Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bike Shops Shuttered for Winter

Local transport cyclists, with our daily communes with the elements, get plenty of reminders of fall's arrival. In the last couple weeks, we've been rained on, strafed with icy gusts of wind, and been caught out in the dark during evening commutes due to Hungary's insistence on being in the same time zone as western Spain.

But, as our bike-crazy brothers and sisters in Northern Europe demonstrate winter after winter, transport cycling is not a seasonal sport. Even when the natural world provides less-than-frolicsome conditions, you can still make that average 3-4 kilometre commute on two wheels.

Well, in Budapest, if you do so, you do it with little company. Today, I ruefully noted this city's other telltale sign of fall: the closure of the bicycle shops.

After work, I went down to Bikebase on Podmaninszky út in search of a used bike. Walking down the street and keeping an eye out for the shop's orange and brown sign, I arrived at the körút having apparently walked right by it. I turned around for another pass wondering how I could have missed it. In a minute, I came to the sought-for address -- but the bikes were gone and in their place -- snowboards. Apparently, Bikebase converts to winter sporting gear every year from November 1 to the end of March.

This is such a common set-up in Budapest, it's a cliché. With few exceptions, bike shops in Budapest follow an identical business model of selling bike stuff in summer, skis and snowboards in winter. In most stores, there isn't even a reduced, basic stock of bike stuff to tie "off-season" through cyclists to spring. Even in large sporting goods shops like Hervis, the bicycles disappear entirely, with nothing more than a rack of bike gloves and other other carelessly selected items for the winter cyclist.

I can't begrudge business owners for wanting to make a year-round living. On the other hand, there are more and more transport cyclists in Budapest every year, and transport cycling doesn't stop for for winter. It'd be nice to have more shops that would stick by us through the cold season to provide servicing and parts and maybe some rain gear, mudguards and other winter-time accoutrements. And how about some bikes for us Christmas shoppers willing to spring for more than a stocking stuffer?

One shop that does go year round is the Pajtás Biciklibolt at Király utca 83. Being a spin-off of the Hajtas Pajtas courier service, these guys survive the winter on the custom of bike couriers. I asked about it one time, and the attendant told me couriers were 90% of their winter custom, although non-courier customers were growing in number. Pajtás is fairly unusual in Budapest as a shop that caters mainly to utility cyclists. Another shop that plies the bike business during winter is Nella; it's more a sports cycling store, but they carry city bikes as well and their servicing is quite good. Right now, they're advertising a fall sale on merchandise, which is a time-honoured (and very customer friendly) way of carrying on business in the slow months.

At any rate, it's nice to have bike shops that are open during winter, keeping regular hours and ample stock. If readers know of other all-season shops (particular ones in vicinity of the Buda foot of Margit bridge), I'd welcome the info.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Righteous Paths


View Thököly út and kiskörút bikeways in a larger map
While out of town on a work trip, I missed the opening of a ground-breaking piece of cycling infrastructure: the new bike lanes on Vámház körút in front of the Nagycsarnok (Big Market Hall). The new lanes are a big step forward for local cycling development for a few reasons: they're actually painted on the carriageway, not on the sidewalks; they're on BOTH sides of the street rather than on just one (e.g., the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky path); and they're right on a main thoroughfare rather than on a parallel, less-trafficked side street.
The lanes cover a short stretch of the Kiskörút starting from Szabadság Bridge: the lane on the eastbound side runs to Lonyai utca while the opposite-side lane runs slightly longer from Kalvin tér to the bridge. The lanes are part of a major upgrade of the street, including a pavement resurfacing and a new tram stop. In fact, the whole Kiskörút -- from the bridge to Deák tér -- is being reconfigured, and when the project's through, it'll include two-sided bike lanes over the street's entire length. Allowing for a few gaps -- including the absense of a lane on the bridge itself -- this will complete a loop comprising the Buda korzó, Margit and Szabadság bridges, and the soon-to-be contiguous bikeways that roughly trace District V's eastern border.
This was actually the second two-sided cycling accommodation to open in October; a couple weeks earlier, an even longer stretch of new bike lanes were christened on the newly resurfaced Thököly út. This project was an especially nice surprise for cyclists, as the smooth new tarmac replaces a badly degraded cobblestone surface that was torture to bike on. The new lanes run along Thököly út from Dózsza György út to Gizella út.
Both the Vámház and Thököly út bike-lane projects were piggybacked onto road improvements. This is par for the course. In Budapest, bike accommodation cannot get built as stand-alone work, which has been a major hindrance to the development of a coherent network of bikeways. But for Budapest's cycling community, even piecemeal progress can be counted as a victory. (Consider that cyclists have been fighting since the start of the decade for lanes on Rákóczi út/Kossuth Lajos utca; the last time the road was resurfaced, the city broke a promise to create bikeways, saying the six-lane artery wasn't wide enough.)

However, the paths on Thököly and Vámház are especially encouraging as they finally give recognition to cycling as a serious form of transport. Until now, virtually all bikeways in Budapest have treated cyclists as recreational traffic -- they belonged in parks and riverside paths, and for the purposes to getting from home to these greenways, sidewalks and sidestreets were perfectly suitable.

The placement of the new paths on main arteries is a victory for transport cyclists, who finally have been allotted their own road space on two high-demand arterials.
An amazing thing about the kiskörút lanes is that they have actually DISPLACED CAR PARKING. See the photo below. I believe this is a first in Budapest. When plans for the lanes were first unveiled, local merchants made the inevitable complaint that they would lose car-driving customers. Naturally, the new paths will disrupt old traffic patterns, but, as happens time and again with these sorts of projects, the new patterns that emerge are often even better for local commerce. Let's hope that this will be the case once again so that the new lanes can serve as guiding examples for future street development.



Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cyclists Prevail in Bridge Lane Dispute

It looks like there will be a south-side bikeway on Margit híd, afterall. Last week at a Budapest General Assembly meeting, members voted to go forward with the original plans, as agreed last year with cycling activists. The path will make it possible for Buda-to-Pest bike traffic to stay on their own side of the street while crossing the span.

The vote reverses City Hall's earlier decision, made this summer just weeks before work started on the ongoing bridge renovation, to create just a single, two-direction bikeway on the north (Margit Island) side of the bridge. At the time, city officials said they had to remove the path because of difficulty getting necessary permits on the historically protected bridge.

Cyclists complained that forcing Pest-bound cyclists to ride on the island-side path would mean they would have to go through eight traffic lights, get off their bikes twice, and ride approximately twice distance as they would with their own, right-side accomodation. Some 500 cyclists demonstrated on the bridge on August 18 to drive the point home.

