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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Biking Bloc

This year's free-jazz approach to Critical Mass seemed to produce more harmony than discord as far as I could tell. And participation was once again huge, at least 10,000 according to the report by Hungarian wire service MTI. Certainly, Érzsébet tér was swamped with cyclists for the closing bike lift at 8 p.m.

My advance post on the ride was called "Critical Chaos," but this was not descriptive of the event as it happened. Despite having no fixed starting point, and only a crude script calling for people to ride on the Pest side of the Nagykörút starting at 6:30 p.m., most participants rode in an orderly fashion on schedule. There seemed to be heavy bike traffic in both directions over most of the length of the route.

From my limited vantage point, it appeared that the traffic going from Margit bridge to Oktogon was heaviest. The entire curbside lane was packed with cyclists and at some points, we even spilled into the second lane. On any other day, I wouldn't think of taking my 5-year-old boy on the körút. The traffic there is as fast and aggressive as it gets in Budapest. However, Critical Mass offers safety in numbers, so Lance accompanied me on my bike's luggage rack the whole way. Mind you, he has no patience for Critical Mass. To him, this is an event that looks from a distance like a festival, but then upon arrival you see it has no rides or toys. I explain to him that it's a political thing. Lance thinks it's BORING.

Despite the usual civility of the crowd and the effectiveness of the volunteer traffic directors, there were tonnes of police this year. MTI noted that there were police checks at at least 10 intersections and that they were handing out fines as high as HUF 15,000 for not having lights and/or spoke reflectors. Hungarian Cyclists' Club János László lamented a lapse in the traditional good cooperation between organisers and police.

Near Oktogon, I noticed a group of cops questioning some kids on trials bikes -- and I could see that main organiser Gábor Kürti had stopped to mediate. Further on, I observed a group of cops at Blaha Lujza tér stopping cyclists seemingly at random. I don't know if the guy below was guilty of anything, but the cops let him go after a couple minutes of interrogation.

I reckon the city would be remiss if it didn't exert some official control on a demonstration that routinely attracts tens of thousands of people. At any rate, I didn't see any acts of violence by either the cops or participants.

A little while later, we came across Justin Hyatt -- a member of the Young Greens (Zöfi) and a stalwart of the livable-cities movement. He and a fellow activist were in bunny outfits, which provided some welcome comic relief for Lance. They handed me a flier with this URL: More political stuff, apparently, although I didn't tell Lance.

It was getting late so we turned off the körút and headed down Rákóczi út (maybe the only street downtown scarier than the körút) and eventually found our way to the closing bike lift at the Gödör klub. A couple guys with a three-wheel bike taxi emblazoned with a sign saying "Put some fun between your legs!" had some balloons. This salvaged the evening for Lance. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and Kristin had come with our 4-month-old daughter Sequoia (by stroller, not bike). This was Sequoia's first extra-utero (?) Critical Mass. She did the last one in utero.

Kristin didn't have a bike for the bike lift so she lifted Lance. It's hard to make out, but Lance is spread-eagled here, with one leg above Kristin and the other below. Reminds me of body-surfing photos from my grungy heyday back in Seattle.
After that, the family went home and I hung on to catch the start of the most overtly political part of the evening: mayoral candidates for the fall election were invited for a cycling-focused Q&A -- broadcast on a big screen facing the Gödör's terrace. Apparently, every party sent their candidate except for the odds-on favourite, Fidesz. That candidate, István Tarlos, is apparently confident enough of that he'll win that he didn't bother with a cycling rally of 10,000 people.

Along with the other major party candidates, the LMP's candidate Benedek Jávor was on hand. The kerékagy blog did a run-down of all the parties' cycling platforms and LMP's stood out as the most elaborate and thoughtful.

I don't know about the Socialists' cycling platform but their candidate, Csaba Horváth (below), was at Gödör giving press interviews ahead of the Q&A event. (He didn't take part in the Q&A-- see comments!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Heavy traffic on Little Ring Road

The first results are in from the bicycle counter installed this summer on the kiskörút (Little Ring Road). It shows that the not-quite-year-old lanes already carry loads of bike traffic. On busy days, the northbound lane carried as many as 1,500 cyclists. On average, there's as much bike traffic there as on a similar street in Vienna.

