Sunday, April 26, 2009

Szentendrens for Cycling Off and Rolling

A new group that I'll call Szentendrens for Cycling got off to a lively start on Friday, with a TV crew dropping by to document a local cycling revolution in its embryonic stage.

Ten people turned out, which I think was quite good considering this was our first meeting and it took place Friday afternoon, when most people just want to drink beer. But hey you people who didn't come -- we HAD alcohol! This is what I love about cyclists. They're a healthy bunch, and usually environmentally conscious and all those virtuous things -- but hardly ever abstemious when it comes to drink.

Not to give the impression we were a bunch of no-account boozers. The group included people with a variety of backgrounds that should help with our mission. They included:
  • a representative of the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation (Ökotars) who's working on a national Greenway system
  • a co-founder of Hungary's biggest entertainment listings magazine PestiEst
  • a rider from Hajtas Pajtas, the bike courier service at the vanguard of Budapest's cycling movement
  • the president of the Szentendre-based Paradicsom Klub (Tomato Club), an NGO that offers bike rides and other recreational programmes for the blind and poor-sighted
Also on hand were Hungarian Cyclists' Club President János László and his colleague Virág Bence-Kovács, an engineer with expertise in infrastructure design.

The group discussed a working proposal written by local literature professor Balázs Devescovi, which highlights the most basic needs for cycling in Szentendre. Everyone agreed with these ideas, particularly the main point about the main road through town, Route 11. It turned out there were three of us at the meeting who have been pulled over by police on Route 11 for not riding on the rim-bending sidewalk that's designated as a compulsory cycling track.

One possible solution would be to mark out cycling lanes for both directions of traffic on Route 11 inside the city boundaries. If the road is too narrow for proper bike lanes and all FOUR existing car lanes, then the lanes could be designated "sharrows," which cars could also use when they aren't occupied by cyclists. Some may consider this dangerous, however that's only because existing traffic moves so swiftly. During the meeting, I made the point that although this road is part of a highway, it is inside the city limits and motorists have got to slow down. Cycling lanes could actually be part of the solution to this problem, along, of course, with better enforcement of existing speed limits.

When the Szentendre group works out a more detailed proposal, we'll submit it to City Hall. As part of this effort, one of our group will take photos of all the cycling trouble spots in town, and then input them into a Google map showing exactly where they are. If we get really ambitious, we might write up a detailed "cycling concept," a document that would serve as a guide and impetus for cycling development in Szentendre.

The cycling club has experience in getting municipal cycling movements off the ground, having put together cycling concepts for Budapest and Érd and having started work on one for Gyôr.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cyclists for Szentendre Meet THIS FRIDAY

Anyone wishing to make Szentendre a bike-friendly city should join us this Friday (April 24) to share and gather ideas on the most urgent needs. The session is being organised by local cycling activists and staff members of the Hungarian Cyclists Club. It will take place 4:30-6:00 p.m. at the Napórásház , 2000 Sztenendre, Halász utca 1, right off the riverside korzó.

A local literature professor named Balázs Devescovi wrote the proposed workplan (in Hungarian) that will serve as our starting point. I've written an English-language summary of same in this blog. His main idea is to make the southern approach to Szentendre -- Route 11 and the street crossing to and from the bike path from Békásmegyer — safer for bicyclists.

Anyone who has ever biked to Szentendre from Budapest will understand that this section of the officially designated route is a joke. There's practically no signage and the official, legal way across Route 11 involves an awkward trudge down some steep steps and through a dodgy underpass. This surely doesn't meet the standards of the EuroVelo touristic route (some shiny racks and signage about EuroVelo 6 were installed this week on the korzó, pictured) of which it now is a part.

Another idea is to make the riverside road through Szentendre — the korzó — safer for cycling — possibly by closing it to car traffic altogether. As this part of the road is now being developed as a lively restaurant and bar area, much like Liszt Ferenc tér or Ráday utca in Budapest, such a restriction would be appropriate.

The proceedings will be in Hungarian, although there will be at least one bungler on hand (me) who will have to bug his friends afterwards for an English-language recap. A more detailed invite in Hungarian is here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Critical Mass Downshifts

This spring's Critical Mass was a family affair, as you can see here: Kristin holding up Lance (buckled into the seat on the back of my bike) mid-way through the procession, with bikers coming off the Chain Bridge into Roosevelt tér.

As you can see from the photo, there weren't as many cyclists as usual. Both Népszabadság and estimated 30,000 participants, less than half of last year's figure of 80,000.

I was struck by how sparse the crowd was compared to previous years, when you would spend 80 percent of the time walking your bike because the crowd was so thick and moving so slowly. This year, by contrast, we peddled all the way through it at a slow, comfortable pace, stopping only for the occasional crossing guard. We finished in record time, and had about an hour to kill at City Park waiting for the customary bike lift.

