Friday, September 26, 2008

Bicycle parking: It's the law

Starting this month, according to new national building requirements, the provision of bicycle parking is the law. The new requirements, as spelled out in the Magyar Közlöny (Hungarian Bulletin -- see the PDF) require specific amounts of parking for 15 categories of buildings, from residential flats to restaurants to cinemas to factories.

Here's a summary, translated to the best of my (questionable) abilities:
  • Flats, stand-alone houses: 1 space
  • Stores, markets (under 1,000 sq m): 2/150 sq m floor space*
  • Stores, markets (above 1,000 sq m): 2/500 sq m floor space*
  • Hotels: 2/15 rooms
  • Restaurants: 2/75 sq m dining space*
  • Universities, high schools and other educational facilities: 2/ 50 sq m space*
  • Cinemas, theaters and other entertainment facilities: 5/50 seats
  • Museums and other cultural institutions: 5/500 sq m with a maximum of 50*
  • Sport facilities and strands: 2/20 people
  • Hospitals: 1/50 beds
  • Factories: 1/10 workplaces
  • Storage facilities: 1/10,000 sq m storage
  • Tram and local bus end stops: plan for 5 percent of riders to use bikes
  • Train stations and long-distance bus stops: 5
* Means that I was somewhat perplexed about just exactly what the text was getting at

When I first got word of these new requirements (in the recent bicycle supplement of HVG), I was genuinely enthused. How progressive is that?! I thought. I was thinking of a similar law passed in Paris, one of many tools that politicians there used to boost cycling levels by 57% from 1997-2004. Then my wife reminded me that laws in Hungary often have very little impact on people's behaviour. (A prime example, one that ticks her off to no end, are the smoking restrictions introduced at the end of the '90s: they required restaurants and bars to have non-smoking space, but a decade later, a typical non-smoking section in Hungary still consists of the lone table not furnished with an ashtray.)

So, yes, bike-parking requirements aren't the silver bullet that will make Budapest Amsterdam. Still, though, I think it's something to keep in mind next time you go to a store or a bar or wherever, and can't find a decent place to lock up your bike. You can remind the manager that some customers come on two wheels. Bike parking isn't just good business, by the way, it's the law.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No bloodbath afterall

Despite the new, "going-commando" style of this year's Critical Mass, it seems to have gone off without a hitch, as a crowd of several thousand entered the thick of downtown traffic and got across town without apparent mishap. Népszabadság reported that, earlier in the day, a cyclist was seriously injured in a collision with two cars but it wasn't clear if it had anything to do with Critical Mass.

Attendance was down drastically from last spring's record of 80,000. Organisers had expected a smaller turnout, perhaps 30 to 50 percent less. But it was down a lot more than that: only about 10,000 showed up at Hősök tér for the opening bike lift, and, according to an estimate on HírTV's site, only half of the participants were on hand for the concluding bike lift at Moszkva tér.

The ride started typically with a slow procession down Andrássy, which had been closed to motor traffic for European Car-Free Day. But at Oktogon things changed for me: as the greater mass of riders continued down the boulevard, I hung a right, joining car traffic on the körút. For a moment, I thought I was alone, but at the first traffic light I caught up with 20-30 other riders. Although traffic rules call for cyclists to keep to the right, some riders were too impatient to line up single file next to the curb and instead swerved in between lanes to get up to the front. 

Organisers shouted for everyone to stay to side, and a few motorists honked and at least one shouted, "Huzzatok el!" (Bugger off!). It was a mess at the Nyugati signal, with cyclists forgetting their manners and monopolising space, but as we peddled on down István körút, a thick convoy took shape and we were able to occupy the whole right lane all the way across Margit hid, with motorists having the left lane to themselves. I was thinking, "This is exactly as it should be -- all the time." Let cyclists have their lane and motorists theirs and we can all get to where we're going without these stupid chicken games.

The ride was going so well, I decided to stop at my flat near Margit híd and pick up my 4-year-old boy, who I'd left at home out of concern the ride might get ugly. I put him in his Hamax seat and we peddled up to Moszkva tér just in time to get stuck in the jam of exiting traffic. Almost immediately after the 8 p.m. final bicycle lift, everyone poured out onto the körút, evidently anxious to get out of the cold and head home -- or to the closest bar. So you had literally thousands of cyclists, as well as scores of unlucky motorists, waiting through three, four or five cycles of a traffic signal just to get started back down the körút towards Pest. Not at all pleasant -- but it seemed everyone kept their cool and waited their turn to get through.  

