Sunday, November 30, 2008

Car restrictions -- the horror!!

Beginning today, Budapest City Hall will have the authority to decree restrictions on car use in the event of smog alerts. This is according to an ordinance approved by the City Council last week. According to the report in (Thanks for the tip, Jelica!), the ordinance requires that:

in the event of a smog alert, vehicles with license plates with even numbers at the end may only drive in Budapest on even-numbered dates and those ending with odd numbers on the other days.
Dust levels are quite high all over downtown, as you can see at this great website. Hosted by the environmental ministry, it shows continuously updated pollution levels at eight monitoring stations throughout the city. Incredibly, the site is in English. The page on the link shows a map of the city, with the monitoring stations indicated as blue dots. All you do is roll over a station and an information box pops up showing levels of several kinds of pollution. The pollutant you should look for is "PM10," which means particles less than 10 micrograms in diametre, or in plainer English, dust.

From what I read, motor traffic in urban areas is often responsible for two thirds or more of air pollution. It follows that a switch from car to bicycle would be a big help to air quality. Unfortunately, those who take a pioneering roll in the "velo-lution" have to put up with some pretty crappy air.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prague Envy

Cycling development in Prague is going gangbusters compared to Budapest -- or at least it would seem so. A recent article gives a concise but comprehensive picture of the transport cycling scene in the Czech capital.

Official data from Prague City Hall shows cyclists with a 0.5-2 percent modal share, on par with the figures from Budapest. But Budapest's data is more than 10 years old, and the numbers have clearly gone up since then, especially considering the whole Critical Mass phenomenon only got started in 2004. (Tellingly, Prague's most recent Critical Mass drew 4,000 riders, compared to about 15,000 at Budapest's last one and 80,000 during the spring 2007 ride.)

Despite the fact that more people bike in Budapest, Prague seems to be doing a better job at cycling development.

A few tidbits from the article:
  • Budapest has about 160 km of paths and routes while Prague has 135 km of bike paths and 360 of signed routes.
  • Prague's long-term plan calls for the completion of more than 670 km of routes. Budapest is shooting no higher than 500.
  • Prague has a new bike-share system (see photo). Budapest has none.
  • Prague City Hall has a monitoring system in place to follow trends in cycling traffic (cycling trips are up 47% over the last three years). Budapest has no such system. And with no data on cycling levels, what rational basis is there for developing infrastructure and other services?
How can it be that the city with more demand for cycling improvements is getting less supply?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cyclists Get Cold Shoulder

I endured my first snow day of the season this morning and it wasn't pretty. On my morning ride, I found precious few bike paths that had been cleared of snow. That meant that I pretty much had to ride on the street. Although much of the snow had melted, the snow and slush that did remain was piled up next to the curb, meaning I had to ride well out toward the middle of the lane. Luckily, traffic was moving slowly enough that I didn't hold up any motorists and no one honked or attempted any dangerous overtaking.

The few paths that were cleared were on sidewalks which had been swept by property owners. In Hungary, it is the individual property owner who is responsible for removing snow from the sidewalks (pavements) in front of his or her building.

The photo at left shows the riverside path just north of Margit híd on the Buda side at 8 a.m. As you can see, it is very tracked up, which shows you I wasn't alone out there. I think it's fair to say there'd be more winter riders if bike paths were swept in winter.

This second picture shows the path just north of the Filitorigát HÉV stop. The section that also serves as the HÉV platform was cleared (presumably by BKV) but beyond the platform area, the path turns back into winter wonderland.

This third photo shows the path in Szentendre -- the worst example of the bunch. The path here is just the shoulder of the road and marked as a bike path. A snow plow had been through, pushing all the accumulation onto the bike path, making it unrideable.

Not surprisingly, poor snow removal practices provoke perennial complaints in many cities situated in temperate zones. Check out this post for some good and bad practices. A transport officer in the U.S. State of Oregon initiated an interesting conversation thread about different approaches to the problem. From the replies she received, it seems that many communities take this challenge very seriously.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Go Guerrillas!

