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.