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.