Friday, December 31, 2010

Bloggers under fire

So as of tomorrow, according to Hungary's Putin-esque new media law, some 250,000 bloggers in Hungary will be required to register themselves with the authorities.

The new law, the last bit of which was signed into law this past week, is a clamp down on freedom of independent speech by a right-wing government that has a better than two-thirds majority in Parliament. As a critical editorial in the Washington Post explains, the law:

"creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines - up to $950,000 - for news coverage it considers "unbalanced" or offensive to "human dignity."

It will also require bloggers and websites to be officially registered. I'm not sure what will be the repercussions of this part of the law. For instance, will bloggers who offend the government risk having their registrations revoked? Even if they aren't, the law stands to create a climate of self-censorship among those who should be speaking truth to power, as underscored by the OSCE.

As far as I can tell, this won't affect me, as it takes specific aim at electronic publishers in Hungarian language. I may write about Hungarian matters, but mainly in English language, which I reckon gets me off the hook. To be honest, it kind of feels like a snub, although I don't take it personally. It seems the government doesn't care much about the English language media or criticism from abroad. At any rate, with the law coming into effect on January 1, we'll soon see what sort of government oppression I'll be missing out on.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

100,000 and counting


Barely four months after its installation, Hungary's first automatic bicycle counter hit the 100,000 mark.

As noted on the Kerekagy blog, the 100,000th cyclist who passed through was a perfect representative of today's cycling culture in Budapest: not a recreational cyclist out for a weekend spin, nor a road-biker on a training ride, but rather an everyday commuter. And, as the video makes clear, not a fair-weather one either, as this fellow was riding on in torrential rain after dark in the thick of evening rush hour.

According to Kerekagy, he was the 320th cyclist for the day. That's down from the average daily counts recorded at the end of summer (about 900/day during the workweek), but it might strike some as high for a mid-November day in worse-than-normal conditions.

The data captured by this EUR 5,000 counter is providing valuable empirical evidence of what local cyclists have known for years: biking is an important part of Budapest's transport system. Let's hope these results make an impression on the city's new administration.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Strained relations

Szolgáltok, mi meg félünk

Traffic cops handed out a total of HUF 839,000 (EUR 3,000) in on-the-spot fines to 110 participants in Wednesday's Critical Mass demonstration, according to the Budapest Police.

Police were out in force during the event, most of them stationed in small teams at intersections and flagging over cyclists for checks and interrogations. According to the police, most of the citations were given for running red lights and for riding on tram tracks.

In various news reports, organisers agreed that although many of the citations were probably deserved, they also had heard of reports of cyclists being hassled for not wearing reflective vests, which would be a misapplication of the law (reflective vests are required only for night-time riding on rural roads).

And considering the five-year record of very good cooperation between the city officials and Critical Mass organisers, it struck many as a disheartening change of tone.

----

It's probably entirely unrelated, but I was interested to see that Hungarian Cyclists' Club János László was a participant in a separate demonstration just before Critical Mass but involving the same organisers -- leaders of the Hajtas Pajtas bike courier company.

This protest, which was filmed and posted here, concerned City Hall's use of a prime patch of 5th District property as their own personal parking lot. The property, big enough to accommodate two football pitches, sits between City Hall and the kiskörút and north of the Merlin Theatre. With its location in the dead centre of town, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the most expensive vacant lot in Hungary.

The area was once home to a row of shabby looking one-story shops and taverns. These were razed, opening up a vast lot from the kiskörút to City Hall. A couple years ago, a narrow strip along the kiskörút was turned in to a "temporary" park while the rest was sealed from the public with a three-metre fence and put at the mayor's disposal as free parking. (Street parking fees in the neighbourhood run more than HUF 400 per hour.)

The protesters' simple action involved jumping the fence and taking over the property for a short while to blow bubbles, skip rope, throw frisbees, and lay on the grass. They brandished a sign reading "Parkoló" with the "oló" crossed out. (In English "parking lot" with the "...ing lot" crossed out.)

They're right, of course. Downtown suffers from a terrible shortage of parks, which is part of the reason the newish public space at nearby Erzsébet tér got run down so quickly. The demand for open space in downtown greatly exceeds supply. (The other reason is that it was cheaply built, but that's another story.)

Anyway, the protesters made a pertinent point in a funny, clever way -- which seems to be their forté. But I was a little surprised to see János there considering the cycling club he leads gets a good part of its operating budget from City Hall. Biting the hand that feeds, I would have thought.

Then again, with Mayor Demszky out of contention in this season's election and his Free Democrats party in shreds, I suppose this is just one more sign of a closing chapter of city politics.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Biking Bloc

This year's free-jazz approach to Critical Mass seemed to produce more harmony than discord as far as I could tell. And participation was once again huge, at least 10,000 according to the report by Hungarian wire service MTI. Certainly, Érzsébet tér was swamped with cyclists for the closing bike lift at 8 p.m.

My advance post on the ride was called "Critical Chaos," but this was not descriptive of the event as it happened. Despite having no fixed starting point, and only a crude script calling for people to ride on the Pest side of the Nagykörút starting at 6:30 p.m., most participants rode in an orderly fashion on schedule. There seemed to be heavy bike traffic in both directions over most of the length of the route.

From my limited vantage point, it appeared that the traffic going from Margit bridge to Oktogon was heaviest. The entire curbside lane was packed with cyclists and at some points, we even spilled into the second lane. On any other day, I wouldn't think of taking my 5-year-old boy on the körút. The traffic there is as fast and aggressive as it gets in Budapest. However, Critical Mass offers safety in numbers, so Lance accompanied me on my bike's luggage rack the whole way. Mind you, he has no patience for Critical Mass. To him, this is an event that looks from a distance like a festival, but then upon arrival you see it has no rides or toys. I explain to him that it's a political thing. Lance thinks it's BORING.

Despite the usual civility of the crowd and the effectiveness of the volunteer traffic directors, there were tonnes of police this year. MTI noted that there were police checks at at least 10 intersections and that they were handing out fines as high as HUF 15,000 for not having lights and/or spoke reflectors. Hungarian Cyclists' Club János László lamented a lapse in the traditional good cooperation between organisers and police.

Near Oktogon, I noticed a group of cops questioning some kids on trials bikes -- and I could see that main organiser Gábor Kürti had stopped to mediate. Further on, I observed a group of cops at Blaha Lujza tér stopping cyclists seemingly at random. I don't know if the guy below was guilty of anything, but the cops let him go after a couple minutes of interrogation.

