Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Conquest!

The holidays are a time for indulgence, so I'm going to indulge in some parental pride here. A couple days ago, out daughter Sequoia took her first unassisted ride on a pedal bike, and at the tender age of three and a half!

She's been gearing up to this for some time now. She got the bike over the summer (a hand-me-down from our friends the Flynns, thank you!), and I've been pushing her around the courtyard on it. Having mastered balance on a balance bike, she was immediately able to coast unassisted for short distances. However, pedaling was something she had to work up to. Part of the challenge was just being able to extend her legs far enough -- the bike was a little big for her, and, as you can see, it still is. When she's on the seat, she can't reach the ground with her toes.

With time, she figured out the pedaling part, and during the last week, it all came together. She did a long unassisted ride on Christmas Eve, but I didn't have my camera with me for that one. So on Christmas Day, we went out to Margit Island and did it again, this time with camera. She rode super well down the sidewalk on the way to the big playground, even dodging around oncoming pedestrians. Later, on the drive in front of the Alfréd Hajós Swimming Pool, she did a sharp turnaround, and then stopped and got off the bike unassisted. That was a first. Prior to that, her only unassisted stops were crash landings.

Admittedly, there are a couple basic things she's yet to master: braking and starting on her own. The bike doesn't have a coaster brake, only hand brakes. Those are difficult to pull for little kids. I can remember struggling with them myself when I was five or six. And because the bike is a little too big for her, she hasn't yet gotten off to an unassisted start. So for the time being, she'll need some supervision when biking. But she's off off to a very precocious start.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pedal-powered pine procurement

Climate-friendly Christmas.
Apparently, you can now have your Christmas tree delivered by bicycle.

Saw it on the Internet -- where else? You place a call, specify size and type of tree, and name your delivery time.

You have a choice of three types of trees:
  • Spruce
  • Silver fir
  • Norman pine
Prices are by the metre and are the same for all tree types:
  • 1-1.5 metre: HUF 4,900
  • 1.5-2 metre: HUF 5,900
  • 2-2.5 metre: HUF 6,900


Video and interview with tree dude: Here

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Barclays sets bad example as bike sponsor

Once the proud sponsor of London's bikes, Barclays
"has now made a commercial decision not to continue the sponsorship."
The news that Budapest's bike share system, Bubi, will be sponsored by the Mol gas and oil company has naturally met with with some skepticism. Many think it's no more than green washing.

At the risk of looking like a sap, I've reserved judgement. Although not a fan of big oil, I think that it could be good for a prominent corporation like Mol to have a stake in Bubi's success.

The system is scheduled to launch in April and it's a matter of real urgency to improve the bike-ability of downtown Budapest before this wave of new cyclists hits the streets. The city has embarked on a slapdash campaign to paint bike lanes and post bike signage around the Bubi service area, but if these steps aren't adequate, Bubi's users will be at risk. That poses a PR risk to Mol, and, if I were them, I'd be lobbying shoulder-to-shoulder with cycling advocates for more serious safety improvements -- including bike accommodation around the Nagykörút.

But is this how Mol sees it? I had a blog exchange with Todd Edelman at the Slow Factory a couple weeks ago, after Mol was publicly announced as Bubi's sponsor. He suspected green washing, and noted examples of this in the bike-sharing business, including the London bike-share scheme and Barclays Bank.

Indeed, there's been plenty of controversy with that arrangement -- and not just because of the Barclays scandal involving illegal rigging of financial markets. Some on the London Assembly have criticised Barclays's sponsorship as a raw deal for the city.

But the developments of last week really took the cake. Amidst a drawn out media controversy concerning cycling safety in London, Barclays announced it would abandon the bike scheme. The company would finish out its contract that ends in August 2015, but would not extend.

According to the bank's PR people, the decision was part of a long-anticipated strategic decision, and had nothing to do with the road-safety flap. But many have found this hard to swallow. The controversy began in July, when a French-born student became the first person to die on a Boris Bike. And it boiled over in November, as six cyclists died on London roads in the space of less than two weeks.

London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon was quoted in the Guardian:
"Barclays have received immense benefits from the publicity given to the cycle hire scheme in its early years, but now that its performance is looking shaky they appear to be bailing out.
Mol CEU Zsolt Hernádi has a chance to do corporate social responsibility right.
Needless to say, this isn't a shining moment for corporate social responsibility. But the possibility's open for Mol to set a better example here in Budapest. The company's been doing small, one-off cycling sponsorships ever since cycling became trendy in Budapest in the mid-aughts. But Bubi is by far their biggest-profile cycling project to date. Hopefully, Mol will prove itself more than a fair-weathered friend.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mayor's had it with new-fangled transport

BKK executive Vitézy presents alongside his boss, Mayor Tarlos.
For awhile there, it seemed Budapest's buttoned-up mayor, István Tarlos, was embracing a more modern approach to transport. Or if not embracing, at least giving it a cautious hand-shake.

No more. News reports this week say that Tarlos and an ally on the City Assembly have made a move to get operational control over the Budapest Transport Centre, a body created during Tarlos's own tenure to oversee streets and public transport.

The move is seen as a rebuke to the progressive, youthful head of BKK, Dávid Vitézy, who's clashed with Tarlos on a number of decisions. This, of course, doesn't auger well for cyclists -- or any other road users, I'd argue.

Tarlos has been at loggerheads with BKK's 28-year-old chief executive almost from the time BKK was established and Vitézy put in charge in the fall of 2010. Vitézy had sought to counter rising car use in the city by promoting an integrated system based on public transport, walking and cycling.

On the cycling side, Vitézy has supported several positive developments in just the last year. He opened up priority bus lanes to cyclists, saw through a regulation change allowing folding and children's bikes on public transport (without extra fees), and launched a pilot project allowing bicycles on select bus and tram lines in hilly areas. In the last few weeks, BKK has embarked on a work plan to make the downtown area more bike friendly in preparation for the Bubi bike-sharing scheme.

