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 " 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.

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