Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bicycle Chic Taking Off in Budapest

Continuing a theme of posts on how bicycling has become an emblem of urban chic (part 1, part 2) particularly for merchandisers, here are some photos from Budapest's newly expanded international airport terminal (formerly Ferihegy 2, now Liszt Ferenc 2). Since opening this summer, the terminal's new duty free shops have been decked out in a bicycling theme. The bikes are everyday-use type bikes and they're meant as a symbol of "urban life." They're being used to sell everything from handbags and thermos bottles to scarves.

One of the bikes on display is a "retro" bike. For background, there's an ersatz picnic scene, a small-town touch that might be at odds with the urban chic thing, but then again, I'm no merchandiser.

And then a typical Dutch-style bike, with step-through frame and flowers and angels and stuff.
An appeal to the female shopper, I reckon, although it seems to also have charmed my co-worker Miklós.

There were a few bike-shaped product displays draped with colourful scarves and stacked with scented bath oils -- much like my own bike.

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?

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Early Bird Gets the Sweet Roll

Totally out of focus, but this was the scene this morning.
It's amazing how much bike traffic goes by Batthyány tér at rush hour.
So this morning, as part of my ongoing effort to instill the values of sustainable, community-friendly transport in my son, I suggested during breakfast that we stop by the cyclists' tent for a kakaós csiga (sweet roll). Lance normally sulks through breakfast and has to be prodded and kicked and threatened to get out the door on time. But at the mention of the words kakaós csiga, he sat up like a bolt, devoured his muesli, and got on his shoes and coat faster than he's done in recent memory.

I don't know how many new cyclists the bicikli reggeli (bike breakfast) brought out of the woodwork today. But the promise of sweet rolls had a magical effect on Lance. He was so enthused to get out the door that you could have mistaken him for a morning person.

Lance tucking into csiga number one.
When we got down to Batthyány tér, one of several sites for this morning's breakfast in Budapest, a cheerful volunteer from the Hungarian Cyclists Club flagged us down and asked us to stop for breakfast  (not that we were about to pass them by). She presented us with a very attractive pyramid of sweet rolls, each with a heavy dusting of white powdered sugar. We each took one, along with boxes of orange juice. Before Lance had taken two bites of his, he asked if he could also have mine -- to save for after school. Yes, he's a bit of a pig. But it was fine with me, seeing as I'm a diabetic.

The bike breakfast is a promotion for the fall Bike to Work contest (Bringázz a Munkaba). The contest started on September 22 and goes until October 26. Even though it's half over, you can still register and take part. In fact, if you do it before Monday, you can still ride the required eight times to be eligible for prize drawings.

The contest is a little more low key than usual, as it no longer has financial backing from the EU. The Cyclists Club is carrying on with a smaller budget and appealing to private sponsors to make it come off. Lance can testify that the bike breakfast was up to the usual high standards. So far, so good.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

EBikes Boost Hungarian Economy

It's just a personal impression, but it seems Hungary has a pretty significant bike-manufacturing industry. Along with the most familiar maker, Schwinn Csepel, there are loads of smaller brands produced here, including Caprine and Hauser (both made by a company called Avex Zrt.), Neuser, Mali, Gepida and Hercules. In 2007, a Dutch-owned company in the tiny town of Tószeg, Accell Hunland kft., became famous (in bike-blogging circles, anyway) as the maker of the sturdy, uniquely styled velocipedes of Paris's Vélib public bike system.

But does bike making really contribute much to the Hungarian economy? Maybe the following news item offers an answer: a couple weeks ago, Bosch, the electronics and services giant, opened a new plant in Miskolc that's been tasked with mass production of its new electronic bike motor.

This new plant -- which will produce some automotive gizmos along with the bike motors -- will add about 1,100 new jobs to Bosch's Miskolc operations. That's nothing to sniff at in the middle of a recession. Still, it was a surprise to learn which government official attended the plant's ribbon cutting: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Flanked by two big wigs from Bosch is the biggest cheese the Hungarian government has to offer.
According to Bosch communications officer Martina Horton, the bike motors won’t be the plants’ main product, but they will have strategic importance for the company. “This product presents very well the innovative technology of Bosch and environmental protection, so that producing eBike motors has a symbolic message as well,” Horton explained to me by email.

The motor was developed and produced in a small run in Mondeville, France, Bosch’s lead plant for eBike technology, Horton explained. Mass production was assigned to Hungary: an existing Bosch facility in the town of Hatvan will produce the motors’ electronics while the new plant in Miskolc will handle final assembly of the motor and drive unit.

These things are going to be a hit in China.
Production volume will depend on demand, according to Horton. However, the company has orders for 25 brands of eBikes, which is “a promising start,” she added.

Maybe it's fanciful thinking, but it seems to me that the government could do well by pulling out all the stops to promote Hungary as a cycling country: as a destination for cycling tourism, as a country of bikable cities, as a centre for cycling sport. If it does this, more economic plums like the one that dropped on Miskolc are sure to follow.