Monday, November 5, 2012

Quality connection to Csepel

Here's downtown Csepel, aka District XXI, a community of more than 80,000 on the north end of Csepel Island.

Today, I did a bike-nerd thing: I went out to inspect a new piece of local cycling infrastructure. The 'infra' in question is a 2.9 km path running from the village center of Csepel to the northern tip of Csepel Island and then across Kvassay Bridge to southern Pest not far from the Rakoczi Bridge. Here's a map.
In the heart of Csepel, you'll find some attractive, Socialist-era housing estates with generous allotments
of green space and playgrounds and here, a bike path with connections to the town centre.
More characteristic are these much larger residential buildings.
Lots of green space, but these big buildings make for a heavy population density.
I'm glad I took the trip. This is a fine addition to the choice of day trips to quieter and greener places outside of downtown. And the quality of the path itself beats anything else I've seen in Budapest. Everything is done beautifully: Curb cuts and rail crossings are smooth as butter, a nice beveled concrete curb separates the sidewalk and the bike path, bright red and yellow paint highlights the crossings of all intersections and driveways, and the directional signs make finding your way a breeze.

Time will tell, the materials look good and the execution is top notch. It's a pleasure to ride on.
The rails on this level crossing are tucked away under a flat-as-a-pancake deck with a hard rubber surface.
State of the art stuff.
It's all a separate two-way path running on one side of the street -- Szabadkikötő út. In principle, 'best practice' in an urban setting would be to have one-way paths or lanes on both sides of the street. However, I was happy just to be on a separated path. Szabadkikötő út is a busy four-lane motor route and the traffic seemed to be moving well over the posted speed limit of 70 km/hr.

Although it makes for a nice pleasure ride, this path was built for commuting. It's one of six new paths built during the last year to connect outlying residential areas to the city centre. I'm curious how much traffic the path gets during a typical workday rush hour.

The few criticisms I'd have are the odd placement of bike racks, including these in the picture below. There was no store, transport stop or anything nearby that would merit a stop at this location. Either something is planned to built here, or these racks are just a waste of resources.

You can chain your bike up here -- if that's what you're into.
The other is the comparatively poor directional signage on the previously existing connecting path to Rakoczi Bridge. The new path is so good, it makes the rest of the network look bad.

The Kvassay Bridge
From here, there's no indication this underpass is for cyclists as well as for pedestrians -- no sign, no yellow markings next to the zebra. But you must go through this underpass to get from Rakoczi Bridge to the new Csepel bike path.
Here's a path toward Rakoczi Bridge, but it ends before it gets anywhere. Curiously, a sign indicates
the Eurovelo 6 route lies beyond the dead end. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ferenciek tere project neglects the main problem

Artist's conception of the refashioned Ferenciek tere. View from the south side of Ferenciek tere
looking down Kossuth Lajos ut toward bridge. Image is taken from a 3-D montage at the project website.
Work will begin next month on a major refashioning of Ferenciek tere and Marcius 15 tér, two squares at the Pest foot of Erzsébet híd that until now have been blighted by the noise and stench of some of the city's worst traffic. Unfortunately, despite the project's many virtues, it looks to be a wasted opportunity to improve cycling conditions.

According to the description published on the website of the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK), the changes will make for "a much more livable, cleaner and more attractive downtown environment" that will make it worthy of its place along the capital's touristic and recreational belt.

Ferenciek tere today: the only way for pedestrians to cross it is to go down through the underpass.

The biggest improvements are from walkers' point of view. They'll get two zebras across Kossuth Lajos utca, enabling them to cross on the surface rather than having to go down through underpass by the Ferenciek tere metro stop. This long overdue change will enable people with disabilities to cross the street and make it more convenient for everyone else.

Ferenciek tere AFTER: The project would replace the underpass with a level crossing that's more accessible to everyone.
Although difficult to perceive in the conceptual images, pedestrian space on both sides of Kossuth Lajos utca will be widened and, together with some plantings, visual improvements and expanded "shopping opportunities", the square should be a more inviting place for residents and tourists alike.

From cyclists' point of view, though, what sticks out is the absence of any bike lanes along the Kossuth Lajos utca. It's ironic that while the project includes upgrades to all the side streets in the area, it does hardly anything to the major artery of Kossuth Lajos, the main source of the neighbourhood's environmental problems.

Four local environmental groups have therefore criticised the project because it does little to alleviate the "the terribly noisy, polluted motorway atmosphere." In a joint statement, reported on hvg.hu, the groups say that although they supported the project throughout preparatory discussions, their main concerns were always for bike accommodation on Kossuth Lajos (and Rákóczi út -- the whole length of the street between Keleti Station and Erzsébet hid) along with the realigning of bus routes down the centre of the street (this as a preliminary measure paving the way for the return of tram service).

Bike accommodation on Kossuth Lajos  has been a priority of the bicycle lobby at least since the mid-90s. Removing (some) space from cars and giving it over to cyclists and pedestrians would restore life to the street, rehabilitate local retail and make for a huge improvement in residents' lives. But at every opportunity, including a major road resurfacing about eight years ago, officials at City Hall have said no. With a straight face, they say there's no room for bicycles, despite this street being the widest arterial in the city.

This enormous urban freeway, with its six lanes of fast-moving, heavy motor traffic, now cuts downtown in two, and makes going from one side to the other a hassle -- certainly if you're on a bike. I hope the upcoming project at Ferenciek tere is a first step toward solving the problem, and not the city's final word on it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Beer-opening experience

As part of my continuing series of local businesses connected to the cycling scene, I give you Pest-based manufacturer Tipton Eyeworks. You may ask, "What do eyeglass frames have to do with cycling?" I could give a range of answers to this (e.g. they help you see where you're going, they keep bugs out of your eyes), however the one that seems most relevant at this point in time is the hipster connection. Tipton specializes in retro eyeglass frames made of recycled materials -- it's hard to think of a fashion accessory better suited to the hip-to-the-jive, fixie ridin' urbanite.
Tipton doesn't have figures on its penetration of the hipster market, but according to this poster, the potential is huge.
I learned about Tipton this past summer while scanning the news one day on caboodle.hu. A day or two earlier, my prescription Ray-Bans had fallen apart, the victim of a series of manglings meted out by my two-year-old daughter, Sequoia. I'd superglued them together, but this was a stop-gap solution and I desperately needed a new pair. As if bidden by my subconscious (there was no google hocus pocus here -- I hadn't done an "eyeglass" search), a banner ad appeared on the caboodle homepage -- "Tipton Eyeworks: Handmade in Hungary." Clicking further, I learned that Tipton's frames were not only locally designed and manufactured, they were made of recycled vinyl records! Good Lord, I thought. Locally made, recycled materials, rock'n'roll looks -- they're pushing all my buttons!