Another argument, raised by bike blogger András Földes and others, was that the plans that the city submitted with its application for EUR 6 million in EU subsidies had included bikeways on both sides of the bridge. City Hall's spokeswoman argued the bike path removal was a technical detail that the city could fudge without violating the aid contract. However, the Hungarian Development Agency, NFÜ, never conceded this point.

Now that the south-side path will be built, the city will have to apply for a city-level permit. City Assemblyman Imre Lakos claims this bureaucratic matter will not hold up progress on the bridge project.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bike to Work Finishes in Style

The fall 2009 Bike to Work campaign (Bringazz a munkaba!) draws to a close tomorrow (Oct. 16), with more than 10,000 participants having completed the minimum seven bike commutes over its four-week run. A few hundred participants have to date missed one or fewer commutes despite the rainy, windy weather during the last several days.

A campaign closing party will be organised Oct. 31, 1-5 p.m. at the Dürer kert (1146 Budapest, Ajtósi Dürer sor 19-21.). Meanwhile, bike fans are asked to submit photos and vote on a Bike to Work in Suit/Skirt photo contest. You can pull up the gallery of contest entries and back your favourite.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Children on Bikes Don't Count

I saw something that just broke my heart on my way home tonight. There was a guy about my age on a bike trying to cross rush-hour traffic on Route 11 on the south entrance to town. It's a crossing that, in high season, hundreds of people make every day, both locals and tourists on the Eurovelo 6 route. On the west side of the street is the purpose built bike path to Budapest. On the east side is the bike path into downtown Szentendre.

Despite the high bike traffic at this intersection, the only legal way to get across is via an inexplicably hard-to-find underpass that's accessible only by steep sets of stairs on both ends.

This poor father might not even have known where the underpass is -- it was dusk and there are NO signs pointing the way. And even if he knew, it wasn't a realistic option: he had a little boy on board -- couldn't have been more than two years old. He might have accomplished it by taking the little guy off the bike, carrying him through the bike tunnel, leaving him at the other end for a moment, then rushing back to get the bike. But what parent wants to leave his little child unattended along a traffic-choked roadside for even a minute?

So this father was trying to cross the road as best he could. When I saw him, he was pushing his bike through weeds on the side of the road, and coming up onto the tarmac through a gap in the metal guardrail. The father had an anxious look on his face as he was contemplating traversing four lanes of speeding traffic while ensuring the safety of the most precious thing in his life.

I'm a father of a boy just a couple years older. I empathised with this stranger. It made me want to tear someone's head off. Why in the hell isn't there a safe bicycle crossing at this intersection? Do Szentendre's transport managers have so little regard for people that they can't offer a simple and obvious street crossing for a father and his two year old boy? Unbelievable.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Guerrilla Activists Paint the Town Yellow

Over the last couple months, word has spread about new bicycle lanes appearing on major streets and bridges in Budapest in contradiction to long-standing city policy of keeping cyclists out of the main flow of traffic. I didn't know what to make of it, especially in light of the recently heated up complaints and demonstrations by activists about the absence of such lanes.

It turns out that the protests and lanes are both the work of cycling activists. Activity on both fronts came to a head during August and September as the city's dithering on the Margit Bridge bike accommodation came to light. While the Critical Mass crowd was organising a daylight demonstration for a proper bike lanes on the bridge, a few guerrilla activists (first noticed in Budapest last fall) were sneaking around the city under the cloak of darkness with cans of pain and a very "profi" looking bicycle stencil. Over the course of a few nights, they created bike lanes at at least three locations: on Szabadság bridge, on Margit Bridge and the Nagykörút.

Discussion about the illicit campaign had been going on from the beginning on criticalmass.hu, however I didn't catch wind of it until it turned up on a blog out of Denmark -- copenhagenize.com. The author, Mikael Colville-Andersen, was commenting on a shared lane he'd seen during a recent visit to Budapest, and how such compromises might have to do until the city relents and gives us separate lanes all to ourselves. A string of Hungarian readers responded Mikael's post with the same message: "The city hasn't even given us shared lanes, yet -- we had to create them ourselves."


And so they did. The ones on Margit Bridge, pictured above, lasted only a couple weeks, and then were rendered moot as work got underway the first week of September on the span's renovation.

The ones on Szabadsád híd have elicited some positive reviews -- and some undeserved praise for City Hall. These markings offer a cycling connection to Pest for those riding down the Buda-side path on the river bank. True, simple bike markings won't embolden everyone to bike across a one-lane carriageway with impatient motorists on their tail, but they at least give some acknowledgment of pedal-powered transport.

The ones on the körút are also a welcome addition (the top image of this entry is from the körút -- taken and posted in an activist's picassa album). The officially published Budapest bike map designates the körút as a recommended bikeway, so some sort-of enabling infrastructure is only appropriate. In my opinion, as this is a heavily trafficked artery, a separated accommodation would be appropriate, perhaps in the place of existing car parking. Until the City Hall gets leadership that will take concrete steps to realise its stated goal of achieving a 10 percent modal share for cyclists by 2015, guerrilla action will have to do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nagykörút Overdue for Bikeway

On a recent weekday, about six bikes passed on the Nagykörút for every 100 cars. And the hour-by-hour traffic pattern matched that of normal commuters, with morning and evening peaks and another spurt during lunch hour. These people aren't biking for fun or relaxation -- they're trying get somewhere.
These are a couple of conclusions of a 12-hour traffic count performed on a random weekday earlier this month by volunteers for the Hungarian Cyclists Club. The results support what many of us Budapest cyclists have long suspected -- that our numbers have grown into a significant part of daily traffic in downtown.
The count took place on Wednesday, Sept. 9. Counters set up at two stations on körút, one at Blaha Lujza tér which monitored traffic going in the direction of Nyugati station, the other at Oktogon monitoring traffic going the opposite direction. The counters worked in two-hour shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and tried to count all bikes, whether going on the road itself, the sidewalks or the 4-6 Tram tracks.

Then coordinator Virag Bence-Kovács, a staff engineer for the cycling club, compared the collected data with car counts made by automatic, magnetic sensors embedded in the tarmac. The cycling club's count did not consider traffic on foot or public transport.

Some might say six bikes for 100 cars doesn't sound like a lot. But when you consider that this is on one of the most car-congested, least bike-friendly streets in the city, it's a remarkable figure. The results broke down as follows: a third to half the cyclists were riding on the sidewalk (depending on direction), despite the hassles of getting stuck behind pedestrians and dodging between signposts. The rest were out amongst motor traffic, sucking fumes and picking their way between parked cars and moving ones. The number braving the 4-6 tram tracks turned out to not be a significant number, less than 1 percent.

Over the entire day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., 1,741 cyclists were counted on the körút. Why do they do it? Based on my own experience, I'd guess it's because the city provides no better alternative. Designated bike routes tend to be along out-of-the-way sidestreets and up on sidewalks, and they aren't worth bothering with.