I reckon the city would be remiss if it didn't exert some official control on a demonstration that routinely attracts tens of thousands of people. At any rate, I didn't see any acts of violence by either the cops or participants.

A little while later, we came across Justin Hyatt -- a member of the Young Greens (Zöfi) and a stalwart of the livable-cities movement. He and a fellow activist were in bunny outfits, which provided some welcome comic relief for Lance. They handed me a flier with this URL: www.placcc.hu. More political stuff, apparently, although I didn't tell Lance.

It was getting late so we turned off the körút and headed down Rákóczi út (maybe the only street downtown scarier than the körút) and eventually found our way to the closing bike lift at the Gödör klub. A couple guys with a three-wheel bike taxi emblazoned with a sign saying "Put some fun between your legs!" had some balloons. This salvaged the evening for Lance. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and Kristin had come with our 4-month-old daughter Sequoia (by stroller, not bike). This was Sequoia's first extra-utero (?) Critical Mass. She did the last one in utero.

Kristin didn't have a bike for the bike lift so she lifted Lance. It's hard to make out, but Lance is spread-eagled here, with one leg above Kristin and the other below. Reminds me of body-surfing photos from my grungy heyday back in Seattle.
After that, the family went home and I hung on to catch the start of the most overtly political part of the evening: mayoral candidates for the fall election were invited for a cycling-focused Q&A -- broadcast on a big screen facing the Gödör's terrace. Apparently, every party sent their candidate except for the odds-on favourite, Fidesz. That candidate, István Tarlos, is apparently confident enough of that he'll win that he didn't bother with a cycling rally of 10,000 people.

Along with the other major party candidates, the LMP's candidate Benedek Jávor was on hand. The kerékagy blog did a run-down of all the parties' cycling platforms and LMP's stood out as the most elaborate and thoughtful.

I don't know about the Socialists' cycling platform but their candidate, Csaba Horváth (below), was at Gödör giving press interviews ahead of the Q&A event. (He didn't take part in the Q&A-- see comments!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Heavy traffic on Little Ring Road

The first results are in from the bicycle counter installed this summer on the kiskörút (Little Ring Road). It shows that the not-quite-year-old lanes already carry loads of bike traffic. On busy days, the northbound lane carried as many as 1,500 cyclists. On average, there's as much bike traffic there as on a similar street in Vienna.

The counter, installed above the north-bound bike path in front of the National Museum, was christened on July 2. There have been some teething problems with the system -- a week's worth of data was lost earlier this month -- but by now enough data's been collected to give a basic picture of traffic patterns on this principle downtown bike route.

The key numbers (as showing on the Hungarian Cyclists' Club website):
  • average number of passing cyclists per workday: 981
  • average number per weekend day: 479
  • average hourly traffic during evening rush hour: 75
  • Maximum daily traffic: 1,507
  • Maximum cyclists per hour: 155
Along with this data, a spot check by human counters showed that the cyclists riding on the lane were just 85 percent of the total bike traffic. About 10 percent of cyclists ride on the sidewalk and the remaining 5 percent ride on the tram tracks. From this, we can deduce that the total average for northbound bike traffic on weekdays was about 1,150. And maybe a similar number going the other direction.

There are a couple things worth remarking on here. First, the fact that there are twice as many cyclists on weekdays as on weekends shows you that downtown bike traffic is mainly about commuting. The majority of cyclists aren't just goofing around (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- they're people going to work and school, running errands, going shopping, getting kids to daycare. This is the basic kind of circulation that keeps the city and its economy alive. City Hall should support it as such.

In regard to the scale of the traffic, it's hard to say anything without some benchmarks. These are the first official bike traffic counts ever made on the kiskörút, so although it's a safe bet the numbers are up substantially from before the lanes were created, we don't have the data to prove this.

One interesting comparison, though, is that the average daily traffic for this period is approximately the same as the traffic at a comparable spot in downtown Vienna: in front of city's West Train Station. And Vienna has six times as big a cycling network. The Austrian capital's also long been regarded by cycling advocates here in Budapest as a model to follow and emulate. It would be really something if Budapest cycling levels are already on par with those in the supposedly more advanced city.

But we can't conclude much yet. Not with a couple months of data from one counter. The value of this data stream will grow with time, as the numbers come in and year-to-year trends emerge. And hopefully, several more counters will be installed in various locations around the city (as in Vienna and many other cities). This would give a more complete picture of cycling in the city: where the greatest need is, what type of cycling infrastructure attracts more cyclists, how to get the most out of infrastructure investments.

With this data in hand, cyclists -- as well as our allies in city leadership -- will have a firmer basis on which to make our requests.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hooray for BuBi!

A name's been chosen for Budapest's new bike-sharing system: BuBi.

The name, pronounced the same as the English slang for a woman's breast (booby), was chosen from among 3,727 email submissions in a contest arranged by the system's designated operator, Parking kft.

As explained in the kerekagy blog, a shortlist of five names was picked by a seven-member jury and these were put to an Internet vote. "BuBi" won the most votes (9,632) followed by "bico" (9,515), "kerékbár" (7,351), "cimbike" (6,051), "bérbi" (5,854).

I'd done an earlier post about the name-giving contest, and I spent quite some time sifting through the enormous Excel sheet of submissions trying to spot names worth remarking on. From among all those names, BuBi stood out -- at least to me -- as one of the more humorous suggestions. I also quite liked "Hop on Me" and "BooDbike". Funny suggestions -- on par with the bad English translations you find in Chinese Restaurant menus sometimes.

Of course, to Hungarian ears, "BuBi" doesn't sound ridiculous. One of my Hungarian colleagues said it sounded "cute," reminding her of the slang for bubbly: "bubis" which is short for "buborékos". Another co-worker said that the word bubi was used back in the 60s-70s to denote the beehive hairdo.

A reader of my first column seemed quite annoyed at my Anglophone take on things. He (or she -- it was an anonymous comment) made the point that I had no right to argue for a "meaningless English name" and then concluded: "Cycling is LOCAL! Therefore the bike sharing system should have a HUNGARIAN name!"

All that is fair enough, of course. But please also respect my need -- as a native of the English-speaking world -- to snicker at the utterance of "BuBi". It may be ethnocentric and juvenile of me but, in my defense, I relate the following: a few years back, my wife went to the local consulate of the country known internationally, since 1984, as Burkina Faso. And when she asked about visa requirements to the country, the Hungarian clerk winced at the mention of the correct name, and told her that in Hungary, they still use the old, French colonial name "Felső Volta" (Upper Volta). The reason: Because, as it occurred to my wife later, the name Burkina Faso, sounds to Hungarian ears something like: "Leather Chinese Dick".