But that was just for starters. I went down to their workshop -- a sprawling flat in a turn-of-the-century building at Belgrad rakpart 26 -- and a young Hungarian/Dutch guy Peter greeted me at the door. He invited me to peruse the frame selection, which was considerable -- not surprising as this is the place where they're made and shipped out from to scores of eyeglass shops around the world.

I tried on several pair, all very cool looking, but most of them somehow TOO cool for my 47-year-old face. I may have harboured fantasies of looking like Buddy Holly, but when I put on a pair called "Holly", I decided these were more suited to a 18-year-old guitar slinger. After a bit, I settled on a model called "Bank ". The name makes them sound conservative, but they actually look much trendier than anything a real banker would wear (except, apparently, in France, where Tipton sells 45% of their product).

The Banks I tried on were made of three plies of plastic. The front was black grooved vinyl -- from a recycled record, as promised in the ad. The inner ply was a mosaic acetate of gold and brown and rust, and the middle ply, a nice cream colour -- like cookie filling. But these things weren't just attractive, they were substantial. In particular, the bridge was nearly a centimetre thick, which would make it more than twice as strong as my flimsy Ray-Bans. I thought -- knock on wood -- these things may well be a match for Sequoia.

So the Banks were definitely for me -- the only problem was that the bows (or "temples" as Peter called them) were a little short and didn't hook securely around my ears. No problem, said Peter. He scrounged through another drawer until he found a pair with longer bows. You'd have to understand the depth of my feelings about beer to appreciate this next bit: The frames that Peter presented had brushed steel bows which in profile looked like bottle openers. "Those look like bottle openers," I observed. "Actually, they ARE bottle openers," replied Peter. "You can really open a beer with them."

The hilarious thing is that Peter was almost apologetic about it. As if glasses that doubled as beer openers could somehow be -- I struggle to understand this -- undesirable. In fact, when he went to the computer to check the list price, this specific pair was half off. Apparently, glasses that double as beer openers are hard to sell. In France, anyway, but I say no more.

I scratched my chin as if mulling the the matter over in my head. And then I said in the most nonchalant tone I could muster that I would take them.

I've had these things since July -- about three months. They have been very effective in keeping bugs out of my eyes and helping me see while I'm biking. Sequoia has thrashed them several times, and they've retained their shape perfectly. And I've opened probably 40 beers with them. During our vacation in Turkey, they were lifesavers. Vacation apartments in Muslim countries tend not to have beer openers in their utensil drawers. Thank you Tipton Eyeworks!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Andrássy lanes drawing a crowd

Photo from the "Happy Mass" celebration following the christening of the red lanes this past May.
Photo stolen from cyclechic.blog.hu.
Andrássy út, with its new twin red bike lanes, generates about 1,000 bike trips per day, according to a post on Kerékagy. Budapest's showcase boulevard now draws about 6,000 cyclists per week and 23-24,000 per month.

The data was collected by an automatic counter installed with no fanfare in June by BKK, the umbrella organisation in charge of city transport. As on the kiskörút and on other streets where cyclists have been counted in recent years, the traffic on Andrássy is consistently higher on weekdays than on weekends.

As Kerékagy noted, this indicates that Budapest has a well-developed transport cycling culture. This has been true for several years already, but even less than a decade ago, Budapest had very little bike traffic, and the traffic that did exist was almost all on weekends.

If you're a cyclist you might not be surprised that 1,000 trips per day does not make Andrássy a major cycling street in Budapest. The kiskörút was averaging more than twice as much bike traffic this past summer. And on the Buda-side riverbank path, the numbers are apparently even higher. Critical Mass organiser Gábor Kürti recently did a manual count of traffic at Gellert tér, and he  reported counting 216 cyclists in just 10 minutes during rush hour.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Fall time's fall time


This is the pothole the morning after it caught me by surprise.
Looks conspicuous now, but the night before, it was under a pond of water!
It's fall time in Hungary, and the elements are conspiring to weed out fair-weathered cyclists. On Tuesday, they nearly weeded out me.

On the way home Tuesday, I was cruising down Kiralyok utja, a fairly busy artery running through the Romai part neighbourhood of Obuda. It was cloudy, the light was dim and droplets from a drizzling rain were beading up on my glasses. Despite this raft of visual handicaps, my mind was musing on some abstract point about cycling infrastructure as I casually slalomed between puddles and storm detritus. Then suddenly, a more concrete aspect of infrastructure intruded on my reverie. BAM! My front tire fell into a gaping pothole, and at least one of my hands slipped off the handles. I skittered off the road and careered right for a hedge. In the helpless moment before impact, I thrust my right arm toward what I thought would be a solid fence underlying the greenery. Luckily there was none. I penetrated the hedge and fell down half way through. On the ground with a throbbing pain in my shin but no apparent bones broken, I disentangled my legs from the bushes and pushed myself to my feet.

A tight shot on the enemy pothole -- warts and all.
As one car after the other splashed by without acknowledging my plight, I cussed the motoring public. However, a boy about seven or eight years old walked by just then and, with an embarrassed grin, asked me if I was ok. I was too shaken to acknowledge the comedy of it just then, but by now, I can see that it must have been hard for him to suppress a cackle after seeing an adult bike straight off the road into a hedge for no apparent reason. Still, he must have recognised trauma on my face, and it was sweet of him to inquire about my well-being -- and to refrain from actually cackling.

Thankfully, I came through with nothing more than bruised bones. It reminded me of the hazards of riding in less than ideal conditions on roads that are less than forgiving. For a car, cracks and holes in the paving barely transmit through the suspension. But for cyclists, they're a real hazard. Every time I have an accident like this, it happens in the cold, dark period between now and April, when visibility declines and holes in the paving are concealed under mud puddles or glazed with ice.

This is the hedge I ran into. Didn't destroy it, but I did give it something to think about.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to check out exemplary cycling infrastructure in the town of Zwolle, Netherlands. All the roads there are like new, exceptionally well maintained, the cycle tracks amazingly well designed, the street lighting bright and clear.

It's not an original thought, but the point it underscores for me is that the test of good road infrastructure is not how well it serves at high noon on a sunny summer day, but how well it works in the rain, after dark for a bike commuter on the verge of the road.

Of course, we live in Budapest, and when we hit the streets we make allowances for the surprise pothole and the gaping seam in the tarmac. For the sake of our own hides, we adapt to it, but that doesn't mean we should accept it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bikes for Bubi?

With the help of HUF 25 million (EUR 88,000) in European Union subsidy, Hungarian bike maker Neuzer has developed a new bike-and-dock system, and it was presented last month in Budapest as the ideal technical solution for the upcoming Bubi bike sharing scheme.

On September 20, city and government officials held a press conference to show off Neuzer's new suite of equipment, including bikes, docking stations and payment consoles. The system took the Esztergom-based company two years to develop at a total cost of HUF 60 million (EUR 212,000).

Company President András Neuzer told the press that his developers looked at existing systems and tried to correct their imperfections. For instance, several theft-prevention features have been incorporated, including a GPS system that will track bicycle locations.