Traffic planners argue it's not safe to put bike paths on main arteries such as the körút because it would put cyclists in danger's way. But the traffic count proves the futility of this approach. Even without a path or lane, thousands of cyclists risk life and limb on körút week in, week out.

So what if accommodation was given? You might assume it would just put MORE people in danger's way. But the studies show just the opposite: the more cyclists on the streets, the fewer accidents there are. The reason is that motorists can see groups of cyclists more easily than they can spot the odd, individual cyclist. It's also because when space is clearly demarcated for cyclists, all road users -- motorists, pedestrians and the cyclists themselves -- know where the boundaries are.

This month's traffic count provides important empirical support for an argument that the Hungarian Cyclists' Club and Critical Mass organisers are making with increasing urgency: Budapest needs bike lanes on the körút!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

People Talking about Us

Everyone likes to hear what other people think of them. A few dozen international students of urban design, transport planning and kindred disciplines were in Budapest during European Mobility Week for a field exercise that asked them to reconfigure some of the 7th and 8th districts into a more pleasant urban environment. A description of their project, along with a diary of how it unfolded, is here.

Among the participants was Anna from the Vienna-based blog Cycling is Good for You. I see she's already put up three posts on her Budapest experiences, including one on Tuesday's Critical Mass. She was impressed with that, less so with Bp's lame pedestrian underpasses.

The Copenhagen Cycling Chic blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen was also in town, presenting at the Kerekvaros conference at the Budapest Technical University and promoting a Danish cycling exhibition, Dreams on Wheels. As of this writing, he hadn't yet posted about his Bp experiences, but he wrote that he will when he gets a chance. I'm eager to see what he has to say.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Budapest Critical Mass Back on the Rise

Some 20,000 cyclists participated in last night's Car-Free Day Critical Mass, according to the national news service MTI and Figyelőnet. This is double the figure of last fall's Critical Mass and a point worth pondering as we wind down from the euphoria of it all.

As followers of the local cycling scene will remember, the Car-Free-Day Critical Mass has taken on a very different personality from the parade-like, family event that is the Earth Day ride. In spring of 2008, a record 80,000 showed up, and this astounding turnout made all of us Budapest cyclists proud. At the same time, I know of more than a couple fellow travelers who decided then and there that the whole Critical Mass thing had become too popular to bear: people realised that getting stuck in a queue of that magnitude can take a toll on your revolutionary gusto.

For the die-hards, myself included, last year's Car Free Day Critical Mass was a welcome break from the safe-as-milk variety of rides which, while charting huge attendance figures, seemed too tame to effect much change.

Last year's ride drew just just 10,000 participants (only half of whom were on hand for the concluding bike lift), but at least we were riding in normal traffic without police escorts to nanny us through the route. And with the significantly diminished crowd, there was the practical advantage of being able to ride at normal speeds in a nice, sparsely arrayed procession that got us to the end in good time.

This year, though, the lack of police escort and the warnings for families with kids to stay away (or at least go instead with a side event, Kidical Mass) did nothing to suppress turnout.

My wife, Kristin, our five-year-old boy Lance, and I showed up at the starting point, City Hall, about 6 p.m. It was a mad house. The streets on all sides of the several-block municipal complex were congested with cyclists. We stopped at the northwestern corner of the site and didn't even try to venture further.

It brought me back to the ridiculously congested critical masses of years gone by. Even when the procession started, you could barely move. More often, you were walking your bike ... and waiting ... and walking ... and waiting ... and walking a bit further.

But the sluggishness of the last night's ride was testament, first and foremost, to the popularity and power and inevitability of the bicycling movement in Budapest. After a couple of tepid turnouts during the last year, last night's enormous turnout showed that Budapesters have an abiding love for cycling, and they're going to keep coming out for demonstrations, and keep biking on a daily basis, regardless of the crap support they get from City Hall. Budapest cyclists have emerged as a significant constituency that, far from being a fad, is going to grow and grow and grow.

Like a rising flood, the city's population of everyday cyclists will surround our decision makers and force them to ever higher, ever dwindling bits of dry land. Eventually, even our city leaders will learn there's no point in building dikes in marshland. They'll learn to swim like the rest of us. And once they do, the only thing they'll regret is that they didn't take the plunge sooner.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cyclists to Encircle City Hall

It seems as if this is the year the gloves come off at Budapest Critical Mass. Having just been kicked in the teeth by City Hall over the Margit Bridge affair, organisers of the September 22 demonstration (English-language programme here) plan to kick things off by surrounding City Hall in a circle of chained-together bicycles, and then do the customary bike lift. It'll happen at 5:30 p.m., well after our weak-kneed city leaders have gone home for the night -- but I love the symbolism.

It'll be an excellent photo op. I'm hoping a few international journalists will be hand to cover the story, which is really about a local government abusing the largesse of the European Union. Sadly, it's one of many instances in which East European public officials are playing fast and loose with Cohesion Funds -- which mainly come from West European coffers. Decision makers in Brussels -- and elsewhere around in Europe -- have a right to hold the Budapest administration, as an EU grant recipient, to certain standards.



View Larger Map



Unlike the Earth Day Critical Mass in the spring, which is a celebratory, weekend parade for the whole family, the ride on Car Free Day is more of a hard-nosed, politically-pointed affair. It takes place during a weekday rush hour, and only parts of the route are cordoned off from other road users. For the most part, participants ride in traffic as they would during a normal evening commute. It's in the spirit of the original Critical Masses in San Francisco, which were spontaneously organised rides to show that cyclists are part of the traffic.

Naturally, participants are asked to remain civilised and adhere to traffic rules, according to well-kept Budapest tradition. (There will even be a chaperoned side ride for children, "Kidical Mass", also starting at 5:30.) That said, we want to make a big enough noise so that Budapest City Hall will finally come to its senses, and make good on its promises to local cyclists and its contractual agreements with the EU, and give the city its first proper cycling accomodation on a Danube bridge.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Danish Bike Wave Hits Budapest

The Danish Embassy will co-host the travelling bike exhibition "Dreams on Wheels" September 4-25 at the VAM Design Centre in District VII.

According to the press release, the show aims "to promote cycling as an alternative form of transportation and to show how the benefits derived from it relate to important topics such as climate change, energy conservation, the environment and health."

It will feature photos and posters along with a variety of actual bicycles, both ordinary and "curious kinds" the release promises.

Originally held at the dawn of the cycling revolution in Paris in 2002, the exhibition has since visited Toronto, Moscow, Tokyo and Riga among other capitals.

Some accompanying events

Did I mention about the part about the famous Copenhagen Cycling Chic blogger Mikael Colville Andersen??

