Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prague Makes a Smooth Move

Compared to Budapest, Prague is not much of a cycling city -- this was immediately apparent to me when I took a ride around the Czech capital a couple weekends ago. My guide for the ride was Daniel Mourek, a former Prague city council member and longtime cycling activist. He pointed up a couple reasons for this, one being that, until recently, city burghurs have refused to allow any cycling accomodation in the historic city centre due primarily to aesthetic reasons: cycling paths wouldn't go with the centre's characteristic Old World cobblestones.

There are other reasons that cycling is less popular there . Prague is a big walking town, with about 20% of all intracity trips being by foot. The terrain is a bit hillier than in Budapest and public transport, due to larger subsidies and a more sensible time-based ticketing system, is more affordable. 

But in the coming years, we can expect Prague to close at least part of the cycling gap with Budapest. For one thing, Prague is spending serious money on cycling -- about EUR 2.5 million annually, an amount that has grown steadily over the last seven years, from the time city leaders agreed once and for all that cycling should be a priority. This amount is about double what Budapest is spending, despite the fact there's much greater interest in transport cycling here.

The other thing is that the guardians of Prague's historically protected centre have capitulated on the bike path dispute. After the disastrous floods of August 2002, the pedestrian quay along the east bank of the Vltava River had to be rebuilt, including with new cobblestones. The original reconstruction didn't include a cycling path, but after activists laid on the pressure, City Hall agreed to a solution in which twin tracks of smooth, tan stone were laid down the cobblestone korzó. The tracks are very narrow -- maybe 50 cm -- but they provide bump-free passage through the cobblestones while also blending in with the rest of the stonework. This accomodation demonstrated to the cycling naysayers in the historic district that bike paths needn't detract from the Prague's Medieval charm.

It seems to me that this type of compromise could serve as an example to other European cities that struggle to reconcile historic preservation with modern development. This includes Budapest, with a prime example being the main square at Óbuda. The  north-south cycling route from Budapest to the Danube Bend cuts right across this square, and it's the least pleasant part of the journey because of the cobblestones. Another example is Andrássy út, where the cycling paths on both sides of the street intermittently cross cobblestone bus stops. 

These are examples of when biking accomodation doesn't necessarily have to cost more, but rather just needs to be given some consideration before roads are built.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Had it with the HÉV

You could argue that a cycling blog isn't the proper venue for a rant on Budapest Public Transport (BKV). However, I think it's just the place because decent public transport is a pre-condition for a comfortable, car-free lifestyle. I use a bike for almost all local trips spring through summer, but come fall time, when the weather turns and the days get short, I use BKV more and more.

For my commute from downtown Budapest to Szentendre, I use the northern line of the HÉV, Budapest's suburban light-rail system. The trains of the HÉV system are well over 40 years old, which, I believe, makes them the oldest vehicles in BKV's rolling stock. These East Germany-built carriages were lousy when I moved to Hungary 12 years ago. Anyone who's been jostled out of their seats while clanging past Pannónia telep and Pomáz knows what I'm talking about.

The other day it was already dark when I finished work, so I rode my bike to the HÉV stop in Szentendre, and then waited 40 minutes for the first train to Budapest. In the last several months, funding cuts have forced BKV to cut back service, so departures after rush hour are less frequent. When I finally boarded, the first thing I noticed was that the lights were out. Apparently, the electrical system had failed, so only a few dim auxilary bulbs cut through the darkness. That meant that one of the main advantages to public transport -- being able to pass the commute with a good book-- was nullified.  

Then the following morning, rain forced me to abort my bike ride  half way to Szentendre and get on the HÉV again. I was startled to see that the normally bustling stop at Békasmegyer was practically empty. At rush hour! The büfé on the platform where I'd hoped to get a coffee was closed. A sign in the window explained, "Because you can't have mass transit without the masses."

It's sad -- not to mention inconvenient and uncomfortable -- to see BKV in such decline. Foreigners often remark on how terrific Budapest public transport is. And of course it's true that the city inherited an extensive network of metro lines, busses, trolleys and trams as a Socialist-era legacy. But the system is deteriorating. Aside from a couple long-overdue investments in the past few years (the installation of low-floor Siemens trams on the 4-6 line and the refurbishment of the stops of the red metro), service has been sliding. 

BKV has cut runs throughout its network, inlcuding ones that were well-used, as on the HÉV. This summer, BKV laid off a third of its ticket-booth cashiers, while also introducing a new requirement that receipts be given for all sales, even of single tickets (apparently to discourage embezzling). And since modern cash registers are unknown to BKV, the system's few remaining ticket sellers spend most of their time writing receipts by hand -- like Midieval scribes. During brighter times seven or eight years ago, you could get tickets from one of scores of new vending machines with touch-sensitive screens. Most of these are already out of order -- all of which makes it extremely difficult to buy tickets. Basically, if I want to ride the HÉV in the morning, I have to wait of 10-15 minutes just to buy a ticket (or 30 minutes at the start of the month, when riders are queueing for monthly passes). 