In general, however, the Neuzer system would work like others that have been implemented in hundreds of cities around the world in recent years. The bikes can be removed from the automated docking stations with a contactless card, used for short periods and returned to any other docking station in the city.

The Neuzer bike-sharing system was first shown off in 2011, at an international bicycling trade fare, Eurobike, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. At that show, 11 cities had inquired about using the system for their own bike-share schemes, the company claims. At the press conference, Neuzer said that several Hungarian communities have expressed interest in the product.

Pál Völner, state secretary in charge of infrastructure at the National Development Ministry, said at the conference that the Neuzer system and Budapest's BuBi bike-sharing scheme have been developed "in harmony" with one another in the interest of developing everyday transport cycling in the capital. Völner said Neuzer can apply for the equipment tender for Bubi, which is being implemented by BKK, Budapest's umbrella agency in charge of urban transport.

According to the BKK website, Bubi will comprise 1,000 bicycles at 75 docking stations -- 57 in Pest, 17 in Buda and one on the south end of Margit Island. The scheme would launch in the fall of 2013.

Neuzer would be at least the second factory in Hungary to produce technical equipment for bike-sharing systems. The Dutch-owned Accell Hunland, based in the Hungarian village of Tószeg, produced the original bikes for Paris's Vélib system.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Methadone for Critical Mass addicts

In case you're wondering -- these are insulin syringes. 
For those frustrated by the cancellation of the fall Critical Mass, the erstwhile organisers are throwing a few bones:

  • Friday morning from 7:00 to 9:00, the Hungarian Cyclists Club will host a cyclists' breakfast as a kick-off event for the fall Bike to Work campaign. This means free sweet rolls and juice proffered at stategically located stations all over Budapest and other settlements in Hungary. If you're like me, you can hit multiple stations on the network and really pig out.

  • Friday evening at 7 p.m., there's a bicycle design exhibition featuring original work by several young Dutch bike makers. Jointly organised by the cyclists' club and the Dutch Embassy, it is at the MüSziben by Blaha Lujza tér, Corvin áruház, third floor.

  • On Saturday, from morning til early evening, several bike-related programmes will be held along Andrássy út, which will be closed to traffic for celebrations connected to European Mobility Week/Car-Free Day. Of note is an open-invitation forum on Critical Mass -- why it was cancelled this year, what's in store for the "final" CM next spring, and what's in store for CM fans in a post-CM future.

  • At 6 p.m. on Saturday, also on Andrássy, the Hungarian Cycle Chic blog will hold a cycle fashion show (Ride the Catwalk) featuring local models riding their own bikes down the "red carpet" of Andrássy's new red bike lanes. An after party is planned at the AnKERT, corner of Paulay Ede utca and Dalszínház utca.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Critical Mass "leaving slowly"

Critical Mass, shortly after it was called off the first time.
Everyone must know by now, but for posterity's sake I'll note it here anyway: the fall 2012 Critical Mass has been cancelled, and, according to organisers, they'll hold just one more ride next year before the CM closes for good.

The organisers, Károly Sinka and Gábor Kürti, head honchos of bike couriers Hajtas Pajtas, have been publicly mulling a shut-down since spring of last year. Since then, three more CMs transpired with little said about when they'd make good on their threat. As noted, one more CM is already planned, for spring of 2013, and in Sinya's and Kuku's follow-up comments on the Web, they do not rule out "reunion tours" in the future. So if this is really goodbye, it's shaping up to be a long one (and a quintessentially Hungarian one, too. According to local custom, social events never end abruptly. Guests typically take a half hour or longer between announcing their departure and actually departing. "Lassan megyünk," they say: "We're leaving slowly.").

That said, it DOES sound like the organisers are more resolved this time. In the the announcement at criticalmass.hu and in a follow-up interview on the kerekagy blog, Sinya and Kuku said the ride had run its course. They noted that during the early years, CM could rightly take credit for the rising levels of everyday cyclists in Budapest. At one point, according to their surveys, nine of 10 cyclists on Budapest streets credited CM for getting them in the saddle. By now, the statistic has flipped: just one in 10 credits CM, with the rest riding for various other reasons.

A major point the two activists make is that CM has become a distraction from the more important work of professional lobbying, in particular, that done by the Hungarian Cyclists Club (Magyar Kerékpárosklub - MK). The two view CM first and foremost as a lobbying tool, and while Critical Mass and the cycling club were once an effective double act  -- CM lending the brawn, MK the brains  -- it's no longer so, they say. With so many cyclists on the streets everyday of the week, CM has become redundant. "Now voters are already bicycling," Sinya said in the kerekagy piece. "Cycling is no longer a subculture."

The two believe that CM even undermines the bike club. Riders can join a free-of-charge Critical Mass once or twice a year and feel they've done their bit to advance cycling. But Kuku and Sinya say the most fruitful bike lobbying is done by MK, and MK needs money -- desperately. The club has teetered at the edge of insolvency for two years, as EU project opportunities dry up and contract payments get held up. One of the club's most popular initiatives -- the Bike to Work campaign (Bringazz a Munkaba -- Bam) -- lost a significant subsidy from the Hungarian government a year ago or so. Financial stability requires a bigger base of individual memberships, they say: The current pool of 1,500 is just half of what's needed.

---
For myself, I completely respect the organisers' wish to direct their energies elsewhere. And there's no doubt that CM Budapest is past its prime. Participation peaked out more than four years ago. The numbers these days are still very respectable, but we can expect them to slide. Why not quit before they do?

I also agree that the cycling club needs all the support it can get. Yet I wonder how canceling CM will help. The average CM participant, I believe, comes out for a good time and to rub elbows with fellow enthusiasts. Buying a cycling club membership is not going to satisfy that social itch.

It's my personal view that CM should be handed over to a new organisation, one that would develop it into a festival. In recent years, this is how CM has been trending anyway -- with the after parties sponsored by the Dutch Embassy, the free classical concert last fall, and the several fashion show side events by Hungarian Cycle Chic, etc. CM -- or CM's successor -- could be further developed with more attractions, commercial sponsorships, a professional fund-raising drive and so on.

In fact, Sinya and Kuku have considered this same sort of handover, but they're not very convinced. In the kerekagy piece, Sinya remarked that he had attended a similar sort of event in Berlin, but didn't see it as a model to follow. "There wasn't a problem with it, but with such an event, nothing can be achieved," he said.

Nonetheless, I assume there's a big constituency that would like to give it a go. There are many models to follow. Besides the one in Berlin, there is the American Tour de Fat, for example. This is a series of cycling events in several different cities sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing company (makers of Fat Tire ales). Tour de Fat events include a cycling parade (like CM), concerts, cycling competitions and exhibitions and more. The Tour de Fat in San Franciso is probably typical: it's organised and staffed by volunteers from the local cycling coalition and it attracts about 6,500 people. All proceeds from beer sales (the beer supplied for free by the sponsor) go to charity. Admission  is free, though participants can give a voluntary contribution of USD 5 (about HUF 1,000) to the cycling coalition.