For further info
  • Counsellor Jens Chr. Andersen (Royal Danish Embassy in Budapest)
    E- mail: jensan@um.dk
  • Henrietta Hajdu (cyclechic.hu)
    E-mail: henrietta_hajdu@hotmail.com
  • Hunor Kiraly
    E-mail: hunor.kiraly@gmail.com

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bike-Path Removal Violates Aid Contract

By removing the south-side bikeway from the Margit híd renovation plans, Budapest City Hall has violated conditions of HUF 6 billion (EUR 22 million at today's rate) in EU assistance for the project, according to a report on Index.hu by bike blogger András Földes.

When City Hall applied for the support via the National Development Agency (NFÜ), the plans included three paths for bikes. These comprised two side-by-side paths for two directions of traffic on the north side of the bridge -- primarily for those accessing Margit Island for recreational purposes. On the south side was a single, one-way path for cyclists going from Buda to Pest for transportation purposes.

On the basis of a renovation plan that included this cycling plan, the NFÜ awarded the City an EU grant of HUF 6 billion, which would cover almost a third of the total project price of HUF 20.8 billion (EUR 77.1 million).

However, in recent weeks it came to light that the plan had been amended to remove the south side lane altogether. This provoked letters of protest from the Hungarian Cyclists Club and a hastily organised demonstration of more than 500 cyclists on the bridge August 18. The cyclists' problem with the new plan is that for Buda-to-Pest bike traffic, a one-side-only path will mean going through eight stop lights, getting off and back on your bike at least twice along the way, and riding about twice the distance as would be necessary with a south-side bikeway.

Not only did the city violate its promise to cyclists, but it has also broken its signed agreement with the NFÜ. This states that if the objective of the aid is jeapardised in whole or in part, details, documents and facts of plan amendments must be sent immediately to the NFÜ. The deadline for such a notice is eight calendar days from the change. More than that time has already lapsed since the changes were revealed, and no notice has been sent.

For its part, City Hall spokeswoman Dora Czuk said the removal of the bike line was not a type of change that the city would have to agree with NFÜ.

But the NFÜ seemed to think differently. According to the Index report, when NFÜ Director Tamás Lukovich was asked about the matter, he said, "In the data sheet of the project contract, a south side lane is also included, and to date we have not received a request for amendment."

Here's hoping that the sight of HUF 6 billion swirling down the drain will finally stir Mayor Demszky into fulfilling his pledge on Margit híd.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cyclists Get a Hearing on Bridge Plans -- Today

According to a Tuesday post by Critical Mass organiser Gábor Kürti, the matter of cycling accommodation on Margit híd will be taken up by the city's Operations Committee today (Wednesday). It will involve a consultation with "all concerned parties," according to a statement issued by SZDSZ Assembly Member Imre Lakos.

This is not much notice for those wishing to participate, but seems par for the course considering the city didn't even GIVE notice when they removed the south side bikeway from the bridge renovation plans. That said, here are the details:
Time: 1 p.m. Wednesday, August 26
Place: Mayor's Office (1052 Budapest, Városház utca 9) 2nd Floor, Room 277

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Byrne Compares Cycling Cities

As a sort-of postscript to my post last month on David Byrne, here's some other news on what the head Talking Head is doing regarding bikes: He's written a 294-page book about his experiences bicycling in cities around the world called Bicycle Diaries. The listing on Amazon.com says it'll be released September 19.

When my wife and I got a chance to talk to him after his July 15 show at Budapest's Millenáris Teatrum, he told us that he has a fold-out bike in his tour bus that he rides whenever and wherever he has a chance. This would have given him an easy opportunity to push his new book on us (Amazon list price: $17.13). But he's probably too dignified and modest for that type of thing -- I mentioned in my post how, when Kristin introduced herself to him, he replied, as if he were just another member of the crew: "Hi, I'm David."

From the advance articles on Bicycle Diaries (a short review of the book and a longer piece including an interview, both in the UK's Guardian), we learn that it covers cycling experiences in cities such as Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Manila, Sydney and Detroit. I didn't see any reference to Budapest, which is probably because the book was finalised well before his recent visit here. (His previous shows in Hungary were with the Talking Heads in the 1980s -- possibly before he became the cycling zealot that he is now.)

He does write some words about Budapest in his blog, and he has a very positive impression: "I love this city!" he exclaims, then goes on about all the construction projects he saw downtown, which reminded him of the massive rebuilding of East Berlin after the political changes:

For now, everything is possible (sort of), and everything is in flux. Alternative arts spaces appear and disappear. Exhibitions and performances are held in former industrial spaces.

Hey! I think it was Kristin who told him about how the Millenáris was created from the old Ganz Electrical Factory. Happy to be of service, David!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Margit Híd Closed -- Awesome!

From noon today, Margit híd is closed to car traffic. This is the busiest of Budapest's six car bridges and it's been a favourite subject of water-cooler talk for months. Budapest somehow got through the Szabadság híd closure, but this one -- some people are wondering if it'll just lead to the collapse of the economy and a permanent re-division of Buda from Pest.

My perspective is somewhat different. We live in a building on Margit körút less than 200 metres from the Buda bridgehead (pretty much just upstairs from the Bem cinema, for locals). We're anticipating that traffic out front will drop dramatically, which will bring relative tranquility to a neighbourhood whose traffic levels are not a big selling point. Our view is also coloured by our lack of a car. The planned traffic changes would only seem to benefit us.

One thing that isn't clear is how the closure will affect bike and pedestrian traffic. We've heard so many contradictory rumours about it. The latest news on City Hall's website doesn't mention  this aspect although a May article in Index.hu quoted Mayor Demszky promising that bike and pedestrian passage will be ensured throughout the project. I hope he hasn't reversed himself, as he's prone to do concerning important cycling and pedestrian issues. Living so close to the bridge, it'll be easy for me to follow how it really plays out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Year, Another Run-in with a Car

Riding into Szentendre yesterday morning, I got broadsided by a motorist who didn't bother to look before coming out of a grocery store parking lot. It had been just over a year since I was hit by a truck on the same morning commute, that accident also a result of the driver not looking before accelerating out of a parking lot.
I was riding north on Route 11, the main road into town, and, as is my preference, on the carriageway rather than the broken-up sidewalk, which is what passes as the designated bike route here. I was on the right edge of the curb lane going an estimated 28 kph, and was passing by the north entrance to the Lidl market parking lot. A compact car exiting the lot was waiting to turn right into my lane. If the car had waited as expected, I would have passed 2-3 metres by its front bumper. But at the last instant, I could sense in peripheral vision that it was accelerating right into me. It hit the rear of the bike, knocking it out from under me while I tumbled to the pavement. The bike was sent scraping across the pavement about 10 metres away into the middle of the next lane.

