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.