Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Braving Bucharest

I just returned from a cycling conference held in a city no one would mistake for a pedaling paradise -- Bucharest. The car traffic there is so awful, it makes Budapest seem like a pokey village on the Puszta. During the ride from the main airport, my taxi was stuck in gridlock 90 percent of the time. The trip, which just four or five years ago might have taken 30-40 minutes, took more than an hour and a half. A colleague who took the bus said the trip took two hours -- no priority lanes in Bucharest for public transport. A friend of a friend who put me up for the weekend said that traffic has made her more of a homebody. Where she once might have met with her graphic design clients in person, she now has several long-time customers whom she's never seen. Telecommuting isn't just better for the environment, it's also kinder to the nerves.

Despite this, and because of it, the city's mayor, Sorin Oprescu, began promoting bicycling as a car alternative three years ago, apparently after a revelatory visit to Paris. By now, Bucharest has 50 km of cycling tracks that provide safe passage along a few streets in the city centre. As is common in Budapest, the tracks are just painted lines on sidewalks, but it seemed to me that because of the Amazonian width of Bucharest's many boulevards, these sidewalk bike paths can't be said to deprive pedestrians of walking space.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for cars. Drivers park their vehicles everywhere in Bucharest, including across bike paths -- as well as on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic medians, etc., etc. Some readers will think that's no different than Budapest, but, believe me, it's much, much worse. You have to see it.

With such chaotic traffic on the streets and such a small and ill-used bike path network, it's no surprise that few dare to bike in Bucharest. I asked several people about it, and they were unanimous in their opinion that cycling was too dangerous to consider. My weekend host, Yvonne, said she tried cycling to her office on one of the mayor's new bike paths. The problem was that the path only went half way to the office; after that, she was exposed to the firing range of downtown traffic, and she just gave up. Now the only bike she rides is the stationary exercycle in her living room.

A new NGO, MaiMultVerde (Greener), took its own step to encourage cycling last summer with the launch of the bike-sharing system, Cycloteque. The privately-financed scheme (now sponsored by the Romanian arm of Unicredit) got off to a slow start, did better when university students arrived in fall, but is now temporarily shut down for winter. MaiMultVerde is seeking corporate backing for the continued operation of Cycloteque, and perhaps even expansion of the system, but its future is not at all certain.

If you want to try out Bucharest cycling for yourself, it's nice to have a service like Cycloteque at your disposal. But don't be alarmed when, during the check-out, they offer you the standard protective gear for Bucharest cyclists: not only a helmet but also elbow and knee pads. You might think this is a little over the top. But one of my Bucharest friends told me a story that put it in context. She was driving downtown and saw a cyclist waiting at an intersection. She stopped to let the guy cross but a motorist in the adjacent lane was not so patient -- he kept going as if to drive right through the crossing and knocked the cyclist flat on the tarmac. Luckily, the car had braked before the collision. The cyclist was more dazed than hurt -- although his bike was mangled. Lucky also that the motorist was civilised enough to offer to pay damages. My friend spoke to the cyclist, who was fully girded with the knee and elbow pads and helmet. "Are you ok?" she asked. "Oh yeah," he said. "This happens all the time."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Krakow Launches Bike Sharing

With the rollout of BikeOne, Krakow has become the latest European city to jump on the bike-sharing bandwagon. The launch was postponed in September due to technical problems, and another date was missed in November. But the low-cost, public bike rental system finally got going before November's end with an initial fleet of 100 bikes parked at 12 stations.

BikeOne might be of interest to local cycling professionals, as Budapest City Hall is currently carrying out a feasibility study on a bike sharing scheme.

Like bike-sharing systems installed in recent years in Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Lyon and, most famously, Paris, BikeOne is an almost-free bike rental service that users can subscribe to via Internet. They can then check in and check out bikes from special automatically locking racks positioned at strategic locations around town. In Krakow, at least according to the original intention, check outs were supposed to be manageable by SMS.

And unlike many other systems I've looked at, this one's website has a fully translated English page, making the service as accessible to tourists as it is to locals.

With fewer than 80 km of dedicated bike paths and cyclists accounting for less than 1 percent of all local passenger trips, Krakow is no cycling mecca. It's hoped that BikeOne will help change this by giving people a convenient, inexpensive way to ride bikes in the city centre. If all goes well, another 100 bikes will be added within two years' time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Budapest Vies for International Recognition

Budapest is one of three cities shortlisted to hold the 2011 Velo-City international cycling conference. This would be quite a big deal, as it's regarded as the premier international cycling planning conference in the world. It brings together hundreds of people from various fields who are involved in cycling policy and promotion. Check out the description here.

Held (almost) annually since 1980, it would bring cycling's top experts from around Europe and the world to examine what's on offer in Budapest. By so doing, it may help shame city burghurs into implementing some cycling facilities that are up to international standards.

The local NGO Hungarian Cycling Club (MKK) with the support of City Hall, spearheaded the application for the event, which was conceived and still owned by the European Cyclists Federation. The document, available on the Internet in English, explains how Budapest would manage to put on a four-day event (slated for May 31-June 3 at the Millináris), including conference and an exhibition, and how it would cover the EUR 400,000 expense through participation fees and sponsorship.

Part of criteria for the host city is to have exemplary local cycling facilities that conference participants can inspect and learn from. On this score, Budapest is wanting (guaranteed, there is no bike lane or parking centre or rental scheme in Budapest that isn't done 10 times better in several cities in Northern Europe). However, the application pledges that such facilities will be in place in time for the conference. These would include new cycling lanes on Margit híd (to be included in a refurbishment slated for 2009); bidirectional lanes on the Kiskörút (to be built in connection with construction of the Metro 4); and new lanes on Kossuth Lajos út.

Two of the most convincing arguments, in my opinion, are one, that Budapest has perhaps the biggest Critical Mass ride in the world, which demonstrates a huge potential for cycling here; and two, that there's never been Velo-City conference in Eastern Europe. The second point might appeal to ECF's charitable side, as there's no denying that this region lags behind Western Europe in transport cycling, even more so than in other aspects of urban development. It could be argued that holding a conference in Budapest, as opposed to a typical cycling paradise in Northern Europe (like Münich, host of the last Velo-City in 2007), stands to benefit more than just one city, but a whole region that's at a similar stage of development and confronting similar challenges on the path to bike friendliness.

One difficulty, though, is that one of the other shortlisted cities (along with Seville) is an Eastern European neighbour: Prague. They have better beer, but we have cheaper hotels. We'll see what wins the day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Where's the Money Gone?

This Thursday, officials from the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Ministry will give a public update on the Cycling Hungary Programme, an EU-funded initiative that's pouring EUR 250 million into cycling improvements between 2007-2013.

I've been assured English-language translation will be provided.

I'm anxious to hear more about this, as it represents a huge opportunity to promote cycling  all over Hungary, including here in Budapest. This pot of money is part of the subsidies coming into Hungary, as well as other countries in the surrounding region, in order to bring the new member states of the EU up to a European level of development. But as far as I know, no other new member state has a similar dedicated cycling fund, let alone one that's spending such a significant sum.

