Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fair-Weathered Fun

What a great Critical Mass! Some 35,000 people turned out, according to the news site 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 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

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 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.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Disposable Bike Racks

I noticed these bike racks for the first time this weekend. They're right across from our building (on the little square on the south side of Margit körút at the start of Frankel Leó utca) so they must have been installed this past week. When I first noticed them, one was already knocked over and another was listing. This morning, I went down to take a picture of them and three of them were knocked flat and I believe another had been stolen.

Not to let the neighborhood's delinquent youth off the hook -- but these racks could have been knocked over by some néni's shopping cart. Or even a good gust of wind. The racks are made of light-gauge aluminum tubing, probably weighing less than a kilo a piece. Whoever installed them simply drilled holes into the ceramic pavers that cover the square and fastened them with screws and plastic expander plugs.

From the looks of it, the plugs were too skinny for the holes and just didn't hold. But even if they had, the pavers themselves are are no more than a kilo or two a piece and can quite easily be plucked from the ground. I'm tempted to requisition these things myself to make some bike parking in our building's courtyard. Of course, that would be disrespecting public property -- but then again, does this stuff deserve respect?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bikes in Bloom

With sizable factions of fixie-fixators and downhillers, Budapest's cycling scene sometimes seems a little heavy on the testosterone. An event coming up next weekend at Hunyadi tér could provide a nice tonic to that: a contest to see who can festoon their bike with flowers in the most eye-catching way.

"Borulj virágba" (Burst into flower!) is organised by Kincsünk a Piac -- Hunyadi tér, a group dedicated to defending the historically protected Hunyadi market place. For the past few years, the group has been fighting efforts to convert it into office space and excavate the property to build a humungous underground parking garage.

This event is apparently a gambit to attract new people to the market -- and preempt arguments by the local council that it's outlasted its usefulness.

According to the event poster, all you have to do is bring your bike. Organisers will supply the flowers and you decorate your ride as you like. Sponsors are offering prizes such as bike bags and fair trade books and coffee. A kids programme is also promised.

  • What: Borulj virágba bike-decorating contest
  • When: 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. Saturday, April 17
  • Where: Hunyadi tér