Friday, January 1, 2016

Budapest bike-movement leader dies

János was out on the night they marked the advisory lanes on the newly refurbished Margit Bridge.
This Sunday at 2 p.m., the cycling community will lead a memorial bike ride around Budapest to honour one of its most influential leaders, former president of the Hungarian Cyclists' Club János László.

János died December 23 of cancer. First diagnosed about a year and a half ago, he'd battled it to the end and continued his work with the cyclists' club (MK) until just more than a month ago. The club has posted a tribute to him on their homepage detailing his many contributions to not only cycling, but to the livability of Budapest and the development of civil society in Hungary.

János seemed to be everywhere where there was something going on in the cycling world, whether it be a demonstration, a conference, a meeting at City Hall or a bike fashion show. On the few occasions when I asked for his help on cycling matters, for instance taking part in a meeting to energize a nascent cycling movement in Szentendre, I was honoured that he immediately agreed to help -- and showed up in person to do it.

One of the last times I spoke to János, I asked him about prospects to create cycling lanes on Rákóczi út -- a proposal that activists have been pushing for probably 15 years or more. János shook his head and said, "It won't happen in my lifetime." János was so vital that I took this to mean it wouldn't happen for many, many years. Looking back, I guess he was probably intimating something about his illness.

János's work on cycling lasted barely a decade, but as anyone who's been here during that time can see, cycling in Budapest has developed by leaps and bounds over that time. Most people mark the start of the local cycling movement at the first Budapest Critical Mass in 2004, and János always acknowledged the importance of that moment. His own contribution was to give the movement a clear focus and course of action by establishing the cyclists' club as the country's leading lobbying group for cycling development.

Before János entered the picture, a couple cycling NGOs existed in Hungary, but they didn't really register on the political scene. They worked on an entirely volunteer basis and none of them had a proper office or staff. János took over MK in 2006 and scaled up its activities dramatically by getting a subsidy from Budapest City Hall and hiring staff, including people to run communications and campaigns and an engineer to look after technical issues such as infrastructure design and transport planning.

This enabled Critical Mass to achieve concrete progress beyond making cycling more fashionable. Under János's leadership, MK lobbied successfully for Budapest's first on-street cycle lanes on Alkotmány utca and the creation of the groundbreaking bike lanes on the Kiskörút (and the city's first automatic cyclist counter on the same street). Budapest got its first bike boxes (for instance, on Varsányi Irén utca) and its first "advisory" bike lanes (the chevron-marked lanes on Margit Bridge, ushered in with an MK-supported amendment to the national traffic code). János was also instrumental in the proliferation in downtown Budapest of contraflow bike lanes on one-way streets.

János is also credited for the inclusive way that he framed the cycling club's communications. He helped pacify some of the pugnacious tendencies of the cycling vanguard by insisting that the club wasn't simply for cyclists' rights, but rather for a more respectful and courteous relationship between all road users regardless of their mode of travel. The campaign of a few years ago featuring pictograms of a pedestrian, car driver and cyclist and the slogan "We travel together! (Együtt közlekedünk) was János's brainchild.

With his grey beard and long years of experience, János gave the movement a face of reason and seriousness. I think this gave extra heft to the club's lobbying efforts before decision makers, and it showed Budapesters that cycling as transport is not kid's stuff, but a choice for life.

It also gave inspiration to the movement's young foot soldiers. And this is probably János's greatest legacy -- the community of activists and experts who will pick up where he left off and strive to realise his vision for a more people-friendly city.

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