A cool thing about this year's event was that its aims were focused and concrete -- this in contrast to at least one past event, in which organisers unveiled a manifesto of more than 20 points, covering not only utility cycling in Budapest but recreational cycling in the countryside, access to trains, etc., etc. This time they narrowed it down to more space on Bp roads, starting with cycling lanes on Rákóczi út. The lanes woud be modelled on the recently implemented (and excellent) pilot project on Alkotmány utca

There's some history behind this, as City Hall had promised to mark bike lanes on Rákóczi when it was last resurfaced. In the end, they broke the promise, saying that despite Rákóczi's being one of the widest streets in the city (six lanes!), there wasn't space for bicycles. Maybe Mayor Demszky can finally follow through and redeem himself before he leaves office.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Directions on Critical Mass

Critical Mass happens tonight, but under different conditions than the CMs of recent years. The Critical Mass site lays out detailed directions, in Hungarian, of course.

For those with Magyar Deficiency Syndrome, here are the very basics: There will be a bike lifting at Hôsök tér at 6:30 p.m. and another one at Moszkva tér at 8p.m. You're invited to either one or both, at your pleasure. There's no designated, closed route from Hôsök to Moszkva -- participants can choose their own route, but are asked to obey traffic rules as they go. Conveniently, Andrásssy is closed to motor traffic for Car-Free Day, so this will be the favoured way to begin the journey for most participants. From Octogon, the procession will likely split up. Some will go down the körút toward Margit híd and, from there, on up to Moszkva. Others will follow Andrássy to its terminus and then continue down Atilla út, across the Lanc híd, north down the Buda embankment and perhaps up the bike trail or the körút to the end point.

There will be traffic police and Critical Mass organisers at the largest intersections, so this would be a point in favour of riding on main roads with the main flow of bicycles. Whatever you do, however, organisers ask that you:
  • stop at red lights
  • don't hold up public transit
  • don't ride on the 4-6 tram tracks
  • keep in mind that crosswalks and sidewalks/pavements are for pedestrians
  • go on sidestreets rather than sidewalks/pavements if you're averse to busy streets
  • turn the other cheek when it comes to shouting motorists
  • mind organisers' directions
  • help each other out
  • bring your bike lamps (it'll get dark around 8)
These are the basics from the Critical Mass site. Will see you all tonight.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Protest highlights hot controversy over segregated paths

I'm not sure how much was accomplished at Wednesday's hastily organised demonstration down on the Buda korzó. The aim of the event, dubbed "BringaLance" (Bike Chain), was to create a chain of bikes (and bicyclists) from Batthyányi tér to the Chain Bridge along the shared-use path on the Buda embankment, and in so doing, protest the common practice of putting bike paths on footpaths.

The idea for the demonstration came up just a week prior to the event, so with the short notice and crappy weather, it wasn't surprising that the chain was missing quite a few links. An organiser walked from one end to the other, counting 200 participants. I snapped this badly focussed picture about midway along the chain.

I had an interesting chat with Virág Bence-Kovács, a staff engineer with the organising group, the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kérékparosklub -- MK). At present, MK is assisting City Hall in the drafting of a five-year work programme for bicycle-route development in Budapest. Discussion amongst traffic engineers has foundered on basic disagreement over what's most suitable for Budapest -- facilities that segregate cyclists from motor traffic or lanes that integrate them with traffic.

I am solidly in favour of the latter, as I've said in this blog before. In downtown Bp, segregated facilities mean, in almost every instance, sharedüuse facilities like the Buda korzó -- tedious, maddening and even dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians alike. To me, this is the past -- it may have been appropriate when there were only a few cyclists in the city, but now that they're becoming a more significant part of urban traffic, they have to be mainstreamed onto the streets, where, due to their speed, they more properly belong. Check out the city's first and best integrated lanes on Alkotmány utca, a new project that could serve as a model for future path development througout the city.

