Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bringing Bike Sharing to the 'Burbs?

Peter Dalos, operations manager of the Bubi system, presents at a spring, 2015 public hearing on bike-sharing in Szentendre.
At the Regional Environmental Center, we've just completed a feasibility study on bringing bike-sharing to Szentendre. The result: there's strong popular support for a scheme, and the optimal option would be an e-bike, or pedelec, system with 11 docking points scattered about town.

The nitty gritty of the study, funded by the CIVITAS Initiative, is summed up here.

But I also had some thoughts about it. On the positive side, we had outstanding involvement from City Hall: four or five staff members (including finance, infrastructure and communications experts) attended all of our meetings, and one event was attended by Szentendre's mayor. We also had the involvement of BKK, because one of our original ideas was that Szentendre's system could be an extension of the Bubi system in Budapest. It was one of eight alternatives that we explored.

As you can see in the study, the public was very supportive, with 76.1 percent of survey respondents fully or strongly in favour of introducing bike-sharing in Szentendre, and nearly half saying they would use the service at least occasionally.

Szentendre residents at the spring, 2015 public hearing raised several questions about the proposed scheme.
Despite the positives, it's an open question whether City Hall will take the next step and invest in bike sharing. One thing we learned during the study is that Szentendre, despite its beautiful historic centre and prime location on the riverbank just north of the capital city, is quite cash poor. Cities in Hungary rely on an industrial tax for most of its revenue and Szentendre is more of a residential, bedroom community than a place for business (the wealth of ice-cream shops notwithstanding). So there's considerable reluctance to make investments in anything viewed as non-essential.

There are ways to solve this, as our article points out. There are funding programmes that could help with the investment and there are opportunities for corporate sponsorship which could cover at least part of the operational costs. We even learned of a potential scheme organised by a passenger boat service that would implement bike sharing in riverside communities as a service for their customers.

Beyond that, there's the possibility to go with a low-tech, less expensive version of bike sharing. Although an e-bike system with automated docking stations is attractive, especially given Szentendre's hilly surroundings, the city could implement bike-sharing with standard bikes that could be rented out from a space at the city's HEV stop. The investment would be quite small -- just the bikes, a chip-card reader and a rudimentary shop. You would need staff to run it, as well. But this would be a very handy service for tourists coming up to the city by HEV or Volan bus, and it could be expanded and adapted to the needs of commuters (the Dutch OV-fiets system, run by the national rail company, is a good model).

In any case, we've handed the study in to City Hall, and the ball's in their court. There's evident will at City Hall to make Szentendre more bike and pedestrian friendly. It took some tentative steps in that direction this summer, and in our study we've argued that bike-sharing is a powerful tool to promote cycling -- not just on shared bikes, but on any bikes. We're hoping City Hall takes heart.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bike Sharing Boosts Property Value

As reported by several outlets (including here and here) the Bubi bike share system has recently been expanded  by 22 new docking stations, bringing the total number of locations to more than 90.

Most of this  expansion was thanks to a contract penalty that BKK enforced against the technical supplier led by ICT company T-Systems Hungary: Due to the delayed rollout of Bubi in spring of last year, the T-Systems consortia had to compensate BKK with HUF 180 million (EUR 589,000).  Rather than paying cash, the providers agreed with BKK to add the new docking stations instead.

But that doesn't account for 100 percent of the expansion. One of the new stations, specifically the one at Corvin Sétány housing and shopping development, was financed by the property's owner. As such, it becomes the first Bubi docking station to be paid for with private money.

This represents a new possibility for system expansion, and a new opportunity for business people interested in the cyclist market. Bubi will install a docking station on your property for a fee, and will take care of its operation and maintenance thereafter. A large station such as the one at Corvin Sétány, with spaces for 30 bikes, along with a rental terminal capable of selling tickets with a chip card reader, is yours for HUF 6.83 million (EUR 21,700). After signing on the dotted line,  the station will be installed in seven to eight months.

Why would someone shell out for such a price? According to János Berki, who headed the Corvin Corvin Sétány project for Futureal, a key consideration for the whole Corvin project was sustainability, with an accent on people and livability. This naturally included cycling facilities, including ample bike racks and changing rooms and showers for office spaces.

