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.

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