If you agree with me on this, you should consider making your voice heard at this pivitol time, perhaps by joining, or just contacting, a lobbying group like MK. This group has been working closely with the city in transport decision making, trying to ensure that cyclists' interests are considered in the city's transport development. Those who are content in the sidewalk ghetto of Budapest's current segregated bike paths don't need to bother. But if you'd like to see cycling here develop along the lines of the best European examples (Amsterdam, Copenhaggen, etc.), then make yourselves heard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shared-use paths stink!


Although it seems that crap weather has driven most of Bp's cyclists back to wherever they came from, this coming week -- at least officially -- is a week to celebrate cycling and all other non-car modes of transport. The main events will happen this weekend (Sept 20-21) with booths and activities set up on Andrássy út for Mobility Week.

Of course, there's Critical Mass on Monday, Sept. 22. But as a teaser to that, some demonstrator types are getting together tomorrow (Sept. 17 from 6 p.m.) to form a bicycle chain on the Buda korzó between Batthyanyi ter and the Chain Bridge. Check the Hungarian announcement.

The point is to protest shared-use paths as a dangerous and inconvenient type of bicycle infrastructure. It's been estimated that at least two thirds of Budapest's bicycle infrastructure are this kind of path -- where cyclists and pedestrians (and baby strollers, roller bladers, dogs, ferrets, etc.) vie for the same space, and end up getting to their destinations late and full of contempt for one another.

This is the main drawback with Budapest cycling infrastructure, and the Buda korzó, which is popular with both weekend strollers and speeding cyclists, is a prime example of why shared-use paths don't work.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Critical Mass: Tougher approach reflects tougher challenges

The fact that Critical Mass this fall will be organised on a weekday rather than weekend reflects a belief that the movement needs to get tougher in order to effect change, according to one of the ride's organisers. As I mentioned in my September 7 post, Critical Mass this fall (on European Car Free Day, September 22) will be different this year by being timed during the tail end of a work day rush hour. I had an email exchange about it with my friend Gabor Bihari, who edits the English-language page of the Critical Mass site for Budapest. This is what he told me, in part:
The basic concept is that we're trying to get bicycles recognized as 'real' vehicles, with rights equal to those of motor vehicles. So WE ARE TRAFFIC, and don't just want to be regarded as some weekend demonstration show, as it's been in the past couple of years. It's clear that the record breaking turnouts of the previous couple of years were partly because they happened to be on weekends, and the weather was nice too. But there's not much else we can achieve by trying to keep breaking our own records. We need to pressure the decision-makers more and more, since - for instance - the new Minister of Transport has recently eliminated the post of the Bicycle Ombudsman. Just like that. (Index.hu article on axing of ombudsman Bodor Ádám)

I told Gabor that while I unequivocally support Critical Mass's aims, I'm somewhat concerned about what might happen this time around. Besides being timed on a weekday, when there is more motor traffic, the ride will go forth without a route permit -- in fact with no set route, at all, only a starting place, Heroes' Square, and a destination, Moszkva ter. No roads will be closed to speed the procession. The riders will simply ride with normal traffic.

In this respect the ride will be more like other Critical Masses around the world, as Gabor correctly noted. However, from what I know, most other Critical Masses draw crowds of a few hundred, while CM Budapest routinely draws tens of thousands. These are exceptionally large numbers -- according to some observers, Budapest's is the biggest CM in the world. My worry is that if this fall's ride draws even a quarter as many riders as last spring's, there would be 20,000 cyclists on the streets without the organisation and safety precautions that everyone has grown accustomed to. Not that I'm against the new approach, but in this laissez faire atmosphere, there's more potential for conflict and hostility between cyclists and motorists -- as the experience of several cities demonstrate. I think everyone who takes part needs to take this into account and make a special effort to keep cool and ride in the spirt of peaceful protest.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bike to Work Launch Postponed

Despite driving rain, I popped down to Batthyányi tér for the launch breakfast of the Bike to Work campaign. A small group of organisers was huddled under a tent emblazoned with the "Bringazz a Munkaba" logo, and doling out "bio" cinnamon rolls and apples to anyone rolling by on the korzó bike path -- which wasn't very many people. Because of the low turnout, the organisers are holding another launch breakfast on Wednesday morning. It'll be at the same place, but this time starting a half hour earlier -- from 7:30-10 a.m. See www.kamba.hu.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Critical Mass Timed for Work Day -- Finally

For once, Budapest cyclists will join ranks with other Critical Mass demonstrators around Europe by holding their Car-Free Day procession on Car-Free Day. It's happening this September 22, a Monday, and will take place at the  tail end of evening rush hour. Starts at 6.30 p.m. at Hosok tere and ends at 8 at Moszkva ter. A description of the "new Critical Mass" (in Hungarian) is here.