Berki didn't mention the docking station's impact on property value, but this may well have been an ulterior motive. According to new research, proximity to public bike sharing stations postively impacts on residential property value. The study, focusing on Montreal, Quebec, showed that for every single bike-share station located in a neighborhood,
"... $700 in property value is added to surrounding houses. Considering that, in Montreal, homes in a bike-sharing friendly neighborhood are, on average, within range of just over 12 stations, the value grows by almost $9,000; that's a 2.7 percent increase in sale value solely by virtue of living near a bike-sharing system."
This makes sense to me. Public bikes not only make a neighbourhood more accessible to more people, they contribute to its appeal as a fashionable, modern quarter.

Meanwhile in Dopeville ... the blog kerekagy recently reported on a "Facebook protest" among regulars of the Matyas Pince, a restaurant at Marcius 5 ter that specialises in traditional Hungarian fare. A Bubi docking station was placed in front of the eatery's entrance, provoking complaints about how it detracted from the historic elegance of the place. Realising that the Matyas Pince menu would of course be heavy on pork, this is very much a case of pearls before swine.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Szentendre Opens "Car-Freer" Riverfront

On the river side of the korzo, a 3-metre-wide pedestrian strip has displaced street parking. Nice move, Szentendre! The other side of the street is still chock-a-block with cars despite the ban on parking.
The Szentendre riverfront strip has been redesigned in a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly way. But those who expected a car-free "korzó" this summer will be disappointed.

The main change affects the strip of cafes and restaurants from Péter Pál utca to Lázár cár tér. Here, at least according to the city's communications, 53 on-street parking spaces have been eliminated and in their place is a 3-metre-wide pedestrian lane on one side of the street, and expanded restaurant space on the other side. On the one-way traffic lane in between, they've painted yellow chevron markers indicating that cycling is permissible in both directions. Cycling's been permissible in both directions for some time, but the markings hopefully make this clearer to motorists.
On the cafe side of the strip, road crews painted a dashed line that separates traffic from restaurant space. Some restaurants have already occupied their space fully, right up to the line, with flower pots and seating. But where they haven't, motorists continue to park cars in violation of the new rules. This will need some education and enforcement.
As you can see, the changes are ad hoc and not terribly attractive, but the city didn't have funds for a better solution. City Hall says this is a pilot scheme that will be evaluated after the summer season, and if it's seen as successful, the korzó will be redesigned permanently. If and when there's funding, which is a challenge for the perpetually cash-strapped local government.

North of the cafe strip they've created diagonal on-street parking spots, and they're currently in the last phase of constructing an 80-spot parking lot south of Bükkös Creek -- a five-minute walk from the strip. This more than compensates for the eliminated spots in front of the cafes. In fact, doing the math, there's a net addition of 27 parking spots, although you can bet that motorists will complain.

The changes are positive, but the concept of a car-free korzó remains a dream. It's too bad because I believe this would be a huge boon for tourism and be accepted by the traveling public in short order. Motorists who make the korzó a destination now have ample parking within a few-minute walk and those who use it as a transit route have a perfectly good alternative on Route 11.

But for now, we have to settle for a "car-freer" korzó. Our inside sources say this is part of a step-by-step process that will eventually lead to a completely car-free riverfront. Naturally, time will tell.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Cycling Allowed on Bike Path! Yay!

Here be the thing I'm talking about.
From June 30, cyclists will finally be allowed to cycle on the Timar utca overpass of the Buda bank bike path.

According to vezess.hu blog, authorities finally gave in to reason, and will remove a long-standing rule that effectively forbade people from riding bikes on a bike path.

The ban applies to a section of the Eurovelo 6 bike path that takes cyclists over Árpád fejdelem via a shared-use pedestrian/cyclist bridge at the Timar utca HÉV stop. Signs on the overpass approaches (still existing) indicate that cyclists must dismount and push their bikes over the bridge. Ostensibly, the rule is there to protect pedestrians, and police have taken it seriously. In recent years, they've set up periodic dragnets and handed out steep fines to cyclists who don't comply, me, for example.

There's been talk for at least a couple years about construction of a separate bicycle bypass. However, according to the article, authorities are still in the process of obtaining property easements and the thing won't be built for at least two more years. In the meantime, they're lifting the riding restriction, while also requiring that cyclists keep their speeds below 10 km/hr on the bridge.

It's ironic that cars on the street below are whizzing by at 40-50 km/hr, and posing a much greater threat to the many pedestrians who cross on the surface to hasten their passage. This bridge is based on an outdated approach in which urban traffic management was nothing more than greasing the road system to allow for high-flow, fast motor traffic. In this view, pedestrians are obstacles, and infrastructure is designed to get them out of the way. We'll see what the "bicycle bypass" will look like, but from the way it's referenced, we can predict an old-school approach.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bike Path Blockade

One man's commuting route is another man's parking lot. Bike path on east side of Road 11 just north of Szentendre Lidl.
Riding into Szentendre this morning (May 13), two vans from the electric utility, ELMŰ, were blocking the bike path. Not headline news, for sure. It seems that bike and pedestrian paths are the go-to parking solution for road-work and utility crews. They're not the only culprits, just some of more frequent offenders.