I got myself up and turned toward the motorist, who had already pulled to the curb and was out of the car. I was so stunned by what had happened -- there was nothing to explain it. It was broad daylight, and there are no visual obstructions at that entrance, nothing but clear sightlines hundreds of metres in both directions. I held up my hands, as if to say, "WHAT ... THE ... FUCK!!!?"

I wanted to rip someone's head off. However, the driver -- a women in her late 50s -- appeared more shaken than I was. She asked if I was hurt, should she call a doctor? I told her I wasn't hurt -- just scraped up. I said we were both lucky and asked why she didn't look before she came out of the lot. She said she didn't see me ("Nem latom!"). And then she broke down into convulsions of tears. I ended up having to console her -- although I didn't go so far as to tell her it's alright. It's not alright to drive a 2,000 kg vehicle without watching where you're going.

This morning, as some deeper aches and pains are coming to bloom beneath the scrapes, I'm struggling to draw useful lessons from the incident. When I was last hit, I was on a separate bike path next to the road and I drew some lessons from the incident, one being that when motorists are turning onto a road, they pay more attention to traffic on the carriageway proper than they do to the sidewalks and bike paths.

But in this latest collision, I WAS on the road. The driver simply didn't look before she turned.

Not to excuse this driver, but a general problem in Szentendre is that very few bicyclists are on the roads. And when drivers aren't used to looking for cyclists, they tend to miss them.

Just the day before my accident, I was cc'd on a citizen's complaint about the poor cycling facility along Route 11 within Szentendre. What's needed, the writer said, is an allowance for cyclists to ride on the carriageway.

The official response -- from the Magyar Közút Zrt. -- was that Route 11 is being used to its capacity, that cyclists would cause an unacceptable "interruption of traffic flow" and that, anyway, "parallel cycling infrastructure exists".

Well, the "infrastructure" that exists is a sidewalk, nothing that was created specifically for cyclists. Not only is this "bike path" unsuitable in its conception, it's in horrible disrepair: badly broken up on some segments, riven with cracks elsewhere and merely a mud track in others.

The only known way to improve safety conditions for cyclists is to increase the levels of cycling. This happens not by shunting them off onto dirt paths, but by prioritising them on city streets and giving them all due consideration for their safety. On the five-lane-wide Route 11, this is easily achievable. The only obstacle is political will.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

500-Plus Demonstrate for Both-Side Bikeways

This was the scene shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday as a reported 500-plus fed-up Budapest bicyclists came out to demonstrate their rage at the Demszky administration for breaking promises on the renovation of Margit híd.

I was there to lend my support and, as you can see from these pictures, I got lots of pictures of the backsides of the few dozen bicyclists ahead of me in the procession. (I find it impossible to capture the enormity of bike demonstrations with a camera. Whether it's a few hundred people or 80,000, my photo record of the event consists almost entirely of blurry images of the back ends of the dozen or so people who were in my immediate vicinity.)

Kristin joined me as did Lance, he for the first time on his own two wheels. We were a bit concerned whether his riding skills were up for the tire-to-mudguard riggor of a Critical Mass-type bike demonstration. But his pokey pace was perfectly in step with the halting progression of the ride, and he didn't have -- and didn't cause, as far as I could tell -- any accidents.

I was happy to see that we weren't the only parents exploiting our children for political purposes. As you can see in some of the photos, there were lots of cute kids on hand as photo fodder for journalists willing to give us some sympathetic coverage.


After the demonstration, guys with bullhorns -- presumably with the the organising groups Hungarian Cycling Club and/or criticalmass.hu -- advised us to streer off the bridge on the Pest side and gather at Olympic Park, where I got my only decent (sort-of) crowd shot.

We sat there on the grass for 10 minutes or so and then one of the bullhorn guys thanked everyone for participating and said a few other words I couldn't make out. That was pretty much it.

Who knows what the postscript might be. This was a demo about the Mayor backtracking on a promise made last year that the soon-to-start bridge renovation would include cycling accommodation on BOTH sides of the bridge for both directions of traffic. Then this past week -- with the bridge closure scheduled for August 22 -- it is revealed that accommodation on the south side of the bridge has been erased from the plans.

The mayor's office gave multiple excuses for the reversal, but the way it was revealed -- at the last minute, and only after the cycling lobby had called out the mayor on some contradictory PR materials -- it speaks volumes about his (tepid) commitment to everyday cycling.

A recent post on criticalmass.hu lists dozens of supportive media reports that have come out in recent days. We can only hope that the public will respond and spur the mayor to make good on his pledge.

Monday, August 17, 2009

City Hall, Cyclists at Loggerheads over Margit Bridge

So it seems the Mayor really DOES want to sell cyclists short on the Margit híd project. On Friday, Mayor Demszky's office issued a statement saying that, basically, there will be bike accommodation on just one side of the bridge (the Margit Island side) and not on both sides, as laid out in a plan hashed out last year between the City and cycling NGOs.

As reported by Metropol, the city claims that because Margit híd is part of the UNESCO protected Budapest panorama, it is impossible to obtain a necessary permit to widen the bridge on the south side of the bridge.

In the same communique, City Hall says the planned cyclist demonstration on Tuesday is not only unnecessary but dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Cyclists Club continues to press the argument that restricting accommodation to a single, two-direction bikeway on the north side will be dangerous. And, of course, it will. The path simply won't be wide enough for cyclists traveling in opposite directions to pass each other safely. And for Pest-bound cyclists, the inconvenience of crossing traffic to get onto the north-side bikeway will mean that many will simply stay on the southern carriageway and ride unprotected in motor traffic.

To my mind, human safety trumps a puristic approach to historical preservation. Surely a sensible compromise can be reached in which cyclists get safe, European-standard accommodations (i.e., bike paths/lanes on both sides of the bridge) without unduly tarnishing the Budapest panorama.

Concerning the cycling demonstration, participants are asked to gather between 5:30 and 6 p.m. on the north side close to the point where it connects to the island. There will be a traditional, Critical Mass-style bike lifting at 6 p.m. -- so the key is to show up before then. Afterwards, the cyclists will make one or two circuits back and forth across the bridge. Finally, there will be a discussion about the matter at Jaszai Mari tér on the Pest end of the bridge.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Main Street Project a Step Forward

Notwithstanding the current backsliding on the Margit híd project, the cause of sustainable transport does seem to be advancing in downtown Budapest. I'm referring to road work initiated this summer in District V which is designed to reduce car traffic; alleviate congestion, noise and pollution; and promote walking. I expect that it will also be good for cycling, although decison makers have been somewhat reticent about this aspect of the work.

The multitude of road projects downtown has been underway for months and has been well reported on. But a recent article in epiteszforum.hu (under the title "Bypass Surgury") gave a nice overview of the work and the unifying goals and strategy behind it.

