Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bike-share system ready for installation

The equipment for Budapest's bike-share system, set for launch in April, is in the warehouse and ready for installation beginning next month.

According to the kerekagy blog, the 1,000+ bikes and 76 docking stations are being tested at a Csepel warehouse, and will be installed, regardless of weather, starting in February around central Pest and along the Buda-side riverbank. The Budapest Transport Center (BKK) promises that after a short testing period, Bubi will open to the public in April.

For local manufacturer Csepel, this marks a debut in the bike-sharing business. The bikes look great, but how well they will stand up in daily operations remains to be seen.

When I first looked at the video, I was surprised that the user directions on the docking stations were in Hungarian only. Afterall, BKK has said the system is for anyone who'd like to use a bike in Budapest.

However, BKK's cycling affairs officer Virág Bence-Kovács assured me that English translation is being developed, and will be displayed alongside the Hungarian by launch day. (Then she asked me to proofread the text -- so, be careful what you ask for.)

In the video, you can see that bicycles will also be used as Bubi's service vehicles. Special bikes with trailers will be deployed to take Bubi bikes to and from the repair garage, and also to redistribute bikes from full docking points to empty ones.

I don't know if this is an untried approach, but for the systems I've seen (Paris, London and Brussels), petrol-fueled trucks are used for this purpose. Bubi's zero-carbon approach is cool -- and I assume completely practical considering the system's relatively small service area.

It's interesting to note that the Bubi service bikes are a Hungarian novelty. They're string bikes, which feature a bizarre (and relatively expensive) drive system. Their inventor claims the string bike drive shifts more smoothly and is more durable than the chain drive. It looks like Csepel, which recently started manufacturing the string bike for the mass market, is using Bubi to popularise the product.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cycling community rallies to return globetrotter's bike

Yoshihiro Shimada on the road with his Riese und Müller Birdy BD1
Most people, when they get their bike stolen, lose a little faith in the human condition. If they replace their bike, it’s often with something cheaper and more expendable than before. Shit happens – you can’t fight it.

But when it happened to Yoshihiro Shimada, a Japanese world traveler who biked into Budapest last week, he went on a crusade. He told people he wasn’t leaving the city until he found the bike.

Before Yoshihiro arrived in Budapest, he had been on the road for five years, riding across the Americas, Africa and Europe. He’d stopped here for a short rest and a look around the city. But during his first night at a hostel in District VII, his bike went missing. He’d parked it in the courtyard a building on Kertesz utca -- in the morning, the only thing remaining was a sheared cable and padlock.

Yoshihiro did not stew. He immediately reported the theft to police, who posted photos and other information about the bike in a national bike registration system. As you can see in the photo above, the bike’s a highly individualized folding rig featuring a unique front suspension and carrying capacity for mountains of bags. It also has emotional value for Yoshihiro. Over 50,000 km of hard road, it’s been his one constant companion. You can imagine how an arduous, solitary venture like his could forge a bond between man and inanimate object (see Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball in Castaway).

Yoshihiro also reached out to the local cycling community – and they responded by doing blog post after blog post about his predicament, and running big photos with the bike at the fore. The story appeared in, the kerekagy blog,, the cycling page of and many others. An activist group calling itself the Budapest Bike Mafia went a step further by collecting nearly a thousand euros to help Yoshihiro buy a replacement. All the support seemed to have emboldened Yoshihiro. In one interview, he was asked if he had a plan B – if he’d thought about giving up and just buying a new bike. Yoshihiro was resolute: he would look until the bike turned up.

Incredibly, over the weekend, it did. A tipster who’d seen the posts told police he'd spotted the bike at the Bakancsos Flea Market in outer Pest, some 15 km due east of Yoshihiro’s Kertesz utca hostel.

XVII District Police were notified, and on-duty officers were dispatched to the market. They IDed the bike, and asked the vendor who was selling it how he’d acquired it. The vendor related a predictably dodgy chain of provenance: he had gotten it from another vendor, and that vender had gotten it at an informal market on Mátyás tér in District VIII from some unknown person. News reports noted two market vendors were being interrogated, but no arrests had been made at press time.

In any case, it’s obviously great news that the bike resurfaced. I must admit I did not predict it would. Big kudos to the cycling community and others for stepping up and helping a stranger in need. And hats off to Yoshihiro for his faith that in Budapest, despite his rather bad first impression, venality would be trumped by kindness.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bike-friendly towns and employers get their due

Just completed this past fall with HUF 1.5 billion in EU support, a 27.7 km path now runs from Romania across the Hungarian border to Békéscsaba, officially the most bike-friendly large settlement in Hungary.
Twenty-three Hungarian towns and 28 employers were officially recognised as “bicycle friendly” on Wednesday at an annual awards ceremony sponsored by the National Development Ministry.

The awards were handed out at the Regional Environmental Center in Szentendre, with Pál Völner, state secretary for infrastructure, presiding.

To be considered for the award, the towns and companies must submit reams of data and documents proving their commitment to bike-friendly transport. Infrastructure and promotional efforts are the main criteria for communities; bike parking and other types of encouragement are top criteria for employers.

For companies, the payoff is prestige and fulfillment of corporate social responsibility. For municipalities, there's also material motivation: "Bike-Friendly Settlement" status gives them bonus points in applications for EU development subsidies.

The awards scheme is a joint effort of the ministry and the Cycling Hungary Association. This year’s award ceremony was hosted by the Regional Environmental Center and co-financed by the EU-supported Mobile 2020 cycling project, to which REC is a contributing partner.

At the event, Völner underscored that the ministry sponsors the scheme for the same reason it backs Hungary’s Bike to Work campaigns and events connected to European Mobility Week and Car Free Day. The goal is to promote bicycling as transport. He boasted that one fruit of these efforts is that Hungary is now, according to a survey commissioned by the European Cyclists Federation, number eight in Europe in terms of its cycling levels and conditions.