Parking on bike paths is standard practice and all the more annoying because of it. Although it happens all the time in Hungary, one can imagine a parallel universe, or even a nearby country, where cycling paths are taken seriously.

In this morning's instance, the utility trucks could have pulled onto the weedy strip between the path and the road. Easy, right? I've written a complaint letter to ELMŰ, asking them if they have any policy about this. I mean, their trucks almost never park on roadways. There must be regulations and guidelines about this. Is there no policy at all about bike paths? Or is this a non-issue for ELMŰ? We'll see what their response is.

ELMŰ sent a response to my complaint. Give them credit for being prompt, although sadly it doesn't acknowledge the problem and mainly aggrandizes the urgency of ELMŰ's service: "As can be clearly seen in the photo you sent, our workers didn't park their vehicles on the bike path, but were using them to complete PUBLIC UTILITY work." It goes on to say the tasks are being done to ensure a safe supply of electricity for you all, and it's all being done in compliance with Hungarian rules and traffic regulations.

In my complaint letter, I noted that ELMŰ vehicles frequently block bike paths, and that there are normally convenient ways to avoid this. ELMŰ's reply doesn't acknowledge blocked bike paths as a problem, much less ways to address it.

For the record, here is the verbatim exchange in Hungarian (Thanks to Attila Katona for the editing!):
From: Greg Spencer [mailto:GSpencer@rec.org]
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2015 10:59 AM
To: Elmű-Émász Ügyfélszolgálati Kft._Budapest
Subject: Panasz a kerékpárúton parkoló járművekről

Tisztelt Hölgyem/Uram!
Ma reggel a 11-es út mentén húzódó kerékpárúton, Szentendrén, két ELMŰ jármű blokkolta az utat. Annak ellenére, hogy van más parkolási lehetőség, ez mégis gyakran előfordul, és nagyon kellemetlen - gyakran kifejezetten veszélyes - a kerékpárral közlekedők számára. Kérem a jövőben vegyék figyelembe a kerékpárral utazókat. Az iránt szeretnék érdeklődni, hogy van-e az ELMŰnél erre vonatkozó előírás?

Greg Spencer

Tisztelt Greg Spencer!
Mint ahogyan a mellékletben, az Ön által elküldött képen is jól látható: A kerékpárúton tartózkodó gépjárművek nem parkolnak, hanem az ott tartózkodó munkatársaink munkaeszközeként, KÖZÜZEMI munkát végeznek. Azért dolgoznak, hogy biztosítsák Önök számára, a biztonságos villamos energia ellátást! Az ilyen munkavégzésekre a törvény is külön jogszabályokban foglalkozik. (KRESZ közüzemi munkavégzést ellátó gépjárművek)

Kovács János
Gépjármű osztály
Budapesti Elektromos Művek Nyrt. 

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.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I Bike Budapest Reboots Tradition

Lance, Sequoia and Kristin pause for a foto at the end of the ride at entrance to Margit Sziget.
Of course, I joined the Ride Formerly Known as Critical Mass yesterday and had the usual good time. I have no idea how many people there were and couldn't find a head count in any of the media reports. Hungarian news agency MTI reported "several tens of thousands" -- which is a safe guesstimate.

We got out the door late, so missed the first couple kilometres from Bakats ter to the Chain Bridge. But from there, we completed the rest of the 19 km circuit. It was a pretty long ride compared to previous spring Critical Masses. The ride's facebook page reported there were more than 400 helpers out directing traffic at intersections. It's a credit to the organisers that so many volunteers could be recruited, trained and deployed so smoothly. It seemed they pulled it off beautifully. Other than a couple low-speed spills involving children (including our 10-year-old), I didn't hear of any big incidents.

My family and I took a little more than two hours to get to the finish at Margit Island -- and then Kristin took the kids home because they were wiped out and needed to pee. I rode onto the island to the big  grassy field where people were collecting, and I went to the Kerekparosklub tent to get a shirt (I Bike BP). Men's sizes were all sold out, except for smalls -- which I got anyway for a souvenir.

I hung around for half an hour but had to cut out before the bike lift. Happy hour date with Kristin in a nice quiet bar was the perfect way to cap off a great day.