This signals a tougher stance on the part of organisers, who in previous years have appeased objectors at City Hall by holding the ride on a near weekend in order to minimise disruption to traffic.

The debate on whether Critical Mass should proceed with the city's blessing on weekends or go forth against the burghurs' will during a weekday, when there's much more motor traffic, goes back to the first big ride in September 2004. Organisers had wanted to have Critical Mass on European Car Free Day, September 22, but as this was a weekday, Mayor Demszky strenuously objected and said he would only sanction the demonstration during the weekend. A few stalwarts, joined by then-Environment Minister Miklós Persányi, went ahead and rode on the proper day, but the big mass of riders went on the weekend with police escort and traffic control. For further history, see http://criticalmass.wikia.com/wiki/Budapest.

This way of doing things became the norm, with all subsequent Critical Mass rides being organised during weekends with City Hall's blessing. This has made the organisation of the ride more cumbersome and accounts for why it happens only twice per year, once on Car Free Day (or around Car Free Day) and once on Earth Day in the spring. On the positive side, this sort of "civilised" mass has an orderliness that gives it broad appeal. In Budapest, the number of participants has nearly doubled each consecutive ride until hitting 60,000-80,000 last spring. Budapest's Critical Mass organisers credit these big numbers for a number of achievements in recent years, from the construction of bike paths to the appointing a couple of years ago of a Bicycle Affairs Officer at the Transport Ministry.

On the down side, some people wonder if this orderliness and complicity with City Hall takes away from Critical Mass's impact as protest. Perhaps more would have been achieved had the organisers taken a harder line. Critical Mass's essential message is "We aren't blocking traffic -- we are the traffic." But the way the ride is organised in Budapest, the riders don't mix with traffic -- it's as much a parade as it is a protest.

Over the past year, organisers have sought a new balance by putting together an alternative series of monthly rides held during rush hour on the last Friday of each month. The rides have been called Minimal Mass and are more in keeping with the original Critical Mass, held in San Francisco in the 1990s. The ride there wasn't sanctioned by the city. It was in the tradition of civil protest, with participants flaunting traffic rules by taking over streets and running traffic lights in order to maintain a cohesive procession.

Mind you, the rides in this mould also have their critics. Confrontations between motorists and cyclists have erupted in violence and police have made arrests and have overstepped the bounds of civility in some cases. A recent Critical Mass in Seattle resulted in a cyclist breaking his arm and a motorist having his tires slashed. One of the few blogs sympathetic to the cyclists was in the alternative weekly, the Stranger. In the aftermath, a few cyclists said the incident was undermining the cause of utility cycling, saying it aroused more resentment than sympathy for riders. In one blog post, Seattle Critical Mass Needs to End, the writer said it ought to become more civilised, with police escort, traffic cordons and the like -- in other words, something like Budapest's. So it's ironic that over here in Budapest, CM organisers want to evolve in the exact opposite direction and make their ride more like Seattle's.

Needless to say, I'm very keen to see what happens here on September 22.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bike to Work Contest Starts Monday

Hungary's environment ministry is sponsoring its bike-to-work contest again, kicking off with a breakfast 8.30-10 a.m. at Batthyanyi ter on Monday, Sept. 8. (Check out criticalmass.hu for a tedious conversation between a bunch of people complaining that the timing of this event doesn't suit their work schedule.)

The "Bringazz a Munkaba" contest has been going for a few years. Check out an English-language description of it here. I participated when it was last held in the spring partly because the contest website promised a free gift for all participants. Noting that the sponsors ran the gamut from Merida bike manufacturer to the Flora margarine brand, I half suspected my free gift would be a tub of butter substitute. But several weeks after the contest's conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an envelope containing a certificate of completion, a bandana printed with the T-Mobile logo and a useful reflective band (pictured).

