Friday, September 25, 2009

Nagykörút Overdue for Bikeway

On a recent weekday, about six bikes passed on the Nagykörút for every 100 cars. And the hour-by-hour traffic pattern matched that of normal commuters, with morning and evening peaks and another spurt during lunch hour. These people aren't biking for fun or relaxation -- they're trying get somewhere.
These are a couple of conclusions of a 12-hour traffic count performed on a random weekday earlier this month by volunteers for the Hungarian Cyclists Club. The results support what many of us Budapest cyclists have long suspected -- that our numbers have grown into a significant part of daily traffic in downtown.
The count took place on Wednesday, Sept. 9. Counters set up at two stations on körút, one at Blaha Lujza tér which monitored traffic going in the direction of Nyugati station, the other at Oktogon monitoring traffic going the opposite direction. The counters worked in two-hour shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and tried to count all bikes, whether going on the road itself, the sidewalks or the 4-6 Tram tracks.

Then coordinator Virag Bence-Kovács, a staff engineer for the cycling club, compared the collected data with car counts made by automatic, magnetic sensors embedded in the tarmac. The cycling club's count did not consider traffic on foot or public transport.

Some might say six bikes for 100 cars doesn't sound like a lot. But when you consider that this is on one of the most car-congested, least bike-friendly streets in the city, it's a remarkable figure. The results broke down as follows: a third to half the cyclists were riding on the sidewalk (depending on direction), despite the hassles of getting stuck behind pedestrians and dodging between signposts. The rest were out amongst motor traffic, sucking fumes and picking their way between parked cars and moving ones. The number braving the 4-6 tram tracks turned out to not be a significant number, less than 1 percent.

Over the entire day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., 1,741 cyclists were counted on the körút. Why do they do it? Based on my own experience, I'd guess it's because the city provides no better alternative. Designated bike routes tend to be along out-of-the-way sidestreets and up on sidewalks, and they aren't worth bothering with.

Traffic planners argue it's not safe to put bike paths on main arteries such as the körút because it would put cyclists in danger's way. But the traffic count proves the futility of this approach. Even without a path or lane, thousands of cyclists risk life and limb on körút week in, week out.

So what if accommodation was given? You might assume it would just put MORE people in danger's way. But the studies show just the opposite: the more cyclists on the streets, the fewer accidents there are. The reason is that motorists can see groups of cyclists more easily than they can spot the odd, individual cyclist. It's also because when space is clearly demarcated for cyclists, all road users -- motorists, pedestrians and the cyclists themselves -- know where the boundaries are.

This month's traffic count provides important empirical support for an argument that the Hungarian Cyclists' Club and Critical Mass organisers are making with increasing urgency: Budapest needs bike lanes on the körút!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

People Talking about Us

Everyone likes to hear what other people think of them. A few dozen international students of urban design, transport planning and kindred disciplines were in Budapest during European Mobility Week for a field exercise that asked them to reconfigure some of the 7th and 8th districts into a more pleasant urban environment. A description of their project, along with a diary of how it unfolded, is here.

Among the participants was Anna from the Vienna-based blog Cycling is Good for You. I see she's already put up three posts on her Budapest experiences, including one on Tuesday's Critical Mass. She was impressed with that, less so with Bp's lame pedestrian underpasses.

The Copenhagen Cycling Chic blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen was also in town, presenting at the Kerekvaros conference at the Budapest Technical University and promoting a Danish cycling exhibition, Dreams on Wheels. As of this writing, he hadn't yet posted about his Bp experiences, but he wrote that he will when he gets a chance. I'm eager to see what he has to say.

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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cyclists to Encircle City Hall

It seems as if this is the year the gloves come off at Budapest Critical Mass. Having just been kicked in the teeth by City Hall over the Margit Bridge affair, organisers of the September 22 demonstration (English-language programme here) plan to kick things off by surrounding City Hall in a circle of chained-together bicycles, and then do the customary bike lift. It'll happen at 5:30 p.m., well after our weak-kneed city leaders have gone home for the night -- but I love the symbolism.

It'll be an excellent photo op. I'm hoping a few international journalists will be hand to cover the story, which is really about a local government abusing the largesse of the European Union. Sadly, it's one of many instances in which East European public officials are playing fast and loose with Cohesion Funds -- which mainly come from West European coffers. Decision makers in Brussels -- and elsewhere around in Europe -- have a right to hold the Budapest administration, as an EU grant recipient, to certain standards.

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Unlike the Earth Day Critical Mass in the spring, which is a celebratory, weekend parade for the whole family, the ride on Car Free Day is more of a hard-nosed, politically-pointed affair. It takes place during a weekday rush hour, and only parts of the route are cordoned off from other road users. For the most part, participants ride in traffic as they would during a normal evening commute. It's in the spirit of the original Critical Masses in San Francisco, which were spontaneously organised rides to show that cyclists are part of the traffic.

Naturally, participants are asked to remain civilised and adhere to traffic rules, according to well-kept Budapest tradition. (There will even be a chaperoned side ride for children, "Kidical Mass", also starting at 5:30.) That said, we want to make a big enough noise so that Budapest City Hall will finally come to its senses, and make good on its promises to local cyclists and its contractual agreements with the EU, and give the city its first proper cycling accomodation on a Danube bridge.