Bike to Work campaigns and events connected to European Mobility Week and Car Free Day. The goal is to promote bicycling as transport. He boasted that one fruit of these efforts is that Hungary is now, according to a survey commissioned by the European Cyclists Federation, number eight in Europe in terms of its cycling levels and conditions.

Applicants for the awards have good cycling kudos. On the bike-friendly settlement side, the nine new designees had an average cycling modal share of 45 percent (Granted, these are mostly relatively small settlements, typically with a couple 10s of thousands of residents.). These towns are also spending a growing share of their transport investments on cycling. In 2011, the average share was 11 percent while in 2012 it was up to 14 percent.

The 14 towns that renewed existing bike-friendly designations had even better numbers. Their average bike modal share was 52 percent, while they dedicated on average 30 percent of transport investments to cycling infrastructure.

Among the recognized bike-friendly workplaces, cycling is a favoured mode of transport among managers as well as workers. Among newly designated companies, 35 percent of CEOs cycle regularly to work, while 20 percent of middle managers do and 44 percent of junior managers.

Among companies that have renewed their designations, 14 percent of CEOs cycle regularly, 20 percent of middle managers do and 37 percent of junior managers.

And the winners are …
Bike Friendly Settlements
  • Large cities/county seats: Békéscsaba 
  • Midsize cities: Tata 
  • Small cities: Rábapatona 

Bike Friendly Workplaces
  • Large companies: Budapest Bank Zrt. Budapest Headquarters
  • Mid-size companies: Trenecon-Cowi Kft. 
  • Small companies: Mondolat Iroda Kft 
  • Public institutions and non-profits: Szeged Technical and Environmental Protection School