This sort of event could be organised relatively easily in Budapest. The community, the  know-how, and the tradition of CM are already established. With a fresh perspective and new energy, this could just be what the CM community needs after eight years of serious demonstrating..
 


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bikes and buses the latest bedfellows

After a years-long lobbying effort, Budapest cyclists are finally being allowed to ride in several downtown bus lanes.

Earlier this month, the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK), the umbrella organisation overseeing all aspects of city transport, designated 10 bus lanes that will now also be open to cyclists. The lanes, marked with yellow bicycle icons, include one long artery in Buda and nine shorter sections in central Pest. In total, they run more than 4.5 km.


Perhaps the most significant is the one in Buda, on Fő utca between Bem József tér and a Clark Ádám tér. This will serve as the non-touristic cycling alternative to the Buda korzó path, which has become a conflict zone in recent years because of the colliding interests of its diverse users. It draws loads of tourists, on foot and on bike, as well as strollers, dogs, roller skaters and others, many moving at a liesurely pace. Weaving in and out amongst these users are sport and fitness cyclists, racing at top speed on graphite frame road bikes, as well as utility cyclists trying to get from point A to B as quickly and efficiently as they can.

There's long been discussion of creating a parallel, faster route for the latter categories of cyclists, and it appears the new shared bike-bus lane on Fő utca will be it.

But the main news here is the long-awaited opening of priority bus lanes to cyclists. The ban on cycling in these lanes has been a sore point because it has meant cyclists have just two unappealing choices: either ride along the curb illegally, and deal with the honking censure of BKK bus drivers or ride legally but unsafely in the second lane over. In that position, faster motor traffic passes the cyclist on both the left and right, creating an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.

Karoly Sinka, a leader of the city’s Critical Mass movement, pointed this out in a presentation this summer to recruits of the city’s new bicycle patrol squad. Sinka noted that enforcing the ban is not only bad for cyclists, it’s bad for motorists because cyclists in the middle of a multilane road pose a bigger obstruction to traffic than those riding along the curb.

According to BKK, the new bike-bus lanes are part of a package of preparatory measures for Budapest’s public bicycle system, Bubi, due to launch 2013.

In its web announcement about the lanes, the bicycle club said it hopes further bike-bus lanes will follow because they are “inexpensive and safe developments.” The club included a list of pointers on how cyclists should ride in the lanes (e.g. don’t overtake buses on the right side, pull to the side at cross streets to allow trailing buses by, etc.). The club also promised to host classes for bus drivers to orient them on the new bike-bus lanes.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sziget Festival: an Old Fart's View

This guy has a great attitude -- unlike me. Photo courtesy of  the Sziget Festival.
These are the dog days of summer in Budapest so along with heat waves, tick infestations and a virtual shut-down of the non-touristic economy, there is the annual bane of my commuting existence -- the Sziget Festival. In my younger days, of course, I looked forward to this international pop music extravaganza. But now that I'm a crusty old fart who doesn't even recognize most of the names on the Main Stage programme (The Beatsteaks? Two-Door Cinema Club?), the festival has become for me just a week-long nuisance, situated as it is on the Buda Quay right in the middle of my work commute.

The festival is on Hajógyari Sziget (Boat Factory Island -- during the rest of the year, a tranquil public park with an incredible, free-of-charge collection of slides for the kiddies) and the way that most day visitors get there is by taking the Szentendrei HÉV. They get off at the Filitorigát stop and from there it's a jam-packed queue of about 400 metres to the festival entrance. The queue is right on the bike path so if you happen to be cycling there in the evening, when most people come up to the Sziget, you will get caught in the queue.

This year the organisers worked out a detour and they've posted maps of it along the bike path at both the northern and southern approaches to the Sziget. The last two days I've stopped and studied these signs but I couldn't decipher them. Both days, I forged ahead following some yellow arrow signs that I assumed delineated the Sziget detour. But within a couple hundred metres, the arrows ran out and I was lost on some back street by a district heating plant in this industrial no-man's land west of Szentendrei út. I ended up coming back to Szentendrei út a couple kilometres north of the Sziget, and then riding on that street for about 5 km to Békásmegyer, where I could finally rejoin the bike path. Szentendrei út is a busy, 70 km/hr thoroughfare that's a hazard to anyone not encased in an army tank. I've decided for the remainder of the Sziget (until Sunday evening), I will stick to the bike path despite the queues of festival goers.

I should say, as a public service for those who like music festivals, that the Sziget Festival actually has some excellent accommodations for cyclists. For the past several years, they've offered free, guarded bike parking on site. Previously, it was managed by the Hungarian Cyclists' Club, this year it seems to have been taken over by MOL, the Hungarian petrol station chain. Is this a case of green washing or a commercial contingency for the post-petrol era? MOL actually has a multi-faceted "bike programme", which I wrote about here.

The Sziget organisers have a whole "mobility management" plan to deal with the tens of thousands of people who come to the festival -- half from outside Hungary. I wrote about that here.

This year's relevant info on Sziget bike parking and other travel pointers are here.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Two beers -- no problem!

The latest proposal would allow moderate drinking and cycling as long as you don't present an "accident hazard."
Photo from here.
It looks like Hungary may soon show a more lenient view toward drinking while cycling. As part of a rethink of the more onerous elements of the traffic code, the zero-tolerance policy on drinking while cycling has come under scrutiny.

This came to light in a press conference hosted by the governing party's point man on the issue, Fidesz MP Márk Bíró, and a guy who seems to be the only private-sphere stakeholder who's been consulted: Kázmér Kovács, legal advisor to the Hungarian Auto Club.

It would appear that cycling groups are being left out of the process. But the call for lenience on drinking and cycling was mooted and, surprisingly, it came from Kovács. The car club attorney suggested that penalty levels be set on a gradual scale when blood-alcohol levels are in the range of 0.5 to 0.8 percent. He suggested further that for alcohol levels this low, citations shouldn't be issued at all unless the cyclist is causing an accident hazard or is riding on a main road.

Kovács has in mind farm workers who have a few at the end of the day. "Currently, you can get a fine of tens of thousands of forints if you're riding from one farm to another on a dirt road after two glasses of beer," he noted.

Given the rural concern behind the proposal, it's not clear that this will help Budapest tipplers. We don't have many dirt roads here. 


But hopefully, the discussion will cover urban considerations because it's a big issue here, as evident from the full-to-bursting bike racks outside beer gardens on any given summer night. Many car owners bar hop by bike because they don't want to risk heavy penalties for drinking and driving.

During boot camp for the national police's new Budapest bike patrol, recruits received some sensitivity training on this very issue from the organisers of Critical Mass. One point that was stressed: many cities take a lenient attitude toward drinking and cycling for the practical reason that it's more desirable than drinking and driving.

The proposed modifications to the traffic code (KRESZ) will be taken up at the next meeting of the government's Cabinet, according to index.hu. Once approved, they could come into force on September 1.

