Monday, December 1, 2014

A game changer for the körút?

Parked cars are pushed into the interstices along the edge of the sidewalks. That'd give room for continuous priority bike lanes alongside the Nagykörút
Budapest could have a reasonably bike-friendly Nagykörút with small investment and minimum offense to motorists, according to a new proposal posted by the Hungarian Cyclists' Club.

The proposal would make space for priority bike lanes alongside the curbs of both sides of the road. The parking spaces currently on the  curbs would be shifted onto the sidewalk, between the trees, advertising pillars and signposts.

This solution would probably come at the expense of some parking spaces, but the proposal's authors say the loss wouldn't be significant. Pedestrian space would also be conserved as the empty space along the curb doesn't carry foot traffic.

The post describes the scheme as a temporary fix -- and I'd agree that having parking spaces up on the sidewalk is a bit awkward and unattractive. The holy grail would be to reprioritise the körút for tram users, pedestrians and cyclists and to reduce the volume and speed of car traffic.

However, the proposal would be a huge improvement over the current situation. Right now, cycling on the körút is unpleasant and frightening for most people. Having a bike lane would attract a much bigger segment of  the biking population, and provide needed links between the increasingly bike-friendly neighbourhoods in inner-Pest.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Everyone likes bikes

Hakan is fed up with Istanbul's car traffic, and who can blame him?
I'm involved in an interesting but sometimes exasperating EU project called Seismic. It's about the future of cities and how society can reform to address emerging challenges in an era of shrinking public purses. It covers cutting edge experiments in social innovation: social impact bonds, collaborative mapping, participatory citizenship and so on.

While many of the ideas are new and untested, i.e. of uncertain merit, one sure mental foothold is bicycling. In the course of the project, we had a "graphic facilitation" activity called Sketch. In this, artists accost random people on the street, and interview them about their gripes and wishes for cities. The artists sketch it down in charcoal pencil, and have so far produced 400 drawings from 10 cities in 10 countries.

As scans of each country's sketches go up on the project website, you'll see serious ideas about democracy: "Maria wants a public forum where citizens can express their ideas". And a few ideas out of San Francisco, circa 1968: a public park dedicated to laughing (Prague) and my favourite one from Brussels: "Pascal wants more naked dance!"

The ideas are rich and varied, but one thing loads of people from every country agree on is bicycles. Bikes, as much as ample green space, are widely recognised as key ingredients of the ideal city. I think this is cool, particularly since it goes against the grain of "innovation". Many EU research projects emphasise innovation, which I suppose is natural. Why spend research efforts on what we already know? Then again, when we're trying to find ways to improve cities, innovation is just one approach. Sometimes the best ideas are right under our noses.

Below is a small sample of the bike-related sketches in the Seismic project's archive.

Oliver thinks Queen Elizabeth should set an example and ride a bike -- as the Dutch royals do.

I agree with Grace. Tolerance is over-rated! At least when it comes to cars.
Peter shows that, contrary to popular belief, cycling's not just for masochists.

There's a lot of pent-up hostility toward cars.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Motorist Douchebagicus

Left-turning cyclist has temerity to move into lane's middle. Is hanging good enough for him??
The smart way to promote cycling is by being positive -- who can argue with that? As the old adage says: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

But this morning I'm going to follow another old adage: honesty's the best policy. Although I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I've gotten sick to death of motorists whinging about cyclists. Cyclists don't stop at red lights, they say. Cyclists scare children and the elderly. And, of course, the compulsory and bogus claim that cyclists don't pay for roads. (In fact, everyone who pays sales and income taxes pays for roads.)

A rising chorus of opinion makers behave as if the increasing popularity of cycling has introduced danger onto once safe city streets. Where peace and predictability reigned, we now have mayhem.

In New York, we hear complaints by the Wall Street Journal that the city's new bike-sharing system has "begrimed" the city and endangered the public. The New Yorker ran a similarly alarmist opinion piece in the wake of two freak traffic fatalities caused by cyclists (Look at the map of people killed by cars in New York in 2013. It was more than two.)

I don't deny that bicyclists are sometimes guilty of bad behaviour. I've run red lights, I've biked on the sidewalk, I've gone the wrong way on a one way. But looking at the relative harm and danger posed by cyclists versus motorists -- there's no comparison.

Cars spew noxious fumes into the air we breathe (50-90 percent of urban air pollution is caused by motor vehicles); cars maim and kill people (1.24 million traffic deaths/year worldwide; 30,000-40,000/year in US alone), cars take up the majority of public space in cities, cars isolate people from public interaction and habituate them to unhealthy, sedentary daily routines.

Motorists who whinge about cyclists bring to mind an article recently circulated on Facebook. The writer, an American sociology professor, proposes a specific definition of "douchebag" as someone who breezes through life with an obnoxious attitude of entitlement. The article uses the term in connection with racial politics:

The douchebag is someone—overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males—who insists upon, nay, demands his white male privilege in every possible set and setting.

However, I think "douchebag" works just as well in the context of transport politics. It perfectly describes a motorist (black, white, male or female), who—despite having free residential parking (as in Budapest), free-of-charge access to city streets, the right to pollute the air with no carbon or other tax, and a traffic management regime that overwhelmingly caters to private cars—goes into a tizzy at the slightest intrusion against motorists' free rein.

