Saturday, April 30, 2011

First of the last

Had another pleasant Critical Mass ride Saturday afternoon. Despite some scary looking skies and a couple lightning strikes up in the Buda Hills, we had only a few minutes of rain, and by the time we got to the ride's end in City Park, the sun was blazing.

The Hungarian state wire service MTI put participation at 20,000-30,000, which is par for the course for the last three years. The MTI report stated further that no accidents or other disruptions took place.

On this occasion, I was joined by Kristin and our almost year-old daughter Sequoia (Her older brother was indisposed with a birthday party -- I suppose the same will happen with Sequoia when she's old enough to decide these things for herself). Most of the ride, you could barely see her under her helmet, which despite having been the smallest at the store, is several sizes too big. Whenever she goes out with us she starts sucking her thumb and disappears like a Mexican peasant under a sombrero.

The ride route passed by a couple street-work projects on the Pest side. The first was a new bike path that's part of an attractive, EU-subsidised renovation of Marcius 15 ter on the Danube bank. Typical of Budapest, the path doesn't appear to link up to anything on either end. That's because, at least for the last seven years or so, cycling infrastructure is never built for its own sake, but only as an add-on of another project.

The other road works was the rapidly progressing renovation of the kiskörút between Astoria and Deák tér. When it's finished, it's supposed to include bike lanes on both sides of the street. The work hasn't advanced enough to show how this will look but it's getting close.

The ride concluded at City Park, but this year, instead of being on the flat field behind the Petöfi csarnok concert hall, we were across the street on a little hill called Királydomb. At 25-30 metres, it's not much of a hill, but it afforded a good view of scene.
One thing I could NOT SEE was a beer vendor. There were plenty of stands selling those fluffy, soft pretzels that seem to be a Hungarian specialty. But no one had beer. Last spring, all the vendors had cold beers and there were also a bunch of guys roaming through the crowd with insulated backpacks full of beer.

I suspect that the heavily advertised police crackdown on cyclist mischief had something to do with it. Actually, I noticed that many participants had tins of beer in their hands (see above, behind Kristin and Sequoia) but it may have been because they were better planners than me and brought their own. Note to self: Plan better for next Critical Mass.
If there is a next Critical Mass. This spring's event was billed "the first last Critical Mass." It's hard to know what that means, if anything. But I'm very curious what will happen in September, when the year's second Critical Mass is traditionally scheduled.

Friday, April 22, 2011

King of the Hill

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and for our 6-year-old boy Lance, this meant a major rite of passage: last month, for the first time, he rode his own bike to school.

In other circumstances, he might have done this even earlier. But a couple local challenges made this trip practically unthinkable until this spring. And it wasn't until he actually did it did I believe it was even possible.

The first challenge is Budapest's traffic, and the lack safe, separate infrastructure for cyclists. At our flat near Margit Bridge on the Buda side, we're pretty well hemmed in by major urban thoroughfares where cars race around at high speed. As Lance has become more stable on his bike, I've let him ride on sidewalks and on the riverbank promenade (Duna Korzó). But it's nerve-wracking accompanying him on these trips and that's one reason I hesitated about letting him bike to school.

The other reason is that his kindergarten is up a big hill from our flat. That climb is an exertion for me, even in low gear on my 21-speed hybrid. With Lance's last bike, a short-cranked, 16-inch one speed, anything more than a wheelchair ramp was about impossible without getting off and pushing.

But this spring, he traded up for a 20" bike with seven gears. From the moment he got the bike, he was nagging me to let him ride it to school. One thing I wanted him to figure out first, though, was how to use gears.

Gears are not an intuitive concept, apparently. I've had difficulty explaining what they're for without resorting to terms like "torque." To keep it simple, I told him that high gear is for going fast, and low gear for going slow. Naturally, he wanted to ALWAYS be in top gear so he could go fast. Delving deeper into six-year-old psychology, I told him that low gear is good for accelerating, for taking off and reaching a high speed -- like a drag racer. This better describes the physical principle behind gears, but it backfired as a layman's explanation. Now Lance wanted to ALWAYS be in low gear. He seemed to like the exhilaration of peddling really fast -- it made him feel like he WAS going fast.

At any rate, a couple weeks ago, I agreed to let him bike to school, with me accompanying, naturally. I had to nag at him a bit to get him to downshift before we hit the hill but he finally relented. We scooted across the Torok utca, and started up the serpentining street that winds up the flank of Rozsadomb. Lance tore up the hill and he kept going for the whole climb, putting his foot down only where we had to jump curbs.

We've biked almost everyday since then and I reckon within a couple years, he'll be ready to take his first solo trip. It'd be nice if he had a separate bike path by then, but in any case, the trial by fire of Budapest's streets will get him prepared for whatever happens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Breakfast of Champions


During the Hungary Bike-to-Work campaign (Bringázz a munkaba), there are always a couple of occasions when the organisers have a bikers' breakfast promotion. They set up stands along major bike routes all over the country and treat passers-by to free sweet rolls and juice.

