Sunday, April 3, 2011

Change of Course

The spring Critical Mass was announced last week and the organisers are saying it's the last one!

To me, the message was a bombshell. Critical Mass has become an institution in Budapest, and not just for cyclists. With rides attracting tens of thousands every occasion, Budapest Critical Mass is believed to be the biggest CM in the world. As a major city event, it's up there with the Sziget Festival, Formula 1, Saint Stephen's Day and the Budapest Bucsú. It's a mass popular event, with participants of all ages, all walks of life and all political persuasions.

Having gone off twice per year since 2004, it's hard imagining an Earth Day or Mobility Week passing without a Critical Mass. Yet this is exactly what will happen after what's being called the "Utolsó Budapest Critical Mass," this April 30.

The announcement explains that the main goal of the ride has already been achieved: to create a critical mass of voters who support transport cycling in Budapest. The goal's been met despite the fact that Budapest is still not a bike-friendly city, the organisers say. Now, it's up to you, they add: "Critical Mass is yours."

Despite being taken aback, I've come to the conclusion that the organisers have made the right decision. Critical Mass has, indeed, managed to build a culture of everyday cycling where one hardly existed. Before CM entered the picture, there were few cyclists on city streets other than bike messengers. These days the picture is entirely different -- on main cycling routes during rush hour, you get caught in queues at traffic signals.

While giving CM all due credit for popularising everyday cycling, it hasn't been nearly as successful in lobbying City Hall. Critical Mass organisers have always wanted to influence city transport policy. CM rides in the past have usually had a theme, sometimes attached to a detailed wish list of cyclists' priorities that they hoped city leaders would take on board. Before last fall's municipal elections, the CM after party included a candidates' forum in which the competing parties presented their cycling policies. Such public events have only been part of the lobbying effort -- all the while, CM leaders have been meeting with assembly members and transport staff behind the scene in hopes of getting better conditions for cyclists.

But the work with City Hall hasn't been fruitful. In terms of downtown infrastructure, we've seen very little happen since 2004. Probably the most positive developments have been the bike lanes (or "sharrows", really, since cars can legally drive on them) on the kiskörút, Thököly út and Alkotmány utca. There was the construction of the path on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, although that path infuriated CM organisers because it took space from pedestrians and is on only one side of the street. There is a promise of better cycling accommodation on the renovated Margit bridge, but City Hall has wavered on that commitment so many times that it's anybody's guess about how it will eventually look.

The city hasn't done much in terms of public education or promotion of city cycling. That's basically been left to the activists themselves (with some pro bono help from local advertising agencies). Even the little bicycle traffic monitoring that's been done has been carried out by volunteers and private supporters.

It's hard to say what it will take to get a pro-cycling city government. But if CM couldn't bring this about with 80,000 demonstrators (spring of 2008), maybe it's time to try something else.

I called CM an "institution" and it occurs to me that that's actually what CM shouldn't be. A political movement that evolves into an institution is no longer about change. And what cyclists desperately need, even more than an enjoyable bike jamboree twice a year, is change.

1 comment:

pavel p antonov said...

>A political movement that evolves into an institution is no longer about change

Good one, Gregory! And yet, there is much more to be done in Budapest in terms of change. Not least, it serves as inspiration for the rest of CEE.