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Critical chaos

It's that time of year again: autumn Critical Mass is scheduled Wednesday Sept. 22. As per usual for the European Car Free Day event, it will take place during rush hour, 6:30-7:30 p.m., and there won't be any street cordons or police escorts to isolate us from traffic. We'll be in the thick of the evening commute, in keeping with the spirit of the original Critical Mass ("We're not blocking the traffic, we are the traffic.").

However, there's a new twist: There will be no starting point or opening bike lift to kick things off. Rather, we're just asked to go on the Nagy k
őrút between Jászai Mari tér and the Buda side of Petőfi híd, riding on the Pest side from the first point to the other, or the other to the first. To and fro or fro and to, whatever direction suits your fancy. In fact, the organisers don't care if you start later than 6:30 p.m. The only fixed thing about the ride is that there will be a closing bike lift at Érzsebet tér at 8 p.m. followed by an after-ride event at the Gödör klub, where candidates in this fall's municipal elections will have the opportunity to present their plans to develop urban cycling. (See the English-language press release).

According to organisers, there are a few reasons for the free-form approach. For one, even when opening bike lifts are scheduled, many participants skip it and just show up for the finish -- people have been tending to do their own thing, anyway. Secondly, a formal, organised procession somewhat undermines the emphasis of the autumn Critical Mass, which is to integrate cyclists into normal traffic. But the number-one reason is that organisers have been lobbying several years for dedicated bicycle accommodation on the
kőrút. This year they want to stress the point by massing bicyclists all over this key artery, on both sides in both directions.

The ride announcement at criticalmass.hu sounds a note of exasperation about City Hall's inaction on the
kőrút. "Unfortunately the decision is not in our hands, but rather in those of our elected officials."

It's unfortunate, indeed. One of the most impressive, as well as maddening, things about the Budapest cycling scene is how popular and strong it's become with so little help from City Hall.

When Critical Mass kicked off in 2004 with a debut turnout of 4,000 riders, Mayor Demszky rebuffed participants by saying, "Budapest will be no Amsterdam." In the years since, City Hall has thrown us an occasional bone — the on-street bike racks in downtown,
for example — but the general quality of cycling facilities in Budapest remains poor. Very few arterials have any cycling facilities at all, and where they do exist, they're cheap solutions. Painted lines on sidewalks or painted lanes on roads remain the norm. Cycle tracks, a type of separated infrastructure that's a mainstay in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Malmö and other leading cycling cities don't exist at all in Budapest.

And the situation today is different. Back in 2004, Mayor Demszky complained that the city had lots of bike paths but no bikers. Today, it's just the opposite. There are loads of cyclists and comparatively little decent infrastructure. The call for better cycling conditions is no longer just about spurring interest in cycling, it's about serving existing and unmet demand. It's become a major public safety issue.

Budapest seems to be in a peculiar situation regarding city cycling. In other cities undergoing an urban cycling renaissance, the support of political leadership has been key. This has been true in Berlin, Paris, London, Lyon and Barcelona to name a few examples. Here, the cycling movement plows ahead while politicians remain stuck in an outmoded, car-first mentality. It's baffling to me that we don't have a viable mayoral candidate who makes sustainable mobility the cornerstone of their campaigns -- like Ken Livingston in London, Bertrand Delanoe in Paris or Michael Bloomberg in New York. Candidates who will make cycling, traffic calming, public transport and all the rest their top priorities. Who knows, though? Maybe a worthy cycling champion will emerge September 22 at the Gödör.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Taking Names

The would-be operator of Budapest's planned bike-sharing scheme, due to launch next summer, has posted an open invitation to give the system a catchy name.

Having posted the invite early last month, Parking kft., a wholly owned subsidiary of the city administration, has already collected more than 2,300 suggestions, available on a downloadable Excel sheet. At present, the default name is "KKKR," the Hungarian acronym for Bicycle Public Transport System. Definitely not as cute or as catchy as some of the existing bike-sharing names around the world: Vélib (Paris), DecoBike (Miami Beach) Nice Ride (Minneapolis) or Ecobici (Mexico City).

Not surprisingly, the great majority of submitted proposals involve a wordplay in the Hungarian language. That's fair enough. However, because Hungarian is such an oddball language, many of these names will go over the heads of non-Hungarian speakers, who will presumably constitute a small but important share of the system's target market. Even worse, some of the names would give non-Hungarians a misleading idea of what they refer to.

In the first category would be suggestions such as "Kerékváros," an amalgam of one of the many words for bicycle (kerékpár) and the word for city (város). It's good wordplay and descriptive of the system, but if you don't have specific knowledge of the magyar tongue, you won't get it.

Under the latter category of potentially misleading names are a few amusing examples. For instance, more than a couple sound -- at least to my American ears -- like names for a strip club or gay bikers' bar:
  • BuBi
  • Hop on me
  • BooDbike
Then there's a surprisingly large number that suggest some sort of niche head shop targetting dreadlocked bike couriers:
  • rollbud
  • joint bike
  • Overdose Bike (probably not one of the top contenders ...)
And there are these odds and ends:
  • BikeKV -- I assume this is an allusion to Budapest Public Transport Co, popularly known by its Hungarian acronym "BKV." The problem with this is that the BKV, particularly at this point in time, is so widely loathed by the public that the connection would do much more harm than good. During the last two years, BKV became widely known as a hotbed of financial corruption, so much so that a public prosecutor litigating a case against one of the key perpetrators called it an "organised criminal enterprise."
  • PubBike -- When I first saw this, I automatically assumed it was a simple combination of "pub" and "bike," meaning an ideal mode of transport for the pub crawler who doesn't want to risk a citation for drunk driving. On further consideration, I can see that it's more likely a shortening of "public bike." My initial interpretation probably says more about me than the person who submitted the idea.
  • Nyeregbe magyar! -- In the current political climate, there had to be a few jingoisitic submissions. Literally it means (something like), "Into the saddle, Hungarian!" It's a play on the first words of the revolutionary National Poem by Sándor Petöfi. "Talpra Magyar ..." ("On your feet, Hungarian ...").
In my opinion, the better suggestions are those that use wordplay that works in multiple languages. A few that fit the bill, more are less, include:
  • BiciPest
  • VeloPest
  • BiCity
  • BikeBud (this one could be understood as "Bike Budapest" or "Bike Friend")
  • FreeCikli
Anyway, the invitation is still open. If you want to give your two cents, send it by email to adjnevet@parking.hu.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cycling rocks!

If you're planning on seeing Iron Maiden at the Sziget Festival Saturday, you might consider heading out early to catch the world's first bicycle-powered rock tour.

