For the last couple years, the area around Parliament was a dusty construction zone walled off with chip board and fences. The boards came down a couple weeks ago -- in time for the national elections -- to reveal an enormous level space of concrete and cut stone.
Aside from a huge new statue of national hero Lajos Kossuth, it's as flat and open as the Hungarian Great Plain. Some would call it "austere" -- in fact, my wife said exactly that. But it got thumbs up all around for being closed to cars. The tram tracks look to be in the same place. The asphalt street has been replaced by a stone tiled surface with little bicycle pictograms etched in about every 20 metres. They're pretty subtle and the signage is spare, as well. It's basically designed as a shared space where cyclists and pedestrians co-mingle. Except at stops, there's no curb or other barrier to isolate the tram tracks. You have a feeling it'd be really easy for a child to step across the tram tracks at the wrong moment, but trams on Saturday were going quite slowly, probably for this reason.
For cyclists, this square used to be a bit of a hazard. You'd either ride on the narrow bike path near the Parliament -- and on weekends always contend with droves of camera-toting tourists. Or you'd go on the street where you'd be caught between speeding cars and parked tourist buses in front of the Ethnographic Museum. Now you have space galore. It's unregulated, and you have to watch where you're going, but it feels a lot more relaxed and pleasant.
The rather novel cycling accommodation on Buda's Varsányi Irén utca is nearly complete, and I have to say it is a step forward. Prior to the reconfiguration, the bike facility here was of a typically lame Budapest design (or East European -- I hear the same complaints from friends in Poland and the Czech Republic): there was one narrow path, marked out in yellow paint, on one side of the street on the sidewalk for both directions of bike traffic.
At the behest of cycling advocates, District II agreed to make a better accommodation, although the result was a compromise. According to a helpful reader of my earlier post on the subject, the Hungarian Cyclists Club had recommended traffic calming measures and the posting of signage allowing cyclists to ride in the carriageway in both directions on this one-way street. This solution would have eliminated cyclist-pedestrian conflicts on the sidewalk, but would have required taking away curbside car parking to make room for the contraflow biking lane. But of course, the district wasn't about to mess with parking (free parking being a God-given right in Hungary).
So instead, only cyclists going with the direction of traffic are allowed to ride in the carriageway. This has been made safer thanks to the calming of motor traffic by speed tables at all the street crossings. Meanwhile, contraflow riders are still on the old sidewalk lane -- but now have it to themselves.
Now that the two directions of bike traffic have been separated and given their own space, it feels more safe to ride at normals speeds -- to me at least.
At the bottom of the hill at the stop light on Fazekas utca, cyclists going with traffic and needing to turn left can get out of their curbside lane and pull ahead of motorists into the middle of the lane into a red bike box. Popular in places such as Portland, Oregon, and New York City, bike boxes allow cyclists to get in front of cars at traffic signals so as to avoid getting cut off -- or run over -- by turning vehicles. It would be nice if the same separate-lane design could be continued over the whole course of the street. Alas, after the Fazekas crossing, both directions of bike traffic are again merged onto a single narrow lane on the sidewalk.
On one of Buda's main bike routes, a connecting path between the Danube korzó and Mammut shopping center, street improvements are underway that actually reflect some sensitivity towards cyclists. From Mammut, the route runs along Varsányi Irén utca, across Fazekas utca, down Kacsa utca to Bem rakpart.
The work is mainly a cosmetic improvement involving the creation of red-brick intersections. In the course of the project, the road crew has significantly smoothed out the bumpy transitions between bike path, rain gutter and street. The project isn't quite finished, but when it's done, it should make for a smoother ride, as well as a much more attractive street.
In addition, at the entrance to the path across the körút from Mammut, they've added a strip of tarmac that basically follows the informal, dirt path that cyclists had made across a disused, awkwardly sited flowerbed. The bed was simply in the way, and the new strip of paving rectifies this problem.
Although I'm pleased about the improvements, I have to say the path remains fundamentally flawed. It's a perfect example of Budapest's generally backwards approach of putting bike paths on sidewalks. It's a single track on just one side of the street -- too narrow for two lanes of bike traffic and too wide not to interfere with pedestrians.
The obvious thing to do on a lightly trafficked side street like Varsányi Irén utca would be to designate it a maximum 30 km/hr zone and make the street shared space, where cyclists could mix with motorists with no need for separated lanes. It works quite well in other cities in Europe, including Paris.