One of the things I like about the programme is that 70 percent of the funding is going for transport cycling as opposed to recreational or sport cycling. In this way, it has very progressive aims, although, as I've commented in an earlier post, there have been implementation problems. In Budapest, in particular, City Hall has been having difficulty putting together project proposals that are good enough to qualify for funding. 

I hope to learn more about these challenges and about what to expect in the coming years from the programme.

The four and a half hour (!!) update will be divided up as follows:
  • Welcoming
  • Background information about the Cycling Hungary Programme
  • European perspectives on national cycling politics from Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain and Belgium
  • Progress reports on the programme's different priority areas (infrastructure, transport, tourism, recreation and sport)
  • The role of civil society in the next phase of the programme (2009-2010)
  • Closing

Time: Thursday, Dec. 11, 1-5:30 p.m.
Place: Közlekedési Hírközlési és Energiaügyi Minisztérium (Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Ministry), Akadémia utca 3.; Tükör terem

Those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to Krisztof Szabo at szabo.kristof@kkk.gov.hu.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bikes Get the Royal Treatment

Bike promotion can come in more subtle forms than 80,000 cyclists massing on city streets demanding equal rights. In a Hungarian production of The Emperor's New Clothes, currently showing at the Budapest Opera House, the scheming thieves who make the bogus royal outfit arrive at the palace on bicycles. They pedal down the aisle between the seats and then hoist the bikes onto the stage, where they're parked until the closing getaway.

My co-worker, Rachel, who saw the show, wondered if this could be construed as bicycle promotion. I'm sure the intention was for dramatic or comedic effect, but I think, sure, the use of bicycles in entertainment can only be good for the cause. OK, now I'm going to date myself to the Stone Ages: the connection that comes to mind is the Blue Öyster Cult concerts I saw as a teenager. Everytime they played the Steppenwolf cover Born to Be Wild, the lead singer, Eric Bloom, would roll out onstage revving up a big Harley-Davidson chopper. I don't know if this is true, but I wouldn't be surprised if the band would borrow a bike before each show from a local Harley dealership, and probably at no charge, because Harley would just be happy that BÖC were perpetuating the brand's rock-'n'-roll mythos.

I've often thought that the cycling movement could use similar help from the entertainment industry, and it turns out it does! There's some bike blogger in New York who gets occasional gigs as a consultant for bicycle product placements in Hollywood movies. Amazing.

And by the way, if you're Andrew Vajna or some other Hollywood honcho and you need advice on plugging bikes at your next Budapest shoot, you know who to contact.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Showered with Prizes

My prize for participation in the fall Bike to Work contest (Bringázz a munkába!) has arrived, and I couldn't be more thrilled!

OK, I could be. It's a plastic cover that you can put on your bike seat if you park in the rain. I won't use it. My bike seat's made of vinyl so it sheds water by itself. If it gets rained on, I swipe off the water with my hand and go.

I prefer the prize from the last time, a reflective velcro band that you can put on your arm or ankle. That seems more useful. Of course, I could also use the bike seat cover as a bathing cap, which is required attire at most Budapest medicinal baths. With this get up, I would fit right in with the arthritis sufferers doing laps at my neighborhood baths, the Lukács fürdô.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Biking to Bucharest

From Cycling Solution
Interested in learning about how different European cities approach cycling development? There's a conference December 18-19 in Bucharest that will be attended by 40-50 cycling professionals and activists from cities from around the continent. They will talk shop and, providing the city's not too buried in snow, have a look around to see what the host city has done in this area. (Pictured is the fleet from Bucharest's new bike-sharing scheme, Cicloteque, launched this summer.)

Registration is free. You just have get there and find accomodation. I actually know a local Budapest activist who told me he would bike there even though it might be "a little cold." In December? In Bucharest? I think there's a good chance it will and can't say I'm quite hardcore enough to join him on the ride.

I will be there for the conference, however. I'm scheduled to give the final talk of the programme, at 5 p.m. December 19. My talk's supposed to give an overview of urban transport cycling in Central and Eastern Europe. If anyone has any info that might supplement such a talk, please add a comment to this post or write me directly at gspencer@rec.org. I'm interested in any advances that regional cities have made in the field.

By the way, the conference's specific focus will be final results from a two-year EU project called Spicycles. Participating cities, along with Bucharest, were Rome; Berlin; Barcelona; Gothenburg (Sweden) and Ploiesti (Romania). Budapest was not included, but I plan on talking at least a little about it, anyway.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Car restrictions -- the horror!!

Beginning today, Budapest City Hall will have the authority to decree restrictions on car use in the event of smog alerts. This is according to an ordinance approved by the City Council last week. According to the report in caboodle.hu (Thanks for the tip, Jelica!), the ordinance requires that:

in the event of a smog alert, vehicles with license plates with even numbers at the end may only drive in Budapest on even-numbered dates and those ending with odd numbers on the other days.
Dust levels are quite high all over downtown, as you can see at this great website. Hosted by the environmental ministry, it shows continuously updated pollution levels at eight monitoring stations throughout the city. Incredibly, the site is in English. The page on the link shows a map of the city, with the monitoring stations indicated as blue dots. All you do is roll over a station and an information box pops up showing levels of several kinds of pollution. The pollutant you should look for is "PM10," which means particles less than 10 micrograms in diametre, or in plainer English, dust.

From what I read, motor traffic in urban areas is often responsible for two thirds or more of air pollution. It follows that a switch from car to bicycle would be a big help to air quality. Unfortunately, those who take a pioneering roll in the "velo-lution" have to put up with some pretty crappy air.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prague Envy

Cycling development in Prague is going gangbusters compared to Budapest -- or at least it would seem so. A recent article gives a concise but comprehensive picture of the transport cycling scene in the Czech capital.

Official data from Prague City Hall shows cyclists with a 0.5-2 percent modal share, on par with the figures from Budapest. But Budapest's data is more than 10 years old, and the numbers have clearly gone up since then, especially considering the whole Critical Mass phenomenon only got started in 2004. (Tellingly, Prague's most recent Critical Mass drew 4,000 riders, compared to about 15,000 at Budapest's last one and 80,000 during the spring 2007 ride.)

Despite the fact that more people bike in Budapest, Prague seems to be doing a better job at cycling development.

A few tidbits from the article:
  • Budapest has about 160 km of paths and routes while Prague has 135 km of bike paths and 360 of signed routes.
  • Prague's long-term plan calls for the completion of more than 670 km of routes. Budapest is shooting no higher than 500.
  • Prague has a new bike-share system (see photo). Budapest has none.
  • Prague City Hall has a monitoring system in place to follow trends in cycling traffic (cycling trips are up 47% over the last three years). Budapest has no such system. And with no data on cycling levels, what rational basis is there for developing infrastructure and other services?
How can it be that the city with more demand for cycling improvements is getting less supply?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cyclists Get Cold Shoulder

I endured my first snow day of the season this morning and it wasn't pretty. On my morning ride, I found precious few bike paths that had been cleared of snow. That meant that I pretty much had to ride on the street. Although much of the snow had melted, the snow and slush that did remain was piled up next to the curb, meaning I had to ride well out toward the middle of the lane. Luckily, traffic was moving slowly enough that I didn't hold up any motorists and no one honked or attempted any dangerous overtaking.

