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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Popularity of Traffic Jams Tested

Budapest City Hall is considering the creation of artificial traffic jams as a way to test public reaction to a proposed expansion of cycling and walking space.

The proposal, which hirszero.hu says is the brainchild of Deputy Mayor Imre Ikvai-Szabó, is part of gambit to see how motorists might react if road space is given over to cycling and bus lanes on such major arteries as Kossuth Lajos utca, Üllôi út, Bajcszy-Zsilinszky út and Hegyalja út.

During the trial period from July 4 to August 2, the closed traffic lanes would be used for various purposes. On Kossuth Lajos utca, one lane would be closed down on both sides of the street, with the liberated space to be used for "walking and shopping." Somewhat perversely from an environmental point of view, the closed lanes on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, Üllôi út, and the lower rakpart on the Buda bank would be available for car parking.

From what I gather, the idea is probably well-intended. Imre Ikvai-Szabó is relatively new to politics but has been supportive of progressive causes, including the renovation of Nehru park near the Economics University and Vásárcsarnok. Ikvai-Szabó is apparently open-minded and solicitous of diverse views, which are laudable qualities.

However, his idea appears strategically flawed in that it introduces people to the negative aspects of the initiative while concealing its benefits. The above illustration shows how Kossuth Lajos utca would look with a widened sidewalk, some attractive new plantings and a new bike lane. But during the trial, none of these amenities will be in place. The cordoned-off traffic lane will be open for walking, but how many pedestrians will want to step off the sidewalk onto a hot strip of tarmac that merely puts them in closer range to passing traffic?

It's much harder to understand why the closed lanes on the other arteries will be opened for parking. The city is merely taking space from moving cars and giving them to stationary ones. If the ultimate aim is to expand space for environmentally friendly transport users, why not make the closed lanes available to buses and/or cyclists during the trial?

The likely result of this test seems all too predictable: Motorists will hate it because it will exacerbate congestion on roads that are already over-subscribed. Meanwhile, cyclists and public transport users who would benefit most from a progressive transport policy will see few benefits, and may even be provoked against the initiative by the expansion of street parking.

Testing motorists' tolerance for traffic jams strikes me as an astonishingly negative way of promoting environmentally friendly transport. Ikvai-Szabó cites the success of the shared-space concept on Raday utca as his inspiration for the calming of city thoroughfares. I can't remember any trial traffic jams before that project was carried out. The district simply did it -- and with time, residents warmed to it.

Bold action is needed again on the city's thoroughfares. Without it, these initiatives will forever be stuck on the shoals of the status quo.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Box Store Boxing Match

I was riding my bike into Szentendre the other morning and at the first big intersection, on Route 11 near the Városkapú retail complex, I see the sign on the left. This is a billboard extolling one of the as-yet unheralded miracles of the recently opened Megyeri bridge (the final link of the M0 motorway). Now that this multi-million euro bridge is in place, the sign implies, you, the lucky Szentendre/Budakalász motorist, have at your fingertips all the exotic delights of the Újpalota Polus shopping centre. Imagine that! Before, you had to drive south all the way to Árpád híd, cross the river, and then brave the untamed wilds of Újpest before you'd get even close to this shopping paradise. Now, it's right across the bridge!

But not exactly. Looking at Google Maps, it appears the Újpalota Polus centre is still 17-18 kilometres from the billboard, as compared to the previous haul of 23. Not a big shortcut, really. And if you try this drive during evening rush hour, when everyone else is doing the same, these are going to be 17-18 LONG kilometres. Believe me: the Megyeri crossing has become hugely popular with commuters. The bridge on-ramp near the bike path just north of Békásmegyer is one of my favourite places to do a holier-than-thou cycling fly-by. On a typical evening riding home, I'll whizz past 50 stationary cars, all queued up to get on the bridge -- presumably so they can go get a taste of that special Tetra Pak® milk from the Újpalota Polus shopping centre.

Anyway, I thought this sign was a perfect emblem of the rampant idiocy that drives car culture. And then I noticed the other sign, just 10 metres from the first: a spray-painted rejoinder from Cora reminding people that CORA is on the same side of the river, right down Route 11 a measly 2 kilometres away! I love the apoplectic exclamation marks: We're right here you STOOPID drivers!! Same crap!! Two kilometres away!!

Touché, Cora. But what I can't figure out is why a multi-national hypermarket like Cora would be advertising with spraypaint. Wierd, no?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bridging the Bike Ban

Living close to Margit bridge, we have always taken maximum advantage of the weekend bike lane that gives special two-wheel access to the island during summer. The photo (which I pinched from an unwitting fellow blogger) shows how it works: the outside lane on the north side of the bridge, the side with the entrance to the island, is cordoned off and made into a two-way bike path.

Well -- it's not going to happen this year, according to a report in kerekagy.blog.hu. The reason, according to City Hall spokeswoman Dorottya Czuk, is that the long-anticipated renovation of the bridge will start at a yet-to-be-announced date in July and ... actually, I didn't get this part. They, therefore, just don't want to bother with it? We've got at least two months to go, right?

Anyway, it's too bad, because it really did serve a nice function, easing the heavy weekend flow of pedestrian and bike traffic to Margit Island, and keeping the two groups from fighting each other over the narrow strip of sidewalk that they normally have to share.

But the absence of the weekend bike lane is just for starters: bike traffic won't be permitted at all during the bridge renovation project, and who knows how long that will take. Only tram traffic will be permitted (no cars, either), and the bike lane won't open until sometime next year at the earliest.

I use Margit bridge a lot, so it'll be a long renovation for me. It's my prediction that some cyclists will buck the rule by crossing the bridge on the tram tracks. Whether this will become common practice will depend on enforcement, of course. I'm kind-of against riding on tram tracks as it always looks like a gruesome accident waiting to happen. However, with my nearest video shop and favourite bike service being right across the river from our flat, this closure may bring out the daredevil in me.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

(Backhanded) praise for cycling improvement

On one of Buda's main bike routes, a connecting path between the Danube korzó and Mammut shopping center, street improvements are underway that actually reflect some sensitivity towards cyclists. From Mammut, the route runs along Varsányi Irén utca, across Fazekas utca, down Kacsa utca to Bem rakpart.

The work is mainly a cosmetic improvement involving the creation of red-brick intersections. In the course of the project, the road crew has significantly smoothed out the bumpy transitions between bike path, rain gutter and street. The project isn't quite finished, but when it's done, it should make for a smoother ride, as well as a much more attractive street.

In addition, at the entrance to the path across the körút from Mammut, they've added a strip of tarmac that basically follows the informal, dirt path that cyclists had made across a disused, awkwardly sited flowerbed. The bed was simply in the way, and the new strip of paving rectifies this problem.

Although I'm pleased about the improvements, I have to say the path remains fundamentally flawed. It's a perfect example of Budapest's generally backwards approach of putting bike paths on sidewalks. It's a single track on just one side of the street -- too narrow for two lanes of bike traffic and too wide not to interfere with pedestrians.

The obvious thing to do on a lightly trafficked side street like Varsányi Irén utca would be to designate it a maximum 30 km/hr zone and make the street shared space, where cyclists could mix with motorists with no need for separated lanes. It works quite well in other cities in Europe, including Paris.