Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Public hearing supports bike-share project

Szentendre Mayor Miklós Verseghi-Nagy got Saturday's hearing started.
Our first public hearing on the idea of introducing bike sharing to Szentendre went off over the weekend with mostly supportive, positive comments from participants.
About 20 people attended, fewer than we'd hoped, although it was asking a lot for people to come to a boardroom discussion at 10:15 on a beautiful Saturday morning. And besides, we're also offering an easier online means of giving input. As of April 28, 220 people had filled in our short, online questionnaire (deadline is May 10).

The meeting was held as a side event to the REC's annual Earth Day celebrations, which this year attracted a couple hundred or more visitors. The mayor was on hand and, because the bike-share gathering in the REC's library constituted the biggest concentration of guests at 10 a.m., our side event became the venue for his welcoming remarks.

Peter Dalos, the operations manager of Budapest's bike sharing system, Bubi, kicked things off by giving an overview of the bike sharing concept, as well as the particulars of the Bubi system. His presence added a useful dose of gravitas to the event, with Bubi representing a "serious" investment of EUR 3.5 million and also a well-publicised Hungarian success story. Very popular and widely used, it has suffered little of the theft and vandalism that critics had predicted.

REC intern Attila Katona, who's heading up the Szentendre study, laid out the preliminary case for bringing bike sharing to Szentendre, including its benefits to the environmment, for the tourist trade and its potential usefulness to commuters.

Public comments on Saturday were supportive, although, as expected they began with skeptical questions about basic cycling conditions in Szentendre. Road 11, the high-traffic thoroughfare connecting Szentendre to Budapest and communities on the Danube Bend, has long been a sore point with bike riders. Cycling isn't even allowed there and no bike lane or path exists over most of its stretch through town.

Szentendre's hilly terrain; the cobblestone streets in the city centre; and the awkward connection between the HEV station and the Old Town were other mentioned challenges.

These were fair enough points, and it was an opportunity to present City Hall's other measures regarding cycling. Concerning Road 11, the city recently won an appeal to the Hungarian Public Road Authority to remove the ban on cycling. It's uncertain how cycling will be managed on the road, but planning is underway. Regarding the awkward HEV connection to Old Town (currently a dingy underpass beneath Road 11, with steep flights of stairs on either end, this will be addressed with a pending investment that will include a surface crossing over Road 11. For the hills, there's the possibility of including electric bikes or pedelecs to the Szentendre bike share fleet.

These are all important points, however Attila underscored that the scope of our study covers bike sharing, not general transport improvements. The hope is that bike sharing will stimulate higher levels of cycling in town, which will stimulate political pressure for bike-friendly improvements, which will stimulate more cycling, etc.

This was the case with the Bubi project in Budapest: Before Bubi launched in the summer of 2014, the city implemented scores of small bike-friendly improvements to the streets within the system's area: contraflow lanes, new signage, bike racks and so on. This was also the case in London, with the blue "bicycle superhighways" following quickly on the heels of the Boris bikes. Barcelona was another example of a city that began bike-friendly improvements by launching a bike-share system.

The takeaway is that cities become bike friendly step by step -- rarely in a single massive project (with Seville, Spain, being the only exception I can think of).

Most of Saturday's guests seemed to understand this, and it was my impression they simply wanted us to understand the wider context of our project. Working and cycling in Szentendre for the last 12 years, and having been pulled over by police multiple times for cycling on Road 11, I can definitely say, I feel the pain!

A final public comment on Saturday was a vote of support for our "low-cost" option for bike sharing. At present, we're looking at two different models as the basis for the Szentendre system. The first is the multi-station model provided by Bubi and the majority of other modern bike-share systems. We figure that Szentendre is big enough to support a system encompassing three to 10 stations: one at the HEV stop, one or two on the Duna korzo, perhaps one at the Skanzen, and so on. We've posted an online collaborative map to see where potential users would like to see stations.

The other model is that of OV-Fiets in the Netherlands: It involves just a single station (in the Netherlands, it's always a train stop) and users check out bikes from and return them to this station. Rentals can be longer term -- a few hours or even a full day. This is a key difference to multi-nodal systems, which encourage short trips of less than 30 minutes. A big advantage of the single-node approach is that it is potentially much cheaper and simpler to implement. Although it can be automated with high-tech equipment and contactless cards, it can also be designed as a conventional bike rental, with the only necessary ingredients being a human attendant, a shed full of bikes, and a chip-card reader.

The comment on Saturday was that it might be best for Szentendre to begin with a low-tech, low-cost system, and see where it goes from there.

One thing that would be missing would be the connection to Bubi. At project's start, we had a vision of Szentendre hosting an extension of Bubi, with the same technology, same branding and same user card. I don't want to give up on this idea. However, it could be that this project, too, will have to be carried out step by step by step.

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