Anyway, the contest is very simple. You register on-line at http://www.kamba.hu/ -- you can do so as an individual or as a group -- and you write down how long your regular commute is. Each day you commute, you check off on your account calendar, and the site automatically tallies your cumulative kilometres. The way it worked last time was that you could retroactively tick off commuting days up to three days after the fact. But if you let it slide further, you lose it.

I did pretty well last time as I'm commuting virtually everyday from Budapest to Szentendre. But there were people with even longer commutes that that. At least in theory. The contest works on the honor system so you can cheat or stick to the straight and narrow at your pleasure.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Best Cycling Lanes, Yet












Some new cycling lanes on Alkotmány utca in District V are the best facilities that have been implemented in Budapest, perhaps showing the city is finally taking bicycles seriously as transport. The lanes are good for a number of reasons. First, they're on the street, rather than the sidewalk, and thus integrate cyclists with motor traffic, which, in an urban context, moves at roughly the same speed. Second, there's a separate lane on both sides of the street, allowing the cyclists to move in the same direction as other road users in adjacent lanes. This is in contrast to the shared-use paths that constitute most Budapest cycling facilities (as on nearby Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út) where a single, bidirectional track runs along only one side of the street).

The closest thing we've seen to this type of facility to date is Andrássy út. But the lanes on that street are flawed because they run down a narrow gap between parked cars and the sidewalk, putting cyclists in danger of getting "doored" by passengers exiting vehicles. Check out this video (Nine Reasons Why It's Great to Bicycle in Budapest). Reason No. 8 illustrates the problem nicely. (http://www.hirszerzo.hu/patroview.1.23)

The Alkotmány lanes are of a type referred to in some quarters as "share rows" because they can also be driven on by ("shared" with) motorists. It's a popular solution among many road departments because they provide accommodation for cyclists without taking space from motorists. Of course, Budapest City Hall has always feared the political backlash of taking space from motorists. But there's now an emerging, quickly growing constituency of city cyclists. So some compromise is needed. The NGO MKK (kerekparosklub.hu), which is partly funded by Budapest City Hall, successfully lobbied for share rows on a trial basis.

I have mixed feelings about share rows. I can understand that on very narrow streets, it's impossible to provide separate lanes for both motorists and cyclists. But when share rows are used out of simple political timidity, it is running the risk that motorists won't give the lanes any respect, at all. In the 1980s, the city of Paris installed share rows on a similar trial basis, and the experiment failed for this very reason. These days, Paris is building a combination of lanes as well as facilities that are separated with physical barriers such as curbs, posts and speed dots. Cyclists are now an accepted part of traffic there, but this can be credited, at least partly, to city's firm steps to stake out cycling territory.

Perhaps share rows will work better in Budapest. I say this because, in contrast to Paris in the 1980s, cyclists in Budapest have already insinuated themselves into traffic -- with virtually no help from the city. It's my feeling that if and when the city starts building decent infrastructure, cyclists will fill it up quickly and motorists won't be able to ignore them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Cycling Entering Mainstream


If you're quick, you can still get a copy of the current copy of HVG (http://hvg.hu/default.aspx) with a 17-page special section on Hungary's bicycling phenomenon. The section leads off with some antedotes about a couple Budapest enthusiasts who put on crazy numbers of kilometers on their bikes week-in and week out, and then mentions the Critical Mass successes (60-80,000 riders last spring, the article recalls) and the frequent weekend traffic jams of cyclists entering and leaving Margit Sziget.

The section includes an article on the domestic bicycle manufacturing market, the annual bike race around the Balaton, and -- one of my favorite topics -- the example of Paris's cycling "Velorution." The focus of this last is on Velib, the massive bike-sharing scheme of Paris. I've written lots about Paris as a good example for Budapest in terms of cycling development. Check my master's thesis (http://www.greenmedia.hu/gspencer/) or an article in Hungarian that had a more narrow focus on Paris (http://epiteszforum.hu/node/9672.

I don't think there's much information in the article that hasn't already been widely circulated through Hungary's cycling blogosphere, but the fact that the subject merited such extensive treatment in Hungary's most prestigious news weekly (HVG is often said to be Hungary's version of the Economist) is just one more sign that cycling is becoming a popular movement. Now if we can get Budapest City Hall to give it the support that it deserves.