A collection of musical acts from San Francisco have banded together for a European tour that's entirely human powered. Riding under the banner "The Pleasant Revolution Bicycle Music Festival," they transport themselves, their gear and their stuff by bicycle. They even bring their own sound system -- a special, energy-efficient digitally programmed one that runs on pedal-powered dynamos.

As the tour website explains:
More than a bike tour or music festival, this is a new movement for an evolving culture of transportation cycling, renewable power, and greener music/community events.
According to site, at least five different acts are involved, ranging from folk funk ensembles to classic singer/songwriters to a guy called CelloJoe. One or more of these is scheduled to perform at 5 p.m. at the Sziget's Civil Jatszótér stage. For audience participation, you can get on one of their exercycles and help juice the amplifiers.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Patchy Job

On Wednesday, a work crew from Magyar Közút Zrt. did some remedial repairs to the worst section of the Szentendre bike path -- between Szentendre and Omszki Lake. It wasn't what you'd call a comprehensive job, but they did manage to iron out about 10 of the most egregious cracks and heaves.

As a result, I could ride a bit faster than usual on my evening commute, but because the path is in such a thoroughly bad state of repair, I still had to keep a sharp eye on the ground at all times to avoid a crack up. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera, so I can't show you the patch jobs. As patches go, they're fine. Everything in between the patches remains a disaster.

This bike path has been the bane of my bike-riding existence since I started riding on it almost daily when I took a job in Szentendre in 20o2. Running along the west shoulder of Route 11 from Békasmegyer to Szentendre, it was completed circa 1988, making it the second oldest bike path in the Budapest metro area (only the one along Kerepesi út is older, I'm told).

According to standard practice, it wasn't built well in first place, with little to no gravel bed. Even when I started riding on it eight years ago, it was in horrible shape, with grass and weeds thrusting up from gaping cracks and the slabs of pavement in between buckling up and presenting a hazard to life and limb (and rim) every few metres.

On the southern end, the path is in OK shape, but it gets worse and worse as you ride north. The part north of Omszki Lake (a representative segment is shown in this photo -- taken in 2001!) is in a scandalous state. My previous bike was a hybrid/trekking style Merida and I went through three back wheels and like number of axles in just three seasons because of this section. My wheel problems ended only after I switched to a slower, more rugged nobbley-tired mountain bike.

Not to say I don't appreciate yesterday's patch job. But to smooth out the whole path, you'd have to patch the whole thing, which is to say -- it needs to be resurfaced. A proper resurfacing every quarter century shouldn't be too much to ask.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Wheel Has Hole

If you're a bike-riding foreigner in Hungary, you'll have noticed shortcomings of beginner Hungarian classes. You learn how to say you like it here ("I feel myself well in Hungary!") and how to complain about hot weather ("I have lots of heat!"). But you never learn the basic vocabulary of bicycle maintenance.

A new publication, the second edition of the European Cycling Lexicon, could help. Published by the European Cyclists Federation, it contains illustrations of 60 pieces of cycling paraphernalia and parts, together with the common referents for each item in 27 languages, including Hungarian.

It could be useful even for those with a decent command of Hungarian but who may not know the specialised taxonomy of bicycle repair. Or for cyclists who've had some experience with local bike shops, but who would find themselves at a loss for words when confronted with a loose "crank" (hajtókar) or a noisy "internally geared hub" (agyváltó).

In addition to being a useful cycling dictionary for your day-to-day needs in Hungary, the book is something you might want to pack on your next tour abroad. In fact, with words and phrases for all European languages plus Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, this is really its intended purpose.

Along with the lexicon on bike parts, there's a section called "on tour" with translations for terms like "bike shop," "bicycle ticket for a train," and "bicycle route map." A section of useful phrases has translations for queries such as "Is this road hilly?" and "Where are the nearest accommodations?"

Friday, July 16, 2010

Greenway Bonanza

A vast network of recreational greenways could be opened in Hungary, and the trail-breaking has already been done.

This network would be built along main roads, lake shores and riverbanks -- and could take advantage of two vast untapped resources -- some 4,200 kilometres of flood-prevention banks and another 3,700 kilometres of disused rail lines. Such a trail system, for cyclists as well as hikers, would be a third the length of Hungary's road system.

The proposal to exploit these existing corridors was presented at the Fábos Conference on Landscape and Greenway Planning, jointly organised earlier this month in Budapest by Corvinus University and University of Massachusetts.

The idea is a the brainchild of Corvinus Landscape Architecture Professor Attilla Csemez. In a keynote speech at the Budapest conference he noted:
The disused rail lines and flood protection banks constitute an outstanding resource for Hungary’s greenway network, because
  • they are already in state ownership (state railways or water management authorities),
  • they are suited for immediate development,
  • they connect destinations that are of great significance to tourism, and
  • they cover the most diverse and far-reaching points of the country.
As Csemez notes, the 4,200 km of dykes are a huge resource in themselves. By comparison, the Netherlands has just 1,500 km of linear dykes while the Po River Valley has 1,400 km and the Loire 480 km.

Unsurprisingly, Hungary's horde of disused rail lines has been steadily growing over the past 50 years, as a result of several factors. In just the past three years, 50 branch lines have closed down and there's no end in sight. Without doubt, this is regrettable from the point of view of sustainable transport.

However, one advantage of converting disused lines to greenways is that it maintains their integrity as transport corridors. That way, when society decides to revive its rail system at some time in the future, the right-of-ways will still exist.

The whole idea of "rails to trails" conversion works quite nicely in the United States, for example. Where I was raised in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, a huge network of recreational trails has been developed over the last 10-15 years, mainly on rail lines that once served the mining industry. With the mines closed, the lines are being converted to biking and hiking trails with the hope of reinvigorating local economies with tourism trade.

Greenway development could serve a similar purpose in distressed parts of Hungary. Many of the rail line closures since 1989 were the direct consequence of factory closures and attendant cessation of freight traffic. The proposed network of greenways would reanimate these dead transport lines and bring tourist traffic to scenic but economically hungry pockets of the country. This is an idea with many potential winners.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Path to Perdition

There's been another delay in what has to count as one of slowest road-work projects in Budapest history. The paving of the bike-pedestrian path on the upper Buda bank has been left half finished because of a hold-up involving a permit from a District I arborist.

The path (between Margit and the Chain bridges) was torn up 2-3 years ago for a project involving the reconstruction of the adjacent tracks for the 19 and 41 trams.

