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.

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