A writer for Bicycling Magazine emailed the other day asking about the guerrilla bike lanes in Budapest. From the wording of her query, it seemed she was already acquainted with a guerrilla bike lane movement here. She was just counting on me, as a local cycling blogger with his ear to the ground and feet in the clips, to fill her in on the nitty gritty -- its history here, some specific local examples and a quote about the importance of this particular form of civil disobedience to the larger cycling movement.

But she caught me flat-footed. It wasn't just that I didn't know the nitty gritty -- I'd never heard of guerrilla bike lanes, not in Budapest or anywhere else. In a panic to come up with some authoritative info, I fired off messages to some cycling friends to bail me out. But I got just one reply, and it offered no inside dope, only the contact details of another local cyclist.

My tentative conclusion was: there's no guerrilla bike lane movement here, or at least not one to speak of. However, by some strange coincidence, the next day, there appeared two unauthorised bike signs on the Pest end of Margit bridge -- about a 5 minute ride from our flat. The guerrilla lanes I'd been seeking.

The sign in the photo has a twin on the opposite sidewalk. I assume it's inspired by the current controversy (or more detailed info in Hungarian) about the cycling facilities envisaged for the pending renovation of Margit bridge. According to current plans, the main cycling accommodation would be a single bi-directional path on the north side of the bridge. Many transport cyclists, myself included, favour a solution with wide single-direction paths on both sides of the bridge, and a provision that allows cyclists to continue riding down the körút once off the bridge.

Not long ago, if you wanted to ride straight off the bridge and down the körút, you were confronted with a steel fence. The only open route was to go down the ramp beneath the bridge, and then to the footpath/bike path on the Danube bank. Which, of course, is of no help to those heading toward Nyugati station. But, according to the typical paternalistic philosophy of Budapest traffic planners, cyclists belong on sidewalks and out of the way of cars, regardless of the inconvenience to the former.

Of course, cyclists have always gone around the barriers in order to get to where they're going. And at some point the barriers were removed, as you can see in the picture. The improvised signs are the coup de grâce that give the go-ahead to körút-bound cyclists.

These signs mark out the first example I've seen of guerrilla bike lanes in Budapest. As far as I'm concerned, they're an act worth following.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Local Cycling Gets Dutch Boost

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Here's some postive news -- a story that shows how good cycling initiatives can start from the ground up, with a bit a vision and teamwork and a network of well-placed friends.

Some parents and staff at the American International School of Budapest, which has a spectacular but fairly remote new campus some 15 km northwest of Budapest, in the village of Nagykovácsi, decided they needed a bike path. Such a path would not only allow students and staff to bike to and from school, it would also provide a new recreational route for weekend cyclists and enable bike commuting for those who have made Nagykovácsi a budding bedroom community.

It's probably no coincidence that the impetus behind the path was the Dutch. The idea came from a Dutch member of AISB's building committee, Jaap Scholten, a writer who lives here with his Hungarian wife and who has three children enrolled in the school.

The original concept was to make a 4 km path from Nagykovácsi to Petneházy, which would almost connect to the Hűvösvölgy path. Scholten enlisted the help of the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, and through him, got hold of Hungary's Deputy Minister for Cycling Adam Bodor and the local office of the Dutch engineering firm Grondmij.

During the planning, the AISB group discovered that several of the surrounding villages were championing a 17 km path that would intersect with theirs. The two projects were merged and are now in a brainstorming phase. The village councils have taken the reins of the project, with AISB and the Dutch Embassy reverting to advisory roles and helping with contacts.

Timing was fortuitous: 90% of the project will be paid for with EU money (presumably through the Cycling Hungary Programme, a EUR 250 million pot of money that's up for grabs to municipalities that can put together well-considered proposals. In addition, Grondmij has offered to do the feasibility study free of charge. That leaves only 10 percent to be picked up by the local councils and Hungarian government.

Of course, this project is a long ways from being a done deal, and the fact that so many parties are involved adds to the complications. But the prospects look quite good for an idea that started with a parent who wanted a bike path for his kids.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Same Old Solutions for Margit Bridge

The twin bike lanes envisaged in the impending refurbishment of Margit bridge are under threat, as cycling activists and city officials debate how to best accommodate different types of non-motorised transport on the busiest river crossing in Budapest.