About a year ago, work on the track bed was completed, but the path was left unfinished. In fact, it was left in worse condition than before the work started. A trench had split the path up the middle for installation of utilities and, for reasons I never understood, the contractor didn't repave the path after the lines were laid. Instead, he did an improvised patch job with asfalt in some places and concrete in others. It was a shoddy job and made riding on the path dangerous, particularly for children or after dark. It was said to be temporary situation, but as I say, that was a year ago.

This spring, crews started in a proper resurfacing, but when they disappeared, the path -- amazingly -- was in worse shape yet. I took my first ride on it two weeks ago only to discover that the smooth new tarmac was interrupted, about every 20 metres or so, by 10-metre sections of dirt. The tarmac segments are about 6 cm higher than the dirt parts and the edges are abrupt -- sharp even. If you're not careful, you could easily dent a rim getting up from dirt to tarmac, which is why a lot of cyclists avoid the path altogether and ride instead on the tram tracks.

According to an article on Index.hu, the reason these sections have been left unpaved is because they have been designated as tree planting sites. And before the tarmac can be laid alongside a tree bed, a permit must be obtained from a tree expert at the District I local authority.

You would have thought these permits would have been sorted long ago. But they weren't, so the contractor was forced to go ahead and pave what he could with the intention of doing the rest once the permits are obtained.

Despite all this, the contractor has told Index.hu that he'll finish the bike path by the project's finishing deadline on July 31. However, it was not certain whether the permits will be in the offing that soon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Pathetic Bicyclist

Have you ever noticed how the bicycle is used as a signifier of male weakness, childishness, impotency and/or geekiness and nerdiness? I notice this all the time in movies, ads and other channels of pop culture. If I happen to be with my wife when I spot an example, I'll point it out to her, and she'll roll her eyes and make a joke to the effect that my sensitivity to this kind of stereotyping is itself evidence of geekiness and nerdiness (if not all the other mentioned attributes).

I'm just making an observation here, not protesting the stereotype. It's reflective of a popular cultural bias and an angry blog post could only serve to make it worse. I notice that most of the examples I spot are from the US and I know the grounds from which they spring. Among my cohorts, the bicycle was a popular way to get around from age 5 to early teens, and during this time, it was even be used as an emblem of masculinity. There was a lot of one-upmanship involved in doing jumps, wheelies and other stunts.

But by the time we boys approached 15 (old enough for a "learner's" driving permit in many states), cars had long usurped bicycles as a gauge of masculinity. The louder and faster the car, the bigger the man, seemed to be the consensus. When I think back to my old high school, I can't even remember there being a single bike rack outside -- although the size of the parking lot more than equaled the size of the school itself.

It's understandable why a boy of 15 would look at a car as a token of manliness. After all, it takes a mature, responsible person to drive a motor vehicle so getting a car and a license constituted a right of passage. It's less understandable, though, that many men, years after getting their licenses, continue to put such stock in cars as symbols of male virility. Or why they would look down their noses at a vehicle that could actually promote this attribute.

I say I notice these instances of cyclist stereotyping all the time but when I finally got around to doing a post on them, I could only remember a few of them. But you have to trust me: they're everywhere.

Ok, this first one is from the movie 40-Year-Old Virgin. It's a great example because the bicycle is used in the movie's opening credits as a major character-establishing device. It says, "I'm unassertive, socially awkward and lame with women."



The next one's from the Will Farrell movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It's the story of an American race car driver who has a stretch of bad luck and has to confront some demons in order to get back into the champion's circle. When the character hits rock bottom, he loses his driving license and resorts to riding a bike and -- in a double whammy against sustainable transport -- taking a public bus!




Here's a non-American entry -- from the comedic, musical duo Flight of the Conchords of New Zealand. In this one, the two singers are doing a send up of the bad-boy trappings of gangsta rap. The target of their white boy rap is a litany of middle-class irritants such as hidden banking fees. As a visual complement, the singers ride not in the usual low-rider Chevy Impalas and Ford Fairlanes but on bicycles. Nothing like a bicycle to mark you as a wimp.




Here's one from last year's Coen Brothers' movie Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt plays a clueless fitness instructor who gets in over his head when he discovers some misplaced government security documents and tries his hand at major league extortion. When he rides a bicycle to the appointed rendezvous, it serves to underscore his inexperience and ineptitude.



Finally, here's an example that I discovered while working on this post. It's a pastiche of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator and the '80s comic character Pee Wee Herman. Perhaps this served as the original archetype for the emasculated bicyclist.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Be Counted

An automatic cyclist counter has been installed along the new(ish) bike lane in front of the Hungarian National Museum -- and a launch event will take place this afternoon, 5-6 p.m., in the garden behind the building.

With the new counter, cycling advocates hope to collect data to support the further development of cycling infrastructure throughout the city. The cycling tracks on the kiskörút, along with similar ones on Thököly út, are pioneering in that they run along major traffic arteries, they occupy space formerly designated for cars and they're on both sides of the street so that the bike traffic on them can move with the flow of adjacent motor traffic.

In my opinion, they should be better separated from car traffic, for instance by having them on a higher grade alongside the sidewalk as they do in Berlin. In this way, motorists would be less likely to drive and park on them. I've noticed plenty of motorist abuse of the kiskörút lanes, particularly among the taxi drivers in front of the Murcure Korona hotel.

Despite this problem, it must be said that the lanes are well used. I just think they would be a lot MORE used, including by parents with kids on back (e.g. me), if there was another degree of separation between the lanes and the quite heavy motor traffic on this street.

That filibuster aside, these lanes are a big step forward for cycling infrastructure in Budapest and I fully support them as a good first step for cycling accommodation on major roads.

If you're interested in learning more about the issue, you should check out this evening's event, which has been titled "Show us how Many People are Cycling and What the Hungarian Cyclist Wants".

Cycling Counter Launch
Hungarian National Museum Garden
1088 Budapest, Múzeum krt. 14-16
5-6 p.m. July 2 (Friday)

The programme will include the creation of a video clip on the theme of the desires and wishes of the local cycling community, talks by the event host and Hungarian Cyclist Club President János László and the inauguration of the automatic counter. The first cyclists that pass by the counter will get a balloon as a gift.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ode to Public Spaces

What makes a public space work? Budapest has lots of small public squares and it's not always clear why one buzzes with human activity and the other serves as a neighbourhood dustbin.

