Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bikes a Hit at Inauguration

Sounds like the bicycle valet at President Obama's inauguration was a big success. According to a post on the D.C. blog WashCycle, about 1,000 bikes were parked at each of the two ad hoc stations set up by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Another blogger remarked that the scene reminded him of Amsterdam, but with better bikes (thus sparking arguments of whether high-tech, sports-style bikes are, indeed, better than the old-school, granny bikes prevalent in northern Europe).

Looking over the post-event press, it sounds like biking and walking were truly the best ways of negotiating the crowds. Car parking was non-existent and the city's metro system was completely overwhelmed. And at a certain point, the bridges connecting D.C. to Virginia were closed down, with the only exeptions being for special vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. I saw one Twitter comment from a guy who walked all the way from the National Mall to the Reagan National Airport on foot, after giving up on the long queue at the metro.

Another bike-related observation on the inauguration: Security for the exiting motorcade included some local cops on bicycles. On TV it looked like the perfect modal choice, fast enough to keep pace with the lumbering limousines, but manueverable enough to cut around the huge crowds gathered along the route.

Although I concur with the generally rave reviews of Obama's inaugural address (including by Ronald Reagan's speech writer Mary Matalin), I have to point out that he DID NOT mention bicycles. I suppose we can't expect a specially wrapped bone for each and every constituency, but still ... he had a golden opportunity in his call for greater use of renewable energies ("We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil ... .") This would have been the perfect opportunity to mention legs and feet, which of course are much, much more efficient than an econo-car of any type will ever be.

On the bright side, we finally have a president in office who will listen to these arguments.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Free Bike Parking for Inauguration

I have a Hungarian friend, Charlie, who works at a catering agency in Washington, D.C., and he is NOT looking forward to next week. The U.S. capital expects a record crowd for the inauguration of Barack Obama -- an estimated 3 million visitors to a city whose permanent population is less than 600,000. Not that Washington, D.C. is a stanger to big crowds, but this will be something else altogether.

Charlie stands to make some good money waiting tables or tending bar at one of the scores of inaugural parties and balls on the docket. Despite this, he's dreading the event and the days leading up to it because the crowds on the streets will be practically impenetrable. I guess we can imagine something like St. Stephens Day and the Sziget Festival all rolled into one and crammed into a city somewhat larger than Győr.

One of the major problems is the shortage of parking. With America having crappy train service and air travel being expensive and hassle-ridden, most visitors will come by car. City authorities have enlarged the no-parking zone around downtown to make way for people, and also for the thousands of charter buses that need someplace to unload. You can imagine that thousands of motorists will idle hours on end in traffic jams trying to find a parking spot within walking distance of downtown.

There's a remedy to this situation, and you probably won't be surprised what it is: bicycling. Some quick thinkers at the Washington Area Bicycle Association put together a one-off bicycle valet service (not unlike what they've had at the Sziget Festival in recent years), with two stations in the downtown area. People who bike into the city can leave their bikes free-of-charge in a secure, guarded parking station -- and pick up a commemorative inauguration spoke card if they get there in time.

It seems there's not much that can't be readily solved with bicycles.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Head Makes a Good Ice Breaker

This morning's ride was more treacherous than usual thanks to a night of freezing rain. But at first I didn't appreciate how hazardous it might be because the streets were merely wet. I rode up above Városmajor liget to drop off my boy at day care, and then back down the körút to the river without slipping or even seeing much ice at all.

Then I turned onto the riverside bike path just north of Battyannyi tér -- and bam! Down I went, as my tires slipped on a gleaming sheet of rain-slickened ice. It was so slippery, I could barely get back on my feet and onto the bike. I started peddling ever so gingerly, but my back wheel spun out anyway. Regaining traction, I followed the path very slowly to the next crossing, and then got onto the road. I wasn't keen to get into rush hour car traffic, but at least the road wasn't icy.

I was wondering why it is that while the bike path was glazed over with a half-centimeter sheet of frozen rain, the road was merely wet. It was the same last night up in Szentendre. The walking paths around our office were encrusted in ice but the roads perfectly safe.

I guess the difference is that the roads get a lot of car traffic, which wears away the ice before it can build up, and also the ever-present residue of salt from the frequent passings of salt spreaders during the winter season.

