Friday, March 6, 2015

Szentendre City Hall Turns Bike-Friendly

In 2014, a service road opened next the the Duna Korzó that provides for car-free cycling with a view.
Szentendre's local government has apparently turned a corner on the subject of utility cycling. City Hall wants to make the town more bike-friendly, and it's reaching out to cyclists to find out how to do it.

This is a big change from five years ago, when some local activists and I did a 'hotspot' analysis of local cycling infrastructure. We recommended some basic remedies to the then mayor, but he told us flat out that nothing could be done that cost money.

But Szentendre has a new mayor, 47-year-old Miklós Verseghi-Nagy, and the winds have changed. My company,  the Regional Enivironmental Center, recently initiated a feasibility study on introducing bike sharing here. Just a week after the study's kick off  at Szentendre City Hall, we were invited back to provide input on another bike-related matter: the installation of public bike racks around town.

Our colleague Attila Katona attended a meeting with a couple municipal officers, the owner of a local bike shop and representatives of the local chapter of the Hungarian Cyclists Club. The results were better than we'd hoped.  The main outcomes:
  • The city agreed to install large portable bike racks (14-28 bike capacity) during the 5-6 warmest months of the year on the main square (Főtér) and the northern and southern ends of the riverfront cafe and restaurant strip (Duna Korzó). These could later become locations of permanent bike-share docking stations.

  • The city will take steps to improve bike parking at the Szentendre HÉV station. Although transport operator BKK controls the property, City Hall will lobby for the changes.
  • City Hall also wants to ensure bicycle parking is provided in front of high-traffic local businesses (grocery stores, banks, restaurants, etc.) The city might encourage this by offering subsidies, but may even compel owners to provide a certain level of parking based on the size of their properties (similar to the existing codes on car parking).
In general, city leadership is enthused about making Szentendre more bike and pedestrian friendly. A big first step will be expansion of the car-free city centre by banning cars during the summer on the korzó.

It's also eager to lift the ban of cycling on Route 11, the main north-south thoroughfare through town. Until now, cycling's been prohibited on Route 11 by the national road authority, Magyar Közút. At the urging of local activists, City Hall appealed to the authority to lift the ban and the petition has apparently succeeded.

According to the information Attila received this week, the legal barrier's been lifted and now it's a matter of following through with whatever signage and infrastructure that's needed. And their may be some personal motivation here: Szentendre's Vice-Mayor Dorottya Gyürk is a cyclist, and admits to a habit of riding illegally on Route 11.

Of course, to make Szentendre truly bike friendly, investments will be needed, and this is where many politicians balk. Even so, there's been a big attitude shift toward cycling at Szentendre City Hall, and this is great news.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Critical Mass Back under Reshuffled Leadership

The new CM is planned to look like the old CM.
After a two-year hiatus, Budapest Critical Mass will return this April 25. It sounds nearly identical to the spring CMs of yore--except for the proposed name: "I Bike Budapest."

There's a new face behind it, as well: Áron Halász, who has published the Hungarian Cycle Chic blog since 2009. He takes on the job as a member of the executive board of the Hungarian Cyclists Club, and he has the support of CM's former organisers, Sinya and Kükü, who are also involved with the club.

In a post on the Kerékagy blog, Halász explains that the ride's envisioned as a once-a-year "fiesta" as opposed to "demonstration".

In other words, it won't be like the old autumn Critical Masses in which participants rode in traffic in order to make a statement about their right to the road. Instead it follows the celebratory MO of the old Earth Day Critical Masses. It's being planned in cooperation with City Hall, it will follow a predetermined parade route patrolled by police, and every effort is being made to minimise inconvenience to other road users.

Public announcements and press interviews are being held well in advance to 'warn' those who won't take part. During the event, provision is made to ensure that the parade doesn't obstruct public transport or pedestrian traffic. Even motorists will be allowed to cross the ride route at larger, police-controlled intersections.
Áron Halász, left, is taking over the reins from Gábor Kürti, right, as point man for the new Critical Mass,
now dubbed "I Bike Budapest." Image taken from
Although they were firm about closing down Critical Mass two years ago, original organisers Sinya and Kükü (Kükü is also a cyclists club board member) of the Hajtas Pajtas bike courier company have pledged their support.

In 2013, they had argued Critical Mass had become obsolete, and that in order to take the next step, the cycling movement needed to refocus on professional lobbying.

However, as Sinya and Kükü explain in a jointly signed open letter, many cyclists felt CM played a big role in inspiring and sustaining the cycling community. Apart from the question of whether CM was an effective lobbying tool, it had spiritual value.

The two activists agreed as long ago as early 2014 to support the ride's resurrection. But they had conditions: It should follow CM's basic ethos of being independent (no commercial underwriters, no political party bias), and it should steer clear of overt political statements. They didn't want it to interfere with or obscure the lobbying done by the Hungarian Cyclists Club.

Even so, this spring's 19 km ride will cross three bridges (Szabadság, Chain and Margit) for the express purpose of highlighting the need for better cycling accommodations over all the city's Danube crossings. So it hasn't been completely defanged.

Sinya's and Kükü's post adds that the return of CM appeared inevitable with or without their support. They say some companies have been looking into creating a more commercial event to make money off the cycling community. The former organisers decided to beat the competition to the punch by backing a version more to their liking.

I'd argued back in 2013 that a more commercial-oriented event might have been a good thing provided that a good share of the proceeds were donated to the Cyclists Club or other worthy non-profit.That doesn't appear to be happening. Even so, I'm happy the Cyclists Club has taken up the mantle so that we can ride again on April 25.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Study explores bike sharing in Szentendre

Péter Dalos, the technical manager of Bubi; Gabor Heves, REC; Mónika Horváth, coordinator of the Szentendre City Architect's Office; Attila Katona, REC; Tamás Kollár of Óbuda University; János Virágh, representative of
the City Services Company;  and me, also REC.
A few days ago, we kicked off a project that could potentially result in a bike-sharing scheme for Szentendre.

The project is a feasibility study, co-funded with EUR 7,500 from the European Commission's CIVITAS Initiative. It will take six months, including a community meeting to gauge local interest, and conclude with a report containing recommendations and a business plan.

The kick-off meeting took place at Szentendre City Hall and involved 10 people: four staff from Szentendre City Hall, the technical manager of the Bubi bike share system in Budapest, a student from the Óbuda University who's both learning from and assisting us, and four staff (me included) from the Regional Environmental Center, based in Szentendre.

Szentendre, 20 km north of downtown Budapest, is a bedroom community. More than half the town's working population of about 10,000 people, commute every morning to Budapest. A line of the suburban rail system, the HEV, offers a non-car option for Budapest-bound commuters, but on the Szentendre end, there's no public transport option for the "last mile" from end station to home.

A bike-share system could be an effective, and relatively inexpensive, way to solve this. And if the system was cleverly integrated with the HEV and Bubi (the Budapest bike-share system launched last summer), you could have an environment-friendly, healthy transport option door to door.

A full report is here
I gave an introduction to the project, in English. My colleague Gabor Heves interpreted in Hungarian, and seemed to  improve on the substance of the talk while he was at it. Thank you, Gabor!

Bubi's Péter Dalos (right) and Tamás Kollár (not pictured) went to the trouble of bringing two Bubi bikes up from Budapest. Both Mónika Horváth (left) János Virágh (center) took them on test rides after our meeting.