A new book called Ten Spaces (Tíz Tér), published by Városháza Kiadó, examines 10 minor public squares in Budapest and what they contribute to their neighbourhoods. As author Kristin Faurest (full disclosure -- she's my wife!) writes:
The book is my own personal ode to ten neighborhood squares of Budapest. It's the result of many months of observing, watching, researching and contemplating what makes a small urban space work and they make our cities more beautiful, livable and vibrant places.
The 10 spaces in question are: Hunyadi tér, Mechwart Liget, Szent István Liget, Kós Károly, Teleki, Klauzál tér, Fő tér, Károlyi-kert, Ferenc and Mátyás.

What has this got to do with bicycling? Public squares serve as natural traffic calmers; they help freshen the air; they give us pleasant, easy-to-bike-to places for socialising and recreating; and they provide capacious inner-city places to park our bikes.

The official launch of Ten Spaces will be at the annual Book Week festival at Vörösmarty tér, June 4-8. On Saturday June 5 on "Book Night" Kristin will be dedicating copies of it from 8 p.m. to midnight.

The book has been published in separate language versions in English, German and Hungarian. You can get copies at the Libri online bookshop here, or at any one of Libri's ubiquitous brick-and-mortar stores (among other book shops).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Details on Budapest Bike Sharing

Plans for Budapest's planned bike-sharing scheme are getting more and more specific in the lead-up to next summer's launch. City Hall recently sent off a detailed proposal of the scheme to the European Commission as the next step in its bid for a subsidy. Here's how the scheme is shaping up:

The new system will include 1,000-1,100 bicycles and cover the most densely built-up central part of the city, roughtly bordered by the Nagykorut and flat parts of Buda near the river. The service area will encompass about seven square kilometers, with 60 docking stations in Pest and 13 in Buda. Stations will be dispersed about every 300-400m, a density in line with global best practice.

The cost of the system has been more precisely estimated now: HUF 1.32 billion (EUR 5 million). Based on City Assembly decision on March 31, the system will be installed and managed by the city-owned company Parking Ltd., whose main responsibility is enforcing Budapest parking policy.

Each docking station will have on average 22 bikes and will be installed on road space now used for car parking or on sidewalks. Bicycles will be rented on a self-service basis with bank cards, credit cards, chip cards or mobile telephones. The system will run 24 hours a day, the first 30 minutes will be free-of-charge, and then there will be incremental charging. Testing will begin in June 2011.

A recent article on the system from the Hungarian News Agency is here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bilking the People for Bike Lanes

With deadly riots engulfing Greece and right-wing scapegoat artists stealing into parliaments in Hungary and elsewhere, the economic recession is a regular font of bad news. However, in Bulgaria, a glimmer of light has beamed through the clouds.

Government ministers, groping for ways to show they're doing their bit to achieve a 20% reduction in public spending, are foregoing four-wheeled transport. Some have pledged to take public transport. One, Finance Minister Simeon Djankov (pictured), said that he'll leave his government car in the garage and start commuting by bike.

Somewhat humorously, the most direct route between his home and office doesn't have a bike lane. And so he says he'll pull some strings to get one installed. Undeniably, this sounds like the exact sort of self-serving leadership that has contributed to Bulgaria's economic problems. But this is one instance when I'm happy to look the other way.

Thanks to reader Mike LaBelle for the link.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Authorities racking their brains over theft problem

A post yesterday in Kerékagy (Wheel hub) featured a shot of some P-shaped racks whose two companions had been stolen within a couple days of installation in District VI. The make of the racks, the mode of installation (with nothing but a shallow, single brick to moor them in place) mirrored precisely what I saw a week ago on Margit körút in District II. It defies belief.

The reporter for Kerékagy contacted district officials as well as the private company that installed the racks and confirmed that the latter would make the situation right, based on a guarantee in the service contract.

According to the blog, there's apparently also been some ill-advised siting of racks in District VI (behind bushes, in the way of pedestrians on Liszt tér, etc.). So the racks are not only easy to steal, but they're put in places that provoke people to steal them.

As far as I know, nothing's been done about the racks on our street. But miracles do happen. I'll take another look tomorrow ...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coping with Copenhagen


As soon as I glimpsed the headlines on the latest eruptions of the -- cut, paste -- Eyjafjallajokul volcano, the nightmares came flooding back. Just two weeks ago, clouds of ash from the same Icelandic vent had caught me in their callous grip -- and held me hostage for three horrifying days in -- shrill, staccato notes from Hitchcock's Psycho -- Scandinavia!!

As I indicated in my last post on the subject, I was on business in Malmö, Sweden, and got stuck there due to ash-induced air space closures. The degradations I endured in this barbaric northern outpost are difficult to recount. But for posterity's sake, I'll soldier on.

After spending an unplanned Saturday in Malmö frolicking around on a rented bike, I returned and monitored CNN and the Internet for news of the eruption. The vent would not relent! So on Sunday, I took the 20 minute train ride from Malmö under the Sound to Copenhagen, with plans to take a similar bike ride there.

I don't know why, but I was caught off guard by how quiet Copenhagen was on a Sunday. I'm familiar with the complete absence of Sunday commerce in Vienna, but somehow I thought Copenhagen, being in a country with the third largest population of atheists in the world, would take a less solemn view of the Lord's Day.

But my intuition was wrong. I arrived at Copenhagen Central Station around noon and followed the signs to a large bicycle rental on premises. An attendant was on hand but when I inquired about bikes, he said they were closing in 30 minutes. I asked about other possibilities for hiring a bike and he suggested I go to the Tourist Information Centre across the street. I did but it was closed for Sunday.

I had the addresses of a couple Copenhagen bike shops scribbled down, but judging from the virtual absence of downtown business activity, I decided these would probably be useless. My only hope was one of Copenhagen's public bicycles. When I mention "public bicycles" in my blog, I usually follow with the appositive "like the Vélib bikes in Paris". But Copenhagen's bikes are not like the ones in Paris. Rather, they are old, old-school bikes that run on a simple technology from the days before swipe cards were invented.

The way it works is that there are bikes chained to docking stations at various points in the city. You take a 20-kroner coin, insert it into a slot on the handle bars, thereby releasing the chain from the bike. It works exactly like a shopping trolley. When you're finished, you return the bike to a station, re-insert chain, and your 20-kroner coin pops back out. Brain-dead simple, no subscription fee, no procedure, no nothing. Only problem is, there are hardly any of these bikes anywhere. Reportedly, there are around 1,200 bikes in the system, but during my day riding all over Copenhagen, I saw about 6-7 public bikes. I have to assume a good many of them have disappeared into people's garages. A 20-kroner coin isn't much collateral to discourage theft.