Cyclists with comments or suggestions are urged to send them to:
kreszmodositas@gmail.com.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Congestion charge flames out

Rush hour on Erzsebet Bridge.
So congestion charging in Budapest is dead -- again. Last Friday, Parliament took up a proposal that would have given municipalities (such as Budapest) the right to implement such a charge. The bill went down in a crushing 305-14 vote. The measure, proposed by the super-majority Fidesz party, garnered support from just two of its own MPs; the other supporters were from the left-leaning green party LMP. Even one of the two Fidesz representatives who submitted the bill voted against it.

Well, what did we expect? This idea, mooted and buried multiple times by former Free Democrat Mayor Gábor Demszky, was suddenly revived in January as City Hall groped for ideas to save its public transport  company, BKV, from going bankrupt. At first, City Hall released a trial balloon concerning an annual tax on car ownership, and after the predictable media outcry, the idea was dropped.

V District Mayor Antal Rogán, of Fidesz, voiced support for the idea of congestion charging, and somehow City Hall got on board. Mayor István Tarlós, who ran on the Fidesz ticket during his campaign but who has strained relations with the party leadership, walked a fine line on the issue. He stressed first and foremost that the idea was not his own, but one that he was forced to consider because his predecessor (Demszky) had promised it as a condition for getting EU funding for the Fourth Metro line. The proposal gained traction as a kind-of emergency fiscal measure along with proposals to further milk public transport users, including increased fares, application of VAT on ticket sales (already implemented) and reductions in social discounts.

My initial skepticism was based on the apparent rush with which it would be implemented. Congestion charging is an extremely controversial way to deal with traffic problems and invariably takes a lot of time and care to put in place. In Europe, although several cities have studied the idea and have attempted to bring it into force, just two, London and Stockholm, have implemented a proper congestion charge. A congestion charge is now being piloted in Milan, but only after several years experience with a less expansive eco-charging scheme.

Authorities here seemed clueless about what they were getting into. The suggested timetable for implementation was simply not realistic: City Hall said it would be up and running in a year's time, by July 2013. Never mind feasibility studies, never mind public consultation, never mind a system design, never mind public tenders for the necessary hardware and software.

Last month, I heard a presentation by David Vitezy, director of the city's umbrella transport coordinating center, BKK. He spoke about various transport schemes in Budapest, including the congestion charge. I asked him how BKK was going to manage political opposition to the idea. His answer amazed me: There was no political opposition, he said. The City Assembly and the leadership of virtually all of Budapest's district governments agreed congestion charging needed to be implemented, he said, adding that because the previous government obliged the city to implement it, everyone had political cover.

Granted, that was before the media started to take the idea seriously. In the ensuing few weeks, the idea started to unravel as the press ran one story after another about the charge's potential pitfalls. Streets on the perimeter of the cordon would be filled with parked cars, home values would go down in neighbourhoods outside the zone, drivers would find loopholes to avoid the charge. One article made the dubious argument that the charge would largely be state money circulating back into state coffers. Why? Because state offices account for a "good portion" of downtown workplaces.

A couple weeks ago, Mayor Tarlos looked to be back-tracking when he suggested, rather than having a congestion fee, there would just be a toll on the city's bridges. This would be easier to implement and, I suppose, more populist because it would target mainly Rozsadomb yuppies.

Funnily enough, there was very little forewarning in the press about the Parliamentary vote. The proposal was submitted by its fickle proponents just three weeks earlier and, like most legislation going through the single-party dominated body, it came to a vote with no public debate, despite its decisive consequence. I reckon it took nearly everyone by surprise except the MPs themselves. It definitely did me -- even though I knew that, as in other countries, there would have to be law modifications at the national level to enable the congestion charge. But in Hungary's case, there just wasn't any noise about this critical stage of the process.

One of the ironies is that it was pressure from the Fidesz government that drove City Hall to moot the idea in the first place. Congestion charging was part of the long-term fiscal stability plan that City Hall bashed together this spring in the wake of BKV's debt crisis. The government compelled the city to draft the plan as a condition for paying off BKV's loans. Now that the government has shot down a central pillar of the same plan, how can it maintain its tough stance on BKV subsidies?

As to where this leaves Budapest in light of the previous quid pro quo with the European Union, I have no idea. It's clear from media reports that city leaders are happy to wash their hands of it. The current administration "never insisted" on the congestion charge, according to a statement on the BKK website. City Hall is also arguing that the measure was premature and that if it ever does go forward, it should be preceded by strategic investments in park and rides and other transport infrastructure. That's precisely what Mayor Demszky said when he successfully put off congestion charging until he was well out of office.



Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bike Cops Take Subculture Sensitivity Training

They are among us.
Nearly a decade into Budapest’s bicycling revolution, the police are at last rolling out a cycling patrol squad in the capital. An article in Index.hu both stokes and allays my misgivings about it.

The worrisome part is that they'll be patrolling precisely those areas where cyclists are apt to be drinking adult beverages and are therefore liable for drunk-driving citations. On the bright side, the patrols have taken some sensitivity training on the local cycling subculture, including the part about why lightly-buzzed bikers are not the biggest menace to society.

Bicycle patrols are not new to Hungary, but to date they have been confined mainly to the countryside, where cycling has historically been much more common. Now that cycling has also caught on in Budapest, the National Police have decided to urbanise the concept.

As in the countryside, the new bike patrols in the city will cover popular summer recreation routes. These include Budapest’s two largest public parks (Margit Island and City Park in Pest), the connecting routes in between and the shared bike and foot paths on both banks of the Danube River.

The new scheme includes just 10 bicycles – mountain bikes painted in the blue and white colours of the National Police Force. They're equipped pretty much the same as any bike, with the exception of a special compartment for handcuffs just below the rear carrying rack. A squad of 40 officers has been selected for the detail, working in shifts from the early morning until 9 p.m. everyday.

According to the index article, the new squad is not meant as a crackdown on scofflaw cyclists. The officers say they will look to maintain order amongst all traffic regardless of mode.

In a sign of good will toward the cycling community, the new patrols were sat down for a presentation about the city’s cycling subculture by Károly Sinka ("Sinya"), co-director of a local bike-courier business and a leader of Budapest’s Critical Mass movement. During his talk, Sinka told the officers that parts of Hungary’s traffic code just don’t make sense from a cyclist’s point of view. A prime example is the prohibition on cyclists riding in certain priority bus lanes -- including Fő utca on the Buda side, Sinka said. If a cyclist follows the rule and instead rides in the next lane over – in the middle of the carriageway -- he or she becomes much more of an obstruction to motor traffic, he said.