According to the latest reports, the project, scheduled to start in early 2009, would include a bi-directional cycling path on the north side (island-facing) of the bridge. A waist-high guard rail would separate it from from motor traffic while coloured paving tiles would visually distinguish it from the adjacent footpath. However, no physical barrier would separate pedestrians and cyclists. The Hungarian Cycling Club had argued that the path should be 2.5 m wide to safely accommodate two directions of bike traffic, but this has been pared down to 1.8 metres.

On the opposite (south) side of the bridge would be a more basic shared-use path for both cyclists and pedestrians -- basically the same as the existing set up except that it would be signed as one-way for cyclists.

In fact, the whole scheme is sounding quite a lot like the existing set-up, with the main difference being the addition of coloured paving to mark cycling territory on the north side foot/cycling facility. I have to say I'm skeptical whether this is enough to impose order on the current free-for-all on the bridge's two walkways.

From a transport cycling point of view, the best solution would be to have one-way cycling lanes on both shoulders of the bridge, physically separated from the pedestrian traffic. I've extolled the virtues of such solutions before, with the best local example being on Alkotmány utca. It's another question how much they should be separated from motor traffic. Some users would prefer a physical barrier -- like the guard rail now proposed -- while others would just as soon have no barrier and only a marked lane. The latter solution would take up less space, while the former may better serve recreational riders, including children, who use the bridge to access Margit Island.

Including a two-way path on the island-facing side of the bridge was also seen as a way to ease island access, as, under the current set up, the only way to get to the island from the south-side path is to go down through the underpass below the tram stop. I would argue, why not create a level crossing there? The main argument against it, I imagine, would be that this would interrupt the flow of car traffic. This, of course, is the main thing blocking development of non-motorised transport and better traffic safety in Budapest -- the idea that the road system has to be designed everywhere to foster fast-moving, high-volume car traffic.

In Budapest, major cycling infrastructure rarely happens as a stand-along project. It generally can only be justified as part of a larger road reconstruction. The renovation of Margit Bridge, therefore, is a rare opportunity to get things right where cycling is concerned. It could be the first step of a first-class cycling accommodation around the whole körút, one that's modelled on the best examples from Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen. Instead, it's so far looking like business as usual, with a staunch refusal to do anything that would challenge the supremacy of cars.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Finders, Keepers!

City Hall should've known better than to let people roam freely on the Buda quay while it's being reconstructed. Just months after the riverside road was closed to traffic this summer for a massive sewerage project, a political movement sprang up urging City Hall to make the Buda bank a permanent open public space, with a bike path, jogging trail, park and so on -- and to not return it to motorists.

Great idea! I've been riding my bike on the car-free quay ever since August, when the crowds at the Sziget Festival started obstructing the bike path near Filitorigat. After that, on my evening ride home from Szentendre, I'd get off the circuitous designated bike route at Auchan and get on the quay. With two wide lanes of asphalt and hardly a car in sight, it felt like entering a cycling autobahn. Wonderful. The further south you go, the more other users you see -- not only cyclists, but runners, walkers, parents pushing prams, people walking dogs, even people stretching and doing tai chi. It's all happening in the middle of a road that until this summer had been clogged daily with rush-hour traffic jams. It's easy to imagine how much more it would be used if properly developed with paths, benches, landscaping and the rest (i.e. beer gardens). It'd probably become like an extension of Margit Sziget, with some choice jogging and cycling circuits formed via Margit and Arpad bridges.

An open letter from someone named Aron was posted on the site urging Mayor Demszky to make the de-motorisation of the quay his major legacy. You can cut and paste the Hungarian text and send it to Or surprise him with something original in English or Sanskrit.

Another article about the "rakpark," comeplete with an artist's rendering of what it would look like, is here. And then there's a blog posting about how Vienna did something like this with one of its riverside arterials. For that matter, check out what the city of Seattle did recently with its waterfront. Seems like lots of cities are realising that embankments are too precious to waste on roads.