Even so, Vitézy's progressive rhetoric has always outshone his accomplishments. This is because his more far-reaching initiatives aren't support by City Hall.

An early example was in the June 2011, when priority bus lanes were created to speed up buses connecting Budapest to its western suburbs via the M1 motorway. As expected, the move exacerbated car congestion in the first days after it was introduced. It was also expected that this problem would diminish as commuters readjusted their travel habits. But after the local mayor of Budaörs staged a flash press conference at the traffic-clogged M1 entrance, Tarlos immediately caved in and cancelled the new bus lanes, citing "technical problems".

This past summer, the story repeated itself on the Nagykörút. 

A new traffic regime was put in place in February 2012 so that traffic lights prioritised trams rather than cars. This meant trams could get around the körút 2-3 minutes faster than before, and that the number of tram departures per hour jumped from 30 to 32 during peak periods. For passengers, it translated into time saved, less crowded conditions and greater comfort.

In the larger picture, it meant more efficient use of the körút. During peak periods, the road carries about 9,000 tram passengers per hour versus 3,000 cars. With trams carrying two to three times as many people as cars, BKK had clearly favoured the right mode.

Despite this, at the end of August, Mayor Tarlos declared that "in this city, a lot of cars travel and deliberately slowing them down is a professional and political failure." He said he would instruct the Budapest Transport Centre to end tram priority and restore the "green wave" of traffic lights for motorists.

Earlier this month, the Hungarian Cyclists Club wrote Tarlos and open letter asking how this decision and others squared with his once stated aim of giving greater priority to public transport, cyclists and walkers. They raised the issue of Tarlos's characterisation of the nagykörút scheme as a "professional failure." The numbers were clear -- tram priority made sense from a professional point of view, they said.

Tarlos replied that his decisions did not contradict his programme. "The main problem," he said, "is with the pace and intensity of change."

He made a testy comment about the club's reference to professionalism. "I've happened to be engaged in this profession since before Mr. Vitézy was born."

And then added a patronising comment: "I respect the Cycling Club. And I am curious about the cycling club's opinions in cycling matters ...". 

According to the news in, the mayor has proposed a  reshuffling on BKK's five-member steering board, replacing one member and adding two more. In this way, he'd have more direct operational control over the organisation.

One step forward for Tarlos, a giant leap backward for Budapest.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Petrol company gives fuel to Bubi

Hungary's petrol giant seeking green credentials?
This was announced last month in the Hungarian press, but I wanted to post it here in case you've missed it: Budapest's soon-to-launch bike-sharing system, Bubi, has landed a corporate sponsor, Hungarian oil-and-gas company Mol.

The announcement was made at a joint press conference in early November held by Budapest Mayor István Tarlos and Mol President Zsolt Hernádi. The two wheeled out the system's new bikes, produced by Budapest-based Csepel company and sporting Mol's logo and green-and-red corporate colours.

According to the three-year sponsorship deal, Mol will fund the system to the tune of HUF 122 million a year, about half the system's expected annual operating costs HUF 250 million. The city forecasts user revenues of HUF 70 million, with the remaining cost, about HUF 50 million, to be covered by a municipal subsidy.

Ninety percent of Bubi's capital financing, nearly HUF 900 million, will be covered by the EU. This poses some restrictions on corporate sponsorship, but according to the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK), the arrangment is OK as long as it doesn't earn the city a profit.

This  isn't Mol's first foray into the cycling business. A couple years ago, it introduced "bicycle points" (bringapontok) at its filling stations. Found at about a third of Mol's 365 stations, bicycle points are essentially branded shelves full of innertubes, patch kits, locks and other cycling paraphernalia. Mol has also carried out various bike-related marketing efforts, including mobile bike repair stations during summer at the Balaton and, on at least one occasion, sponsorship of the bike valet parking system at the Sziget Festival.

Mol's Hernádi noted that "Mol wants to serve all road users, regardless of what travel mode or fuel they use."

For his part, Tarlos noted that cycling levels in Budapest have multiplied by five times since 1994 and that there was a need to "simplify the city's transport system and expand the range of public transport alternatives." With the launch of Bubi, "the first aim is the development of the cycling culture," he said.

In preparation for Bubi's launch, forecast for April 2014, the city is implementing several small measures to improve cycling conditions on the roads inside the system's downtown service area. The improvements will cover more than 100 roads -- with the glaring exception of the nagykörút. Installation of Bubi's 74 docking stations is slated to begin in February, Tarlos said.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

No bike lanes for Nagykörút

Budapest Mayor István Tarlos with Hernádi Zsolt, president of Bubi's corporate sponsor, MOL oil company.
With time ticking away til the planned April 2014 launch of Bubi – Budapest’s public bike system -- the city is scrambling to make downtown fit for the scheme’s users. A recently announced plan calls for scores of bike-friendly measures covering nine central districts. However, the measures are all small, easy fixes, and, disappointingly, will not include the cycling movement’s biggest priority in recent years – bike lanes around the nagykörút.

The kerékágy blog quotes János László, president of the Hungarian Cyclists Club, which helped draft the work plan. László said that the nagykörút lanes would have caused serious conflicts, and that small improvements were simply easier to take up. A statement from the Budapest Transport Center (BKK) says nagykörút bike lanes are “not realistic in current traffic conditions".

The improvements in the plan would cover 120 streets, 60 signaled intersections and 30 segments of main arteries. They comprise inexpensive, relatively easy fixes such as the painting of lanes and chevrons on streets, installing signs indicating the presence of cyclists, and the creation of contraflow lanes on side streets to allow two-way bike traffic on one-way roads.

The plan also calls for expansion of car-restricted zones; installation of bike parking; and traffic calming measures.

The work would start in districts VI and VII so that the entire service area of Bubi – basically everything inside the nagykörút plus the Buda river bank – would be finished before Bubi’s launch. After that, work would continue in districts VIII, IX, XI, I, II, V and XIII.

But, as said, the big banana is off the table.