They had one on Tuesday morning and I wanted to take my boy Lance down to get a sweet roll. We went down to the station closest to our flat, collected our goodies, and I snapped this picture of Lance with his new bike and our breakfast in the background. Can you believe that in the five-second interval between us setting down the food and me framing the shot, a frickin' pigeon jumps up on the railing and attempts a snatch and run on Lance's kifli?!

From all appearances, the breakfast "action" seems to be a case if preaching to the converted. At least at the station we visited, along the Buda quay by Batthyány tér, there was a regular stream of cyclists going by. And this was regular traffic -- not people lured by free food. The girls doling out the sweet rolls did their best to flag everyone down, but the majority were rushing off to work and couldn't be bothered. From this spectacle, it was abundantly clear that Budapest is already a real cycling city.

The breakfasts are, however, a great photo op and press availability. A significant part of the breakfast crowd at Batthyány tér were photographers and reporters looking for a little "colour" for their media. The shot above shows Hungarian Cyclists' Club President János Laszló doing what he always does: trying to edify the masses about the value of cycling as urban transport. Sometimes it seems that guy is everywhere.

Friendly Chat with Mr. Dickhead

Had a Bruce Banner moment yesterday on my ride home. It wasn't entirely the motorist's fault, although he was definitely being a big asshole. But it's also true that I came to the scene in somewhat of a funk. A couple hours before, my wife had phoned to tell me that some lowlife had busted into our building's storage shed and stolen my son's new bicycle. What kind of vermin steals a little kid's prized possession? It made me so mad I wanted to rip someone's head off.

So when this cookie cutter suit in a white BMW/Mercedes/Audi (Why do people pay such exceptional sums for things that are so patently unexceptional??) plants his ass smack in the middle of the crosswalk while WE got the green -- well, he seemed like the perfect stand-in for the jerk who stole Lance's bike.

As I followed the serpentining queue of walkers and cyclists in between the cars and around the butt end of the asshole's coupé, I gave his rear window a good thump with my fist and sneered provocatively around my shoulder as I got through the intersection. I fumed and cussed as I pedaled along the bikepath next to the road, and who should appear again for a little point-counterpoint, but Dickhead úr, pulling up to the kerb and shouting through the passenger window to find out why I had pounded on his BMW/Mercedes/Audi.

I threw down my bike and invited him to get out of his car so we could discuss it. But he kept in his coupé (or should I say chicken coupé) and kept shouting. I was just in a rage. I think I'd just primed myself for a punch up, and now I was reduced to trying to make an argument about the Hungarian traffic code with some guy who obviously didn't care. Anyway, trying to argue in Hungarian was beyond hopeless. I couldn't speak straight in my own tongue.

Anyone who can't grasp why these things make me so mad is as brainwashed by car-culture norms as Dickhead úr. I look at it from the point of view of space allocation. The scene was along Arpad fejdelem utja, just north of Margit Bridge. Here cars have six wide lanes plus a big median for turning. Pedestrians and cyclists have one sidewalk and, in certain sections, a skinny bike path to boot. You could state that cars have, conservatively, seven times as much space as either pedestrians or cyclists.

And here's a motorist telling me the reason he was on the crosswalk when pedestrians and cyclists had the right of way was because, "I had nowhere to go."

The way he reasoned it, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic and he simply could not get through the intersection. Of course, by law, if it's bumper-to-bumper traffic and you can't get through an intersection, then you shouldn' t enter the intersection in the first place. The proper thing to do is wait behind the stop line until there's sufficient room to get all the way through.

I didn't have the patience or clarity of mind to explain this to Dickhead úr. I hope I succeeded in insinuating it by giving his car window another hard wallop as he burnt rubber to leave me -- and get out of the bus lane he was blocking.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Temporary Deathtrap. Thank You for your Understanding.

Spring's springing and although that means more pleasant temperatures for cycling, it also heralds another season of road work. A recent post at copenhagenize.com tells how in the Danish capital, the temporary traffic restrictions associated with street projects are de facto bigger hassles for motorists than they are for cyclists or pedestrians. In that city, human-powered transport gets priority over the loud, smelly variety. In fact, it's against the law to shut down a bicycle lane.

I couldn't help but think of the Margit Bridge renovation, underway since August 2009 and several months past schedule. The work on the Buda bridgehead shut down the north-south cycle passage through the underpass by the BKV ticket window at the HÉV stop. I remember how I learned the passage was closed. One day, I biked into the underpass and by the ticket window and then came to a big black wall. There were no signs advising me where to go, no detour. The work crew hadn't considered cyclists. Or if they had, the conclusion was apparently that we could go fuck ourselves.

