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.