The nagykörút is the busiest street downtown, and already gets significant bike traffic -- about 1,000 cyclists per day or 6% of motor traffic. With cars frequently moving faster than the posted speed limit, and with no separated lane for cyclists, this creates a hazard.

This past summer, BKK commissioned a feasibility study on new bike facilities on the körút, and the proposed ideas ran the gamut from simple advisory lanes or sharrows (as on Margit híd) to the redesignation of the outside traffic lanes for cyclists only. But even before the ideas were presented for political debate, BKK staff said behind the scenes that bike lanes were a non-starter.

Sure enough, the city’s recent decision was negative. Kerékágy quoted BKK saying:

The possible solutions outlined in the nagykörút study, in which cycling infrastructure displaces an outer traffic lane or parking lane, are not realistic in the current traffic situation. This might be taken up after the introduction of a downtown congestion charge, but on this there’s been no final decision.

The city has postponed introduction of the congestion charge many times, even though it’s obliged to implement it as a condition of EU subsidies for the 4th metro project. But that’s an old story.

The question is whether the quick and easy measures done over the next five months will be adequate preparation for Bubi. The system will have more than 1,000 bikes and 74 stations, all concentrated downtown. One worry is that lack of a sufficiently safe and convenient cycling network will stymie the system’s success. The other is that many of the new users will be people inexperienced in riding in city traffic, and that they’ll be more vulnerable to road accidents.

But at present, the city’s political leaders have decided the prospect of inconveniencing car drivers is a bigger worry than risking death and injury of cyclists.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

BKV checker refuses to fold on folding bike

Csaba was very pleased with his new folding bike -- the BKV ticket inspector  not so much.
This year, Budapest public transport operator BKV clarified a long-standing ambiguity in its rules, so that now, folding bikes -- and children's bikes, as well -- are expressly allowed on vehicles for no extra fee.

Previously, these types of bikes could be carried on as hand baggage only if they were packaged. Otherwise you couldn't carry them onto BKV vehicles with the two exceptions of the cogwheel railway (fogaskerekű) and HÉV trains. But even on these lines, if they bikes weren't packaged up, you would be charged an extra ticket (személyjegy). At HUF 350 (EUR 1.17), that was a pretty big fee for a small carry on.

At the initiative of the Budapest Transport Center (BKK), a modification was proposed, and then accepted by the City Assembly, to settle the issue in favour of cyclists. In fact, I played a small part in this as one of a few "stakeholders" who BKK consulted beforehand. BKK's cycling affairs officer, Virág, asked for my opinion on it because she'd seen a blog post I did about getting fined on the No. 6 tram for carrying my then-5-year-old son's bike. Naturally, I was happy to give my opinion, and I urged that BKV give broad allowance to anyone carrying a folding bike or children's bike.

The new rule states that children's bikes with wheel diametres up to 16 inches (basically the mid-size toddlers' bike, one step up from the 12-inch, which is the smallest) can be carried on without an extra fee. Folding bikes are allowed without size restriction. The only qualification is that they shouldn't be so grimy that they smudge the seats or the clothing of other passengers.

Here's the relevant excerpt from passenger rules effective from July 2013:

A kisméretű, legfeljebb 41 cm (16”, azaz hüvelyk, illetve inch, vagy coll) külső kerékátmérőjű kerékpár valamint a roller, továbbá méretkorlát nélkül az összecsukott kerékpár kézipoggyászként díjtalanul szállítható valamennyi járművön, amennyiben az utasok ruházatát, a jármű berendezéseit nem rongálja meg, illetve nem szennyezi be.

Since the modification came into force, I've carried my 3-year-old daughter's bike on the 6 tram a few times and haven't had any trouble -- knock on wood. This past week, though, my co-worker Csaba carried his new folding bike on the Szentendre HÉV, and he had a different experience. It was all folded up and didn't occupy any more space that a shopping trolley -- the kind you see on the HÉV every day. Despite this, when the ticket checker came by to collect his fare, she told him he'd have to buy another ticket for the bike. Csaba objected and cited the new rule allowing folding bikes on BKV vehicles. The ticket checker replied that it was allowed only if it was packaged ("be kell csomagolva"). This was a verbatim quotation from the old rule -- she obviously wasn't up to date. Csaba asked her if BKV checkers get in-house training and she retorted that they have sessions once a month. She added that in addition to the extra fare, she would fine Csaba for being impertinent ("szemtelen"). But Csaba was confident. He knew the new rule practically by heart -- it was one of the reasons he bought his folding bike in the first place. He held firm and the checker eventually just stomped off in a huff. A good result for him, but not a pleasant experience.
Unfolded and ready to go.
I hope this is just a matter of teething problems with the new rules. At the policy level, BKV has become more bike friendly in recent years. In addition to the new allowance for children's and folding bikes, there have been new shared lanes for bikes and buses, and BKV is now doing a pilot project in which even full-size bikes are allowed on select trams and buses. But the new approach doesn't seem to trickle down to workers. BKV needs to improve its internal communications -- otherwise, it's high-level initiatives will be lost on the public.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It's nice to share -- even if it's a car

Reporters check out one of the vehicles in Hungary's first ever car-sharing system.
Car sharing was introduced to Hungary for the first time this week in Budapest. The new system, consisting of a small fleet of compact Opels, was presented to news media Wednesday at Budapest's Infopark.

Dubbed Avalon CareSharing, the system was presented by representatives from car-rental company Avalon and the Hungarian subsidiary of Opel. (In the interest of full disclosure, my colleagues in the Green Transport Topic Area of the Regional Environmental Center have played a part with preparatory studies, advisory help and  promotions.) In the first phase this fall, five car-share points will open, all at major business parks and available only to the tenants of these properties. After the Infopark station, a second will open at MOM Park and be exhibited to the public during the upcoming European Mobility Week (Sept 16-22).

In time, Avalon intends roll it out on a larger scale and open subscriptions to the public.

I think this will be good for cycling in Budapest, especially if it's rolled out cleverly and expanded to sufficient scale. I suppose like many cyclists, I had doubts when I first heard of car sharing several years ago. That was when a service called Autolib' was being coat-tailed onto Paris's super successful bike-sharing system, Velib'. It sounded like a brilliant idea from the cycling movement was being co-opted by the car culture, and surely that could only be bad.