The few paths that were cleared were on sidewalks which had been swept by property owners. In Hungary, it is the individual property owner who is responsible for removing snow from the sidewalks (pavements) in front of his or her building.

The photo at left shows the riverside path just north of Margit híd on the Buda side at 8 a.m. As you can see, it is very tracked up, which shows you I wasn't alone out there. I think it's fair to say there'd be more winter riders if bike paths were swept in winter.

This second picture shows the path just north of the Filitorigát HÉV stop. The section that also serves as the HÉV platform was cleared (presumably by BKV) but beyond the platform area, the path turns back into winter wonderland.

This third photo shows the path in Szentendre -- the worst example of the bunch. The path here is just the shoulder of the road and marked as a bike path. A snow plow had been through, pushing all the accumulation onto the bike path, making it unrideable.

Not surprisingly, poor snow removal practices provoke perennial complaints in many cities situated in temperate zones. Check out this post for some good and bad practices. A transport officer in the U.S. State of Oregon initiated an interesting conversation thread about different approaches to the problem. From the replies she received, it seems that many communities take this challenge very seriously.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Go Guerrillas!

A writer for Bicycling Magazine emailed the other day asking about the guerrilla bike lanes in Budapest. From the wording of her query, it seemed she was already acquainted with a guerrilla bike lane movement here. She was just counting on me, as a local cycling blogger with his ear to the ground and feet in the clips, to fill her in on the nitty gritty -- its history here, some specific local examples and a quote about the importance of this particular form of civil disobedience to the larger cycling movement.

But she caught me flat-footed. It wasn't just that I didn't know the nitty gritty -- I'd never heard of guerrilla bike lanes, not in Budapest or anywhere else. In a panic to come up with some authoritative info, I fired off messages to some cycling friends to bail me out. But I got just one reply, and it offered no inside dope, only the contact details of another local cyclist.

My tentative conclusion was: there's no guerrilla bike lane movement here, or at least not one to speak of. However, by some strange coincidence, the next day, there appeared two unauthorised bike signs on the Pest end of Margit bridge -- about a 5 minute ride from our flat. The guerrilla lanes I'd been seeking.

The sign in the photo has a twin on the opposite sidewalk. I assume it's inspired by the current controversy (or more detailed info in Hungarian) about the cycling facilities envisaged for the pending renovation of Margit bridge. According to current plans, the main cycling accommodation would be a single bi-directional path on the north side of the bridge. Many transport cyclists, myself included, favour a solution with wide single-direction paths on both sides of the bridge, and a provision that allows cyclists to continue riding down the körút once off the bridge.

Not long ago, if you wanted to ride straight off the bridge and down the körút, you were confronted with a steel fence. The only open route was to go down the ramp beneath the bridge, and then to the footpath/bike path on the Danube bank. Which, of course, is of no help to those heading toward Nyugati station. But, according to the typical paternalistic philosophy of Budapest traffic planners, cyclists belong on sidewalks and out of the way of cars, regardless of the inconvenience to the former.

Of course, cyclists have always gone around the barriers in order to get to where they're going. And at some point the barriers were removed, as you can see in the picture. The improvised signs are the coup de grâce that give the go-ahead to körút-bound cyclists.

These signs mark out the first example I've seen of guerrilla bike lanes in Budapest. As far as I'm concerned, they're an act worth following.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Local Cycling Gets Dutch Boost

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Here's some postive news -- a story that shows how good cycling initiatives can start from the ground up, with a bit a vision and teamwork and a network of well-placed friends.

Some parents and staff at the American International School of Budapest, which has a spectacular but fairly remote new campus some 15 km northwest of Budapest, in the village of Nagykovácsi, decided they needed a bike path. Such a path would not only allow students and staff to bike to and from school, it would also provide a new recreational route for weekend cyclists and enable bike commuting for those who have made Nagykovácsi a budding bedroom community.

It's probably no coincidence that the impetus behind the path was the Dutch. The idea came from a Dutch member of AISB's building committee, Jaap Scholten, a writer who lives here with his Hungarian wife and who has three children enrolled in the school.

The original concept was to make a 4 km path from Nagykovácsi to Petneházy, which would almost connect to the Hűvösvölgy path. Scholten enlisted the help of the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, and through him, got hold of Hungary's Deputy Minister for Cycling Adam Bodor and the local office of the Dutch engineering firm Grondmij.

During the planning, the AISB group discovered that several of the surrounding villages were championing a 17 km path that would intersect with theirs. The two projects were merged and are now in a brainstorming phase. The village councils have taken the reins of the project, with AISB and the Dutch Embassy reverting to advisory roles and helping with contacts.

Timing was fortuitous: 90% of the project will be paid for with EU money (presumably through the Cycling Hungary Programme, a EUR 250 million pot of money that's up for grabs to municipalities that can put together well-considered proposals. In addition, Grondmij has offered to do the feasibility study free of charge. That leaves only 10 percent to be picked up by the local councils and Hungarian government.

Of course, this project is a long ways from being a done deal, and the fact that so many parties are involved adds to the complications. But the prospects look quite good for an idea that started with a parent who wanted a bike path for his kids.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Same Old Solutions for Margit Bridge

The twin bike lanes envisaged in the impending refurbishment of Margit bridge are under threat, as cycling activists and city officials debate how to best accommodate different types of non-motorised transport on the busiest river crossing in Budapest.

According to the latest reports, the project, scheduled to start in early 2009, would include a bi-directional cycling path on the north side (island-facing) of the bridge. A waist-high guard rail would separate it from from motor traffic while coloured paving tiles would visually distinguish it from the adjacent footpath. However, no physical barrier would separate pedestrians and cyclists. The Hungarian Cycling Club had argued that the path should be 2.5 m wide to safely accommodate two directions of bike traffic, but this has been pared down to 1.8 metres.

On the opposite (south) side of the bridge would be a more basic shared-use path for both cyclists and pedestrians -- basically the same as the existing set up except that it would be signed as one-way for cyclists.

In fact, the whole scheme is sounding quite a lot like the existing set-up, with the main difference being the addition of coloured paving to mark cycling territory on the north side foot/cycling facility. I have to say I'm skeptical whether this is enough to impose order on the current free-for-all on the bridge's two walkways.

From a transport cycling point of view, the best solution would be to have one-way cycling lanes on both shoulders of the bridge, physically separated from the pedestrian traffic. I've extolled the virtues of such solutions before, with the best local example being on Alkotmány utca. It's another question how much they should be separated from motor traffic. Some users would prefer a physical barrier -- like the guard rail now proposed -- while others would just as soon have no barrier and only a marked lane. The latter solution would take up less space, while the former may better serve recreational riders, including children, who use the bridge to access Margit Island.

Including a two-way path on the island-facing side of the bridge was also seen as a way to ease island access, as, under the current set up, the only way to get to the island from the south-side path is to go down through the underpass below the tram stop. I would argue, why not create a level crossing there? The main argument against it, I imagine, would be that this would interrupt the flow of car traffic. This, of course, is the main thing blocking development of non-motorised transport and better traffic safety in Budapest -- the idea that the road system has to be designed everywhere to foster fast-moving, high-volume car traffic.