There could be a few reasons for the smaller turnout. The weather was nice, but it was threatening to rain all day, so that may have scared off some people. And let's face it, Critical Mass isn't going to last forever. Although many participants will come out time after time to make a political statement, others are there mainly for the fun of it. For them, the Critical Mass closing party at City Park doesn't offer much aside from some recorded music and a few beer and pretzel vendors. With professional organisation, it could become a major festival. To date, however, it's been put together by a loose coalition of volunteer helpers, and it probably won't grow without stronger direction.

Having said that, I don't think the decline of Critical Mass is necessarily lamentable. The ultimate goal is for Budapest to become a bike-friendly city where cyclists can get from any origin to any destination safely and comfortably. As long as the city makes serious strides in this direction, I don't care about Critical Mass. For me, it's a means, not an end.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Critical Mass cometh

View Larger Map
Budapest's twice-annual demonstration/celebration for bicycling happens once again this Sunday (April 19), starting at 3 p.m. from the park in Tabán. To ensure a good-sized crowd by starting time, organisers encourage participants to make a day of it by bringing food and drink to the park for a picnic starting around 1 p.m. Officially, alcohol is discouraged, as boozing before biking is illegal. Probably one beer won't hurt -- but you didn't read that here!

The procession will go down Krisztina krt, across Erzsebet bridge, do a quick loop in Pest and come back across the river, back up the Tabán on Attila út, then through the Chain bridge tunnel and across the river again ... Nevermind: you can see the full route directions here. Click the first subhead: Mikor lesz a felvonulás? És hol? És mettől meddig tart majd?

As has been the custom for Earth Day Critical Masses, the event culminates with a bike lifting at City Park 2.5 hours after the starting time at 5:30 p.m.

This event won't be the in-your-face, politically-serious, rush-hour type ride as organised last fall during European Car Free Day. Instead, it will be a light-hearted, celebratory ride in which everyone is encouraged to turn out, including children. In fact, parents with prams are invited to take part in the first-annual "babakocsi" Critical Mass, which will start from Kodaly körönd at 3:30 p.m., and then proceed straight down Andrássy to join the cyclists at City Park.

It'll be interesting to see if participation in this year's Earth Day Critical Mass can beat last year's, which organisers claimed set a likely World record at 80,000. A lot will depend on the weather, which looked partly cloudy, partly sunny, but with rain on the day before and the day after. Cross your fingers.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cycling on the Rise

A multi-year cycling promotion project involving six European cities recently ended, with one conclusion being that cycling has suddenly become a hot topic. The project began before the Velib bike sharing project got underway, inspiring cities the world over to consider the bicycle as a vehicle for public transportation. By the time the project concluded, a confluence of rising petrol prices, economic crisis and Paris's inspiring example had made bike sharing a tempting option for mayors the world over, including here in Budapest.

The project, called Spicycles, included a component on bike-sharing, and monitored the implementation of such systems (or expansion of existing ones) in all its partner cities: Berlin; Bucharest and Ploiesti Romania; Gothenborg, Sweden; Rome and Barcelona. The system in the last city became one of the biggest in Europe, and was almost solely responsible for igniting what's now a thriving transport-cycling culture.

I had the privilege of working on the project's final publication as an editor and graphic designer. It describes the project's results, including lessons from Barcelona's Bicing system and things that Gothenborg and Berlin have done to become two of Europe's leading lights in utility cycling.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Budapest to Pursue Bike Sharing

The Budapest City Council has voted to go ahead with a bike-sharing system -- like the Velíb system in Paris -- in downtown.

According to the English-language article on, implementation would depend on getting EU funding. But if the application is successful, the system would put 800 to 1,200 bikes in downtown parked at stations placed every 300-600 metres.

The system would come on line in 2011 covering about 6 square kilometres between the Danube and the Nagy körút. After that, it could be expanded across the river, including up Bartok Béla út, to cover an area of up to 20 square kilometres.

Contrary to my earlier impressions from when the city started its feasibility study, this seems quite ambitious. Barcelona's Bicing system (pictured), for instance, is one of the biggest systems implemented in Europe and it has 3,000 bikes and stations placed every 300-400 metres.

In Central and Eastern Europe, there's been nothing on this scale. The systems in Prague, Krakow and Bucharest have no more than 200-300 bikes a piece. And the system is envisioned as a high-end, automated type in which bikes can be taken out with swipe cards, whereas some systems in this region -- as in Bucharest and Ploiesti, Romania -- are low-tech systems in which cyclists must check out bikes from a human vendor.

