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."


Pewee said...

Unfortunately you are right. Bicycling in Bucharest is a hard thing to do on an everyday basis. I know because I commute with my bike. The cycle lanes are done just for the funds they bring when finished and for the prestige: Bucharest and other romanian cities are member of Spicycles (http://spicycles.velo.info). The are more to be said about cycling in Bucharest. With your permission I'll post your article on my blog. Feel free to engage me on every bicycle topic here or on my blog (which, by the way, is mostly in romanian, sorry)

Greg Spencer said...

Thanks for your insights, Pewee. Feel free to post the entry. If you'd put down my URL with it, I'd appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I got to your blog via http://criticalmass.wikia.com/wiki/Budapest
as I wanted to find out if there are also monthly CMs held in Budapest apart from the well known officially endorsed rides, because I´m planning a trip to Budapest on one of the coming weekends.

Interesting info about the situation in Bucharest. It would be nice to be able to see some of what you describe on MyBikelane.com which features at the moment only Austrian cities in CEE-Area. Greg, the founder of the site is happy about suggestions to include new cities. For me as a Viennese Cycling enthusiast and activist your accounts are quite worth the while reading...

The news you´re bringing about Budapest´s lost bid to host the 2011 Velocité could be turned into an opportunity: Why not launch a conterence, maybe somewhat smaller than VC but focused on cycling in the Cities and Regions of CEE or Southeast-Europe or Danube Bassin. Budapest would be the place to do that! (However vague the geographic definition, imho there exist some similarities that are not completely irrelevant to the cycling situation.)

Such a project could be an excellent vehicle to improve networking of bicycle-ngos within this area.

Reclaim the streets !

fidelius, ig-fahrrad, wien