In Budapest, there is an officially registered lobbying group fighting against the cycling movement. They call themselves "Movement for a More Humane Parking Policy"—as if free parking were a human right on par with freedom from torture or freedom of speech. Some years ago, this group, which as far as I can tell is just two guys, held a demonstration on Múzeum körút, where they "occupied" a newly created bike lane by parking their car on it. They made a video in which a woman -- ostensibly a passerby, but probably the wife of one of the organisers -- complained, "These bicyclists are trying to push us out of the city!" If only!

But parking activists are by no means the only motoring douchebags in Budapest. Just yesterday, I had an encounter with a choice example. I was on my usual morning commute on Margit körút heading toward Margit Bridge. At the point where the road forks—either left to the bridge, or straight to Bem rakpart—I veered, as usual, into the middle of the right-hand lane, and hand signaled to the left. As soon as I got into the the centre of the lane, the motorist behind me honked, and then, just before I entered the turn, he accelerated hard and roared by just centimetres from my handle grip.
Cyclists -- they act as if they own the roads!!
Further down the road, I slapped his side-view mirror to get his attention—it worked. He pulled over at the first opportunity, into a bus stop, got out and demanded why I hit his car (shiny black BMW coupe). He said I had no right to be in the middle of the road. I told him I hit his car because he'd nearly run me over, and that I had every right to get into the middle of the road to take a left turn (In fact, the Hungarian road rules say you must move to the middle in this situation). The guy wouldn't have any of it -- the idea that a cyclist could impede him and his Beemer for even a second was an outrage. We yelled back and forth for a bit, and eventually he got back in his car and sped off. Douchebag.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bubi to be enhanced

Budapest's new bike-share system, Mol Bubi, will soon be extended with 30 new docking stations and 300 bikes, according to the news site, Index.

Though the system opened just a month ago, the city transport organisation BKK believes the expansion is justified due to the better-than-expected uptake by the travelling public. According to Index, the green bikes were checked out 120,000 during the first month -- which comes out to 4,000 rides per day, or about 4 per bike per day.

Financing is no barrier. Because of the many technical delays in Bubi's trial phase -- the public launch was a half year behind schedule -- the private consortium delivering the system is liable for HUF 180 million (EUR 589,000) in contractual penalties. BKK and the T Systems-led contractor agreed to settle the matter with a system expansion.

According to Index, locations for the new docking stations have  to be selected and agreed with the affected districts. Even so, the new stations SHOULD go live within six months (blogger's emphasis.)
Envisioned locations on the Pest side are:  János Pál pápa tér, the Corvin sétány and the Millenniumi City Center. In Buda, they can be expected at Kosztolányi Dezső tér and near the Millenáris.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Plant bike racks in your courtyard -- cheaply

This courtyard (ours, in a building on Margit körút.) became a beautiful, botanical, obstacle course
with the help of a local greening grant.
Looking for a cheap way to furnish your building's courtyard with bicycle racks?

Why not apply for a grant from the Mol Zöldövezet Program? This is a community greening initiative that gives grants of HUF 200,000-500,000 (EUR 650-1,600) for community projects that add green space on plots of urban space up to 1,500 square metres.

Since 2012, many of these grants have supported the greening of residential courtyards. Although the program mainly focuses on plants, it supports "greening" in the broader sense, as well: bicycle racks, selective waste bins, benches and tables and other environment-friendly improvements can also be covered.

A few years ago, my own building, a four-story "társasház" on Margit körút, won a grant under a similar program to improve our own courtyard. The funding source was different (in this case, the II. District Council), but our experience illustrates what a big difference such an initiative can make.
This courtyard, in a building on Pest's Rottenbiller utca, was greened with a grant from Zöldövezet Program.
Bike racks were included in the improvements.
Our project involved the installation of two flowerbeds, a small fountain, and a picnic set, and it completely transformed our courtyard. Now people sit out there during the day, chatting and having coffees, and this summer a few birds moved in. Their chirping made me feel like I was out in the woods rather than in a building next to one of the busiest roads in Buda.

Bike racks weren't part of our project, but we added some a year later. I think the continuous human presence engendered by the courtyard improvements contributes a great deal to the security of our bike parking.

Aside from courtyard greenings, the Zöldövezet Program supports projects in two other categories: community gardens and community parks. The program means to add green space to the city, but also to build communities by bringing neighbours together to improve their surroundings.

The grants generally fund investment costs while the applicants contribute their own time and labour during all facets of the project, including the concept and design at the proposal stage, as well as the installation and long-term maintenance should the project receive funding. Applicants also must co-finance the projects at 20 percent.

The Zöldövezet Program started in 2006 and was, until recent months, administered by the Ökotárs Alapítvány, an organisation that distributed Norwegian civil society grants. Ökotárs's activities were disrupted when Hungarian police raided its offices last month and seized files -- apparently for purely political reasons. Luckily, Mol has stepped into the breach to ensure that this year's application and granting process will proceed on schedule.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ciclovia numero uno!

