Sunday, July 27, 2008

Train service improves

The Hungarian Rail Company, MÁV, is at least trying to improve its bicycle carrying services. In June, it posted a couple of PDF tables on its special cycling page listing all the trains that have dedicated cars for bicycles. The regular timetable page indicates whether or not there's a bike car on a given train when you click the departure time for details. But these tables list all the trains with bicycle cars into four neat pages, which you can print out and take with you so you don't get stuck in the countryside with no train home.

I've taken my bike on MÁV several times, and the experiences have been mixed. The bike cars can make for a convenient, secure place to put your bike -- provided they aren't too crowded. On trains without dedicated bike stowage, you have the option of putting your bike at the end of a car, but this isn't very comfortable or secure, and we've run into conductors who look at this with a very jaundiced eye despite official policy that permits two bikes at each end of every car.

One of my worst experiences in this vein was in the summer of 2004 when my wife and I went for a weekend ride around Fertod Lake on the Austrian border. Going there was no problem, but on the return trip to Budapest on Sunday evening, we got stuck at the Sopron station for several hours, after a ticket clerk refused to let us board a mostly empty train on grounds that there was no room for bikes. We managed to argue our way onto a train late in the evening, and were bitched at by a bike-hating conductor the whole way back. We wrote a letter of complaint, which got a dismissive response, and later I vented in a long letter to the editor of the Budapest Sun, which can still be accessed on-line

But it would seem things are getting better. MÁV started a long-term development plan for bicycle service in 2006, and now there are bicycle cars on trains going all over the country. For some reason, MÁV doesn't allow bikes on the Intercities. They're not allowed on the ends of passenger cars and, at least until recently, the Intercities haven't carried dedicated bike cards. However, this apparently is also changing, and now there are a couple Intercity routes -- including the one between Budpaest and Sopron -- that have bike cars. There should be bike cars on all Intercities in my opinion. I guarantee that the ones to Balaton would be oversubscribed from day one.

I base this on our experience in mid-July on a Sunday evening train returning from Balatonfüred. The bike car was so full that people were literally stacking bicycles on top of each other. It was a wonder no one got crushed. We were lucky enough to have gotten on at Füred when there was room to hang and lock up our bikes and get a seat. After Füred, the bikes started stacking up, and the cyclists themselves had to stand in the car for the duration to help unstack and restack bikes at every stop. There was no conductor in sight, and if there had been, it would have been impossible for him to even get into the bike car, let alone count bikes and collect fares.

Based on my experiences, I would advise anyone travelling by bike to plan ahead for both outgoing and returning trips to ensure there is a bike car. On trains without bike cars, you are still allowed to put two bikes at each end of every car, but this is not a comfortable arrangement, and it's difficult to lock up, as well. Also, if you're taking a trip at a peak time, try to arrange your departure as close to the train's origin as possible, so that you can board before the bike car gets too crowded.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Problem with Segregated Lanes

I had an experience that was a beautiful example of why segregated bike paths, in an urban setting, can be more dangerous than lanes that integrate cyclists with motor traffic.

It was on my regular morning commute from Budapest to Szentendre. I was about midway, at the beginning of the dedicated bike path that heads north from Bekasmegyer. The path, which is for both directions of bike traffic, runs right next to the southbound lane of Szentendre út. As I say, I was heading north, and up ahead, a small flatbed truck was pulling out from a compressed gas filling station on the left. The driver had pulled most of the way across the path, and was intending to turn south toward Budapest. Naturally, he was looking to his left, watching the rush-hour traffic and waiting for a gap so he could make his turn.

I ought to have just waited for him to make the turn and clear the pathway -- but it was heavy traffic and I was too impatient to wait, besides being irritated that he was idling there blocking the path. I chose to go around his front end, and at the instant I passed by his front bumper, he hit the gas and plowed right into me. I actually had an inkling that this might happen, and I managed to jump off the bike and land on my feet. I was fine, except for a scrape on my thigh where the bike's cross bar raked the skin. My bike also seemed ok. The driver immediately hit the brakes, jumped out and was clearly upset and worried. I was pissed off, but refrained from expletives and instead told him he should look both ways before turning. He said something about traffic being bad -- a lame excuse for his having been idling there across the bike path trying to make his turn. My main thoughts were, I'm very lucky that nothing worse happened, and that I was foolish for taking the chance of going in front of a driver who I could see was not paying attention.

Beyond that, the experience reinforced wisdom that's gaining more currency these days: on urban roads where traffic crosses other streets and passes driveways, lanes that put the cyclists into traffic can be safer than lanes that keep them separate. Motorists don't pay attention to you when you're removed from traffic, and then when you do cross their path -- at an intersection or driveway -- you take them by surprise. The AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities notes that there are only certain places where it's appropriate to put cyclists on segregated paths (or "shared use paths," in AASHTO parlance). The book states, "Generally, shared use paths should be used to serve corridors not served by streets and highways ... ."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Free Bikes in Budapest?

I was intrigued to see that Budapest is one of many cities around the world getting on the Velib bandwagon by considering a public, free bike-rental scheme. See an English-language version of the article here:

According to the article, Budapest could implement a bike rental scheme in "all of downtown" for the cost of a single Combino, the name of the new Siemens-built, low-floor trams that operate on the large ring road.

I checked into it myself and found that the scheme isn't exactly imminent. Balázs Tökés, bicycle affairs director at the city's transportation department, said that right now, he's waiting for bids on a call for tenders on a feasibility study. So actually, they haven't yet even studied concrete ideas for a study.

I also contacted the main source for the above-mentioned article, Ádám Bodor, deputy of bicycle affairs in the Ministry of Traffic, Communication and Energy. Bodor emailed back that he wasn't in a position to speak for the city of Budapest, but that he is doing preparatory work on EU funding (based on Structural Funds) that would be available for the project. However, the onus is on Budapest City Hall, together with affected district governments, to prepare the project and submit it for funding.

Bodor continued: "I just can tell you my personal feelings about it: I think about 4-5 million Euro would be enough to cover the city center (inside the Kis-Körút (small ring road), V. district + Jewish quarter + Buda river bank) with a rental system similiar to those in Paris and Barcelona.
I would propose this system because the systems like Call-a-Bike in Germany are not secure enough for Hungarian conditions."

So Budapest's bike-hire scheme, at least in Bodor's conception, would be very modest in scale, covering only the inner core of Pest and not what I'd consider all of downtown, let's say at least everything inside the large ring road plus the Buda bank of the Danube. Granted, if it's going to happen, it has to start somewhere, but then again, if it's on too small a scale, with too few bicycle stations, it won't offer an attractive alternative to existing transport means, and it'll fade away. This is what happened in Brussels -- and now the city's trying again on a grander scale.

Interestingly, the territory envisioned by Bodor (between the small ring road and the Danube) is precisely the area under consideration by City Hall as a pedestrian-only zone. This would be a fantastic boon to traffic-clogged Budapest, in my opinion. But there is one problem: At last word, the zone would exclude bicycles, an omission that the Hungarian Cyclists Club has been lobbying against.

My other comment on the idea is that I believe it may be putting the cart before the horse. If Budapest is going to promote bicycling as a means of transport, the most urgent task is to improve infrastructure. The paths and lanes now are very poor. At least two thirds are no more than lines on sidewalks, and in no place but on Andrássy út do they run on both sides of the street for both directions of traffic. And lastly, the paths don't form a cohesive network, so even if you were inclined to use them, you won't get far without running into a dead end. Before Budapest launches a free bike hire system, it should give people a place to ride them. Otherwise, it'll be handicapped from the get go.