But evidence from cities where car sharing is well established shows the effect can be the opposite. One of Europe's best success stories for car sharing is Bremen, Germany. From a modest start-up in the early 1990s, Bremen built a system that, as of May 2011, had 160 cars and 43 stations. Of the nearly 7,000 subscribers, 91 percent did not own their own car. And of those who didn't own a car, nearly 39 percent said they would buy one if car sharing wasn't available.

Doing the calculus, authorities in Bremen figured that every car-sharing vehicle replaces 8-10 privately owned cars, and that the system as a whole replaces some 1,500 cars. That amounted to big public savings because it allowed Bremen to avoid EUR 25 to 30 million investment in parking infrastructure.

Car sharing allows customers to drastically downsize their vehicle investment. One-car households become zero-car households and two-car households become one-car households. Even those who don't give up a car can downsize by trading in their SUVs for something better suited to everyday needs. With car-sharing, they have access to a variety of vehicles, including large-capacity trucks when they're needed.

Car-sharing people make more use of sustainable transport than those who rely on their own cars. That's because with a private car, even though  it costs a fortune to acquire, there's little financial disincentive to use it. Car-sharing allows you to forgo investment, but it has a per-trip price, so subscribers tend to use it only when they need to.

Bottom line is that a cleverly implemented car-sharing system can actually boost levels of walking, cycling and public transport ridership. In Bremen, cycling is huge, and car-sharing's part of the reason.

In Bremen (DE), nearly 60 percent of all inner-urban trips are by "sustainable" means of transport (PT=public transport).
The system in Budapest is just started, but it's developing quickly. In addition to the stations opening this fall in Budapest, the system will be exhibited in Bratislava September 18. In that city, the mayor has embraced car sharing, and hopes to launch a system within six months.

By contrast, Budapest public authorities are staying on the sidelines. The Budapest Transport Center, BKK, has expressed interest in car sharing, but it balked at opening public space for parking stations -- as cities such as Bremen have. Therefore, the first docking stations in Budapest will all be set up on private property.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gadget avoids having to leave desk!

Coming soon: desk-based urinals! Photo stolen from National Public Radio.
You better NOT sit down for this: According to the latest medical research, sitting kills.

An article in the New Yorker magazine has found that sitting for long periods is bad for you -- even if you seem to be in decent shape.

The article notes:
If you go to the gym three times a week, you may feel fit, but you won't be metabolically healthy. Sitting puts muscles into a sort of hibernation, cutting off their electrical activity and shutting down the production of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that breaks down fat molecules in the blood. Your metabolic rate drops to about one calorie a minute -- just slightly higher than if you were dead. Sitting for more than two hours causes the presence of good cholesterol to drop, and, in time, insulin effectiveness plummets. This can lead to cardiovascular problems, certain kinds of cancer, depression, deep-vein thrombosis, and type-2 diabetes.
The physician whose work is cited in the article -- Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona -- says the best antidote is the treadmill desk. As the name sounds, this is a desk that's built or retrofitted to include a treadmill underfoot. The desktop is elevated so that your computer, paper clips, coffee cup and iPad/Pod/Phone are right at hand while you're standing and walking on the treadmill. Levine's research has shown that this solution can, indeed, ward off the myriad health threats connected to sedentary work. But there's no getting around that this is an awkward way to address the basic problem of our age, which is that so many activities that once got us up and out of the house are now done indoors on our butts with a computer or some other i-gizmo.

The treadmill desk doesn't challenge this way of life. It proposes to solve our gadget-induced health problems with another gadget.Of course! 

Aliens -- riding their bikes to the store -- are looking down at us and laughing! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beating the Flow in Istanbul

On Sunday at a big climate change event in Istanbul, I will make a presentation about bicycling as a tool for climate mitigation. I'll try to make it locally relevant with some comments on how cycling could help alleviate some of Istanbul's congestion.

The traffic snarls here are amazing. It's like rush hour maybe 18 hours a day. I arrived here yesterday, and last night we took a cab down along the Bosphorous coast on the European side of the city. It was 8:30 p.m. but traffic was stop start all the way. After 10 minutes watching pedestrians pass us by, we paid our fare and hit the pavement ourselves. Istanbul is a great city for walking, lots of stuff to see and even with the lack of crosswalks, you can always squeeze through traffic because it's often not moving.

Not great for cycling at all. City has a plan to build 1,004 km of cycling tracks, but so far just 40 km have been built. Public transport is very scarce for a city of this size. So everyone's by car and there's no dedicated space for bikes.

At this event, Al Gore's Climate Reality Leadership training, there are about 580 attendees. One guy came by bike, an Istanbul colleague of mine at the REC named Eren. He says he bikes everywhere. It's the only way to travel here with any predictability. On four wheels, you're subject to traffic disruptions and jams, so you have to give yourself an hour safety margin if you have an important meeting to get to. By bike, you may have to suck a lot of exhaust, but you never get stuck, he said. Reminded me of my experience in Paris -- tons of traffic but it was normally moving so slowly that it didn't seem threatening.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bike Study Commissioned for Margit Körút

I'd say this cyclist is enjoying a wider than average berth -- yet she's still forced to ride in the rain gutter.
The City has just commissioned a feasibility study on creating a bikeway on Margit körút. The local engineering firm Trenecon-COWI (working on the Bubi bike-share project among other cycling projects) recently got the assignment from the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK).

No particular design or approach has been proposed. Instead, Trenecon has been asked to look at all the possibilities, including:
  • bike lanes (as on the kiskörút)
  • bike tracks, grade-separated lanes between the sidewalks and the carriageway (these are common in Denmark and the Netherlands, but they've never been implemented in Budapest)
  • sharrows, bike ways that motorists could legally ride over when they're not occupied by cyclists. (The chevrons on the outside lanes across Margit híd are sharrows.)
The study will look into other possibilities to make the street more bike-friendly, including ways to reduce motor traffic, ways to make intersections safer and more convenient for cyclists and the feasibility of reducing speeds.