Sinka also mentioned the zero-tolerance drink-driving rule. It’s clear that a significant portion of those riding bikes during Budapest evenings are drinking alcohol and police could bring charges against everyone of them, he conceded. "However, it’s not certain if it’d be worth it,” Sinka said, adding that the police in many large cities are expressly asked not to perform blood-alcohol tests on cyclists. “Most such cyclists, as long as they’re not staggering, do not pose any danger to traffic.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ribbon cutting for Andrássy bike lanes

If you haven't seen them yet, Tuesday will be an ideal time to check out the new red bike lanes on Andrássy út. The lanes are part of a traffic reconfiguration between Bajcszy-Zsilinszky út and Oktogon. The bike lanes used to run between street parking and the curb. Now the parking spaces and bike lanes have switched places, with cars right next to the curb and cyclists along the edge of the outside traffic lane.

Now that the red paint has dried, a formal ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Opera. Mayor István Tarlos will preside along with head of the Budapest Transport Centre Dávid Vitezy. Critical Mass organiser Gábor Kürti, who spearheaded recent lobbying efforts for the bike lane change, has issued a facebook invite to get cyclists to show their appreciation. He's called for two processions up and down the new lanes -- one immediately after the christening ceremony and another at 5:30 p.m. -- for the sake of working people who can't attend the first.

The new configuration rectifies problems that cyclists had pointed out before bike lanes were first installed on Andrássy in the 1990s. First, the curbside lanes made cyclists vulnerable to getting "doored," not only because they were too close to the parking, but also because people exiting cars on the passenger side are less likely to look over their shoulder before opening the door.

The second issue related to a general problem with cycling accommodation that is hidden from traffic (in this case by a barrier of parked cars). Car drivers aren't aware of the cyclists, so when they cross paths at intersections, motorists are caught by surprise.

When the curbside lanes were created on Andrássy, the prevailing wisdom (i.e., ignorance) held that the safest solution was to separate cyclists from traffic. It was feared that if the bikes lanes ran next to car traffic, cyclists might swerve in front of vehicles, particularly when confronted with opening car doors.

The new arrangement, though, makes this fear seem unwarranted. For one, a gap of about one metre is left between car parking and the bike lanes, which is sufficient clearance to avoid getting doored. For another, when you're on these open bike lanes -- as opposed to being hemmed in between a row of cars and a sidewalk  -- you feel you can see everything, that motorists can see you and that you have room for maneuver if you need it.

Tuesday's bike ride is being called a Happy Mass. It'll be the third such ride after earlier ones celebrating the creation the bike lanes on the Kiskörút and Thököly út. Political lobbying isn't just about petitioning, it's also about honoring those who deliver the goods.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tied to Training Wheels

There's a news story circulating on the net just now claiming that modern science has rendered obsolete the age old child-rearing tool of training wheels. Enlightened parents are hereby advised to get their kids up on two wheels with a "balance bike." Science has proven the superiority of this approach unequivocally. As one article states, "It corrects the tragic historical error of training wheels."
The balance bike corrects "the tragic historical error of training wheels". Please!

Call me silly, but I actually took this as a personal affront. I taught my son to ride a bike with training wheels, just as my dad taught me. For all I know, every one of the Spencers right up the patrilinial line (patri-line?) did the same as far back as the invention of training wheels. And now, we're asked to shake our heads at our wrong-headed, old ideas and throw training wheels onto the technological trash heap of lobotomies, electroshock therapy and eight-track tape players.


Not that I have anything against balance bikes. These are quite popular among my cohort of parents here in Budapest, and I'm actually planning to give one a go when our two-year-old outgrows her three-wheeler (see above video, from when Sequoia was 14-15 months). The logic behind them seems sound enough: on a little balance bike, kids can support themselves with their feet and when they coast with their feet up, they learn balance -- balance without the distraction of pedaling.

The case against training wheels, meanwhile, is that they offer stability but give no opportunity to practice balance. On  a  bike equipped with training wheels, the child learns only how to pedal.

Or so the argument goes -- despite the fact that countless children actually HAVE learned how to bike via training wheels. The research against them was published several years ago in a book Cycling Science by MIT engineering professor David Gordon Wilson. He was quoted in the above article as saying, "It's hard to see how training wheels can inculcate any of the desired balancing habits, unless they are off the ground."

Wilson is apparently the philosophical godfather of a new movement / programme in San Francisco called Freedom from Training Wheels. I've never been to a "Freedom" event, but the web page reveals an undercurrent of zealotry. One instructor is quoted: “Never introducing the training wheels means you never need to take them away.” As if training wheels were a pernicious addiction.

I would say this is all a bit over the top. Although I understand the theoretical arguments, the fact is, training wheels can help a child learn to bike. Perhaps they just need to be used properly, keeping in mind Prof. Wilson's comment above. As my father did with my bike, the training wheels were installed so that they were firmly against the ground. As I learned to pedal and gained experience, they were raised bit by bit, so that they no longer rode firmly on the ground. Eventually they were raised 3-4 centimetres above the ground, so that, as I would pedal down the street, they would touch tarmac only intermittently or when I cornered sharply. I wasn't aware of it, but when I would ride in a (more or less) straight line, I was balancing on the front and back tires and not relying at all on the training wheels.

When my father finally removed the wheels and pushed me down our driveway for my first unassisted ride, I remember riding off straightaway without any trouble at all.

I took the same approach with our first born, Lance, and it worked fine. There was one false start -- I took him to the park one day and removed the training wheels to see if he was ready. I pushed him around for an hour, working up a minor backache in the process. But he wasn't ready for it and we finally gave up and put the wheels back on. A few months later, we had another go in the square next to our house. This time, he succeeded. And his several weeks of training wheel practice had enabled him to pedal like a demon as he developed his balance and cornering skills. Lance was just 4 1/2 at the time.


It could be that his little sister, taking the 'balance bike' approach, will learn at a younger age. If so hat's off to David Gordon Wilson. But I'll always have a place in my heart for training wheels.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reckless motorist caught on helmet cam


This is fascinating. A local cycling blogger made a video of a reckless motorist with a helmet camera, and used the evidence to file a successful civil complaint with the district police.

 The incident, which occurred in late January on Király utca, is detailed on the blog Sajat Zsiron ('On your own fat', a cycling idiom for riding alone or at the head of a peloton without the benefit of a draft). As the video shows, the cyclist was riding down the street at a point where it splits into three lanes: a bus lane on the right (legally forbidden to cyclists in Hungary), the middle lane in which the cyclist was riding, and then a lane on the left for oncoming traffic. Adhering to traffic rules, the cyclist kept on the right edge of the middle lane as a fast-moving Honda approached from behind. The Honda driver pulled ahead to overtake, trying to squeeze through a very narrow gap between the cyclist and an oncoming Mercedes SUV in the adjacent lane. Seeing that the gap was too narrow, the cyclist veered right into the bus lane. And it was in just the nick of time too, because the Honda veered right as well, narrowly avoiding a head-on with the SUV, but actually brushing the arm of the cyclist as it raced ahead.

It happened on a weekend and there was hardly any traffic. The passing motorist apparently made the dangerous move simply to get through an intersection whose light was about to change.

