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.

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