Monday, January 16, 2012

Diversion Time

BKV: Not a particularly diverting experience, either.
For the past several weeks, local news sites have been chronicling the financial crisis facing Budapest public transport company BKV. With payment deadlines on several huge loans coming up next month, a day of reckoning is drawing near, and BKV's prospects look dismal from every angle: they don't have enough money of their own and their would-be backstop, the Hungarian national government, can't handle its own problems, let alone Budapest's. And in any case, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has little incentive and far less good will to stick his neck out for political independent István Tarlos, the capital's mayor.

Anyway, Erik D'Amato lays out the state of play in a thoroughgoing post on The article sums up the financial and political aspects of the story, and takes the added step, seldom taken by Hungarian journalists, of considering the impacts on "you the reader." If the crisis does devolve into a transit worker strike and service shutdown, hundreds of thousands of people will be stuck without their usual mode of transport.

Erik mentions an survey on what mode of transport readers would use in case of a BKV shutdown. The #1 response (by a 2-1 margin over #2, a private car): the bicycle. Erik editorialises:
"(That's) something that might be a fun temporary diversion in summer, but hardly one in the dead of a Central European winter."
On the contrary, I imagine the Index readers fully appreciate the challenges of riding a bike in a Central European winter: You need to dress warmly and you need to beware of slippery spots when it's below freezing. Not a big deal. Commuters in Denmark and Sweden bike through winters that make the ones here seem like a trip to the Király baths: a little dank and gloomy, perhaps, but generally pretty warm.

I can imagine a Scandinavian reading Erik's comment about the fear of cycling in the "dead" of one of our winters, and thinking. "What a bunch of wussies!" Just the same thought occurred to me this morning as I was bumping down the tracks on the HÉV by Pannonia telep. I looked out the window and noticed a woman about 65-70 years of age bicycling along on the road next to us. She was bundled up in a scarf and big ski parka, and, although her determined expression did not suggest  she was having "a fun temporary diversion," neither did she seem in an advanced state of hypothermia. I imagine she was regarding all of us in the HÉV, and thinking, "What a bunch of wussies!"

That said, I don't look forward to a BKV shutdown. The system carries approximately 55-60 percent of city traffic in downtown Budapest, so you can't take it away without causing major problems.

On Friday, as a first condition of getting emergency government subsidies for BKV, Mayor Tarlos submitted a plan to secure the long-term financial sustainability of the public transport system. Along with fare hikes, the plan calls for the implementation of an inner-city congestion charge and the establishment of a network of park and rides on the congestion zone's periphery. These ideas were mooted several years ago by former Mayor Gábor Demszky, but there's never been any action on them. Just as the city has made no real attempt to achieve its stated goal of a 15% modal share for cycling by 2015.

If there will be a silver lining to the BKV crisis, it may be that it will finally kick-start some ad hoc action on the city transport system's strategic development.

No comments: