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!