In Budapest, major cycling infrastructure rarely happens as a stand-along project. It generally can only be justified as part of a larger road reconstruction. The renovation of Margit Bridge, therefore, is a rare opportunity to get things right where cycling is concerned. It could be the first step of a first-class cycling accommodation around the whole körút, one that's modelled on the best examples from Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen. Instead, it's so far looking like business as usual, with a staunch refusal to do anything that would challenge the supremacy of cars.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Finders, Keepers!

City Hall should've known better than to let people roam freely on the Buda quay while it's being reconstructed. Just months after the riverside road was closed to traffic this summer for a massive sewerage project, a political movement sprang up urging City Hall to make the Buda bank a permanent open public space, with a bike path, jogging trail, park and so on -- and to not return it to motorists.

Great idea! I've been riding my bike on the car-free quay ever since August, when the crowds at the Sziget Festival started obstructing the bike path near Filitorigat. After that, on my evening ride home from Szentendre, I'd get off the circuitous designated bike route at Auchan and get on the quay. With two wide lanes of asphalt and hardly a car in sight, it felt like entering a cycling autobahn. Wonderful. The further south you go, the more other users you see -- not only cyclists, but runners, walkers, parents pushing prams, people walking dogs, even people stretching and doing tai chi. It's all happening in the middle of a road that until this summer had been clogged daily with rush-hour traffic jams. It's easy to imagine how much more it would be used if properly developed with paths, benches, landscaping and the rest (i.e. beer gardens). It'd probably become like an extension of Margit Sziget, with some choice jogging and cycling circuits formed via Margit and Arpad bridges.

An open letter from someone named Aron was posted on the criticalmass.hu site urging Mayor Demszky to make the de-motorisation of the quay his major legacy. You can cut and paste the Hungarian text and send it to demszkyg@budapest.hu. Or surprise him with something original in English or Sanskrit.

Another article about the "rakpark," comeplete with an artist's rendering of what it would look like, is here. And then there's a blog posting about how Vienna did something like this with one of its riverside arterials. For that matter, check out what the city of Seattle did recently with its waterfront. Seems like lots of cities are realising that embankments are too precious to waste on roads.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prague Makes a Smooth Move

Compared to Budapest, Prague is not much of a cycling city -- this was immediately apparent to me when I took a ride around the Czech capital a couple weekends ago. My guide for the ride was Daniel Mourek, a former Prague city council member and longtime cycling activist. He pointed up a couple reasons for this, one being that, until recently, city burghurs have refused to allow any cycling accomodation in the historic city centre due primarily to aesthetic reasons: cycling paths wouldn't go with the centre's characteristic Old World cobblestones.

There are other reasons that cycling is less popular there . Prague is a big walking town, with about 20% of all intracity trips being by foot. The terrain is a bit hillier than in Budapest and public transport, due to larger subsidies and a more sensible time-based ticketing system, is more affordable. 

But in the coming years, we can expect Prague to close at least part of the cycling gap with Budapest. For one thing, Prague is spending serious money on cycling -- about EUR 2.5 million annually, an amount that has grown steadily over the last seven years, from the time city leaders agreed once and for all that cycling should be a priority. This amount is about double what Budapest is spending, despite the fact there's much greater interest in transport cycling here.

The other thing is that the guardians of Prague's historically protected centre have capitulated on the bike path dispute. After the disastrous floods of August 2002, the pedestrian quay along the east bank of the Vltava River had to be rebuilt, including with new cobblestones. The original reconstruction didn't include a cycling path, but after activists laid on the pressure, City Hall agreed to a solution in which twin tracks of smooth, tan stone were laid down the cobblestone korzó. The tracks are very narrow -- maybe 50 cm -- but they provide bump-free passage through the cobblestones while also blending in with the rest of the stonework. This accomodation demonstrated to the cycling naysayers in the historic district that bike paths needn't detract from the Prague's Medieval charm.

It seems to me that this type of compromise could serve as an example to other European cities that struggle to reconcile historic preservation with modern development. This includes Budapest, with a prime example being the main square at Óbuda. The  north-south cycling route from Budapest to the Danube Bend cuts right across this square, and it's the least pleasant part of the journey because of the cobblestones. Another example is Andrássy út, where the cycling paths on both sides of the street intermittently cross cobblestone bus stops. 

These are examples of when biking accomodation doesn't necessarily have to cost more, but rather just needs to be given some consideration before roads are built.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Had it with the HÉV

You could argue that a cycling blog isn't the proper venue for a rant on Budapest Public Transport (BKV). However, I think it's just the place because decent public transport is a pre-condition for a comfortable, car-free lifestyle. I use a bike for almost all local trips spring through summer, but come fall time, when the weather turns and the days get short, I use BKV more and more.

For my commute from downtown Budapest to Szentendre, I use the northern line of the HÉV, Budapest's suburban light-rail system. The trains of the HÉV system are well over 40 years old, which, I believe, makes them the oldest vehicles in BKV's rolling stock. These East Germany-built carriages were lousy when I moved to Hungary 12 years ago. Anyone who's been jostled out of their seats while clanging past Pannónia telep and Pomáz knows what I'm talking about.

The other day it was already dark when I finished work, so I rode my bike to the HÉV stop in Szentendre, and then waited 40 minutes for the first train to Budapest. In the last several months, funding cuts have forced BKV to cut back service, so departures after rush hour are less frequent. When I finally boarded, the first thing I noticed was that the lights were out. Apparently, the electrical system had failed, so only a few dim auxilary bulbs cut through the darkness. That meant that one of the main advantages to public transport -- being able to pass the commute with a good book-- was nullified.  

Then the following morning, rain forced me to abort my bike ride  half way to Szentendre and get on the HÉV again. I was startled to see that the normally bustling stop at Békasmegyer was practically empty. At rush hour! The büfé on the platform where I'd hoped to get a coffee was closed. A sign in the window explained, "Because you can't have mass transit without the masses."

It's sad -- not to mention inconvenient and uncomfortable -- to see BKV in such decline. Foreigners often remark on how terrific Budapest public transport is. And of course it's true that the city inherited an extensive network of metro lines, busses, trolleys and trams as a Socialist-era legacy. But the system is deteriorating. Aside from a couple long-overdue investments in the past few years (the installation of low-floor Siemens trams on the 4-6 line and the refurbishment of the stops of the red metro), service has been sliding. 

BKV has cut runs throughout its network, inlcuding ones that were well-used, as on the HÉV. This summer, BKV laid off a third of its ticket-booth cashiers, while also introducing a new requirement that receipts be given for all sales, even of single tickets (apparently to discourage embezzling). And since modern cash registers are unknown to BKV, the system's few remaining ticket sellers spend most of their time writing receipts by hand -- like Midieval scribes. During brighter times seven or eight years ago, you could get tickets from one of scores of new vending machines with touch-sensitive screens. Most of these are already out of order -- all of which makes it extremely difficult to buy tickets. Basically, if I want to ride the HÉV in the morning, I have to wait of 10-15 minutes just to buy a ticket (or 30 minutes at the start of the month, when riders are queueing for monthly passes). 

