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 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.

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