Adam Kobrizsa and Lance make a football pitch of Szechenyi rakpart.
Been offline for a few days and unable to post this. But here's a rundown of Budapest's first Ciclovia, this past Sunday:

On the closing weekend of European Mobility Week, we normally go to Andrassy ut, where there's a long-running annual festival with food, games, exhibition stands and tens of thousands of people. But yesterday, we wanted to see the first Budapest Ciclovia.

Ciclovia is a periodic closing of streets to motor traffic in order to give free rein to cyclists, skaters, walkers and others going under their own power. It's supposed to have started in Bogota in the early 1980s, but by now it's spread to cities all over the world. Budapest has experimented with similar open-street events in summers past, including on Margit Bridge, pre-renovation days, when one of the island-side lanes would be closed on weekends to handle the heavy bike and foot traffic. There have also been weekend closures of the Chain Bridge.

But this was the first such event to go by the name Ciclovia, and it was organised on Szechenyi rakpart between the Chain Bridge and Margit Bridge. It was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but when we got down there at about 11, cars were still running on the road. I asked a traffic cop about it, and he said there weren't enough people for it, that there would just be a little press conference and no Ciclovia, at all.

Sequoia scoots.
Frustrated, we were about to leave, but then the police DID put up a road block, and suddenly some cyclists started shuttling down the entrance ramps to the riverside road. We followed and soon enough, ran into Adam Kobrizsa, who had set up a park bench with a dozen other people in the middle of the road just north of the Chain Bridge.

Kobrizsa, a structural engineer and partner at Mindspace, explained that he had organised the event, and it was Adam who gave the press conference from atop the park bench. He said a few words to reporters, posed for some photos, and then he came over and chatted with us and kicked a soccer ball around with my son Lance. I'd brought scooter along for my daughter Sequoia, and she took it on a few runs up and down the rakpart..

Unfortunately, we didn't have nearly a big enough crowd to fill a kilometre-long section of road, and police said although they would respect the group's right to hold a demonstration, they could not justify keeping the road closed for long, when there were far more people who wanted to drive on it. Kobrizsa didn't object. "The police are being kind," he said.

At about 1:30 p.m., a half hour ahead of schedule, police reopened the road to car traffic, and we got out of there. It was nice while it lasted.

For future events, Kobrizsa said they'll have to get the local municipality involved along with several NGOs and others. It'll take a few thousand people to fill the roadspace between those bridges.

It'll take aggressive publicity to compete with the hugely popular festivities on Andrassy ut. However, in time, I reckon many people will be happy to escape the shoulder to shoulder traffic on Andrassy to enjoy the open space at the Ciclovia. The panorama of the Danube and Castle Hill are even better when you're not harried by car traffic.

Traffic police have some words with a couple motorists who got around the barricades.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Re-Gehl: Architect Jan Gehl's talk in Budapest, part II

Last week at the Toldi Mozi, I had the privilege to hear a presentation by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and leading light behind the livable-cities movement and the worldwide utility cycling explosion. I posted about it here, but there were a enough remaining notes to do a continuation. Here's the rest of what he said.

And, of course, Gehl’s home town of Copenhagen has also provided him with loads of inspiration on urban design, most notably from the Strøget, the city’s central high street that was made car free in 1962. Very controversial at the time, the project became a huge success, and Gehl’s reports and research on it helped fuel the city’s now famous approach to bike- and pedestrian-friendly city design.

Although now known as a masterstroke of socially conscious planning, Gehl pointed out that the Strøget project was at first seen as a commercial venture. It was modeled on a successful shopping street in Kiel, Germany. “Shopping was the impetus,” he said. “But we found that it stimulated other things, as well: meetings and conversations and play – along with a little bit of shopping.”

Disneyland and resort hotels are excellent examples of urban design. They pay attention to the details. If they don't, people won't come." -- Jan Gehl.

A big lesson here seemed to be that if a northern city like Copenhagen could adapt Mediterranean street life, anybody could. “I see these bicycles coming up in many unexpected places,” Gehl noted. His firm was recently tasked with designing cycling systems in places as different as Greenland and Singapore. Presumably, Greenland’s weather is the least of its challenges. But in Singapore, 35-degree average temperatures and constant high humidity don’t make it an obvious choice for a big cycling network. But to Gehl’s thinking, cars make less sense given that the island is just 50 km long, 26 km wide and home to 5.4 million people. “Imagine, you’re in a big Mercedes. As soon as you get it up to full speed, you run into the water!” Gehl’s prescription for Singapore is a dense public transport network and ample bikeways with protection from the sun and rain. Because of the island’s high density, average bike trips will be just 2 kilometres, which is practical even in a tropical climate, Gehl said.

Although Gehl’s been happy to share his ideas with people, not everyone takes them up. He did a consultancy with the City of London several years ago in which he offered a design for a comprehensive cycling network. Today, they’re “still talking about it in committee meetings,” Gehl sniffed.