That said, I DID spot a public bike in the vicinity of Central Station, and this was my salvation. I dropped into a convenience store, bought a lunch of pigs in a blanket and beer, and asked the cashier to give me some 20-kroner coins with the change. Bingo! I was on my way, and practically exultant that I'd managed to achieve my goal of riding a bike in Copenhagen despite the rigor mortis of the Sunday business culture.

The bike was heavy, a bit wobbly and had only one speed. In addition, it had hard, solid-rubber tires -- like the tires on a shopping trolley, come to think of it. It did not go fast, or maybe I did not go fast. As I peddled furiously down Copenhagen's wide bike lanes, I kept getting overtaken by women in high-heeled boots, often as they casually chirped away or tapped out text messages on mobile phones. I have to believe it was the bike.

Concerning the nattily dressed female cyclists, I was struck by just how commonplace they were. Most readers will probably be aware of the Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a blog focusing on photos of nattily dressed female cyclists in Copenhagen. These sorts of bike riders are not common in Budapest, but in Copenhagen, they're everywhere. Like pigeons in St. Mark's Square although more pleasant. But the guy who does that blog -- it can't be hard work. At least the picture-taking part. Especially with the quality of that northern light. It's a fantastic city for outdoor photography. Unfortunately, my camera was out of batteries.

So much has been written about Copenhagen's brilliant cycling scene that I balked at adding more. But one thing stuck me that I just can't get over. I remember experiencing the same in Amsterdam, but it's so counter to my day-to-day experience here in Budapest that I all but forgot it by the time I visited Copenhagen. It's the habit of car drivers who, when preparing to make a right turn, will stop and look to their right to make sure they're not cutting off cyclists riding along the curb.

When I first saw a car ahead of me signal to turn right, I slowed down and prepared for it to cut in front of me. But it didn't. It waited for me to pass. During the whole day of riding, not a single motorist cut me off with a right turn. It seemed weird at first, but after awhile, I adjusted to this deferential habit of Copenhagen drivers and I kept my momentum right through every intersection, despite motorists hanging fire off to the left with their right turn signals blinking. As a cyclist who at least once a week dodges a "right hook," this experience in Copenhagen left me thinking, "Now this is civilisation."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Copenhagen Cycling Sheiks

Like a heedless cabal of eco-warrior chieftains, local authorities in Copenhagen are turning car lanes to bike lanes all over the city -- sometimes in the middle of the night when no one's looking.

A Danish acquaintance who lived a few years in Budapest and returned to Copenhagen this last year, writes:

Attached is from our hood this morning, without debate or warning they just steal (another) 90 centimeters from the cars and give them to the cycles.
Goddamn eco-freaks!


Although it sounds like he's taking it with a sense of humour, there's unmistakable vitriol there. I can only guess that his Budapest years left him with an exaggerated sense of car-owner's entitlement (virtually free street parking for all home owners, thank you Mr. Demszky!). And now that he's back in a city with sensible transport policies, he's suffering from reverse culture shock.





Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fair-Weathered Fun

What a great Critical Mass! Some 35,000 people turned out, according to the news site Index.hu. The figure was given by organisers, and there's no independent verification that I know of, but my impression was that it was, indeed, a better turn out than last year's 30,000. The lawn at the closing bike lift behind Petöfi Csarnok was noticably more packed.

The weather must have been the reason. After a week of chilly days (highs just above 10º C), today was absolutely gorgeous with the sweet smell of spring blossoms in the air. It was a day when you couldn't not be outside. And with the whole of downtown Pest and the Taban in Buda closed down for Critical Mass, a lot of people probably thought if you can't beat them, join them.

I saw tons of little kids out this year (the photo on this post, by the way, was taken from hoszi at flickr.com). Babies in child's seats and kids from age 3 or 4 on their own bikes. They made me envious that I didn't have my 5-year-old Lance along. For the last two or three years, he's accompanied me on the Earth Day Critical Mass in the child's seat. By now, he's doing great on his own bike and I know he would have have completed the route with ease. But alas, he was invited to a best buddy's birthday party, and I'm afraid his sense of cycling righteousness isn't as strong as his love for cake and games.

My wife Kristin was a trooper, though. Despite being 8 months pregnant and not really able to ride a bike at this point, she headed out on foot from our flat on the Buda end of Margit Bridge and walked 45 minutes to City Park for the closing bike lift. Her commitment to the cause was an inspiration. And, of course, her attendance meant that our unborn daughter was also on hand. In fact, this will have been her second in utero Critical Mass. There's no indoctrination like pre-natal indoctrination, I say.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Critical Mass Saturday 3 p.m.!

In case anyone hasn't heard, the annual Critical Mass Earth Day ride begins tomorrow at 3 p.m. I would have posted on it earlier, but I was stuck in volcanic limbo all last week. It kind-of snuck up on me -- along with a hundred other things.

Everything you need to know about it is posted in English here. Thanks to Gábor Bihari for making this info available to the Magyar challenged.

The theme of this year's ride, in keeping with the ongoing Parliamentary elections, is to Vote for Cycling. Just by showing up, you're casting a vote. The huge crowds that participate in the twice-annual ride -- on Earth Day in spring and European Car Free Day in fall -- are largely responsible for kick-starting the whole cycling scene in Budapest. Since the first major ride in 2004, there've been several positive developments that likely wouldn't have happened otherwise, such as:
  • the approval of a new Budapest Cycling Concept by City Hall;
  • the city's application for a new bike-sharing system (like Paris's Velib) that's due to open in spring 2011;
  • new lanes and paths on such streets as Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, Alkotmány utca, Thököly út and the kiskörút;
  • installation of hundreds of public bike racks throughout the city; and
  • the contracting of the Hungarian Cyclists Club as a professional advisory body to the Mayor's Office.
The most important step forward, though, has been a huge growth in numbers of everyday cyclists. The city has not implemented a systematic means of tracking the growth, but a handful of one-off spot counts during the last five years indicate that cycling levels have been grown 5-20 percentage points on several major downtown streets.

All this is to say that participation in Critical Mass helps demonstrate the popular demand for cycling facilities in Budapest. By coming out, you really can make a difference.

This year's ride will be opened by the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, Robert Milders. Today (Friday), he was on hand at Liszt Ferenc tér to annouce a Dutch donation of new bike racks at the corner by the Music Academy.

Marooned in Malmö

The eruptions of the Icelandic volcano known as -- cut, paste: Eyjafjallajokull -- caused a good deal of misery throughout Europe and beyond, but I can't count myself as one of the most hard-hit victims. Last week I was on a work trip when the fireworks began. But while other travelers languished in airports and train stations with nothing but cups of Nescafe and CNN to while the hours away, I was peddling around in cycling nirvana.