This is typical körút-style riding. With cars crowding him out on the curb, he chooses instead to ride between the first and second lanes. Technically illegal, I believe, certainly risky, but faster and more pleasant than waiting behind a car and sucking up exhaust.

Margit körút is a busy main road with two lanes for cars going in either direction. In order to create proper, comfortably-wide bike lanes, car lanes would have to be sacrificed. You can imagine how eager the mayor would be to eliminate two car lanes from Margit körút. However, given the volume and speed of motor traffic, sharrows or advisory bike lanes, in my opinion, would not cut the mustard. Like the ones on Margit bridge -- they wouldn't encourage many new cyclists to use them. They'd be used by messengers and other road-savvy cyclists -- basically the ones who already ride on the körút. They wouldn't boost cycle traffic and would likely wear off and be forgotten.

BKK might find there's just enough space to squeeze in exclusive bike lanes that just meet the minimum legal width. But this would be far from ideal on such a busy street. With taxis rushing by at 50-60 kph, you want a comfortable distance between them and your left handlegrip.

Unavoidably, the best possible solution would be to sacrifice car lanes. With the freed space, there'd not only be room for adequately wide, exclusive bike ways, but also expanded space for walking, restaurant and cafe seating, benches, greenery -- maybe even a fountain somewhere. This would not only be a major boon for cycling, it would calm the street, revive retail and recreation and generally improve neighbourhood livability. A good reference would be Oktober 6 utca -- Petofi Sandor utca, the once congested through street in District V that is now a destination in its own right.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

You take the high road, I'll take the low road

With all that open road, I couldn't stick to the speed limit.
As the Danube continues to rise, the low roads along the banks are flooding and being closed to motor traffic. On alternative routes, traffic chaos ensues, giving morning migraines to thousands of car-bound commuters.

For cyclists, though, the flood's not been a problem. In fact, yesterday on the Buda quay, the flood made bike commuting even faster. I hate to gloat in front of my four-wheeled friends, but when I hit the freshly closed embankment north of Margit híd, I FLEW!!

Reminded me of those magic months a few years ago when the embankment was closed for a sewerage project. People were out on running, skating, pushing strollers and riding bikes, with an abundance of space rarely seen outside of Wyoming.

After rocketing non-stop all the way to the Graphisoft Park, I downshifted to subsonic speed and slalomed through the police road blocks along Királyok útja / Nánási út. (With the exception of one cop who told me I should ride on the sidewalk (according to Hungarian traffic rules, this is actually illegal unless you're under age 12), police basically turned a blind eye to cyclists. This has been a very easy way to get around.

The fearsome Hungarian rendôrség takes charge near Római part.


I rode along Eurovelo 6 route on the riverside for a ways, then through strawberry fields around Budakalász. Finally got up to Szentendre, which is putting its brand-new mobile dike through the paces. If you're curious about what the powers that be have in mind for Római part, this is a good reference. The difference, of course, is that in Szentendre, the mobile dike is merely replacing a section of a conventional earthen dike that has been there for decades. In Római part, they'll have to build it up from scratch, which will mean a drastic transformation of the river bank.

Traffic jam on the Buda embankment

At a low point between Szépvölgyi utca and Tímár utca, the water was already over the road, so had to jump up onto the bike path.

Skaters on the embankment -- what's the world coming to??

At this point, the Eurovelo signage was leading me astray.

This road through Budakalász is restricted to local motor traffic -- but transiting cyclists are no problem.

A U-pick (szedd magad) strawberry field near Budakalász.

Atop the old dike in Szentendre, and looking at the new mobile dike around the bend.

Southern end of the Szentendre mobile dike.

At the north end of the Szentendre dike, it's a simple concrete wall. Workers are doing finishing touches with cut-stone facing.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

High-water commute

Along the Romai part bike path.
The Danube's flooding in Budapest again, and as the water was rising, I rode down to Romai part yesterday afternoon to see the preparations.

Every buffet and restaurant was closed and everything that wasn't anchored down had been moved to higher ground. The water had already covered parts of the bike path, making it impossible to ride the whole length of the embankment without taking inland detours.

Many of the property owners down here, including the boat houses and the concession stands, will just let their properties get flooded. Some of the homes, though, are surrounded by big barricades and they were fortifying these with sandbags in hopes of keeping dry.

The lowest-lying bierstube along here, Fellini bisztro, consists of a repurposed diner car and a bunch of beach furniture. It had all been trucked away by the time I arrived Tuesday around 6 p.m.

Public controversy has erupted over a plan to create a mobile dike along this section of Romai part. It would involve bulldozing earth some 50 metres into the river and cutting down scores willow and cottonwood trees along a bank that's popular precisely because of its natural state. Along with boat houses and beer stands, people come to Romai part for recreational rides on the Eurovelo 6 international bike route.

The dike proposal is driven by the owners of some newer developments that displaced old, flood-friendly boat houses. They shouldn't have been granted building permits, but they were, and now they have the support of the Budapest Municipality for a HUF 4 billion flood protection project to protect their properties.

These plans are now awaiting technical approvals from river protection authorities. If the level of this flood exceeds the height of the planned new bulwark, it will be proven a vain effort. The river level is expected to to crest over the weekend. We'll see what happens.

Protecting some private houses. This wall runs intermittently along the inland side of the bike path. Protesters against the proposed Romai part "mobile dike" have promoted an alternative plan that would involve strengthening and filling in the missing gaps of this wall.

The entrance to Matyas Kiraly ut will be closed to seal this gap in the existing flood wall.

Water rising at a boat house launching dock.

This bike rack was one of the few things not taken away in the evalcuation of the Fellini bisztro.

Same place as above, circa July 2011, during dryer times.

Part of the Fellini's kitchen also stayed behind.

This section of the Romai part bike path was already impassable Tuesday.

Closed due to flooding.