The work is all part of a single HUF 5.5 billion initiative called the Main Street Project (főutca projekt) being carried out by the V. District government with the support of the central city administration. It involves an extensive reconfiguration of the main north-south artery running from Kálvin tér to István körút by way of Szabadság tér, including some squares and side streets along the way. Along with attractive new brick surfacing, tree plantings and street lamps, there will be 104 new bike racks.
District V Mayor Antal Rogán gave a press conference about the project at the end of July. As the epiteszforum article relates, he was very keen to dispel any apprehensions that it involves pedestrianising streets. In the wake of the public-relations debacle this spring concerning the artificial traffic jam experiment, and then with the parking tariff hikes in June (and from September on the Danube embankment north of Margit Bridge), municipal leaders are apparently reluctant to ask for further sacrifices from motorists.

While not going so far as to rid downtown of cars, the Main Street Project will restrict traffic flow along this corridor by expanding pedestrian space, giving priority to public transport and limiting car access by various measures to those who really need to get Downtown.

From the conceptual illustrations, it appears the streets will look very much like IX. District's Raday utca, which is about the closest thing Budapest has to shared space. In its purest form, shared space obliterates the distinctions between sidewalks (pavements) and carriageways, and the interaction between motorists and others is governed by normal social etiquette rather than traffic signals, curbs and other artificial means. On future "Main Street" roads, a few physical barriers remain, such as rain gutters, street furniture and plantings. But if properly implemented, traffic speeds will be reduced significantly, and drivers who simply want to get through downtown will choose a diffferent route, e.g., the nagykörút.

As Mayor Rogán explains it, the streets under renovation today carry 4-5 times the amount of traffic for which they were originally designed. The changes are intended to bring the traffic load down to normal.

With lighter traffic moving at lower speeds, the streets should be perfectly suited for cycling with no need for physically separated paths or even lane markings. However, since the streets will also be one way, it would be desirable if cyclists are given an exception to ride in both directions (i.e. contraflow lanes) as this would make downtown riding much more convenient and attractive.

According to Sándor Bardoczi, who wrote the epiteszforum article, the Main Street carriageways will be wide enough, at 4 metres, to accommodate contraflow lanes for cyclists. However, there's a legal obstacle to marking the lanes as such. The Hungarian traffic code (KRESZ) allows for posted signs for this purpose (see photo below), but not for painted markers on the road surface, which would be more obvious.

In any case, Bardoczi says there's no indication from V. District decision makers whether they even want to give cyclists such an allowance. It may be they'd rather defer such a potentially controversial decision to future assembly members.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mayor Tries to Allay Margit Bridge Worries

According to the most recent post by Hajtas Pajtas boss Gábor Kürti on criticalmass.hu, the mayor's office has issued a letter promising the plans for cycling accommodation on Margit Bridge WILL NOT be changed.

This was in response to an open letter sent by the Hungarian Cyclists Club protesting an apparent renegging on an agreement City Hall made last year to ensure cycling lanes on both the Pest- and Buda-bound carriageways of Margit Bridge. The latest PR materials regarding the impending bridge refurbishment indicated bike accommodation on just one side of the bridge.

Deputy Mayor Miklós Hagyó, the cycling club's main sponsor at City Hall, took up the issue with the city's chief architect Éva Beleznay, who promised to address the issue at the City Council's meeting following the August 20 holiday. The positive assurances from the mayor himself came shortly afterwards.

Despite all this -- and because of a history of broken promises to the cycling community over the past several years -- the previously called demonstation at on Margit Bridge is still on at Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

City Betrays Cyclists with Margit Bridge change

Shafted again!! I can't believe the latest news about the debacle of the reconstruction of Margit Bridge. First, budget overruns of some HUF 17.1 billion (EUR 62 million) let the City Council to nix scores of other transport projects, including several bike paths. Now the cycling accommodations on the bridge itself have been squeezed.

Last fall, City Hall and the cycling community agreed on a cycling lanes on both sides of the bridge (as pictured above). The Hungarian Cyclists' Club announced the compromise in November. The one on the north side would have been a dual-direction path to ease access to Margit island while the one on the south side would have been a one-way path going with the flow of Pest-bound motor traffic.


According to the latest plans, explained in this post (and pictured above), the south side accommodation has been removed altogether. (Comepare the photos and see where a cyclist is on the left-hand side in picture one, and missing in picture 2). The north side, bidirectional path is all that remains for cyclists.

This would be a major step back from the agreed plans, which would have finally given cyclists a safe, convenient track on both sides of the street. This would have allowed Pest-bound cyclists to pass over the bridge without wasting their time on each end crossing the street to get to and from the north side path. The hope was that the dual lanes on Margit hid might be a first step in having dual lanes or paths all around the körút. Now these hopes appear in jeopardy. 

Cyclists at criticalmass.hu have announced a demonstration against this betrayal at 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 18 at the bridge. The post said details are to come.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rolling with the Sziget

It's that time of year, again: The Sziget Festival opens tonight on Hajógyari island on the north side of town, bringing a flood of young revellers from across Europe for five nights of rock and roll. With daily tickets going for HUF 10,500 (EUR 42) a pop, I'll likely give it a miss. However, such is the magnitude of the event — approximately 80,000 people attend annually — that there's no escaping its impact.

Among other things, the festival's front door sits smack dab in the middle of the Buda-side bikeway. During the past year, the Buda quay has been closed to motor traffic and has become a de facto bicycle expressway. Now that the Sziget's on, the segment of the quay by the event entrance has been closed down and turned into Sziget "terület". That means cyclists riding the quay have to take a small detour (which actually traces the "official" Euro Velo 6 route). The blue line in the map shows the detour.


I'm not one to complain about the Sziget disruption. I figure the opportunities for fun and good music are worth the temporary inconveniences that it causes. Also, the Sziget organisers were really in on the ground floor of the Budapest bicycle renaissance: they started offering on-site, guarded bicycle parking for festival visitors 10 years ago -- at a time when the local Critical Mass was just a twinkle in Gábor Kürti's eye.

According to Sziget employee Ákos Dominus, the free-of-charge bike parking was used last year by 800-1,000 vistors a day. That's up from 200-300/day just five-six years ago, he said.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Street Work Leaves Bike Path in Worse Shape

Arriving back to Budapest from summer vacation, I was pleased to see that the Buda-side korzó, after months of being ripped up due to road work, was again open for cycling. I was down there with my four-year-old boy, Lance, who started riding without training wheels just this spring. As Lance is still a little wobbly on his pint-sized one-speed, the korzó is the safest place for him to ride in our neighbourhood.

During the road work (involving a reconstruction of the No. 19 tram line which runs alongside the korzó), we'd limited our ride from Margit híd to Batthyányi tér. But this morning, seeing that the mess along the tram line was cleared up, we ventured on past Batthyányi toward the Chain Bridge.

