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.