With bike paths completely neglected during winter, the only safe way to ride in snow and sleet is on the streets. This isn't the case in better biking cities. In Gothenburg, Sweden, for example, the city's "biking highways" are the first things to get cleared after a snowfall. There's a city that takes its cyclists seriously.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Car Restrictions Unleash Flood of Indifference

Budapest experienced its first car-use restrictions, as Mayor Demszky declared a smog alert Sunday morning.

According to the restrictions, only cars with odd-numbered plates were allowed on the road on odd-numbered days and only even-numbered ones on even-numbered days. According to a report on, police weren't issuing fines when the alert went into effect Sunday at 11 a.m., although they were pulling over non-complying motorists and giving warnings.

According to my own highly scientific survey (I checked the plates of about half a dozen cars on Sunday while out for a walk), the ban was being widely flouted. About half the cars I checked bore even plates, half odd.

A report on (in Hungarian) said that traffic was lighter than usual on Sunday but that Monday morning witnessed a normally hectic rush hour. "Budapestiens didn't take the the traffic restrictions seriously," the report noted.

My wife said that while she was exercising at the gym on Sunday, she overheard a conversation on the topic. One guy expressed confusion. "There are six digits on my plate. Which one tells me whether it's even or odd?" This struck me as a brilliant illustration of my favourite line from Repo Man, "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."

According to Monday's news, pollution levels in Budapest had already started coming down, with further improvement expected as temperatures rose toward mid-week. In any case, City Hall had already planned to call off restrictions on Tuesday.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Public transport bike pass behind schedule

From January 1, BKV is supposed to have introduced a bicycle pass that will that will allow holders to take their bikes on the HÉV and cogwheel railway -- the only bike-accessible lines in Budapest -- without having to buy a ticket. The pass would cost just HUF 500 a month, which would be worth the price even if you use this service just twice per month. Under existing rules, you have to buy a second personal ticket -- now HUF 290 a piece -- to take your bike.

For myself, this stands to be a huge savings, especially during winter. During these cold, dark months, I take my bike on the HÉV at least once every workday (on my evening commute, because I won't ride from Szentendre in the dark) and twice when it's too cold for the morning ride. I figure I spend an average of around HUF 8,000 a month just to transport my bike, so the prospect of this nearly free bike pass got me pretty excited.

The problem is, although BKV announced this new pass quite some time ago -- it wasn't available on schedule. I inquired about the "kerékpár berlet" yesterday at the Margit híd stop of the Szentendre HÉV line. "Sajnos nincs," the cashier told me, adding that she had no idea when they might be in stock. However, she did have a little piece of paper describing the terms and conditions for the new bike pass (see picture) in agonising, exhaustive detail.

So on my trip this morning, I paid the usual full price for the bike. And just for laughs, I asked the ticket checker if he knew when the new bike passes would be available. He eyed me suspiciously, and questioned where I had heard about these tickets. I told him BKV's homepage (I actually read it on, which has fresher information than BKV's site, but I could sense this checker had already pegged me for a fraud.) He frowned and said he'd ask about it.

My question is: If BKV had the time and resources to print up these stupid rule sheets, why couldn't they also have printed up the actual bike passes?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Budapest loses conference bid

Budapest has lost its bid to host the Velo-City conference in 2011, according to an announcement on the website of the Hungarian Cycling Club, which prepared the official proposal. I wrote about the bid in my December 10 post.

The announcement states that the conference's governing body, the European Cycling Federation (ECF), sent notice of the rejection to the cycling club by post but included no explanation. Neither did the notice say which city, if any, has won the bid. The club was going to write a letter to ECF seeking an explanation.

My colleague Daniel Mourek, who's active in ECF, said he hadn't heard the news, but noted that the host for any Velo-City conference must guarantee a substantial investment into the conference (more than EUR 400,000, I believe), and this MAY have been an obstacle for Budapest. But this was just conjecture.

From what Mourek's heard, the only other candidate city for this conference at this time was Seville.

I've written to ECF's secretary general in Brussels, Bernhard Ensink, for some insights. If I get a reply, I'll pass it on.