In New York, by contrast, many of his ideas were taken up and implemented with impressive speed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “He wanted to build a thousand miles of bike lanes in four years, before his term would end.” (Bloomberg succeeded in building approximately 400 miles of bikeways, still far more than Copenhagen has.) A big difference, of course, is the power that the mayor has in New York's city charter. For an even more extreme example of a “doer” type of city, Gehl gave the example of Moscow. Gehl gave a consultancy there, and: “I come back a year later and – whoops! – in a huge parking lot, no more parked cars – and in another place – whoops! – a bunch of park benches. Instant livable city! That's a very efficient democracy!"

Gehl was joking, of course. But he firmly believes that, whatever might be said about the process, those particular changes in Moscow were big improvements to city life.

Gehl observed that cities achieve such transformations in different ways. Sometimes it's from a visionary leader (The mayoral double act of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogota is a famous examples) and sometimes it's from the ground up, as a popular movement (I'd say Budapest's Critical Mass is a good example here). And sometimes "it's a mix”. The technical challenges aren’t the big ones, though. “People have to have a change of heart,” Gehl said.

Once that happens, Gehl recommends following a couple of real-life examples accessible to anyone: “Disneyland and resort hotels." This sounds like another of Gehl's punchlines. But as with the others, he also has a serious point.

“These places are very careful in the details and the scaling of things to attract people,” Gehl said. “They have to be. If they don’t pay attention to the details, people won’t come.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Out with modernists and motorists, in with walkers and bikers

The other night at the Toldi Mozi (September 17), I had the privilege to hear a presentation by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and leading light behind the livable-cities movement and the worldwide utility cycling explosion. He was in town for the recent publication of the Hungarian edition of his book, Cities for People (Hungarian title is Élhető városok which translates as “Livable Cities”. Parenthetical within parenthetical: Why is it that Hungarian translators take such liberties with titles??). At the start of his talk, Gehl told the 200 or so of us in the cinema’s big auditorium that he’d prepared a 1.5 hour Powerpoint lecture. However, he said he’d forego that because he’d given the same talk last September to what was probably the same crowd. Even though I’d missed his last appearance, I was very happy to skip the ppt and enjoy a free-wheeling Q and A with two Hungarian moderators (editors who’d worked on the Hungarian edition of the book).

At the outset, Gehl noted that this was his second big book on the subject of people-friendly urban design. The first was Life Between Buildings, published in 1971 and a touchstone text in contemporary urban planning. The most frequent question Gehl gets about Cities for People is, What’s the difference between the new book and the old one? “The answer,” Gehl said, “is 40 years.” That is, 40 years of not just research but actual implementation of his ideas in cities the world over, from New York to London to Shanghai.

"We wanted to go someplace where we could watch people. We didn't think we could do that in Denmark." -- Jan Gehl, on his early research trip to Venice

Cities for People is now out in 25 languages, which gratifies Gehl. “It’s so wonderful that this book is available all over the world in all these funny languages.” Gehl paused for a beat, as the crowd had a self-deprecating chuckle. Then he interjected: “I’m not talking about Hungarian. I’m talking about French!” This elicited a bigger, gleeful burst of laughter.

Gehl’s first book, despite its huge influence in many corners of the world, was not published in French until recently. And Gehl noted with some disparagement that the new French edition of Cities for People was published not in Paris but in Quebec. His fans in France have to import the book from Canada. “The French think of themselves as culturally self-sufficient,” Gehl said, over the crowd’s continued laughter.

With the book plug done, Gehl retold his famous personal origin myth: how as a university student, he was indoctrinated in the modernist school of architecture, which instructed that students should forget about designing cities and focus instead on buildings. Make things that look grand from a distance, don’t worry so much about the details. Gehl’s perspective changed dramatically after he finished school and married a psychologist. Gehl said his wife told him, “You learn so much about form and aesthetics and you know this much about people!” Gehl held up his hand, showing a quarter-inch between thumb and forefinger.

Another important influence in his early professional life was Jane Jacobs, writer of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Gehl described her as the “great grandmother” of people-friendly city design. “She said if you let modernists and motorists have their way, the great American city will be dead,” Gehl said.

It’s not a coincidence that the two most influential people during Gehl’s formative years as an urban design thinker were women. These days, Gehl presides over the prestigious firm Gehl Architects, with a stable of more than 50 consultants, many of them architects, but also including anthropologists and maybe even psychologists (Gehl admitted he wasn't sure if he had psychologist on staff -- but he said he worked with a multi-disciplinary group of people, which he says is important in his line of work). “You should come to my office in Copenhagen some time,” he joked to his young male interviewers. “Nothing but young women as far as the eye can see.” Gehl was being playful, but there’s a professional reason behind the feminine tilt, he said. “The girls in architecture school are interested in improving society, while the boys are more interested in building big steel towers.” 

Gehl said the best contemporary examples of cities designed for people are the Medieval centres of many European cities. His favourite is Venice, where he performed some of his seminal research on human behavior in cities many years ago during a six-month stay with his wife. “We wanted to go somewhere where we could watch people,” Gehl said. “We didn’t think we could do that in Denmark.” Another good laugh line -- even though Danish cities are no longer so devoid of people -- thanks in no small measure to Gehl's influence.

“Venice is a people city, designed for people, and it still works that way,” Gehl said. “Around every corner, you meet a friend and, of course, you have to talk a little. There are conversations going on all around you.”

