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.