So it's no wonder that the HÉV is losing passengers while inbound car traffic on the adjacent four lane road is backed up 10 kilometers from the city centre. It's always depressing when fall comes and I'm not able to bike as much. But now that the transport alternative is so much less attractive, it's really got me down.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Carrots, Not Crackdowns

In response to a recent post about a crackdown on scofflaw cyclists and pedestrians, a reader named Sam wrote that perhaps a more positive approach was in order. He mentioned some good examples, probably in Scandinavia (as always), where police use the carrot approach to safety enforcement by giving away reflector vests and lights to riders caught not not using them.

A couple days later, I discovered an example much closer to home: In Békés County, in southeast Hungary, police have been carrying out a campaign for seven years targetting kids. It covers biking safety in general, with an accent on lamps and reflectors. An article on the Duna TV website, notes that in the town of Orosház from January-September of this year, cyclists were involved in 14 accidents, three of which involved night riding without lights.

Twenty-nine communities took part in the campaign and 43 bike shops lent their support with discounted lamps and reflectors .

Sunday, October 5, 2008

City loses cycling subsidies

This is quite old news, happened in July, but still relevant, I believe, as it gives an insight to behind-the-scene problems that undermine the development of cycling in Budapest. Basically, Budapest had an opportunity to collect several million forints of FREE EU MONEY to improve cycling infrastructure but muffed the necessary paperwork and instead got much less than it could have.

I sent and resent an email four or five times seeking an explanation from City Hall, but never got a reply. That's partly why it's taken so long to post this entry. I'd wanted to include the city's side of the story but finally had to give up.

The following information was given to me by Ádám Bodor, the cycling affairs coordinator with the national government who's overseeing the distribution of this money to municipalities.

The money originates from a programme called the Cycling Hungary Programme that allocates HUF 56,000 million (EUR 250 million) in EU sudsidies from the Road Fund of the European Regional Development Fund. The money is for municipalities only, and targets bicycle road planning and construction between 2007-2013. Three quarters of it is for commuter cycling, not recreation. Already EUR 53 million has been allocated, with Budapest having won approximately EUR 5 million.

In the last round of applications, Budapest applied for funds for:

  1. commuting facilities, including lanes and separate paths,
  2. a recreational path, and
  3. a bike-and-ride parking facility.

There was enough funds for all of this, but the application for the bike and ride facility was not ready for evaluation (with compulsory anexxes missing and a lack of consultation with the national development agency). Applications for the first two elements were submitted in "very poor condition," according to Bodor, but thanks to the good graces of evaluators, accepted. For these path and lane projects, the evaluators asked that, as a minimum, before contracting be done, that at least the most important annexes be submitted. But the city missed the deadline and lost approximately HUF 650 million (EUR 2.7 million).

As partial consolution, several district governments (II, XI, XXI, XIII) submitted some successful applications for some 35-40 smaller projects.

When the mayor is asked why cycling development doesn't advance more quickly in Budapest, the stock answer is a lack of money and competing priorities. But here you have EUR 250 million in FREE MONEY that is earmarked for cycling. What's the problem?

I don't think it's incompetence. The city has employed a dedicated cycling affairs officer for more than a decade. However, it's a fact that his cycling duties were curtailed a few years ago so that he could contribute to transport projects the mayor deemed more important. I can only guess that there simply isn't enough dedicated staff at City Hall to submit quality applications for Cycling Hungary funds. What a waste. The city spares a few thousand euros in payroll expenses -- and ends up sacrificing millions of euros in bicycling subsidies.

Anyone who could shed some light on this is more than welcome to submit a comment.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Crackdown on Scofflaw Cyclists Promised

From this month till November, the police will be cracking down on scofflaw cyclists and pedestrians. At least that's what they're threatening, according to Hungarian blog, Kerékagy (Wheel Hub). The blog explains cyclists can be busted for riding under the influence, while pedestrians can be nailed for J-walking. Both suspect groups will be liable for the offence of riding or walking along streets outside populated areas without donning the required reflective vest.

Fines, apparently, can range anywhere from HUF 3,000 to HUF 100,000, depending on the seriousness of the offence. 

I have to admit, I'm somewhat disappointed the cops aren't specifically targetting cyclists riding after dark without lights. This is my main complaint with Budapest riders, given that a lampless cyclist can pose a real threat to other cyclists, and given the abundance of people who seem to revel in being invisible. 

That excepted, though, reckless peds and cyclists are mainly a danger to themselves. Law-breaking motorists, on the other hand, endanger everybody. And God knows the police haven't begun to sort them out. Come to think of it, with the loose reins kept on motorists, I'd be very surprised if the cops follow through with this jihad against us other road users. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bicycle parking: It's the law

Starting this month, according to new national building requirements, the provision of bicycle parking is the law. The new requirements, as spelled out in the Magyar Közlöny (Hungarian Bulletin -- see the PDF) require specific amounts of parking for 15 categories of buildings, from residential flats to restaurants to cinemas to factories.

Here's a summary, translated to the best of my (questionable) abilities:
  • Flats, stand-alone houses: 1 space
  • Stores, markets (under 1,000 sq m): 2/150 sq m floor space*
  • Stores, markets (above 1,000 sq m): 2/500 sq m floor space*
  • Hotels: 2/15 rooms
  • Restaurants: 2/75 sq m dining space*
  • Universities, high schools and other educational facilities: 2/ 50 sq m space*
  • Cinemas, theaters and other entertainment facilities: 5/50 seats
  • Museums and other cultural institutions: 5/500 sq m with a maximum of 50*
  • Sport facilities and strands: 2/20 people
  • Hospitals: 1/50 beds
  • Factories: 1/10 workplaces
  • Storage facilities: 1/10,000 sq m storage
  • Tram and local bus end stops: plan for 5 percent of riders to use bikes
  • Train stations and long-distance bus stops: 5
* Means that I was somewhat perplexed about just exactly what the text was getting at

When I first got word of these new requirements (in the recent bicycle supplement of HVG), I was genuinely enthused. How progressive is that?! I thought. I was thinking of a similar law passed in Paris, one of many tools that politicians there used to boost cycling levels by 57% from 1997-2004. Then my wife reminded me that laws in Hungary often have very little impact on people's behaviour. (A prime example, one that ticks her off to no end, are the smoking restrictions introduced at the end of the '90s: they required restaurants and bars to have non-smoking space, but a decade later, a typical non-smoking section in Hungary still consists of the lone table not furnished with an ashtray.)

So, yes, bike-parking requirements aren't the silver bullet that will make Budapest Amsterdam. Still, though, I think it's something to keep in mind next time you go to a store or a bar or wherever, and can't find a decent place to lock up your bike. You can remind the manager that some customers come on two wheels. Bike parking isn't just good business, by the way, it's the law.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No bloodbath afterall

Despite the new, "going-commando" style of this year's Critical Mass, it seems to have gone off without a hitch, as a crowd of several thousand entered the thick of downtown traffic and got across town without apparent mishap. Népszabadság reported that, earlier in the day, a cyclist was seriously injured in a collision with two cars but it wasn't clear if it had anything to do with Critical Mass.

Attendance was down drastically from last spring's record of 80,000. Organisers had expected a smaller turnout, perhaps 30 to 50 percent less. But it was down a lot more than that: only about 10,000 showed up at Hősök tér for the opening bike lift, and, according to an estimate on HírTV's site, only half of the participants were on hand for the concluding bike lift at Moszkva tér.

