Sunday, February 6, 2011

Conference Veto a Bad Sign

Budapest won't host the Velo-City bicycling conference in 2013, according to a notice posted on the Hungarian Cyclists Club website on Friday.

Club President János László explained in the notice that the conference owner, the European Cycling Federation, and Budapest City Hall could not agree on a legal matter in the hosting contract. Details weren't given but the consensus among speculators at is that the new regime at Budapest City Hall simply doesn't consider bicycling enough of a priority.

Velo-city, held every two years, is the biggest conference in Europe dedicated to the promotion of cycling as a lifestyle and means of transport, gathering hundreds of transport planners and experts from city administrations and advocates from civil society. It routinely features top international speakers in the field of sustainable transport, with recent examples being Janette Sadik-Khan, of New York's Transportation Department; former Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa and Danish urban planner Jan Gehl.

For host cities, Velo-City is a chance to demonstrate work they've done and commitment they've made to mainstream cycling into their transport networks. Recent hosts have included Copenhagen, Brussels and Munich.

The Hungarian Cycling Club has been working to get the conference in Budapest for some time. The city made the short list to host in 2011 but lost to Seville. It won the bid for 2013 and, as of this writing, was still down on the ECF's website as the "decided" host for that year's event.

But these plans were made during Budapest's previous administration, and now that a different mayor is in charge, István Tarlos, the plan is off. The event apparently costs around EUR 400,000 to pull off, which is not a minor expense. Admission and exhibition fees bring in revenue but the city has to guarantee full coverage -- as it should. Hosting Velo-city is a privilege; it's an excellent promotion of the city's livability and progressive approach to urban transport.

However, the Tarlos administration apparently doesn't think it's worth the effort. I can remember well when Mayor Demszky gave a similar rebuff to cyclists back in 2005, announcing that it wasn't worth investing further in bike paths when existing ones weren't used. In the ensuing years, the crowds at Critical Mass grew into the tens of thousands and and everyday cycling grew increasingly popular, despite lack of help from City Hall. The mayor eventually changed his tone, in words at least. We didn't get as much investment as we wanted, but it was clear that the mayor came to respect cyclists as a tenacious and estimable lobbying group.

Local bike bloggers are already looking forward to this spring's Critical Mass, and how we can reassert ourselves in city politics. A couple writers mentioned setting on a focussed, concrete political aim: like getting cycling lanes or tracks around the nagykörút. This is a good idea, one I've favoured for years. I'm also hoping the new mayor's indifferent attitude toward cycling will provoke a turnout that's impossible to ignore.

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