The favelas of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are also examples of people places – in contrast to the urban centre of Sao Paolo. “The favelas were designed for people,” Gehl said.

My next post will cover the rest of Jan Gehl's September 17th talk at the Toldi Mozi.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Critical Mass Reunion Tour??

She deserves better than a gutter!
The Budapest cycling movement is back! An open invitation is up on Facebook for a cycling demonstration around the Nagykörút at 5:30 p.m. September 22, i.e. evening rush hour on European Car-Free Day. As a bonus, sunny weather's predicted.

It sounds an awful lot like the fall Critical Mass rides or yore, which were held at the same time on the same date. But the head honchos of the former Critical Mass, Sinya and Kuku of Hajtas Pajtas, don't appear to be spearheading this one -- nor is anyone else. The Facebook page doesn't identify anyone as organiser or leader. It's just a page declaring: "Let the Nagykörút be bikeable!" A text below reads:
It's been five years since the Nagykörút Critical Mass, but the situation is still the same. Instead of plans and promises, we want concrete steps! Therefore, we call for a common Car-free Day ride to re-draw attention to the matter of the Nagykörút!
It's actually been four years since the Nagykörút Critical Mass: the one that had no route, where we just went down to occupy the street, riding back and forth between the Szabadság bridge and Margit bridge on the Pest side. But the need for bikeways on the Nagykörút is an evergreen issue, and it's made especially timely this fall with the roll-out of Budapest's new bike-share system

In anticipation of a new wave of novice urban cyclists flooding downtown on bright green Bubi bikes, the city carried out a big programme of bike-friendly improvements to downtown streets in the system coverage area. The improvements included new bike racks, new contraflow cycling lanes and new signage. But the most needed improvement of all was left out -- bikeways for the Nagykörút.

For many trips to and from and around downtown, the Nagykörút offers the most convenient route. But the road space is mainly taken up by cars -- four lanes for moving ones, and a lane on each side for parked ones. It's legal to ride your bike on the Nagykörút but often the traffic is going so fast you feel like you're risking your life. (For a short while last year, car speeds on the Nagykörút were reduced slightly in order to prioritise tram traffic. Mayor Tarlos put the kibash on that last fall and restored the Formula 1 flavour of things.

It's insanity to have  a beautiful new bike-sharing system with several docking points on a road that feels (and smells!) like a high-speed expressway. Car traffic on the Nagykörút should be cut down to one lane going in each direction with the speed limit reduced to 30 kph. In this way, the Nagykörút would not only be bikeable, it'd be shoppable, walkable, pram-able and dine-able. 

When Critical Mass came to an end more than a year ago, organisers said it was because its mission had been fulfilled. They said they needed to turn their attention to more targetted, behind-the-scenes lobbying. But in the absence of Critical Mass, we're missing a sense of community and solidarity among cyclists and wish-to-be cyclists. And when we're dealt with setbacks, like the never-ending postponement of the congestion charge, the cancellation of priority bus lanes or the sweeping under the rug of brilliant cycling plans for the Margit körút  -- there needs to be a loud, visible response. A big turnout on September 22 will be just the thing.

What: Bike demonstration for cycling accommodation on the Nagykörút
When: Starts 5:30 p.m. September 22
Where: Jászai Mari tér

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bubis are out -- finally!

Photo stolen from the Urbanista blog.
At long last, Budapest's new bike share system has shed its training wheels.

Bubi made its full public debut this morning with 1,100 bikes available from 76 docking stations around downtown, Margit Island and a few places in Buda on or near the Danube bank.

Now, anyone interested in using one can do so. For the grand opening, the price of entry is just HUF 100 (about EUR 0.30). This buys you a seven-day ticket, which is obtainable at a Bubi docking point. You'll need to bring a bank card and mobile phone.

Long-term options are also available. A year pass is HUF 12,000 or just HUF 6,000 for those who have a BKK public transport pass. There are other options, as well.

The system launch ends a long, frustrating period of internal and public testing that started back in April. The system was plagued with bugs, mainly IT things related to the rental mechanism and the on-board electronic lock. Just a week ago, there was a reported problem with the docking station bank card reader.

But a final round of public trials involving some 1,000 volunteers ended last week, and the Budapest Transport Centre today opened it up to everyone.
In our family, we all have our own bikes and I've wondered whether I'll actually participate in Bubi. But I spotted an attractive feature in the system: With a single long-term pass (Bubi kartya), you can check out up to four bikes at a time. This would come in handy when we have visitors and need some extra bikes. Rather than having to keep a fleet of our own guest bikes, or having to arrange long-term rentals from a Budapest shop (limited weekend hours), we could all walk down to the nearest Bubi station (5-10 minutes from our front door), check out some bikes and take off.

The Bubi bikes are heavy and pokey (like shared bikes everywhere), but for short rides around town, they're fine. I think people will soon come to appreciate how this new mode of transport can make their lives easier and more fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bubi rounds up 1,000 guinea pigs in 1 hour

I just got tired of posting pics of Bubi bikes.
The internal testing phase for Bubi is finally over and now begins the public trial.
City transport company BKK has rounded up 1,000 volunteers for testing, and on Thursday, they will start a two-week trial to see how the system performs in real-world conditions with a large base of clients.