To the right, one of the new flood-averse developments on the Romai part.

The south end of the Romai part bike path is closed til further notice.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Under the Influence

Poppies, May 29, about a kilometre north of Budakalasz on the bike path next to Route 11.
Sometimes in this crazy, herky-jerky world of ours, you need to -- as the old folk wisdom goes -- stop and make a jpeg of the flowers. That's what I did on yesterday's morning commute to Szentendre.

I first came across this sight last Thursday. It seemed like practically overnight the grassy overgrowth lining the bike path north of Budakalasz had burst into colour.

Apparently from Papaver somniferum's point of view, this spring has provided an optimal balance of warm sunny days and cool rainy ones. I'd never seen so many poppies with such huge blooms. When I first noticed the spectacle last week, I didn't have my camera. I made a note to bring it on my next commute, although I didn't have big hopes of catching them again. It was just before the weekend, and the durations of these phases of spring splendour seem to be in inverse proportion to their beauty. However, when I returned with camera in hand, the scene was not diminished. Just as gorgeous as before.

Taken with a Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS (nothing fancy, but sometimes makes a nice shot).
I tried to make a video to give an impression of the experience of riding through the long allée of blooms. Unfortunately, my little Canon point-and-shoot did not produce Hollywood results. The path is riven with cracks and holes, and my one-hand-on-the-handle-bars-one-hand-holding-the-camera technique didn't help. But I've included the video here anyway.

The stills came out well, and they give their own sort of visual pleasure. But I reckon no digital facsimile can match the real-life experience of riding your bike through a field of poppies in full bloom. It's a real treat and -- now for the inevitable editorial -- not something you're going to get commuting by car.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rant on ranking

When Sequoia heard Budapest was ranked the no. 13 cycling city in the world, she just laughed.
Budapest ranked no. 13 in the recently published Copenhagenize Index of best cycling cities in the world. This year the index covers an expanded list of 150 cities.
My first reaction at seeing this? You've got to be kidding! Budapest, Hungary?! Where I was nearly decapitated by a hedge after riding into a pothole the size of Kim Kardashian's butt? Where they won't allow cyclists on the main streets in the city because there's no room?? Where the name of the much anticipated public bike system is a homonym for the mildly vulgar English term for a woman's breast??

Who are the idiots who make these listings, anyway?

Then I remembered it was me. Or at least partly me. The Copenhagenize Index is a sort-of "group-source" thing relying on some 400 local yokels who do self-evaluations of their own cities. They don't compare and contrast cities, but just rate their own scene, albeit according to standardized criteria given by Copenhagenize. Each city is supposed to be evaluated by multiple volunteers, so there's some triangulation. You can look over the index questions and methodology yourself.

Although memory doesn't serve as well as it used to, I don't think I gushed about Budapest in my own evaluation. I remember being generally critical. But I may have let some local pride skew my score upward. Or maybe it was another Budapest local who exaggerated the city's virtues. 

In any case, no. 13 in the world seems like an AWFULLY high rating for Budapest. That puts us one step ahead of Paris, which back in 2005, I proposed as a good model for Budapest. Have the tables turned since then? I don't believe they have. Velib has been expanding since its launch in 2007, while Bubi is already two years past  the originally announced roll out. Meanwhile, the Paris Respire and Plage schemes, where streets are closed to motor traffic every weekend of the summer, help promote active transport and better quality of life. Budapest has had only occasional one-off street closures -- usually on European Mobility Week.

Or take London, which didn't even crack the Index's top 20. I was in London last fall, and tried out the Boris Bikes and Barclay's Cycle Superhighways -- impressive investments that had been implemented in the previous couple years. Budapest cycling investment during the same period paled by comparison.

Of course, Budapest does have its good points. They're pretty much the same now as they were in 2011, when Budapest was ranked no.11 in the Copenhagenize Index. No other city beats Budapest Critical Mass. And largely because of the local CM, there is today a large, enthusiastic population of citizen cyclists who are out braving Budapest traffic everyday despite potholes the size of Kim Kardashian's butt. As the Index explains, "Budapest is a regional leader in bicycle culture but without political will and a modern desire for mobility change, their role will be overtaken by others." Amen to that!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Express bike lanes on Bajcsy

A couple days after the record-setting Critical Mass last weekend, some friends were debating whether it would make any real difference. Steve, always the skeptic, speculated that if there are any cycling investments at all, they'll be in remote districts where no one will use them. Gábor, who's volunteered for CM for several years, countered that improvements HAVE been made in recent days, including an important one smack dab in the middle of the city.

Gábor was right: In downtown Pest, new priority bike-bus lanes have opened on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út. These follow the city policy adopted last summer of allowing cyclists to share priority bus lanes on important city arterials. Previously, cyclists were officially banned from bus lanes, which was a sort-of policy contradiction -- on all other streets (barring those with dedicated cycling lanes), cyclists are required to stay in the lane closest to the curb.

Of course, the opening of the bus lanes to cyclists is really just a matter of new paint. But in Bajcsy's case, it has involved more paint than usual. The lanes are marked every 20 or 30 metres with big red boxes emblazoned with the word "bus" and an icon of a bike. It makes for a very clear signal that the traffic regime has changed in favour of cyclists. In similar lanes in Budapest, the only indication that bikes are welcome is an occasional yellow icon.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the lavish deployment of paint is the history of political conflict over Bajcsy. About 10 years ago, when the city was preparing to resurface it, the cycling lobby was invited to propose solutions for cycling accommodation. The cyclists said they wanted bike lanes on both sides of the road -- following good western examples. Typically, the city countered that there was no room (a joke considering Bajcsy is one of the widest streets in the city). Cyclists were offered a narrow, two-way path on the western sidewalk. Cyclists were loathe to accept this because it would take space from pedestrians. But ultimately, they decided that something was better than nothing, and that with thoughtful execution, they might mitigate cyclist-pedestrian conflicts. And on the positive side, they reasoned, a sidewalk-based path might induce a few car-fearing people to join the ranks of Budapest cyclists.