The ride started typically with a slow procession down Andrássy, which had been closed to motor traffic for European Car-Free Day. But at Oktogon things changed for me: as the greater mass of riders continued down the boulevard, I hung a right, joining car traffic on the körút. For a moment, I thought I was alone, but at the first traffic light I caught up with 20-30 other riders. Although traffic rules call for cyclists to keep to the right, some riders were too impatient to line up single file next to the curb and instead swerved in between lanes to get up to the front. 

Organisers shouted for everyone to stay to side, and a few motorists honked and at least one shouted, "Huzzatok el!" (Bugger off!). It was a mess at the Nyugati signal, with cyclists forgetting their manners and monopolising space, but as we peddled on down István körút, a thick convoy took shape and we were able to occupy the whole right lane all the way across Margit hid, with motorists having the left lane to themselves. I was thinking, "This is exactly as it should be -- all the time." Let cyclists have their lane and motorists theirs and we can all get to where we're going without these stupid chicken games.

The ride was going so well, I decided to stop at my flat near Margit híd and pick up my 4-year-old boy, who I'd left at home out of concern the ride might get ugly. I put him in his Hamax seat and we peddled up to Moszkva tér just in time to get stuck in the jam of exiting traffic. Almost immediately after the 8 p.m. final bicycle lift, everyone poured out onto the körút, evidently anxious to get out of the cold and head home -- or to the closest bar. So you had literally thousands of cyclists, as well as scores of unlucky motorists, waiting through three, four or five cycles of a traffic signal just to get started back down the körút towards Pest. Not at all pleasant -- but it seemed everyone kept their cool and waited their turn to get through.  

A cool thing about this year's event was that its aims were focused and concrete -- this in contrast to at least one past event, in which organisers unveiled a manifesto of more than 20 points, covering not only utility cycling in Budapest but recreational cycling in the countryside, access to trains, etc., etc. This time they narrowed it down to more space on Bp roads, starting with cycling lanes on Rákóczi út. The lanes woud be modelled on the recently implemented (and excellent) pilot project on Alkotmány utca

There's some history behind this, as City Hall had promised to mark bike lanes on Rákóczi when it was last resurfaced. In the end, they broke the promise, saying that despite Rákóczi's being one of the widest streets in the city (six lanes!), there wasn't space for bicycles. Maybe Mayor Demszky can finally follow through and redeem himself before he leaves office.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Directions on Critical Mass

Critical Mass happens tonight, but under different conditions than the CMs of recent years. The Critical Mass site lays out detailed directions, in Hungarian, of course.

For those with Magyar Deficiency Syndrome, here are the very basics: There will be a bike lifting at Hôsök tér at 6:30 p.m. and another one at Moszkva tér at 8p.m. You're invited to either one or both, at your pleasure. There's no designated, closed route from Hôsök to Moszkva -- participants can choose their own route, but are asked to obey traffic rules as they go. Conveniently, Andrásssy is closed to motor traffic for Car-Free Day, so this will be the favoured way to begin the journey for most participants. From Octogon, the procession will likely split up. Some will go down the körút toward Margit híd and, from there, on up to Moszkva. Others will follow Andrássy to its terminus and then continue down Atilla út, across the Lanc híd, north down the Buda embankment and perhaps up the bike trail or the körút to the end point.

There will be traffic police and Critical Mass organisers at the largest intersections, so this would be a point in favour of riding on main roads with the main flow of bicycles. Whatever you do, however, organisers ask that you:
  • stop at red lights
  • don't hold up public transit
  • don't ride on the 4-6 tram tracks
  • keep in mind that crosswalks and sidewalks/pavements are for pedestrians
  • go on sidestreets rather than sidewalks/pavements if you're averse to busy streets
  • turn the other cheek when it comes to shouting motorists
  • mind organisers' directions
  • help each other out
  • bring your bike lamps (it'll get dark around 8)
These are the basics from the Critical Mass site. Will see you all tonight.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Protest highlights hot controversy over segregated paths

I'm not sure how much was accomplished at Wednesday's hastily organised demonstration down on the Buda korzó. The aim of the event, dubbed "BringaLance" (Bike Chain), was to create a chain of bikes (and bicyclists) from Batthyányi tér to the Chain Bridge along the shared-use path on the Buda embankment, and in so doing, protest the common practice of putting bike paths on footpaths.

The idea for the demonstration came up just a week prior to the event, so with the short notice and crappy weather, it wasn't surprising that the chain was missing quite a few links. An organiser walked from one end to the other, counting 200 participants. I snapped this badly focussed picture about midway along the chain.

I had an interesting chat with Virág Bence-Kovács, a staff engineer with the organising group, the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kérékparosklub -- MK). At present, MK is assisting City Hall in the drafting of a five-year work programme for bicycle-route development in Budapest. Discussion amongst traffic engineers has foundered on basic disagreement over what's most suitable for Budapest -- facilities that segregate cyclists from motor traffic or lanes that integrate them with traffic.

I am solidly in favour of the latter, as I've said in this blog before. In downtown Bp, segregated facilities mean, in almost every instance, sharedüuse facilities like the Buda korzó -- tedious, maddening and even dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians alike. To me, this is the past -- it may have been appropriate when there were only a few cyclists in the city, but now that they're becoming a more significant part of urban traffic, they have to be mainstreamed onto the streets, where, due to their speed, they more properly belong. Check out the city's first and best integrated lanes on Alkotmány utca, a new project that could serve as a model for future path development througout the city.

If you agree with me on this, you should consider making your voice heard at this pivitol time, perhaps by joining, or just contacting, a lobbying group like MK. This group has been working closely with the city in transport decision making, trying to ensure that cyclists' interests are considered in the city's transport development. Those who are content in the sidewalk ghetto of Budapest's current segregated bike paths don't need to bother. But if you'd like to see cycling here develop along the lines of the best European examples (Amsterdam, Copenhaggen, etc.), then make yourselves heard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shared-use paths stink!

Although it seems that crap weather has driven most of Bp's cyclists back to wherever they came from, this coming week -- at least officially -- is a week to celebrate cycling and all other non-car modes of transport. The main events will happen this weekend (Sept 20-21) with booths and activities set up on Andrássy út for Mobility Week.

Of course, there's Critical Mass on Monday, Sept. 22. But as a teaser to that, some demonstrator types are getting together tomorrow (Sept. 17 from 6 p.m.) to form a bicycle chain on the Buda korzó between Batthyanyi ter and the Chain Bridge. Check the Hungarian announcement.

The point is to protest shared-use paths as a dangerous and inconvenient type of bicycle infrastructure. It's been estimated that at least two thirds of Budapest's bicycle infrastructure are this kind of path -- where cyclists and pedestrians (and baby strollers, roller bladers, dogs, ferrets, etc.) vie for the same space, and end up getting to their destinations late and full of contempt for one another.