After the trial, each volunteer user will be asked to fill out an evaluation questionnaire, with results feeding into a final refinements of the system before it opens to the wider public.
BKK apparently had an easy time identifying volunteers. It posted an announcement promising a free six-month Bubi pass (value of about EUR 30) to anyone who would take part. The requirements were that they use the system at least 10 times during a two-week trial, and follow through with the evaluation.

Electronic registration opened Monday morning at and within one hour BKK had their thousand guinea pigs.

Not surprising, as the bikes have been out on the streets since the first week of April, while usage has been restricted to a small number of handpicked volunteers in an internal test. I've followed the process quite closely and therefore understood that the system hadn't officially opened yet. But I've heard from several friends and acquaintances who had attempted to check out Bubi bikes, and then walked away frustrated thinking they simply didn't correctly interpret the instructions on the Bubi terminals. This goes down to BKK's perplexing policy of not communicating during the trial phase. I can only assume it was because the organisation's leadership was embarrassed about the system's problems.

As was widely reported, Bubi's registration and check-out system had a number of bugs, and the envisioned "brief testing period" stretched out more than three months.

According to the kerekagy blog, T-Systems, the lead partner in the consortium that's implementing Bubi, is liable for a HUF 120 million penalty for the system's tardy launch.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bubi's testing phase testing patience

Everyone's curious about the Bubi bikes.
On its homepage this week, the Budapest Transport Center (BKK) acknowledged serious problems with the testing phase of the MOL Bubi bike-sharing system, now in two months delay past its April 7 launch date.

Bugs in the check-out technology have prevented testers from removing and reconnecting bicycles at the system docking stations, and BKK isn't satisfied with efforts to fix the problems. The company says it may be forced to cancel its contract with the system providers if they don't get Bubi rolling soon.

The telecom company T Systems leads the implementing consortium, with other partners being the Csepel bike maker and the Germany-based Nextbike bike-share firm.

According to reports on and the kerekagy blog, the MOL Bubi system is challenged because it brings together a number of advanced technological solutions (e.g. touch-screen dock terminals, on-board computers on the bicycles, a novel on-bike locking mechanism) that have never been combined together in any bike-sharing scheme.

In response, BKK said that it had done a thorough market investigation of system providers and that the T-System consortium's offer was selected from among several competing bids. One reason the offer was chosen was that it was the least expensive, partly due to tax advantages connected to the inclusion of Hungary-based Csepel. BKK said it understood that there were "risks" with the offer due to the need to develop new software solutions from scratch. And because of this, BKK had insisted that its service contract include a rigorous set of deadlines and financial penalties.

BKK said it was clear from February that there would be difficulties with the telecommunications aspect of Bubi, and therefore the planned launch date of April 7 couldn't be set in stone. However, now that the testing phase is going into its third month, BKK is invoking its contractual protections.

It noted that consortium leader T-Systems has already issued a public call for patience as it works with its partners to get Bubi rolling.

According to the BKK communication, the consortium is liable for an HUF 1.798 million penalty for each day of delay past April 7. As of June 4, the accumulated penalty was already HUF 104 million.

According to the contract, the penalty ceiling is HUF 179.8 million and this will be reached on July 16 if Bubi doesn't launch before then. BKK says at that point, it could demand payment of the penalty and terminate the contract. However, BKK says it has 100 staff working on testing and is committed to have the project succeed if at all possible.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Szentendre City Hall takes a stand for cyclists

Incredibly, this awkward underpass is part of the Eurovelo 6 bike touristic route. The public road authority forbids cyclists from crossing the road on the surface. Photo stolen from here.
The Szentendre local government is taking a stand against Hungary's public road authority in order to allow bicycling on the main road through town.

If you want to lend  personal support to this cause, you can sign a petition posted by a Szentendre subgroup of the Hungarian Cyclists Club.

This has a bit of history. Szentendre hasn't been terribly bike friendly over the years, and as someone who works and bikes there on a daily basis, I have ongoing issues with local cycling policy.

However, the local authorities in this case are trying to do something good for cyclists. For many years, the public road manager -- Közútkezelő Kft -- has banned bicycling on Route 11, despite it being the only option for many people to cross the town north to south. On the southern part, there's a shared bike/pedestrian path that cyclists are required to use. It's old and broken up, and not pleasant to ride on. And in order to get from this path to the dedicated bike path leading to Budakalász and Békésmegyer, you have to cross Route 11 through a horrible little underpass. Crossing on the surface is illegal.

From Szentendre's public transport junction (HÉV and Volan bus stop) to the north, there's no designated bikeway at all -- yet you're still banned from riding Route 11. One  local cyclist I've met has been cited by police for riding here -- and he successfully fought the ticket in court. Hungary's traffic code expressly permits cycling on public roads unless there's an adjacent bikeway provided. So Közútkezelő Kft.'s ban on cycling on the northern stretch of  Route 11 doesn't even accord with the law.

