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, 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 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.