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.