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.