Applicants for the awards have good cycling kudos. On the bike-friendly settlement side, the nine new designees had an average cycling modal share of 45 percent (Granted, these are mostly relatively small settlements, typically with a couple 10s of thousands of residents.). These towns are also spending a growing share of their transport investments on cycling. In 2011, the average share was 11 percent while in 2012 it was up to 14 percent.

The 14 towns that renewed existing bike-friendly designations had even better numbers. Their average bike modal share was 52 percent, while they dedicated on average 30 percent of transport investments to cycling infrastructure.

Among the recognized bike-friendly workplaces, cycling is a favoured mode of transport among managers as well as workers. Among newly designated companies, 35 percent of CEOs cycle regularly to work, while 20 percent of middle managers do and 44 percent of junior managers.

Among companies that have renewed their designations, 14 percent of CEOs cycle regularly, 20 percent of middle managers do and 37 percent of junior managers.

And the winners are …
Bike Friendly Settlements
  • Large cities/county seats: Békéscsaba 
  • Midsize cities: Tata 
  • Small cities: Rábapatona 

Bike Friendly Workplaces
  • Large companies: Budapest Bank Zrt. Budapest Headquarters
  • Mid-size companies: Trenecon-Cowi Kft. 
  • Small companies: Mondolat Iroda Kft 
  • Public institutions and non-profits: Szeged Technical and Environmental Protection School

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Taking the high way

This is one way to get a bike path around the Nagykörút.
A radical approach to bike path development was circulating on social media a couple weeks ago: elevating bikeways above street level, thus solving the problem of lack of space.

The idea was first proposed for London. In this case, the bikeways would be built above rail lines, which snake all over London and would offer space for a comprehensive elevated cycling network. The Britsh rail operator even expressed support for the idea.

The expense would be huge -- hundreds of millions of pounds for just the first small section of the network. But London's mayor has promised to spend a billion pounds on cycling, and that created an opening. The idea is apparently getting official consideration.

The proposal was all over facebook and cycling blogs and it somehow caught the eye of the vice-mayor of Budapest's District XII. He posted about it on his blog, and from there, it ended up in the Hungarian edition of the Blikk news tabloid.

Although this idea probably doesn't have a prayer outside Photoshop, it does stir my imagination. Wouldn't it be great to ride all over the city on paths where you're literally priortised above motor traffic? No one could cut you off, door you, tailgate you, leave you in a cloud of fumes, or pass too close. You wouldn't even get honked at. In fact, from three or four metres up, cyclists would be in a better position to abuse motorists. I'm all for peaceful coexistence, but if that's not happening, I would definitely take this.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Another record-breaking year for cycling

'Munkanap' means weekdays, 'Pihenő nap' indicates weekends. The fact that weekday traffic invariably exceeds weekend traffic shows that, at least on this street, bikes are used for practical transport more than leisure.
With the close of 2013, cyclists can take courage from a record-breaking year on the kiskörút: According to the automatic counter in front of the National Museum, 583,594 cyclists passed by in the northbound lane of this main downtown artery in 2013 -- an all-time high. The other side has no counter, but if we assume similar traffic flow, there were more than a million bike trips on the kiskörút last year.

The high count is no abberation: Since the counter was installed in 2010, shortly after bike lanes were painted on both sides of the street, cycling levels have climbed year by year. The 2013 result represents a three-fold increase from 2010!

It's difficult getting a simple measurement of cycling levels in Budapest. A 2009 Europe-wide Gallup poll, based on a household survey of travel habits, showed that among Budapest residents, fewer than 2 percent used a bicycle as their main mode of transport. A more recent Hungarian travel survey -- which I can't find now -- indicated a similarly unimpressive level of cycling in Budapest.

It can be assumed, though, that in the downtown core cycling levels are much higher than the overall city level. This is obvious to anyone who uses  the roads, but no survey's been done to isolate that number. The data from the kiskörút is the closest thing available -- a good indicator of what's happening all over central Budapest. It proves what we all feel in our bones: cycling here's been growing by leaps and bounds.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

City Hall: Air pollution's your problem, not ours

A smog alert's on in Budapest and, by law, the mayor needs to take immediate action. What do you suppose that means? Rationing car use? Banning wood burning?

No, as far as I can tell, nothing like that is suggested. Instead, the mayor's telling people to stay indoors and away from busy roads where pollution levels are highest. Particularly children, the elderly and people with asthma or other breathing disorders.

At our  three-year-old daughter's daycare, there's an indefinite injunction on outdoor playtime. Our 9-year-old boy has to travel down one of the city's busiest roads on the way to school, so if we take the mayor's kind advice, we shouldn't take Lance to classes at all.

Naturally, there are many factors that contribute to Budapest's air problems. City Hall's announcement stresses the contribution of things that are out of its hands: weather systems and even pollution coming from abroad (Has xenophobia clouded the minds of Hungarian meteorologists?). The notice seems to downplay contributions from local sources, including transport. According to EU studies, transport on average accounts for "40 percent of CO2 pollution and up to 70 percent of other types of pollution" in European cities.

Budapest regularly exceeds European air quality norms during the winter and fall. A few years ago, City Hall made a lame effort to ration car use during air alert periods. Cars with even-numbered plates were allowed on streets on even numbered days, odds on odd-numbered days. However, most drivers ignored the ban and no penalties were ever issued. Instead the mayor simply lifted the ban, and it hasn't been attempted since.

Bad city air causes breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives in cities the world over. A Hungarian study published several years ago concluded that air pollution robbed the average Budapest resident of two years of life. Maybe City Hall figures that you won't miss what you'll never have.