This is the main drawback with Budapest cycling infrastructure, and the Buda korzó, which is popular with both weekend strollers and speeding cyclists, is a prime example of why shared-use paths don't work.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Critical Mass: Tougher approach reflects tougher challenges

The fact that Critical Mass this fall will be organised on a weekday rather than weekend reflects a belief that the movement needs to get tougher in order to effect change, according to one of the ride's organisers. As I mentioned in my September 7 post, Critical Mass this fall (on European Car Free Day, September 22) will be different this year by being timed during the tail end of a work day rush hour. I had an email exchange about it with my friend Gabor Bihari, who edits the English-language page of the Critical Mass site for Budapest. This is what he told me, in part:
The basic concept is that we're trying to get bicycles recognized as 'real' vehicles, with rights equal to those of motor vehicles. So WE ARE TRAFFIC, and don't just want to be regarded as some weekend demonstration show, as it's been in the past couple of years. It's clear that the record breaking turnouts of the previous couple of years were partly because they happened to be on weekends, and the weather was nice too. But there's not much else we can achieve by trying to keep breaking our own records. We need to pressure the decision-makers more and more, since - for instance - the new Minister of Transport has recently eliminated the post of the Bicycle Ombudsman. Just like that. (Index.hu article on axing of ombudsman Bodor Ádám)

I told Gabor that while I unequivocally support Critical Mass's aims, I'm somewhat concerned about what might happen this time around. Besides being timed on a weekday, when there is more motor traffic, the ride will go forth without a route permit -- in fact with no set route, at all, only a starting place, Heroes' Square, and a destination, Moszkva ter. No roads will be closed to speed the procession. The riders will simply ride with normal traffic.

In this respect the ride will be more like other Critical Masses around the world, as Gabor correctly noted. However, from what I know, most other Critical Masses draw crowds of a few hundred, while CM Budapest routinely draws tens of thousands. These are exceptionally large numbers -- according to some observers, Budapest's is the biggest CM in the world. My worry is that if this fall's ride draws even a quarter as many riders as last spring's, there would be 20,000 cyclists on the streets without the organisation and safety precautions that everyone has grown accustomed to. Not that I'm against the new approach, but in this laissez faire atmosphere, there's more potential for conflict and hostility between cyclists and motorists -- as the experience of several cities demonstrate. I think everyone who takes part needs to take this into account and make a special effort to keep cool and ride in the spirt of peaceful protest.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bike to Work Launch Postponed

Despite driving rain, I popped down to Batthyányi tér for the launch breakfast of the Bike to Work campaign. A small group of organisers was huddled under a tent emblazoned with the "Bringazz a Munkaba" logo, and doling out "bio" cinnamon rolls and apples to anyone rolling by on the korzó bike path -- which wasn't very many people. Because of the low turnout, the organisers are holding another launch breakfast on Wednesday morning. It'll be at the same place, but this time starting a half hour earlier -- from 7:30-10 a.m. See www.kamba.hu.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Critical Mass Timed for Work Day -- Finally

For once, Budapest cyclists will join ranks with other Critical Mass demonstrators around Europe by holding their Car-Free Day procession on Car-Free Day. It's happening this September 22, a Monday, and will take place at the  tail end of evening rush hour. Starts at 6.30 p.m. at Hosok tere and ends at 8 at Moszkva ter. A description of the "new Critical Mass" (in Hungarian) is here.

This signals a tougher stance on the part of organisers, who in previous years have appeased objectors at City Hall by holding the ride on a near weekend in order to minimise disruption to traffic.

The debate on whether Critical Mass should proceed with the city's blessing on weekends or go forth against the burghurs' will during a weekday, when there's much more motor traffic, goes back to the first big ride in September 2004. Organisers had wanted to have Critical Mass on European Car Free Day, September 22, but as this was a weekday, Mayor Demszky strenuously objected and said he would only sanction the demonstration during the weekend. A few stalwarts, joined by then-Environment Minister Miklós Persányi, went ahead and rode on the proper day, but the big mass of riders went on the weekend with police escort and traffic control. For further history, see http://criticalmass.wikia.com/wiki/Budapest.

This way of doing things became the norm, with all subsequent Critical Mass rides being organised during weekends with City Hall's blessing. This has made the organisation of the ride more cumbersome and accounts for why it happens only twice per year, once on Car Free Day (or around Car Free Day) and once on Earth Day in the spring. On the positive side, this sort of "civilised" mass has an orderliness that gives it broad appeal. In Budapest, the number of participants has nearly doubled each consecutive ride until hitting 60,000-80,000 last spring. Budapest's Critical Mass organisers credit these big numbers for a number of achievements in recent years, from the construction of bike paths to the appointing a couple of years ago of a Bicycle Affairs Officer at the Transport Ministry.

On the down side, some people wonder if this orderliness and complicity with City Hall takes away from Critical Mass's impact as protest. Perhaps more would have been achieved had the organisers taken a harder line. Critical Mass's essential message is "We aren't blocking traffic -- we are the traffic." But the way the ride is organised in Budapest, the riders don't mix with traffic -- it's as much a parade as it is a protest.

Over the past year, organisers have sought a new balance by putting together an alternative series of monthly rides held during rush hour on the last Friday of each month. The rides have been called Minimal Mass and are more in keeping with the original Critical Mass, held in San Francisco in the 1990s. The ride there wasn't sanctioned by the city. It was in the tradition of civil protest, with participants flaunting traffic rules by taking over streets and running traffic lights in order to maintain a cohesive procession.

Mind you, the rides in this mould also have their critics. Confrontations between motorists and cyclists have erupted in violence and police have made arrests and have overstepped the bounds of civility in some cases. A recent Critical Mass in Seattle resulted in a cyclist breaking his arm and a motorist having his tires slashed. One of the few blogs sympathetic to the cyclists was in the alternative weekly, the Stranger. In the aftermath, a few cyclists said the incident was undermining the cause of utility cycling, saying it aroused more resentment than sympathy for riders. In one blog post, Seattle Critical Mass Needs to End, the writer said it ought to become more civilised, with police escort, traffic cordons and the like -- in other words, something like Budapest's. So it's ironic that over here in Budapest, CM organisers want to evolve in the exact opposite direction and make their ride more like Seattle's.

Needless to say, I'm very keen to see what happens here on September 22.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bike to Work Contest Starts Monday

Hungary's environment ministry is sponsoring its bike-to-work contest again, kicking off with a breakfast 8.30-10 a.m. at Batthyanyi ter on Monday, Sept. 8. (Check out criticalmass.hu for a tedious conversation between a bunch of people complaining that the timing of this event doesn't suit their work schedule.)

The "Bringazz a Munkaba" contest has been going for a few years. Check out an English-language description of it here. I participated when it was last held in the spring partly because the contest website promised a free gift for all participants. Noting that the sponsors ran the gamut from Merida bike manufacturer to the Flora margarine brand, I half suspected my free gift would be a tub of butter substitute. But several weeks after the contest's conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an envelope containing a certificate of completion, a bandana printed with the T-Mobile logo and a useful reflective band (pictured).

Anyway, the contest is very simple. You register on-line at http://www.kamba.hu/ -- you can do so as an individual or as a group -- and you write down how long your regular commute is. Each day you commute, you check off on your account calendar, and the site automatically tallies your cumulative kilometres. The way it worked last time was that you could retroactively tick off commuting days up to three days after the fact. But if you let it slide further, you lose it.