In the event, the path was very clearly marked and separated from walking space -- more so than on any other sidewalk bike path in Budapest (compare it with the half-hearted efforts at separation on the Buda korzó, for instance). Critical Mass honcho Gábor Kürti has been apologising for the deal with the devil ever since, but it has to be admitted that the Bajcsy path has been very well used and probably did serve as a useful stepping stone in the evolution of Budapest's cycling infrastructure.

I've been up and down the new lanes a couple times by now, and they are certainly a step forward. Now, if you're going south-to-north on the bike lane on the kiskörút, you can go straight through the intersection with Andrássy út without having to stop and get over to the sidewalk path. And if you're heading toward the river on Andrássy, you can turn right on Bajcsy and continue as a motorist would.

It's easier but still not ideal. Sharing lanes with buses -- and taxis, as well -- is not for the faint-hearted. As on all Budapest thoroughfares, motor traffic is fast moving and aggressive and on a bike you feel exposed. These lanes are a rung up on the evolutionary ladder, but there's a way to go yet. A next step could be grade-separated cycle tracks to get cyclists out of harm's way. Beyond that, traffic could be calmed, sidewalk space enlarged and tramlines extended through from the other side of Andrássy. This won't happen overnight, but Bajcsy's current incarnation as a  private-car motorway is looking more and more like an anachronism.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Big Finish

What a gratifying close to Budapest's nine-year run of Critical Mass rides! Saturday's was announced as the last Critical Mass, and everyone was urged to come out and give it a grand finale. The goal was to make it the biggest one ever. I have to admit I was skeptical, knowing that participation had dropped off by half since the record setting ride of 2008. I was proven wrong. The sea of people at the closing bike lift behind Petöfi Csarnok was bigger than any I'd ever seen it. Cyclists took up the entire meadow behind the csarnok, and the spillover on the other side of  Zichy Milhály út may have been as big as the crowd in the meadow.

As always, it's impossible to get a convincing head count. But organiser Gábor Kürti told the kerékagy blog that if the spring 2008 record had been 80,000, the turnout Saturday was surely 100,000. He confessed, though, that he didn't witness the closing bike lifts because he'd broken down in tears. Reading that Kuku cried made me cry. What a great story!

My own ride got started about half an hour behind schedule, because our girl, Sequoia decided to go down for her afternoon nap right before the scheduled start at 3:55 p.m. I put on her shoes as she laid there snoozing, and she was still half dozing as I carried her down to my bike in the courtyard.
Start of Critical Mass, Kristin, me and Sequoia and Gabor's daughter Anna in background with head framed by bike sign.
Luckily, the starting point was just right across Margit híd from us, so when we arrived on the Pest side at half past 4, the procession was still just starting. I met up with Critical Mass activist Gábor Bihari and his daughter Anna just south of the bridge on the bike path. We sat there chatting for another half hour as the very long queue of cyclists on the quay crawled down toward Parliament and then just got stuck for awhile due to some downstream obstruction.

We were still sitting there when my wife, Kristin, joined us after dropping our boy off at a friend's. We couldn't even get down to the quay from the bike path because escorts blocked our way. If they'd let people cut in, the procession would never have moved. I guess it was past 5 when the whole procession had advanced far enough, and we were able to join it on the tail end. We hooked up with friend Steve Graning and his two girls, Sara and Melina (the latter on a scooter cause her bike had been polished up for resale).

We were at the very end of a kilometres-long line and being shepherded by green-shirted escorts on bikes, an ambulance (sweeping up the hundreds of dead and injured --  just kidding!!) and some crabby cops in a squad car. The cops yelled at us to move it along, apparently anxious to reopen the roads to motor traffic as quickly as possible.

We ran into a friend Péter Dalos, who was on a two-wheeled cargo bike with two children, a huge bag full of laundry, and the kids' two little bikes. I'd seen him with the same enormous load just three days earlier and I was too embarrassed to ask him if he'd been evicted from his home. I'm sure there's another explanation -- the whole family seemed very enthused and were wearing clean clothes.

Sequoia needed a pancake break on the final stretch down Andrássy út.
Of course, every bar that we passed had a crowd of cyclists loitering outside with tins of beer in their hands. Cycling while intoxicated is illegal, but this rule is openly flouted by thousands of participants at Critical Mass. I guess the idea is, if enough people drink, it's just impossible to enforce. A prime example of civil disobedience as a force for good! I kept asking Kristin if we could stop and join the fun and she kept on resisting, saying I shouldn't drink and ride with our daughter on board (she had me in a corner there). Then we passed by a wine bar (the Bor Tarsaság near the Buda side of the Chain Bridge) and then the shoe was on the other foot!

By the time we got across the Chain Bridge, the weather was turning and it looked like the predicted rains would soak us afterall. But the blackening skies and gusts of wind were all bark and no bite. I felt a couple drops of rain, or imagined I did, but it turned out to be one of those classic Earth Day Critical Masses whose huge turnouts had the blessing of Mother Nature.

It was pretty loud at the closing bike lift.
Sequoia was a real trooper, too. Didn't pout once and was generally amused by the whole thing. At the end, a nice young man who'd picked up a blue Cyclists Club balloon gave it to Sequoia, and that kept her happy all the way home.
These guys used a bus stop as a band shell and gave us a serenade as we were leaving City Park following the bike lift.

After the event, scrambling for the exits.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Breaking out the Bikes

The weather's been brilliant this week -- the first real spring weather this season. But it was a long, long time in the coming. Hungary had more precipitation in the first quarter of 2013 than it's had since 1911. The last snow fell just a couple weeks ago. So when the sun came out this week, people started biking like they might not get another chance. And who knows if they will? We've  had summers in recent years that never really materialised.

Anyway, this was the scene Thursday morning on the Buda korzó bike path on the north side of the Margit híd tunnel.  The first bike jams of 2013.