The counter, installed above the north-bound bike path in front of the National Museum, was christened on July 2. There have been some teething problems with the system -- a week's worth of data was lost earlier this month -- but by now enough data's been collected to give a basic picture of traffic patterns on this principle downtown bike route.

The key numbers (as showing on the Hungarian Cyclists' Club website):
  • average number of passing cyclists per workday: 981
  • average number per weekend day: 479
  • average hourly traffic during evening rush hour: 75
  • Maximum daily traffic: 1,507
  • Maximum cyclists per hour: 155
Along with this data, a spot check by human counters showed that the cyclists riding on the lane were just 85 percent of the total bike traffic. About 10 percent of cyclists ride on the sidewalk and the remaining 5 percent ride on the tram tracks. From this, we can deduce that the total average for northbound bike traffic on weekdays was about 1,150. And maybe a similar number going the other direction.

There are a couple things worth remarking on here. First, the fact that there are twice as many cyclists on weekdays as on weekends shows you that downtown bike traffic is mainly about commuting. The majority of cyclists aren't just goofing around (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- they're people going to work and school, running errands, going shopping, getting kids to daycare. This is the basic kind of circulation that keeps the city and its economy alive. City Hall should support it as such.

In regard to the scale of the traffic, it's hard to say anything without some benchmarks. These are the first official bike traffic counts ever made on the kiskörút, so although it's a safe bet the numbers are up substantially from before the lanes were created, we don't have the data to prove this.

One interesting comparison, though, is that the average daily traffic for this period is approximately the same as the traffic at a comparable spot in downtown Vienna: in front of city's West Train Station. And Vienna has six times as big a cycling network. The Austrian capital's also long been regarded by cycling advocates here in Budapest as a model to follow and emulate. It would be really something if Budapest cycling levels are already on par with those in the supposedly more advanced city.

But we can't conclude much yet. Not with a couple months of data from one counter. The value of this data stream will grow with time, as the numbers come in and year-to-year trends emerge. And hopefully, several more counters will be installed in various locations around the city (as in Vienna and many other cities). This would give a more complete picture of cycling in the city: where the greatest need is, what type of cycling infrastructure attracts more cyclists, how to get the most out of infrastructure investments.

With this data in hand, cyclists -- as well as our allies in city leadership -- will have a firmer basis on which to make our requests.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hooray for BuBi!

A name's been chosen for Budapest's new bike-sharing system: BuBi.

The name, pronounced the same as the English slang for a woman's breast (booby), was chosen from among 3,727 email submissions in a contest arranged by the system's designated operator, Parking kft.

As explained in the kerekagy blog, a shortlist of five names was picked by a seven-member jury and these were put to an Internet vote. "BuBi" won the most votes (9,632) followed by "bico" (9,515), "kerékbár" (7,351), "cimbike" (6,051), "bérbi" (5,854).

I'd done an earlier post about the name-giving contest, and I spent quite some time sifting through the enormous Excel sheet of submissions trying to spot names worth remarking on. From among all those names, BuBi stood out -- at least to me -- as one of the more humorous suggestions. I also quite liked "Hop on Me" and "BooDbike". Funny suggestions -- on par with the bad English translations you find in Chinese Restaurant menus sometimes.

Of course, to Hungarian ears, "BuBi" doesn't sound ridiculous. One of my Hungarian colleagues said it sounded "cute," reminding her of the slang for bubbly: "bubis" which is short for "buborékos". Another co-worker said that the word bubi was used back in the 60s-70s to denote the beehive hairdo.

A reader of my first column seemed quite annoyed at my Anglophone take on things. He (or she -- it was an anonymous comment) made the point that I had no right to argue for a "meaningless English name" and then concluded: "Cycling is LOCAL! Therefore the bike sharing system should have a HUNGARIAN name!"

All that is fair enough, of course. But please also respect my need -- as a native of the English-speaking world -- to snicker at the utterance of "BuBi". It may be ethnocentric and juvenile of me but, in my defense, I relate the following: a few years back, my wife went to the local consulate of the country known internationally, since 1984, as Burkina Faso. And when she asked about visa requirements to the country, the Hungarian clerk winced at the mention of the correct name, and told her that in Hungary, they still use the old, French colonial name "Felső Volta" (Upper Volta). The reason: Because, as it occurred to my wife later, the name Burkina Faso, sounds to Hungarian ears something like: "Leather Chinese Dick".

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.