Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Case for Clearer Rules

The rather dangerous bike path crossing at Újlaki rakpart, circa 2007.
A road resurfacing has since improved it cosmetically, but it's no safer.  
I've always maintained that the main driver of unruly behaviour among some local cyclists is that no one really knows what the rules are. In Budapest, where every bike path or lane seems to be designed ad hoc according to the political compromise of the day, you can't ride according to a coherent set of rules. On one street, you're up on the sidewalk riding in the same direction as motor traffic, on the next you're riding on the carriageway against it, and on the next you're riding in the middle of a pedestrian promenade with no clue where you should be.

The national traffic code (KRESZ) outlines rules for cyclists, but these can be confusing. For instance, KRESZ says you're not supposed to ride your bike on sidewalks unless you're under 12 years of age (in which case it's ok as long as you don't go faster than 10 km/hr). Confusingly, though, the majority of "cycling infrastructure" in Budapest is on the sidewalk. Where a crappy painted-line bikeway is marked on the sidewalk, it's compulsory to ride on it unless there are so many pedestrians it's impossible to get around them.

Then there's the more-or-less common-sense rule to ride on the right side of the curb lane when on the carriageway. Cyclists tend stay to the right of traffic on their own volition, the better to avoid getting run over. However, according to KRESZ, where there's a priority bus lane -- and these are always along the curb -- you aren't allowed to ride there. KRESZ requires you to instead ride in the next lane over, ignoring your survival instincts by pedaling down a maximally exposed lane marker with buses barreling by on your right and "fast lane" motorists whizzing by on your left. This is a situation I won't put myself into. I flaunt the rule everytime. My only hesitation is the harassment I'll suffer if a BKV driver comes from behind. The police couldn't care less, but BKV drivers become sticklers for law and order when a defenseless cyclist gets in their way.

Another confusing situation arises where bike lanes/paths cross roads. The default rule is that cyclists should yield to motor traffic, unless they dismount and walk across the street. It can be counter-intuitive, especially when the bikeway is a shared pedestrian/cyclist path. On the path, cyclists and pedestrians share space as co-equal non-motorised travelers, but at road crossings, they're supposed to follow entirely different rules.

And there are exceptions to the default rule. Depending on the crossing, cyclists might actually get priority, and be able to stay on their bikes and ride across the intersection, having the right of way over motorists. Special signage marks these crossings, but it's not clear why one intersection prioritises cyclists and the other doesn't.

Then there's the crossing on the Buda Quay bike path just north of Szépvölgyi út. Here, cyclists (as well as pedestrians) actually come to stop signs at the crossing of Újlaki rakpart. I bike through this un-signalled crossing twice daily, week-in and week-out -- it's on my commute. And despite the fact that cyclists have NO priority here, they seem to command a de facto sort of right of way. It's probably because it's the most dangerously located bike/pedestrian crossing in the city -- on a 50 km/hr thoroughfare with blind curves hiding it from traffic coming from both directions. Motorists familiar with the road approach cautiously, and when they see a waiting cyclist, they tend to stop -- even though they aren't required to do so. Even though, according to KRESZ, shouldn't do so.

It's really a typical situation in Hungarian cycling (or maybe in Hungarian life in general). The rules say one thing, but people's behaviour follows another code altogether. On most days, this seems to work fine. But then tonight, as I was riding home in the dark, with streets glistening in a light rain and visibility not that great, I came up to the Újlaki rakpart crossing and, as usual, the first car to approach braked to let me pass. Unfortunately, the driver in the car just behind didn't know about the unwritten code for this crossing. Wham! The nice motorist who yielded to me was rewarded with a smashed rear bumper. I honestly felt bad for the driver. But I didn't stop, and pedaled on. What could I do?


Jelica said...

They have the same thing here that you cannot ride in the bus lane, so the bike lane ends up in the middle between buses and traffic--scary! I refuse to do that, so I ride on the sidewalk, which is probably punishable by death penalty in Switzerland but I don't care.

Greg Spencer said...

I don't get it. Presumably, safety considerations are behind these bans of bikes in bus lanes. But the alternative is clearly more dangerous.

In Paris, they have shared bus-bike lanes, and when I rode there, it seemed worked fine. Didn't even get honked at.

Jelica said...

Don't get it, either. Seems to me highly unsafe to have people on bikes squeezed on both sides. Also goes to show that just because you have a certain number of kilometers of bike lanes in the city, it still doesn't mean that cycling is safe or made more attractive. I definitely avoid Geneva like a plague when it comes to cycling.