By now, the regular bike commuters who pass by here know the score. With no designated bikeway, they ride in fast-moving traffic through a bottleneck under Margit bridge. I went out this evening to take some snaps of the brave souls riding through here, elbow to fender with motorists who are probably as nervous about killing cyclists as the cyclists are about being killed.

I wish the mayor, or transport department head, or whichever no-account politician is responsible for this deathtrap, would try cycling through here with their children. I did this one time and nearly had a heart attack trying to keep my boy to the right and out of harm's way. Never again. We take long detours to avoid it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Holding the Line Against Family Fun

As a committed foot soldier in the urban cycling movement, I take pride in the few battle scars I've picked up over the years. The one I got this weekend was no exception.

On Saturday morning, I went from our flat on Margit körút over to District VIII to pick up a bike for my 6-year-old boy, Lance. I was joined on the excursion by Lance, and also by his 11-month-old sister, Sequoia.

We met up with the seller of the bike, Lance did a test ride, and we decided to take it. Lance had been given a cool dirt bike just a week earlier, but it's on the large side. This other bike seemed just the right size to tide Lance over until he's big enough for the dirt bike.

So we took the bike and started for home. Lance rode it while I walked briskly behind. This was fine for the few blocks back to the körút, but not for the full 4-5 kilometres back to the flat. Not with the heavy traffic and not with me having Sequoia on my back.

So we boarded the 4-6 tram near the Corvin cinema and were on our way. I'm aware that bicycles aren't allowed on the tram, but I thought in this instance I'd be OK. Afterall, it was a little child's bike, no bigger than a pram or shopping trolley, which are perfectly legal. And there was the fact that I had two kids in tow, which usually makes you seem more sympathetic.

Famous last words. Before we got to the next stop, a pair of inspectors stepped up and motioned to the bike: "A kerékpárt nem szabad szállítani." (It's against the rules to bring bikes on board.)

So we were busted. Fined HUF 6,000 (about EUR 23) and made to get off the tram at Oktogon and walk the rest of the way home -- about two kilometres. After I'd paid, the inspector who'd been doing most of the talking shrugged and said to me in English, "I'm sorry. That's the rule in Hungary."

I can understand limiting bike access on crowded public transport lines at rush hour. But to go after little kids with little bikes on a Saturday morning when the tram's half empty? No wonder the inspector seemed ashamed of himself.

Today, I was on the tram, and a woman got on with a 4-or 5-year-old boy. Little helmet on his head and a bicycle in tow. They'd probably been riding on Margit Island, and were taking the safe way back home. And, of course, what was I thinking: Where are the police when you need them!??

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mind the Rules while Biking to Work

Two major cycling campaigns got underway today: first, the spring Bike to Work contest, which pits companies against one another to see whose employees can log more kilometres in a months' time commuting by bike. The second is the National Police's long-promised crackdown on scofflaw cyclists. This will reportedly last three weeks and entail random police checks for reflectors and working lamps, as well as breathiliser tests for those suspected of drunk cycling.

A conspiracy theorist might wonder if the police didn't intentionally schedule their dragnet to coincide with Bike to Work, just because the pickings would be easier.

However, according to the kerekagy.hu blog, the enforcement campaign has the support of Hungary's main transport cycling NGO, the Hungarian Cyclists Club (MK). At a public announcement of the crackdown last week, the police's spokesman was joined by MK President János László, who noted that the measure was not against cyclists or cycling, but rather about safe riding.

During this announcement, nationwide statistics were cited about cycling injuries and cycling deaths in 2010. However, they weren't put into any context so I wasn't sure if I should be alarmed, relieved or indifferent. One statistic that was interesting, however, was that cycling numbers in Budapest have doubled during the last four years, while death and injuries to cyclists haven't grown at all. This mirrors experience in cities the world over: practically anywhere where levels of urban cycling have grown, traffic injuries involving cyclists have either held steady or gone down. It's become a universal maxim that the more cyclists there are on the road, the safer it is for individual cyclists.

It follows that if authorities have only our safety mind, they would do better by taking measures to promote cycling. Not that I'm against following road rules and riding responsibly. These are clearly important to cycling safety. What's missing is a comprehensive approach that balances enforcement with campaigns to promote cycling as a healthy and enjoyable mode of urban travel; the development of safe, separate infrastructure for city cycling; more stringent penalties and better enforcement of speeding violations by motorists, etc., etc.

The "etc., etc." can be found in a study published in 2005 on safety conditions for "vulnerable road users" in European countries whose safety records are below the EU average (Hungary's among them). The study suggests that enforcement and better cycling behaviour is needed, but so are several other measures, including those directed at motorists.

Transport of London has put out a Cycle Safety Action Plan that takes an even more sympathetic approach toward cyclists. It recommends nine specific actions, just one one of them concerning enforcement. The other measures involve changes to mindsets and the urban environment to better accommodate and encourage cycling.

Like Budapest, London is at an early stage of cycling development. But the city government there is taking better strides to ensure it flourishes.

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.