So it's no wonder that the HÉV is losing passengers while inbound car traffic on the adjacent four lane road is backed up 10 kilometers from the city centre. It's always depressing when fall comes and I'm not able to bike as much. But now that the transport alternative is so much less attractive, it's really got me down.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Carrots, Not Crackdowns

In response to a recent post about a crackdown on scofflaw cyclists and pedestrians, a reader named Sam wrote that perhaps a more positive approach was in order. He mentioned some good examples, probably in Scandinavia (as always), where police use the carrot approach to safety enforcement by giving away reflector vests and lights to riders caught not not using them.

A couple days later, I discovered an example much closer to home: In Békés County, in southeast Hungary, police have been carrying out a campaign for seven years targetting kids. It covers biking safety in general, with an accent on lamps and reflectors. An article on the Duna TV website, notes that in the town of Orosház from January-September of this year, cyclists were involved in 14 accidents, three of which involved night riding without lights.

Twenty-nine communities took part in the campaign and 43 bike shops lent their support with discounted lamps and reflectors .

Sunday, October 5, 2008

City loses cycling subsidies

This is quite old news, happened in July, but still relevant, I believe, as it gives an insight to behind-the-scene problems that undermine the development of cycling in Budapest. Basically, Budapest had an opportunity to collect several million forints of FREE EU MONEY to improve cycling infrastructure but muffed the necessary paperwork and instead got much less than it could have.

I sent and resent an email four or five times seeking an explanation from City Hall, but never got a reply. That's partly why it's taken so long to post this entry. I'd wanted to include the city's side of the story but finally had to give up.

The following information was given to me by Ádám Bodor, the cycling affairs coordinator with the national government who's overseeing the distribution of this money to municipalities.

The money originates from a programme called the Cycling Hungary Programme that allocates HUF 56,000 million (EUR 250 million) in EU sudsidies from the Road Fund of the European Regional Development Fund. The money is for municipalities only, and targets bicycle road planning and construction between 2007-2013. Three quarters of it is for commuter cycling, not recreation. Already EUR 53 million has been allocated, with Budapest having won approximately EUR 5 million.

In the last round of applications, Budapest applied for funds for:

  1. commuting facilities, including lanes and separate paths,
  2. a recreational path, and
  3. a bike-and-ride parking facility.

There was enough funds for all of this, but the application for the bike and ride facility was not ready for evaluation (with compulsory anexxes missing and a lack of consultation with the national development agency). Applications for the first two elements were submitted in "very poor condition," according to Bodor, but thanks to the good graces of evaluators, accepted. For these path and lane projects, the evaluators asked that, as a minimum, before contracting be done, that at least the most important annexes be submitted. But the city missed the deadline and lost approximately HUF 650 million (EUR 2.7 million).

As partial consolution, several district governments (II, XI, XXI, XIII) submitted some successful applications for some 35-40 smaller projects.

When the mayor is asked why cycling development doesn't advance more quickly in Budapest, the stock answer is a lack of money and competing priorities. But here you have EUR 250 million in FREE MONEY that is earmarked for cycling. What's the problem?

I don't think it's incompetence. The city has employed a dedicated cycling affairs officer for more than a decade. However, it's a fact that his cycling duties were curtailed a few years ago so that he could contribute to transport projects the mayor deemed more important. I can only guess that there simply isn't enough dedicated staff at City Hall to submit quality applications for Cycling Hungary funds. What a waste. The city spares a few thousand euros in payroll expenses -- and ends up sacrificing millions of euros in bicycling subsidies.

Anyone who could shed some light on this is more than welcome to submit a comment.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Crackdown on Scofflaw Cyclists Promised

From this month till November, the police will be cracking down on scofflaw cyclists and pedestrians. At least that's what they're threatening, according to Hungarian blog, Kerékagy (Wheel Hub). The blog explains cyclists can be busted for riding under the influence, while pedestrians can be nailed for J-walking. Both suspect groups will be liable for the offence of riding or walking along streets outside populated areas without donning the required reflective vest.

Fines, apparently, can range anywhere from HUF 3,000 to HUF 100,000, depending on the seriousness of the offence. 

I have to admit, I'm somewhat disappointed the cops aren't specifically targetting cyclists riding after dark without lights. This is my main complaint with Budapest riders, given that a lampless cyclist can pose a real threat to other cyclists, and given the abundance of people who seem to revel in being invisible. 

That excepted, though, reckless peds and cyclists are mainly a danger to themselves. Law-breaking motorists, on the other hand, endanger everybody. And God knows the police haven't begun to sort them out. Come to think of it, with the loose reins kept on motorists, I'd be very surprised if the cops follow through with this jihad against us other road users.