|Image stolen from http://drunk-and-ride.blogspot.com/|
Denmark or Sweden, perhaps?
Those would have been my first guesses, as well. However, according to a Gallup poll published earlier this year by the European Commission, the second cycling-est country in the EU is -- drum roll, please -- Hungary!
What the hell??
I should qualify my terms, here. The study in question, entitled "Future of Transport", was commissioned by the EC's Directorate General Mobility of Transport, and focussed on Europeans' transport habits, their reasons for choosing particular modes, and what it might take for them to switch to, or make greater use of, more sustainable modes than the private car.
It's pretty dry stuff that's intended as guidance material for policy makers and the like. But what made it interesting to me were the results to QUESTION D7: What is the main mode of transport that you use for your daily activities?
Naturally, the Europeans who most favour the bicycle are the Dutch: a full 31.2 percent say it's their main mode of transport.
The Danes ranked quite high, as well, with 19 percent naming the bicycle as their main mode. But that was good enough only for third place; the Danes were slightly edged out by the Hungarians, with 19.1 percent claiming to travel mainly by bicycle.
These survey results were published back in March but didn't catch my eye until I saw mention of them in a recent newsletter of the European Cyclists Federation.
The figures didn't take me completely by surprise. Years ago, when I was studying for a degree in environmental sciences, a Hungarian professor mentioned that prior to the political changes, cycling had something on the order of a 30 percent modal share in this country. However, when asked to cite a source for this statistic, he came up empty.
Still, I'd heard other claims about cycling's popularity in Hungary. During research for my thesis about utility cycling in Budapest, I interviewed an urban planner who said that the bike's modal share in Debrecen, Hungary's second largest city, was 20 percent.
And just recently, I saw a survey published by the Hungarian Statistical Office that showed cycling had an 11 percent share in the country's "distribution of transport modes" (közlekedési módok megoszlása). (There are probably methodological reasons for the 8 percent discrepancy between the Gallop and the Hungarian survey results, but I don't know what they are.)
No doubt, part of the reason I find it hard to accept that Hungary is a front-runner in European cycling is that I don't get out of Budapest enough. Although the city is home to perhaps the largest Critical Mass movement in the world, and is at least a regional front-runner in terms of urban cycling, the fact remains that Budapest is a big city, and big cities are, by default, hostile environments for cycling.
The rest of Hungary is comprised of much, much smaller communities. Even Debrecen, with 200,000 inhabitants, is just a tenth the size of the capital. Less than half the country's population live in cities larger than 10,000 inhabitants. The rest are in very small towns, villages or unincorporated areas.
This is why, despite all the hard work and accomplishments of Budapest's cycling movement over the past six years, the city remains a black spot on the national cycling map. The same Hungarian survey showing an 11 percent share for cycling nationally put the figure for Budapest at a paltry 1.1 percent (2009 figure!).
On my few visits to villages in rural Hungary, I've noticed a cycling culture that has nothing to do with contemporary hipsters and their fixies and messenger bags. It's grannies riding around on creaky one-speed Csepels with rod-actuated brakes and baskets to carry their groceries. Undoubtedly, part of the reason they're on bikes is economics. But it's also due to the fact that in most Hungarian settlements, traffic is calm, distances short and space abundant. And of course there's the Alföldi landscape, which rivals the Netherlands for its topographical blandness.
Still -- there are other countries in the EU with low income levels, small settlements and flat landscapes. There must be more behind Hungary's rich, and largely unknown, utility cycling culture. Just recently, I started work on a project to promote cycling as transport in small and medium-sized towns in Central and Eastern Europe. It will give me a chance to investigate the topic, and I hope to write here about my discoveries.
In the meantime, I'd appreciate any comments from those with insights.