As I've said before, the city will have to improve cycling conditions downtown with a more comprehensive lane and path network, good bridge crossings, priority traffic signals, etc., etc. before public bikes will be attractive. But maybe the fact that the city has commited to this will give that added incentive to make this improvements.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Budapesters Are Bike Crazy

I've been looking for a photo to do justice to the profusion of cyclists that have hit the streets with the arrival of spring weather. I was amazed at the commuter traffic last Thursday and Friday on the bike path on the Buda side of Margit bridge. And then the numbers quadrupled on the weekend, with cyclists heading up to the Buda hills and along the Duna korzó for recreational rides.

This shot was taken in front of one of the event venues at the Millináris park in Buda. The annual Fringe Festival, a free-of-charge arts and cultural weekend, was on. When I arrived around 10 a.m., just a couple bikes occupied the lone bike rack by the entrance facing Mammut shopping mall. When I left around noon, the rack was overflowing, and the just-for-decoration, DNA helix thing in front of the venue had multiple bikes chained to every one of its bars. I can't remember ever seeing so many bikes parked at Millináris. They've got to get cracking on more bike racks.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Let's Make Szentendre Safe for Cyclists!

Here's your chance to get in on the ground floor of a local cycling movement. So far, we've got two supporters. If you join us, our power base explodes by 50%. You bring in a friend, we're talking 100% growth!

We've already got the rudiments of a manifesto. This is a list of priority steps to sort out the main deficiencies of Szentendre's road system from the cyclist's point of view:

1. Create bike lanes on both sides of the main road into town from Budapest -- Route 11.

Reason: The current designated bike route south of Szentendre is the sidewalk along along the east side of Route 11 (Dozsa Gyorgy ut). The sidewalk is rife with the usual cycling obstructions: lightposts and signposts, a busstop shelter, pedestrians, and, of course, oncoming cyclists as this sidewalk is supposed to accommodate both directions of bike traffic. With cars crossing this sidewalk from several sidestreets, parking lots and driveways, you must be on constant alert for drivers fixated on the car traffic and oblivious to whatever's coming on the sidewalk. It's a typical, braindead solution that makes cycling unsafe and terribly slow.

2. At the southern entrance to town (where Dobogókői út intersects Route 11), create a safe cycling crossing with a priority traffic light.

Reason: At present, the designated bike path running along the west side of Route 11 from Budapest ends at an Aral petrol station (i.e. Dobogókői út). From there, you have to cross Route 11 to continue on the cycling path, which runs on a sidewalk on the EAST side of the street. The only legal way to do this is to go UNDER Route 11 through a tunnel that's reachable only by steps. Try doing this with a basket full of groceries (as shoppers at the Cora south of town might have) or with a loaded touring bike (this stretch of bike route is now part of the Euro Velo touristic network). It's impossible for many, and convenient for no one. The alternative is to cross Route 11 on the surface but this can be intimidating with a bunch of motor traffic bearing down on you. A nice solution would be a priority traffic light giving cyclists a few-seconds head start to get safely across the street.

3. Develop Szentendre's cycling infrastructure.

Reason: Under this heading are proposed several projects ranging from installing public bike racks to creating better signage to establishing good bike paths and lanes through town and to nearby destinations such as the Skanzen folkloric museum. The focus here is to improve the city not only for passing tourists and commuters, but also for residents of all ages who would like to be able to bike in Szentendre in the same free and easy way as they might have 20 years ago, before car traffic got so out of control.

Right now, we're looking to see who else wants to see a more bike-friendly Szentendre. We're looking not only for Szentendre residents, but also Budapest types who enjoy weekend rides up the Danube bend. The more support we have, the better our chances when we take up these proposals with City Hall.

If you'd like a copy of the short-but-sweet manifesto (just two pages, in Hungarian), or you'd just like to give ideas or voice your support, write to the brains of the movement, Balázs Devescovi, at You can also write me at

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Thanks, Mr. Fisherman

View Larger MapHere's grassroots action in its purest form. I'm riding on the dedicated path from Békásmegyer to Szentendre, the one along Route 11, and as I'm going through the underpass tunnel just north of Omszk Lake (see map), I come upon this gnomish guy next to a parked bicycle, and he's got a primitive broom in his hands and he's sweeping up the path.

I knew exactly what he was doing because a couple days before in the same tunnel, I'd had to swerve to avoid a bunch of broken green glass. On that morning, I made a mental note to bring a hand broom on my next ride. But, of course, I forgot and never did follow through.

But while I had ridden on by without doing anything, this guy had stopped and taken action. He didn't bother with going home to get a broom. He bundled up an armload of willow switches from the grass nearby and fashioned a rudimentary broom that was doing a perfectly good job. I stopped to ask if he might be a worker for the city (this part of the path is the responsibility of the Municipality of Budakalász), and he said no, he was just a fisherman, and he wanted to get rid of the glass so that his fellow cyclists wouldn't blow their tires. I thanked him and rode on, reminded that sometimes community activism can be as simple as sweeping up.