I immediately noticed that the patchwork they'd done following the construction was awful. During the project, they'd dug a trench about 30-40 cm wide right down the middle of the korzó to install a rain gutter. After filling it in, they capped it not with tarmac, which is what the path is surfaced with, but with concrete. Not everywhere, though. In scattered segments, for some reason, they filled it with asphalt.

At any rate, the job was incredibly shoddy, the worst part being the deep grooves along the seam between the old surface and the patchwork. As any cyclist knows, these kinds of longitudinal grooves are a major hazard, as bike tires are prone to slide into them and throw you off balance. In the 8 years I've been riding in Budapest, I've had three fairly nasty falls, two of them because of these sorts of patches.

No sooner did I take note of this crappy patch job than Lance goes tumbling over his handlebars after getting his tire caught in one of these grooves. Luckily, his injuries were only a scraped knee and scuffed-up palms. He cried a little bit but dusted himself off and got back on his bike. Even so, it's hard
to overstate how angry I got that the city thinks so little of its cycling (and walking and skating) citizens, that they would do such a half-assed patch job on one of our main promenades.
Hundreds, and on summer weekends, thousands, of citizens use this path each day, not just for recreation, but increasingly for daily transportation. With all the cracks, tree-root bumps and poorly done patches, the korzó is long overdue for a complete resurfacing. The work on the adjacent tram track provided a prime opportunity for such a renewal. Instead, the work finished with the path in an even more degraded state.

I keep reading about City Hall's progressive plans to double cycling's modal share and launch a world-class bike sharing system. Meanwhile, it can't manage such a basic task as bike-path maintenance. It seems to me that the cycling movement goes forward in Budapest not because of City Hall's efforts but despite them.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

David Byrne Likes Cycling in Budapest

So David Byrne thinks Budapest is a pretty good city for bicycling. I know because he told me so.

Last night, I went to see Byrne (yes, David Byrne, the former singer of the Talking Heads) perform a fantastic show at a surprisingly small venue here in Budapest (the Teatrum at the Millinaris in Buda). I'd been looking forward to this show since I saw it advertised two-three months ago. I'm a big fan of Talking Heads, particularly of their fantabulous third album, Fear of Music, and the great thing about this show was that it was a retrospective of Byrne's long history of collaboration with Brian Eno, who had produced, among other Byrne efforts, Fear of Music.

The other reason I was excited about Byrne coming to town was that during the last several years, he has become a big transport cycling activist in New York City, where he's been living for many years. He organised a bike-rack design contest a couple years back, and he's been stumping for cycling in the media, writing about it in his quite good blog, and so on. Ever since I've been aware of this side of his personality, he's become a kind-of a rock'n'roll hero for me, a guy who not only has created some of my favourite music, but who has a sense of civic activism that I admire, particularly considering his main issue is my main issue.

So when I saw that he had a show scheduled in Bp, one of my first thoughts was: I should contact him and invite him for a bike ride in Budapest! Right. I never mustered the courage for this. Instead, I just fantacised about it: how I might get hold of him and talk about cycling and have a great summit/bonding session as two co-equals in cycling activism. In my imagination, the bike connection would make us instant buddies, and, at my invitation, Byrne would play a benefit concert that would raise a big pile of money to create the vital infrastructure that would push Bp over the tipping point to Amsterdam Nirvana.

To make a long story short (i.e. even longer), we went to the show, it was great (including 4-5 songs off Fear of Music), and afterwards, we needed someplace to go for a drink. I suggested the Marxim, directly behind the venue, because, hey, maybe David Byrne will go there.
Now, this was partly just wishful thinking, and I was not holding out very high hopes, especially as my wife, Kristin, had been speculating at how healthy and un-rock'n'roll Byrne and the rest of his ensemble looked. "After a show, they probably get down to a session of yoga followed by a wholesome vegan dinner," she said.

Indeed, even in his youthful heyday, Byrne was an arty intellectual and never a debauched rock and roller. However, I knew from his blog that he drinks -- he'd banged his head once in a bike crash after he'd had some drinks -- so I was thinking maybe it wasn't such a far out proposition that he'd be out for an adult beverage.

A few minutes after we sat down at the bar at Marxim, three roadies from the Byrne show walked in, including a guy from New Jersey who said he'd noticed Kristin dancing in the front row and stopping ocassionally to pull the front of her dress up so as not to overly expose her décolletage. We chatted with this guy for awhile and after a bit, who should appear at the top of the steps, but Byrne himself (looking exactly like he looks in the above photo -- wearing white shirt and straw hat).

Kristin was first up the steps. She said when she introduced herself, he said, "Hi, I'm David," which she thought was cute. I got up there a minute later and started gushing about how much I liked the show and how I read his blog and really like it and, also, "I think it's so cool that you've become a bike activist."

As his roadies had told us, Byrne was (is) quite a personable, down-to-earth guy, and definitely not like the detached intellectual that you might imagine from his artistic persona. In fact, he was having a korsó of beer and also, surprising to me, a roll-your-own cigarette.

Byrne said he'd been riding his bike the day before in Budapest -- apparently he had all of Tuesday off, and he spent it checking out Budapest. He and some others in the crew (24 people total, including musicians, dancers, roadies, etc.) carry folding bikes in their touring buses, and they go for rides whenever there's an opportunity.

We asked him about his impressions of riding in Bp, especially as compared to New York, and he said (more or less), "Pretty good. There's always a side street to go down where there's not much traffic. And also, there are a lot a cyclists here. Like you said, there's a critical mass of cyclists here so drivers and pedestrians look out for bicyclists." (We'd told him about the huge numbers at Budapest Critical Mass -- not sure, considering his use of the term "critical mass," if he was really aware of the Critical Mass movement around the world. I know they have one in New York, but it's not nearly on the scale of the one here.

Byrne contrasted the situation in Bp with that of Hong Kong, where, apparently very few people bike. "If a bike comes along, people think, 'What the hell is that?'"

We talked a bit more about the show. Byrne, as well as his technicians, were really impressed with the Millinaris Teatrum. The sound on stage was so clear, Byrne said, he thought at first that something must be wrong with the equipment. And Kristin, who's an art and architecture history buff, told him a little bit about the history of the Millinaris site.

But I've said the pertinent stuff for a biking blog. David Byrne has given his imprimatur to the cycling scene in Budapest. Which I usually think sucks big time. But apparently it's better than Hong Kong's and New York's. In relative terms, according to a guy who's touring all over the world -- not just any guy, mind you, we're talking DAVID FUCKING BYRNE, a personal acquaintance of moi -- it's pretty OK. And for right now, that's enough to make me kind-of please with Budapest's cycling scene.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lessons from Times Square

If progressive urban leaders want to transform their cities from smoggy, car-choked clichés to green exemplars of Copenhagen Chic, they've got to co-opt the powers that be with razor-sharp, targetted PR.