My work trip was in Malmö, Sweden, a former industrial port that's refashioned itself as an intellectual centre and forerunner in urban sustainability. Cycling has a 24% modal share there (Wikipedia, 2004), one of the highest in Europe, so when our return flights to Budapest were canceled for a second time on Saturday, I rented a bike from my hotel for about EUR 10, and checked it out.

One thing they do in Malmö is separate infrastructure -- similar to what I saw in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Berlin. On streets that were wide enough, including major thoroughfares, separate, wide bike paths are provided between the sidewalks and carriageways. Where there's street parking, the cars are lined up on the curb with a metre-wide buffer between cars and bike path. That keeps the cyclists out of reach of opening car doors. I didn't get a photo illustrating this, but I got one of separate infrastructure on a bridge across a canal.

There's an impressive floating bike park on the canal between Malmö's Old Town (Gamla Staden) and the central rail station (Photo taken from Photomath? at flickr.com).

On a few stretches outside the centre, I encountered streets without separate infrastructure, where you had to ride unprotected down the side of the road (as below). These streets were an exception, though.

Aside from the great infrastructure, there are some beautiful seaside vistas to take in. On a bridge crossing into the new city extension, the Western Harbour, there was this scene:

Then there's this bicycle counter along a bike highway near Malmö Town Hall (Stadshuset). It apparently starts from zero every morning. On the Saturday that I took my big ride around town, it was about 3 or 4 p.m. and I was rider number 3,050. Then I turned around and became rider 3,052, as well.

As a longtime Budapester, I have a hard to sympathising with this -- but in some places Malmö has the problem of too many bikes. In a part of Old Town that's reserved for pedestrian traffic, city authorities are trying to bring some order to bike parking. Most people put their bikes in racks, or near racks, but sometimes they overflow and get in the way and create what some people perceive as an eyesore. As our guide, an officer for Malmö City Hall's transport department explained, "We Swedes like our order." In the near future, the city may restrict bike parking in pedestrian zones.

Malmö is a city of about 300,000 people, so it doesn't have as large a population as Budapest's, or the same level of traffic or space restrictions. Nevertheless, it's inspiring how aggressively and effectively they've dealt with the transport problems they do have. Years ago, they headed off congestion as countless other cities have -- by building a ring road. When that filled up, they built a second ring road. Now Malmö's trying a different tack: rather than making more space for cars, it's making more alternatives to them. Among other things, Malmö is reintroducing trams to its public transport network. And it's following the example of its Danish neighbour across the water, Copenhagen, by finding ways to get even more people onto bikes.

I'll try to write something about my side journey to Copenhagen soon.




Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bikes in Bloom -- recap

Here's a pictorial follow-up to last weekend's Borulj virágba (Burst into Flower) event at Hunyadi tér. I would have posted it sooner but I was marooned in a cloud of volcano dust in Scandinavia (I'm working on a post about it).

Although I wasn't at the Hunyadi do, my wife, Kristin Faurest, was. She was there in part to collect photographs for a book she's written about some of the lesser-known public squares of Budapest. She was working with the talented Budapest photographer, Attila Glázer, who took some choice snaps.

The highlight of the afternoon was a bike-decorating contest involving flowers -- a nice nexus between the horticultural and transportational aspects of spring. The subject of the top photo is Sofie (Zsofi) Jackson. Below she's with her dad, Bob. Apparently, this one's been selected for Kristin's book.

There was also this one.


And this one.

You notice how vivid the colours are? And the drama in the subjects' faces? These are two of the many qualities that are generally missing from my photos. In my work, I make publications about environmental projects, and because of this, I spend lots of time sifting through amateur photos taken by project staff in search of ones that are suitable for publication. In this era of flickr.com and digital cameras, the art of photography, in my opinion, is overly democratised. Looking over these shots by Attila, I feel vindicated in my view that photography for publications is best left to the pros.

Monday, April 12, 2010

London's New Wave


During the past few years, I'd heard a lot about the burgeoning cycling scene in London: the Tube commuters with their folding bikes and the black-clad cycling ninjas riding fender to fender with racing Black Cabs. The derogatory tone of these accounts suggested London cyclists were a small group of half-mad outliers who'd probably be crushed under the wheels of a double-decker bus before they got the chance to breed.

However, when I visited the city last week, I saw that the cycling scene is alive and well. The cyclists there are indeed a group of half-mad outliers. But they're not a small group. During rush hour, they seem to be everywhere, sometimes queuing up at stoplights several cyclists deep. The cycling thing is really catching on in London. I heard estimates of a 5% modal share in the city centre, and with levels comparable to Copenhagen's in the borough of Hyde Park (I took the Tube there to verify this and did not see many cyclists, but my visit was 2-3 hours before evening rush hour on a rainy day.)

London cyclists, like Londoners in general, seem desperately competitive, but with unfailing self-discipline. There are hardly any separated paths in London; most of the cycling network consists of painted lanes, and the cyclists who use them ride fast and warrily amid constant heavy traffic. The cyclists generally wear gear -- shorts almost always, a bright fluorescent rain slicker when it's raining (i.e. almost always), and usually a helmet. Although they ride fast, they are scrupulous about doing proper hand signals and, at least in comparison to most places I've bicycled, they tend to abide by road rules.


As in Budapest, there's this John Henry-like propensity among street cyclists to test man against machine, and there is a large number of hard men on fixies. However, the London fixie crowd beats their Budapest counterparts by taking on the motorists in cold temperatures and horizontal rain.


The new wave of London cycling got started under Ken Livingstone, the previous Socialist mayor known for his aggressive stance against private cars and his signature accomplishment of the downtown congestion charge. Livingstone was beat in the last election, due in part to backlash against the congestion charge, but his conservative successor, Boris Johnson, has striven to outdo Livingstone when it comes to cycling. One insider told me that Johnson is now deliberately underestimating cycling levels in London at 1% so that he can have a bigger improvement to brag about after his spending initiatives have been carried out.

Cyclists cried foul last year when Johnson cut funding for a planned 900 kilometre citywide cycling network, however his administration is going forward this July with a bike-sharing scheme that will include 6,000 bikes at 400 stations. It'll have been an expensive system to put in place, and there must be takeup of close to 10 rentals/day/bike for the system to be called a success.

Some in the press are questioning whether Johnson has done enough to ensure the safety of the more novice-calibre users who will hire out the new public bikes. This was also a concern with the Velib system when it started in Paris in the summer of 2007.

I don't doubt this could be a challenge. Then again, I think those pokey, public bikes might do the scene some good. For once, the average speeds will come down within reach of non-competitive riders.