The blogger decided to use the clip to file a complaint with the police. Having never tried this, the cyclist had no idea what might happen. And after consulting with a Hungarian helmet-camera internet forum, it was apparent that no one else had either. The blogger also consulted a lawyer for the Hungarian Cyclists' Club who was similarly clueless about what might happen, but gave encouragement nonetheless. 

To make a long story short, the cyclist was pleasantly surprised to get a friendly and prompt reply from the VI District police. Just a week after reporting the incident, a lieutenant made contact and took down the cyclist's personal data, typed up a statement and assured that the video would prove useful in the case. Not only did it clearly capture the offending driver's license plate number, it showed exactly what had happened in undeniable fashion.

But then came silence. Nothing but bureaucratic dead air week after week as the cyclist waited for a decision. After more than two months passed with no news, the cyclist figured the complaint had probably become mulch at the bottom of the lieutenant's case load. But finally, on April 26, good tidings arrived in the mail: a court decision on the case stated the driver had been  fined HUF 50,000 and had 5 points docked from their driver's record.

In the next day's update, the blogger writes:
"I felt unspeakable joy in that moment when I realised that the police really do deal with us (cyclists)."
The post stresses that the goal was never to financially destroy the motorist. Rather, it was simply to draw their attention and get them to consider that you cannot jeopardise another's life in such a manner, that cyclists have no protection against speeding metal objects, and that motorists therefore need to watch out for us.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Born-again biker

Satisfied customer!
Here's a story about how bike-sharing is a terrific enhancement of public transport -- one that works for all kinds of people. I have a friend, Charlie Szabo, who was born and raised in Budapest, but now lives in Washington D.C. His main mode of local transport -- in Budapest and in D.C. -- has always been public transport.

However, in recent years he's been frustrated with the standard of D.C.'s system. It has no trams (although there's a plan afoot to reintroduce them) and the metro system is often broken down, unreliable or worse. Charlie says the escalators hardly ever work, which made me think of the escalator at the Margit hid HEV stop, but Charlie assures me it's a more pervasive, chronic problem there.

Charlie's deliverance from sub-par mass transit came in the form of a bike-sharing service. D.C. first launched bike sharing on an experimental basis back in 2008 with a token fleet of 120 bikes and 10 docking points. Despite the limited utility of the system, thousands of people jumped on board. Emboldened by the positive response, the neighbouring jurisdictions of Washington DC and Arlington, Virginia jointly launched a full-scale public bike system in 2010 called Capital Bikeshare ("CaBi" for short). The system now has 1,200 bikes and 140 stations around the metro area.

Until recently, Charlie has not been super active and he admitted to me that, aside from a pedal-powered beer run last summer at  Balaton, he had not ridden a bicycle in more than 20 years. But Capital Bikeshare proved too good to pass up. He lives pretty close to the centre of things and says the service is very convenient for his transport needs. Here's what he told me about it:
Happy to report that i just signed up for capitalbikeshare, and loving it!! It's been around for about a year, and new bike racks are popping up in DC and Arlington and Pentagon City just about every couple weeks. It costs $ 75 for a year and the first 30 minutes is free, but you get another 30 if you plug it in and take it out again. It really cuts down on bus fare and saves a lot of time and i might even get in shape for bikini season, too!! 
This is the most encouraging endorsement I've ever seen on bike sharing. Awesome!

Monday, April 23, 2012

April showers, pedal power

Beware the Green Shirts, courtesy of http://indafoto.hu/szentpeter/criticalmass_2012
The traditional Earth Day Critical Mass went off yesterday with a good result, considering the cool, sometimes rainy weather. An estimated 10,000 participants joined the procession, which ran approximately 10 km from Szent Istvan Park to Varosliget.

Last year's shirt says she's a CM veteran, courtesy of http://indafoto.hu/szentpeter/criticalmass_2012
Critical Honcho Gabor Kurti commented on recent evidence that the number of everyday cyclists in the city is growing rapidly. In March, the first year-on-year results were posted from the automatic cyclist counter on the kiskorut in front of the National Museum. It seems the number of passing cyclists this March was 80 percent greater than last March.

"That many everyday cyclists is going to completely change the face of the city," Kurti told Nepszava.hu.

As with the past several iterations of the twice-annual ride, the Dutch Embassy was a sponsor and held an after-party at the Toldi Cinema, where the movie, Rikshaw Rush ('Riksa Laz') was screened. Appropriately combining the key elements of Hungary, Netherlands and bicycling, this movie tells the story of Hungarian Rickshaw Taxi drivers in Amsterdam (believe it or not).

Recumbent magyar patriots, courtesy of http://indafoto.hu/szentpeter/criticalmass_2012
Sorry to say, I can't add any personal observations. I was on a family trip in the Styrian countryside, and did it by car which is practically Earth Day sacrilege. Whatever I do next year, I'll try to do it by bike.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bubi Seeks Supplier


The sharp logo for Bubi
is a good start.

Work continues on Budapest's future bike-share system, christened "Bubi" according to a popular vote in the fall of 2010. Later this month, the search will begin for a system supplier -- a commercial enterprise that could provide bikes, docking stations, payment system and other technology and services that would make it go.

To this end, the city-owned company in charge of Bubi, the Budapest Transport Center (BKK -- Budapest Közlekedési Központ), has scheduled an "information day" on March 21 where would-be suppliers can present their goods. The event isn't public -- just interested contractors are invited.

The programme's agenda is here and those who have further questions are asked to contact Gergely Kovács and Péter Dalos of the engineering firm COWI Hungary Ltd., the subcontractor that did Bubi's feasibility study and other groundwork. Their email: kerekpar@cowi.hu.

Luckily for Budapest, public bicycle systems have quite some history by now, and BKK should have a good choice of suppliers: firms such as JCDecaux, Clear Channel and Next Bike have implemented and operate hundreds of similar systems throughout Europe and beyond.

But due to a peculiarity of Budapest's situation, Bubi's financial set-up could be tricky. The vast majority of the implementation costs will be funded by an EU subsidy (HUF 900 million or EUR 3.1 million), and this will apparently put certain constraints on how BKK finances the operating costs. Many other systems around the world partner with a big commercial sponsor (e.g. Barclay's Bike Hire in London) or an ad company (e.g. JCDecaux and Clear Channel). These arrangements lessen the burden on the municipal budget -- or at least create the illusion of doing so. However, due to the Bubi's big EU subsidy, such models may not be legally possible in Budapest.

Hopefully some clever ideas come up at this month's meeting, and the long-term prospects for Bubi will be more clear.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stitching Together a Cycling Culture

With Budapest and the rest of Europe in the clutch of a cycling-averse cold snap, the only bike news I'm anticipating in the coming weeks is the prospect that we may soon be able to pedal across the surface of the Danube. In the meantime, I wanted to post this feature about the budding local industry in Budapest focused on cycling accessories and cycling fashion. It seems to me a rare example of capitalism going hand-in-hand with progressive social activism rather than merely exploiting it (apologies to fans of CSR).

