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.


anna said...

Though I have not seen a Critical Mass in Budapest before, I quite enjoyed last night. What I found particularly good was that cyclists obeyed the traffic rules, and that it was not just one big bulk moving trough the city but -- especially in the end -- different small subgroups. Of course, in the beginning it was quite slow and I didn't like the stop-and-go traffic. But that's probably just a side effect that will always happen in such events. All in all it was amazing to see such a huge crowd of cyclists in the city. Should be look like that every day ;-).

Anonymous said...

I couldn't be there at 6 PM but as my office is pretty close by, I started biking around Andrassi after 7 PM. I share your enthusiasm Greg, but here are few words of caution or even criticism (not to you, but all bikers and the movement) if you like. Last evening I got hit 3 times by biker, the last one was quite painful. Roughly, 80% of the bikers are probably well behaved, obeying the rules and so on. But there are always those who spoil it all, there are always some (and not just kids) who rush over a red light, bike all over the place and generally are a nuisance and danger to traffic. There are many. Much more than the car drivers to be honest, who, in my experience in the center of Budapest, are becoming more tolerant with bikers. The problem could be larger than I originally thought. Last night there were policemen on motorbikes blocking the bike-way on Octogon, checking for lamps and lights. Many bikers did not have any, so they have been asked/ordered to get off the bikes. Needless to say, all continued biking 10 meters later. But these are just 1st signs. Sooner or later police, and others, shall I say not-so-bike-friendly people and organizations, will be attacking us. And the easiest would be to use the examples from those people who are simply not obeying the rules and are behaving dangerously and arrogantly. I have no idea what could be done and most importantly by whom, but if I am among the critical mass organizers, I would think seriously about some preemptive strikes, e.g. awareness campaigns, mobilization of shame activities, etc. In their defense, they did have pretty string messages along those lines on their website. But how many see or read those. Or take them seriously.

GABOR said...

Excellent post, Greg, I certainly couldn't have described the feeling of it any better.

In response to the comment made by Anonymous, Critical Mass organizers are working very hard to raise awareness: not only about the benefits of cycling, but also about the importance of cyclists obeying the law. There are countless communication channels (i.e. the CM site, articles, blogs, forum sites, etc) where this issue has been brought up, but of course, we can never stop talking about it, as there are always people who like to "beat the system". However, I must disagree with your percentage estimate of well-behaved bikers. I think this figure is well above 80%, in fact I was very impressed and proud of how few bikers used the sidewalks last night, which in itself would not even have been illegal, it was just the organizers' request that we don't take space away from pedestrians. I understand that the freaks are much more visible, and therefore frustrating, but let's not forget the magnitude of the crowd. If 20% (or 4000 people) had disobeyed the law last night, things would have been a lot more chaotic.

Greg Spencer said...

Just to reply to Atanas's comments re: misbehaving cyclists. I often hear this, and I have the very same frustrations. But this has nothing to do with some imagined "cyclist temperament." Remember, cyclists are just regular people who happen to be on bikes -- on a different day, these same people might be pedestrians, tram passengers, or even motorists.

The problem you identify is really a symptom of Budapest's lack of proper cycling infrastructure: The bikeways that are provided are almost exclusively on sidestreets rather than mainstreets; they're on one side of the street, not on both; and they're on sidewalks rather than on the carriageway.

As such, they're inconvenient and of shoddy quality, creating a situation in which each individual cyclist must improvise his or her way around town, creating a chaotic sort of traffic.

When the city's transport policies give people on bikes the same respect and dignity they give to people in cars, you'll see that cyclists are actually no worse (or better, for that matter) than anyone else.

Atanas said...

Thanks for comments Gabor and Greg. I agree with most of what you wrote here and I am glad to see there is a lot of awareness activities that I am clearly not … well, aware of (sorry for the silly pun). Greg, you could be right that key problem is proper infrastructure. But let me disagree for a second with "normal people" (just like I still think the misbehaving % is much bigger than what Gabor is saying). There is something special and different about cycling. I remember the first time I visited my cousin in Berlin back in mid 90s. The first day we walked then the 2nd we decided to take two bikes. There was a new wave of happiness there. Cycling gives a certain (sensation of) freedom - the speed, the new high level you look at the world, the motions, the wind. It’s special and makes you feel free. Now I am going to write a PhD on freedom here, but it does come with ways of responsibilities, as it also holds countless temptations. I guess, what I am saying is that being on a bike is different than walking or taking the tram. To me at least, it is. Driving a car is also difference. But there lies the trick - car drivers (as driving is of an extremely high risk for health and life of others) are constantly being scrutinized (and rightly so). When I drive I would not even consider passing on a red light or drive without lights. When I bike, I do it at least once a day (I bike every day to work). Yes, I confess that, I do it. And I see bikers around me doing it all the time. I like very much Greg’s point though, which is new for me. Most likely the infrastructure is the main reason out there. There is proper infrastructure for cars, rules, respect, enough roads, paths, clarity. And bikers have to find their way around all the time. So they look for the easy ride. It goes both ways I guess.

Atanas said...

Oh, Gabor, one more thing. I am not blaming the CM people for anything. Far from it! I am deeply thankful for all they have done to mobilize this wave of people. My point was that when you get 40 000 people together supporting one cause, you become political - not in the classic sense, but you are a force and represent someone. As a result authorities and others start paying attention, and if you are a nuisance to someone (as I am sure we are) you become vulnerable to their strategies and counter-actions. I really think sooner or later police will start with some actions against bikers under the motto "Rules are for everybody". Checking for lights and signs; may be even for alcohol usage, fines, more fines, etc. It will come. And then, if their numbers (%) show huge disobeying majority, the CM real and truthful message could be lost in other fights.

Greg Spencer said...


We have to accept responsibility with freedoms, for sure. But the main priority of CM and the Magyar Kerekparosklub has to be attaining equal status for cyclists on the roads.

When cycling becomes more mainstream -- and not such a youthful subculture, as continues to be to a large extent -- irritating things like slalom racing amongst pedestrians and riding in the dark without a lamp -- will be properly stigmatised.

Atanas said...


No question there. Probably I was playing too much the "devil's advocate" role here.

All the best to all freedom fighters. I really mean it!