This is my capsule summary of an insightful news analysis, by landscape designer Kristin Faurest of Artemisia Design, of what Budapest can learn from New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's stunning coup in turning Times Square into a pedestrian mall. Download the full text of the original English-language article here.

Appropriately enough, the article takes a laser-beam focus on Bloomberg's sales job, an aspect conspicuously missing from Budapest City Hall's recent attempt to green the capital's thoroughfares. Here, the plan was packaged in a slapdash manner after word about the idea was leaked to the press. Proponents pitched it as an experiment with "artificial traffic jams," and the public greeted it with predictable scorn.

By contrast, the project in Times Square was preceded by months of meticulous planning and lobbying. When the plan went public, a coordinated sales effort focused on winning over key stakeholders, including retailers and motorists. Significantly, the PR campaign was given the upbeat name of "Green Light." As Faurest writes:
Green Light’s information campaign was characterized by transparency, openness, well-supported arguments, realistic timelines and detailed practical information for taxis, delivery trucks, and theatergoers. It was heavily planned, controlled and targeted. Central to the information campaign was a list of benefits the changes would provide:
  • Traffic lights with up to 66% more green time
  • Significant travel time improvements on Sixth and Seventh Avenues
  • Safer and simpler crossings for pedestrians
  • Faster bus speeds for 70,000 daily riders
Although Budapest City Hall's most recent attempt at greening the city's main arteries went down in a monsoon of rotten fruit, the idea of a quieter, safer more humane transport system still beckons. Those of us who want to bring it to fruition can learn valuable lessons from the miracle at Times Square.

The article appears in Hungarian in two online publications, the architecture and new-urbanist blog epiteszforum.hu and the general daily news site index.hu.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

EU Funds Sought for Bike Sharing

The city administration has officially applied for EU subsidies for a planned bike-sharing system along the lines of Paris's Velib (which uses Hungarian-made bicycles -- pictured) and Barcelona's Bicing systems.

According to the post in Caboodle.hu, the system will include 1,009 bicycles parked at 73 automated racks and cover a seven-square-kilometre section of downtown. Users would be able to ride the public bikes free of charge for the first half hour, and then have to pay the price of a BKV ticket for the second half hour.

According to the earlier decision by the City Council, the system would at first be confined to the central districts of Pest, and gradually expand outward and across the Danube to Buda. The system would not debut before 2011.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's Official: Traffic Jam Proposal Dead

Today, the Cabinet of the Municipal Administration voted against the widely derided proposal to create temporary artificial traffic jams as a trial for greening Budapest's transport system. Not a big surprise.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Novel Cycling Accommodation a Step Forward

The rather novel cycling accommodation on Buda's Varsányi Irén utca is nearly complete, and I have to say it is a step forward. Prior to the reconfiguration, the bike facility here was of a typically lame Budapest design (or East European -- I hear the same complaints from friends in Poland and the Czech Republic): there was one narrow path, marked out in yellow paint, on one side of the street on the sidewalk for both directions of bike traffic.

At the behest of cycling advocates, District II agreed to make a better accommodation, although the result was a compromise. According to a helpful reader of my earlier post on the subject
, the Hungarian Cyclists Club had recommended traffic calming measures and the posting of signage allowing cyclists to ride in the carriageway in both directions on this one-way street. This solution would have eliminated cyclist-pedestrian conflicts on the sidewalk, but would have required taking away curbside car parking to make room for the contraflow biking lane. But of course, the district wasn't about to mess with parking (free parking being a God-given right in Hungary).

So instead, only cyclists going with the direction of traffic are allowed to ride in the carriageway. This has been made safer thanks to the calming of motor traffic by speed tables at all the street crossings. Meanwhile, contraflow riders are still on the old sidewalk lane -- but now have it to themselves.

Now that the two directions of bike traffic have been separated and given their own space, it feels more safe to ride at normals speeds -- to me at least.

At the bottom of the hill at the stop light on Fazekas utca, cyclists going with traffic and needing to turn left can get out of their curbside lane and pull ahead of motorists into the middle of the lane into a red bike box. Popular in places such as Portland, Oregon, and New York City, bike boxes allow cyclists to get in front of cars at traffic signals so as to avoid getting cut off -- or run over -- by turning vehicles.
It would be nice if the same separate-lane design could be continued over the whole course of the street. Alas, after the Fazekas crossing, both directions of bike traffic are again merged onto a single narrow lane on the sidewalk.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Traffic Jams Prove Unpopular -- Doh!!

Prospects dimmed rather quickly for the recent proposal to create artificial traffic jams in Budapest as a precursor to greening the city's transport. Since the idea was leaked to the press earlier this week, a deluge of criticism has come down from politicians, the press, the Hungarian Auto Club -- even an NGO devoted to public transport.

The probable death knell came Thursday night, when the proposal's leading proponent at City Hall -- Deputy Mayor Imre Ikvai-Szabó (pictured) -- admitted "there was very little chance" of implementation this summer.

During his statement, as reported on Index.hu, Ikvai-Szabó, of the Free Democrat party, said he would still submit the idea for a proper hearing by the Budapest Cabinet. But he conceded that there was little political support or hope of getting it.

The most harsh criticism may have come from opposing party Magyar Democratic Forum, which gave Mayor Gábor Demszky the "birka díj" (dork award) for raising such an "absurd and laughable" idea.

The Hungarian Auto Club argued that it made no sense to create artificial traffic jams without providing adequate transport alternatives. The NGO VEKE (Urban and Suburban Transport Association), which has supported progressive initiatives such as the expansion of Budapest's night bus service, concurred, saying that before car lanes are taken away, the city would have to expand public transport, including the reinstallation of tram lines on Rakoczi út and Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út.

The shame of it all is that the failure of this poorly considered scheme may turn into a setback for the larger idea of improving living conditions in the city by reducing motor traffic and re-prioritising public space for people instead of vehicles.

In my first post on the matter, I criticised the utter lack of marketing savvy in the idea's promotion. By focusing on constricted road space and traffic jams, proponents are framing green transport as a kind of bitter medicine that residents must swallow in order for the city to get better. This negative approach struck me as baffling, especially considering all the positive things that green transport has to offer: healthier lifestyle, a quieter and more pleasant urban environment, cleaner air, safer streets, more inviting commercial and public spaces, etc., etc., etc.

Another thing came up during a conversation with a friend: the proposal is too sudden and drastic. The greening of a city is a long-term project. Copenhagen, to take Europe's best example, is now renowned for its invigorating streetlife and superior accomodations for cyclists. But in the 1970s, it was the same automotive mess that Budapest is today. The city managed its transformation through slow but continuous improvements over 30 years and never with an overarching plan. That city's transformation was proof that slow and steady wins the race.