For years, Route 11 has not served as a local road at all, only as a high-volume, high-speed highway between Budapest and Visegrad (despite a posted speed limit of 50 km/hr in town). The local authorities are now wondering if maybe they can claim the Szentendre section for their own citizens, so that people can use it and cross it, by car, foot or bike, without cowering in fear of torrential through traffic. Allowing cycling here would be a good first step.

According to my local cycling contacts, the Route 11 initiative is part of a larger plan to prioritise cycling around the town. A couple years ago, a university student from Szentendre who had researched cycling in Denmark drafted a few relevant proposals for Szentendre. Apparently some of his ideas have caught on at City Hall. I think this is great. I have nothing against the use of cars for longer distance journeys between cities. But for local travel, cycling has an important role to play, and in Szentendre, there's huge untapped potential.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cited for biking on the bike path

Some other poor sap. Photo stolen from:
I got a HUF 10,000 citation (EUR 33) this morning for riding my bike on the bike path.

If you've ever ridden on the Buda-side Eurovelo route north from Margit hid, you can probably guess where it happened. It's on the pedestrian / bike overpass near the Tímár utca HÉV stop. Despite this being part of the official bike path, it's forbidden to ride your bike here. Signs on both ends of the bridge indicate that you're supposed to dismount and push your bike over the bridge.

Because it's on my work commute, I go over this bridge twice a day everyday. I know the rule and understand the rationale. There are lots of people on foot on this bridge because it connects a huge housing estate to the HEV stop. Even so, I figure if I slow down and refrain from mowing down children and senior citizens, I can stay on the bike and still be within the "spirit" of the law.

I mean, why should I have to get off my bike on a bike path? It's bad enough that they forbid cycling on public streets, as on any major street where there's an adjacent, separate bike path available. Bike paths are no longer an option in Hungary, they're compulsory. But to forbid cycling on the bike path itself?? That's really the final insult.

The officers who ticketed me this morning explained how it's only for a small section, that it's for the protection of pedestrians, and how making a separate crossing for cyclists would be a huge investment. Mind you, the Hungarian government spends HUF 63 billion for car infrastructure like the Megyeri hid. But somehow, it can't shell out an infinitesimal fraction of that to solve a problem for cyclists.

I was pleased this morning that one passing cyclist (who was canny enough to have gotten off her bike) stopped to make some of these arguments to the officers who has ticketed me. She didn't get anywhere with them but at least made an effort.

But what can you do? I've crossed this bridge a thousand times without getting ticketed. My number was long overdue. If you read this, though, let it be a warning. Approach this bridge with caution -- it's cycling season, and the Obuda public space patrols have baited their hooks.

According to the kerekagy blog, a more bike-friendly solution to the problem is planned for 2015. We'll see.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Like mother, like daughter

This week, our friend Rachel brought over some toys that her daughter had outgrown, including a carrying rack for a kid's bike. Sequoia loves it. Part of being like her Mom is packing your little ones around when you're going to work and running errands.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cycling cities -- they're possible!

In Kaunas, Lithuania, the Mobile 2020 bike parade.
For the past three years, I worked on a project called Mobile 2020 promoting everyday cycling in small communities in the region. We concentrated on 11 countries in Eastern Europe stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans.
Final publication of the Mobile 2020 project, available here.
The work has come to a close and our results are satisfying. The main activity was cycling-promotion seminars for municipal transport officers and planners. We educated them on best practices in infrastructure design, integrated transport planning, communications and cycling services (e.g. bike sharing, internet route finding).

Our curriculum reached at least 359 375 cities (more will be reported in the coming days). Our target at the start of the project was 350 cities, and I remember thinking we'd be lucky to reach half that many. But step by step, we met the target, and then exceeded it. By focussing on small cities, conducting the training in local languages and adapting the curriculum with in-country case studies, we were able to reach hundreds of tranport professionals who had little to no previous acquaintance with state-of-the-art cycling promotion.

In the end, a couple transport officers from each of the 11 project countries were invited to model cycling cities in Germany and the Netherlands. That gave them a first-hand experience of what's possible in city cycling. A Czech transport planner who joined the tour was so bowled over by what he saw that he was texting us throughout his visit expressing gratitude and telling us what an eye-opener it was. It was the first time he'd been to the Netherlands and seen streets with more bicycles than cars. He said he couldn't wait to get back home and set things right in his own town.

I had a similar reaction 10 or so years ago when I visited the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. It was the first time in my life I'd been in a city neighborhood where cyclists ruled the roads. I have to admit it brought tears to my eyes. So I understand exactly how that Czech transport planner felt. And I have to say it was cool being involved in a project that gave the same inspiration to hundreds of people in Central and Eastern Europe -- especially people in a position to influence the transport situation in their communities.

As project evaluator, I wrote a booklet of lessons and recommendations. Of course, I had the help of the project implementers in all the countries, and the technical experts and other partners from Germany and the Netherlands.

The publication is available here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Parliament Promenade

For the last couple years, the area around Parliament was a dusty construction zone walled off with chip board and fences. The boards came down a couple weeks ago -- in time for the national elections -- to reveal an enormous level space of concrete and cut stone.