Tamás Tűhegyi sewing bags as his mother taught him.
In Budapest, a cottage industry of cycling fashion and accessories has blossomed in recent years, one of the fruits of the local cycling and Critical Mass movement. It includes makers of clothing, accessories and small-production boutique bicycles. Not only has it given sustenance to those directly involved, it has helped drive an emerging DIY movement concerned with sustainable, local production; “buy-local” shopping and, of course, environmentally friendly mobility.

With each of its bags being handmade, Bagaboo can offer custom detailing.
The small bike-bag maker Bagaboo typifies the movement. The company started in 2006, a classic case of necessity as the mother of invention. Local bicycle courier Tamás Tűhegyi, then 25 and working for an outfit called Herce-Hurca (roughly, 'Much ado about nothing'), needed a new parcel bag, but the only manufacturer in Hungary was notoriously slow in filling orders. So Tűhegyi decided to make one himself on a home sewing machine. With the help of his mother, an accomplished seamstress, he produced a bag and the idea of a commercial enterprise was born.


Tűhegyi worked on design and manufacturing, his mother helped with custom embroidery and his sister pitched in by answering email orders and processing invoices. From the beginning, Bagaboo strived to fill a niche for durable, customizable bags that match the quality of established international brands while having the cost advantages of a Central European base. Initially, the company plied the Hungarian market, advertising on the Internet and through Tűhegyi’s social connections in the bike-messenger community. In time, he translated the website into English and began selling bags abroad, mainly in Japan, Germany and the UK, and recently in the Netherlands.


The company's product line began with a basic messenger bag and hip pouch, and was soon beefed up with a professional messenger bag called the "Workhorse". These days, the selection also incorporates double-strapped backpacks, tool pouches, iPad sleeves and U-lock cases. As evidence of Bagaboo's fashion focus, the website describes an item called the "Eco-bag" as ideal for customers "who like the style ... of messenger bags, but not always using their bag on a bicycle". Future bags will be designed especially for school children. (As I told Tűhegyi, considering the volume of stuff Hungarian school kids have to schlep back and forth from school, this is sure to be a lucrative market).

When I did an email interview with him last week, Tűhegyi said he didn't know how many bags he produced per month. He said he's only concerned whether the business is running smoothly, and that he doesn't keep track of things like production volume or growth forecasts. However, in a 2008 article, he indicated that the company was making approximately 100 bags per month at that time, with each of Bagaboo's five sewers turning out approximately one bag every three hours. These days, in addition to founding family members, Bagaboo employs six workers to cut fabric and sew bags, and production has moved from the family flat to a proper industrial space.

Although its markets have expanded beyond Hungary's borders, Bagaboo maintains a highly visible presence in the Budapest cycling community. Along with fellow Hungarian bag makers such as Bring a Bag and Lupusbag, Bagaboo highlights its products regularly at bicycle fashion shows in the capital city. A staple of the cycling community’s social calendar, these events provide a stage where traders of cycling paraphernalia can show off their wares in an entertaining, social atmosphere. Bike fashion shows have been held as side events for the twice annual Critical Mass and during closing parties for the national bike-to-work contest (Bringazz a munkaba). Always including participation of cycling activist groups, the events seem to be a simpatico blend of social activism and commerce.

Alongside other local businesses, Bagaboo partners with the Hungarian Cyclists Club, having an icon on the organisation’s homepage and an ongoing promotion in which club members can buy the company's products at a discount.

Despite evidence to the contrary, though, Tűhegyi gives a modest assessment of the industry’s role in popularising urban cycling. Having volunteered as an escort for one of Budapest’s first Critical Masses in the mid-aughts, Tűhegyi still believes that this highly popular social movement is the main driver of the local urban cycling movement. Other actors in the community, including Bagaboo, contribute relatively minor roles, he said.

I asked Janos Laszlo, president of the Hungarian Cyclists Club, about the contribution that companies like Bagaboo make to the popularising of everyday cycling. I was a little disappointed that he didn't give me the expected, agreeable quote that would neatly affirm my thesis. Instead he expressed a viewpoint that I'm familiar with from the CycleChic blog: that people shouldn't feel they need to have special equipment, clothing and accessories in order to cycle.

I agree with that. However, considering the success of dozens of cycle fashion shows over the years, not to mention the proliferation of fixi bikes, rolled-up pant cuffs and messenger (or pseudo-messenger) bags on Budapest streets, there's no question that these trends are part and parcel of the recent upsurge in everyday cycling in Budapest. So while I believe that vanity and consumerism underlie many of society's problems, I'm going to give a pass to cycling fashion.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Car Tax Dead but Congestion Charge Gets a Lift

A proposal to levy a flat monthly tax on Budapest car owners looked dead on arrival today. Budapest City Hall, grasping for a life line to pull BKV out of its financial quagmire, was considering a monthly tax of almost HUF 10,000 a month on car owners, which would raise an estimated HUF 32 billion per year. But the idea lasted about half a news cycle. Mayor Istvan Tarlos and just about everyone else denied having anything to do with introducing the proposal, and by Wednesday afternoon, the mayor was saying it was stillborn.

The encouraging news is that the idea of a congestion charge is still alive. Antal Rogan, mayor of District V and leader of the Fidesz faction in the City Assembly, pronouced that this would be would be a "more rational and reasonable solution."

I am in complete agreement. The reason a congestion charge would be better is because it would be levied only on drivers entering downtown. Car owners who don't come downtown or who come by another mode (public transport, foot, boat or bike) don't have to pay.

With congestion charges, the intent is to put a price on road use and thereby pressure some car owners to not drive downtown. The avoided traffic leads to reduced congestion, while the remaining traffic yields revenue that can be used to improve non-car mobility options (public transport, bike lanes and foot paths), which will lead to further reduction in car use. A virtuous cycle.

Congestion charges are very controversial because you're asking people to pay something that they currently get for free. However, the free-of-charge status quo does come with a price: travelers' time. It is partly because road use is free that they're so crowded. Putting a price on them will mean that those who don't really need to drive downtown will avoid the trip while those who do need to will be able to make the journey on less congested streets. This perspective prompted a New Zealand blogger to say that congestion charging should really be sold as a "congestion avoidance" scheme.

Some conservative bloggers have argued -- a bit disingenuously -- that such charges are unfair because they tax the poor so the rich can drive fast. But roadways are a valuable, limited resource and there's no reason why they should be free of charge to everyone at all times. And, in any case, a congestion charge can be implemented to include consideration for social fairness, including income-based discounts.

I imagine the flat, monthly tax seemed an attractive option to decision makers because it would be relatively simple and inexpensive to implement. A congestion charging scheme, by contrast, will involve a cordon of ANPR cameras that monitor every entry point into downtown along with enabling legislation at the national level and more. However, there's no sense in taxing every car owner regardless of their travel habits. I hope the city leadership can use the opportunity of the current crisis to push forward a sensible idea.