Could be a stutter start for spring, though. The forecast's calling for rain -- which will be less than optimal for the Critical Mass on Saturday. However, the predicted high temperature, 21 C, will be balmy compared to what Budapest had until a week ago. So the prognosis is still good.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

One More for the Road

So this Saturday, April 20, will be the last Budapest Critical Mass. That's what they say, anyway, and although I'm skeptical, I was very relieved to have gotten my hands on the sticker (slogan: "Critical Mass Forever") and I will definitely NOT make other plans for the weekend.

According to the spring CM tradition, the event will happen on Earth Day, and the route will be closed to motor traffic and everyone is encouraged to come out, children included.

It'll start at 3:55 p.m. on the Pest riverside road just north of Margit hid (Carl Lutz rakpart). This is the same place it started in spring of 2012 (above video) -- the road will be closed to motor traffic and it's wide enough to accommodate a huge crowd for the opening bike lift.

The route (details here) will go across the Chain Bridge and through the tunnel to the Taban, and will eventually return to Pest and end up at City Park for the closing bike lift -- at about 6:30 p.m.

From 7:30 p.m. til 4 a.m., an after party will take place at the Akvárium Klub (former Gödör) at Erzsébet tér. As in past years, the party will follow a bike-fashion theme and is co-organised by the Hungarian Cycle Chic blog. But now it seems they've got a bunch of sponsors (e.g. InStyle magazine and H&M clothing) and added features include a big musical lineup. Cover is HUF 1,000.

CM organisers Kuku and Sinya (co-owners of Hajtas Pajtas bike couriers) announced last year that this would be the last CM. They explained that, now that everyday cycling is established in Budapest, CM has served its purpose. Although modal share needs to keep growing, the two activists are convinced that CM is no longer the right tool for the job, that the bike community has to redirect its energies and resources toward professional lobbying. Kuku and Sinya are involved with the Hungarian Cyclists Club, and they have made repeated appeals for cyclists to support the organisation with donations and volunteer help.

The decision to call it a day was met by emotional protest from the green shirts who have helped promote and carry out CM for the past nine years. However, I still haven't heard of any concrete plans by anyone to take up the CM mantle and carry on the tradition. It's hard to believe that an event this popular will just die in its tracks. But in any case, I don't want to miss it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tree-hugging weekend

Along with the people were tons of police and of course, the obligatory soft-pretzel vendor.
I also saw some LMP politicians working the crowd.
Quite a good turnout at Római part on Saturday. We estimated maybe 2,000 people, give or take a thousand. Who knows? The important thing is, we completely plugged up the riverfront path where the organisers set up their PA system. So for the space available, we were an overwhelming presence, which is as much as you can ask of a protest.

We were there demonstrating against a big flood-protection scheme that would devastate the riverbank and wipe out thousands of trees. A "respected" news site, HVG -- kind-of Hungary's equivalent to The Economist -- called it "Fák off" -- "fák" being Hungarian for "trees".

We went out there with both kids by bike, our two-year-old in the child's seat and our eight-year-old riding his own bike. The closer we got to Római part, the heavier the bike traffic got. By the time we got to the Újpesti vasúti híd, there were huge clusters of cyclists caravaning in front of us and in back and parked along the side of the road. It was looking like a Critical Mass.

There's Lance, Kristin and Sequoia. Soon after we arrived, Lance wandered off into the milling masses and left me on the riverbank, panicked, as I rode herd over Sequoia hoping to limit our losses. Kristin found Lance way up the riverbank throwing rocks and after he rejoined us, Sequoia walked up to the river's edge and promptly tripped into the water. It was a chilly ride back home for her.
A Budapest landscape architect, Bardóczi Sándor, editor of the Építészfórum website, gave a talk proposing a sensible alternative to the massive earthworks that's being proposed. Bardóczi notes that the existing fences at the top of the bank, running between the riverfront bars and restaurants, could be built into a flood-proof bulwark that would protect properties further inland. This would avoid a major earth moving project that would wipe out all the trees along the water and destroy the riverbank.

Hope Sányi's arguments -- and the presence of all us citizen protesters -- will have some effect.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Save Római part's trees!

The fabulous Fellini bisztro on the north end of Romai part.
Tomorrow at 3 p.m. (March 2), fans of the Római part will demonstrate against a big earthworks proposal that would spoil a riverside wonderland to protect a bunch of luxury townhouses that shouldn't even be there.

The project involves the construction of what's termed a "mobile" dike along a 3.1 kilometre stretch of bank running north from the Újpesti vasúti híd. This Index article has a map. A mobile dike doesn't sound permanent, however the work will apparently involve infilling the river 50 to 100 metres out from the existing bank. This will wipe out many of the gorgeous willows and cottonwoods along here, which is why organisers have dubbed their protest "Keep the trees on Római!". The tree defenders also have a facebook page.

Római part has been a favourite bike-riding destination of ours for years. It's a leafy stretch of bank lined with bufes and bars, some with playground equipment to entertain the kids. It's great place to have some fish soup or hekk and a few beers. It's not as cheap as it used to be, but you pay a price for convenience -- it's just a 20-30 minute ride up the Buda bank from Margit hid.

Not incidentally, it's along the Eurovelo 6 trans-European cycling route. One of the criteria for Eurovelo designation is scenic value, which these earthworks will undermine.

Amidst the bufes are a dwindling number of old boat houses, where you can keep or rent canoes, kayaks, skulls and rowboats. We used to rent canoes from one of these places at least once every summer and paddle up to Szentendrei Sziget and back.

In the last few years, several of these old boat houses have been displaced by high-end condos. This is in a flood plain, and how the developers got their construction permits is a scandal.

By now the dodgy development has reached a critical mass and the new property owners have successfully lobbied City Hall to get taxpayers to pay for flood protection. This will protect their inappropriately built townhouses to the detriment of Római part's traditional natural, recreational value. It's a shame.

We're planning to go up there by bike on Saturday to christen the cycling season and be counted.

What: Save the trees on Római! demonstration
Time: Saturday, March 2, 3 p.m.
Place: Hattyú Csónakház (1039 Budapest, Királyok útja 17.)
(Follow the facebook page for updates.)