Aside from a huge new statue of national hero Lajos Kossuth, it's as flat and open as the Hungarian Great Plain. Some would call it "austere" -- in fact, my wife said exactly that. But it got thumbs up all around for being closed to cars. The tram tracks look to be in the same place. The asphalt street has been replaced by a stone tiled surface with little bicycle pictograms etched in about every 20 metres. They're pretty subtle and the signage is spare, as well. It's basically designed as a shared space where cyclists and pedestrians co-mingle. Except at stops, there's no curb or other barrier to isolate the tram tracks. You have a feeling it'd be really easy for a child to step across the tram tracks at the wrong moment, but trams on Saturday were going quite slowly, probably for this reason.

For cyclists, this square used to be a bit of a hazard. You'd either ride on the narrow bike path near the Parliament -- and on weekends always contend with droves of camera-toting tourists. Or you'd go on the street where you'd be caught between speeding cars and parked tourist buses in front of the Ethnographic Museum. Now you have space galore. It's unregulated, and you have to watch where you're going, but it feels a lot more relaxed and pleasant.

Friday, March 14, 2014

New Docks on the Blocks

A newly installed überstation with 30 bike docks across from the Nagy Vásárcsarnok at the foot of Szabadság Bridge.
A cycling contact of mine saw my last post about how the installation of Bubi's docking points had gotten off to a late start, but he says HE heard the system will launch on time.

Russell Meddin, a contributor to the Bike-Sharing Blog, said:
I spoke with the owner of Nextbike (one of the technology last week while he was in Washington, Dc. He told me with almost certainty that Budapest will launch on 7 April!!! 

But then added:
Almost every launch I've watched has slipped a few days or so! 
In any case, I noticed a report this week of further stations cropping up in downtown, and Thursday afternoon I went out hunting for others. I saw a newly installed one across the street from the Nagy Vásárcsarnok and another one along the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út bike path.
Here's a new one at the corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út and Kálmán Imre utca.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bike-share docks hit the streets -- finally

Here's Sequoia modelling in front of the Bubi terminal by Kodály körönd.
The first docking points for Budapest's planned bike-sharing system were installed last week. Transport authority BKK had said the installation would begin in February, which puts the work a month behind stated schedule. However, the planned launch for the system remains in April. We'll see if they stick to it -- keeping in mind the timeline has already slipped three years (Bubi was originally supposed to launch in 2011). 

According to BKK's Facebook page, the first installed docking points numbered four, all in District VI. They're at the following intersections: Teréz körút–Király utca, Kodály körönd, Városligeti fasor–Dózsa György utca, and Andrássy út–Káldy Gyula utca.

I took a quick ride out Saturday and took photos of three of them. They're all installed on the street, displacing space formerly used for car parking -- cool! They have 20 bike docks each. The rent-out consoles aren't ready to go, yet. Looks like further electronics work is needed before they're operational. And no sign of any bikes, yet.

The entire Mol Bubi system will comprise 75 docking stations and more than 1,000 bikes, mostly in central Pest but also along the Buda bank of the Danube, Margit Sziget and on up to Déli station. Here's a map.

... at the corner of Teréz körút–Király utca.

... at the corner of Városligeti fasor–Dózsa György utca.
Docking point.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Still bike crazy after all these years

Is Central and Eastern Europe a hotbed of utility cycling? Conventional wisdom would say no, but a recent Eurobarometer survey on local travel paints another picture. Look at the graph below: There are 17 countries in Europe where at least 10 percent of inhabitants ride a bike on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, Scandinavia and the Low Countries dominate. But most of the others (Austria and Italy excepted) are "new member" EU states of Central and Eastern Europe.

This surprised a few of us who are taking part in an EU-funded project that is promoting cycling in Central and Eastern Europe. The mobile2020 project was predicated, partly, on the belief that the recent global fashion of "Cycle Chic" had not gained much ground here.

This is true, but the key thing to understand is that Cycle Chic is a big-city thing. It's all about popularizing bicycling as a fashionable, sexy mode of travel for urbanites. But in this region, big city cycling is a tiny part of the picture. The above study, based on surveys of 27,680 random households in the EU (about 1,000/country), shows that cycling levels are quite high in the region at the country level. There's little evidence of this in big cities. Clearly, smaller communities are picking up the slack.

Hungary is a good example. In Budapest, despite all the hoopla over Critical Mass and the significant increases in cycling in the city centre, the highest guesstimates of modal share are 4-5 percent. The countryside, comprising a handful of medium-size cities and scores of small towns and villages, is much more conducive to cycling. Distances are smaller, public transport options more scarce and motor traffic less stifling. Lots of people in the countryside go by bike, contributing to a nationwide portion of everyday cyclists of 25 percent.

It's no doubt true that a relative lack of economic development, and the inability of people to buy cars, is partly responsible. The Eurobarometer  survey notes that young people in Hungary generally aspire to have cars, even if car usage in Hungary is lower than anywhere else in Europe. So the danger is that as the job market picks up, more and more people will switch from bikes to cars.

In the mobile2020 project, our approach has been to transfer Dutch and German cycling know-how to Central and Eastern Europe. The fact that this region already has good cycling levels doesn't invalidate the approach. But it does narrow down what this region can learn from its northern neighbors: How to create conditions in which cycling is the preferred choice -- even when attractive alternatives are in the offing.