I did pretty well last time as I'm commuting virtually everyday from Budapest to Szentendre. But there were people with even longer commutes that that. At least in theory. The contest works on the honor system so you can cheat or stick to the straight and narrow at your pleasure.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Best Cycling Lanes, Yet

Some new cycling lanes on Alkotmány utca in District V are the best facilities that have been implemented in Budapest, perhaps showing the city is finally taking bicycles seriously as transport. The lanes are good for a number of reasons. First, they're on the street, rather than the sidewalk, and thus integrate cyclists with motor traffic, which, in an urban context, moves at roughly the same speed. Second, there's a separate lane on both sides of the street, allowing the cyclists to move in the same direction as other road users in adjacent lanes. This is in contrast to the shared-use paths that constitute most Budapest cycling facilities (as on nearby Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út) where a single, bidirectional track runs along only one side of the street).

The closest thing we've seen to this type of facility to date is Andrássy út. But the lanes on that street are flawed because they run down a narrow gap between parked cars and the sidewalk, putting cyclists in danger of getting "doored" by passengers exiting vehicles. Check out this video (Nine Reasons Why It's Great to Bicycle in Budapest). Reason No. 8 illustrates the problem nicely. (http://www.hirszerzo.hu/patroview.1.23)

The Alkotmány lanes are of a type referred to in some quarters as "share rows" because they can also be driven on by ("shared" with) motorists. It's a popular solution among many road departments because they provide accommodation for cyclists without taking space from motorists. Of course, Budapest City Hall has always feared the political backlash of taking space from motorists. But there's now an emerging, quickly growing constituency of city cyclists. So some compromise is needed. The NGO MKK (kerekparosklub.hu), which is partly funded by Budapest City Hall, successfully lobbied for share rows on a trial basis.

I have mixed feelings about share rows. I can understand that on very narrow streets, it's impossible to provide separate lanes for both motorists and cyclists. But when share rows are used out of simple political timidity, it is running the risk that motorists won't give the lanes any respect, at all. In the 1980s, the city of Paris installed share rows on a similar trial basis, and the experiment failed for this very reason. These days, Paris is building a combination of lanes as well as facilities that are separated with physical barriers such as curbs, posts and speed dots. Cyclists are now an accepted part of traffic there, but this can be credited, at least partly, to city's firm steps to stake out cycling territory.

Perhaps share rows will work better in Budapest. I say this because, in contrast to Paris in the 1980s, cyclists in Budapest have already insinuated themselves into traffic -- with virtually no help from the city. It's my feeling that if and when the city starts building decent infrastructure, cyclists will fill it up quickly and motorists won't be able to ignore them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Cycling Entering Mainstream

If you're quick, you can still get a copy of the current copy of HVG (http://hvg.hu/default.aspx) with a 17-page special section on Hungary's bicycling phenomenon. The section leads off with some antedotes about a couple Budapest enthusiasts who put on crazy numbers of kilometers on their bikes week-in and week out, and then mentions the Critical Mass successes (60-80,000 riders last spring, the article recalls) and the frequent weekend traffic jams of cyclists entering and leaving Margit Sziget.

The section includes an article on the domestic bicycle manufacturing market, the annual bike race around the Balaton, and -- one of my favorite topics -- the example of Paris's cycling "Velorution." The focus of this last is on Velib, the massive bike-sharing scheme of Paris. I've written lots about Paris as a good example for Budapest in terms of cycling development. Check my master's thesis (http://www.greenmedia.hu/gspencer/) or an article in Hungarian that had a more narrow focus on Paris (http://epiteszforum.hu/node/9672.

I don't think there's much information in the article that hasn't already been widely circulated through Hungary's cycling blogosphere, but the fact that the subject merited such extensive treatment in Hungary's most prestigious news weekly (HVG is often said to be Hungary's version of the Economist) is just one more sign that cycling is becoming a popular movement. Now if we can get Budapest City Hall to give it the support that it deserves.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bucharest launches city-bike scheme

Cicloteque is the name of Europe's latest municipal city-bike scheme, launched the first part of August in Bucharest. With just 100 bikes, it's much more modest in scale than the widely publicised schemes of cities such as Paris, Barcelona and Lyon -- yet it's encouraging to see a progressive step taken in a fellow new member state of the EU.

I wrote an earlier post on the possibility of Budapest getting a similar scheme rolling. http://cyclingsolution.blogspot.com/2008/07/free-bikes-in-budapest.html

The service is marketed as a means of transport, providing an alternative to cars and public transportation. It was created by the NGO Mai Mult Verde http://www.maimultverde.ro (director Dragos Bucurenci pictured left at Cicloteque's launch event) and UniCredit Tiriac bank. The first batch of 100 bikes was installed at the campus of the University of Bucharest. To use the bikes, you have to first pay an annual registration fee of 100 Lei (EUR 30) and an hourly 2 Lei (EUR 0.50) or daily 20 Lei (EUR 5) usage fee.

Mai Mult Verde's stated purpose was to improve urban mobility in the congested capital and to protect the environment. Bucharest has 1.2 private cars, which emit an estimated 125 tonnes of lead every year.

Just as Paris's Velib is financially backed by a commercial partner (JC Decaux advertising firm) Cicloteque got its money from a commercial partner who saw the venture as a good publicity tool. The local branch of Unicredit bank put up 100% of the initial investment of EUR 150,000, which covered the purchase of 100 bikes, the cost of the launch event, as well as the installation of 20 bike racks throughout Bucharest (The racks are just for short stops -- so far, the only place you can pick up and drop off bikes is at Cicloteque's single depot on the university campus.)

Just three weeks after the system's launch, there are 200 subscribers, according to Miruna Cugler, communications manager at Mai Mult Verde. Plans for the future include more bikes and more depots around the city.

In addition, Mai Mult Verde plans to lobby for more bike paths and routes around the city. At present, Bucharest has just a few bike paths, most of which are swarming with pedestrians and other users. The poor quality and quantity of paths mean that urban bike users have to jostle with motor traffic to get anywhere, a situation familiar to cyclists in Budapest.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New cycling master plan for Budapest

This month marked the release of a new cycling plan for Budapest. An English-language, thumbnail sketch of it can be found at http://www.eltis.org/show_news.phtml?newsid=1245&mainID=461.
The complete document (in Hungarian only) can be downloaded here http://kerekparosklub.hu/vitaanyag.

I haven't had time to give it a close look, but can say that it's an attractive, professional-looking document. And from my conversations with the people who put it together (staff at the Hungarian Cycling Club and experts from the Budapest Technical University and the COWI consulting company), it will no doubt represent a positive turn towards state-of-the-art planning, with several references to good international examples.

For example, the plan encourages a move away from segregated facilities toward lanes that integrate cyclists with motor traffic. On two-way streets, it encourages bike lanes on both sides of the street for both directions of traffic (with the exception of Andrassy, facilities in Budapest are generally single-track, shared-use, segregated facilities). And it stresses the importance of integrating cycling planning with general urban planning rather than introducing it as a retrofit or afterthought.

So, it'll be several days before I can read through the whole document, but it's already clear the underlying philosophy is a good one -- more enlightened than what we've seen before and one that treats cycling not just as a form of recreation but as a means of everyday transport.