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.