Friday, February 20, 2009

Bike Conquers Traffic Jam

When traffic's at its worst, it's great to go by bike. An hour ago, I peddaled up Margit krt., the busiest road in Buda, to drop off our boy at day care. It was typically thick Friday traffic -- when the usual throng of commuters merges with weekend travellers and grocery shoppers. 

I managed to get through the chaos at Moszkva tér, Buda's most snarled crossroads, without incident. But on the way back after dropping off the kid, the situation had deteriorated. A long, articulated bus was stuck on Krisztina krt., blocking crossing traffic on Csaba utca. Nothing was moving, either, on Margit krt. I could hear sirens, indicating a traffic accident might be gumming up the works. It seemed no one was moving.

Seige mentality had taken hold, and the teetering edifice of roadway decorum had crumbled to the ground. In this situation, motorists fixate on the rear bumper of car in front, and tailgate as tightly as possible lest a competing commuter sneak into the gap in her Smart car. This descent into anarchy exacerbates things, of course, but for the bicyclist, it's no problem. 

That meter of space between bumpers gives me ample room to cut across traffic, and the gap between lanes makes for swift passage down any traffic-jammed street. It's a bit slower than when traffic's moving, of course; I've got to take care not to sideswipe anybody. But I try to make a game of it, pretending the cars are gates on an Alpine slalom course, and I'm Hermann Maier skiing to his umpteenth World Cup victory! 

At any rate, 15 minutes later, I'm home sipping coffee and writing smart-ass commentary about motorists, while the poor schmucks in their cars are still out there thumbing SMS appologies to their colleagues and clients for being late.

I don't know if you've ever seen the graph above. It's de rigueur for any presentation about the benefits of transport cycling. Not the altruistic, socially responsible, climate-saving benefits, mind you. I'm talking about the selfish, hedonistic benefit of being faster than everyone else. The graph shows that, due to a bike's maneuverability, ease of parking and other factors, it is faster, door-to-door, than a car for short, urban journeys. For trips that involve long stretches on an expressway or lightly trafficked thoroughfare, the car's greater horsepower naturally has the advantage. But for trips in traffic across the city, the bike wins hands down. This morning's ride was a potent reminder of why that's true.  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free-Wheeling Fashionistas

If an 80,000 turnout at Critical Mass wasn't evidence enough that cycling's the next big thing in Budapest, check this out: Just an hour ago, a standing-room only crowd crammed into the narrow confines of the Szoda Bar in District VI to take in a fashion show of nouveau peddal pushers, courier bags and other designer clothes and accessories for chic urban bicyclists.

The fashion show complemented the opening of an exhibit of photos featured in a bicycling calendar released this month by the Museum of Ethnography. But the main draw was the fashion show. By the time it started at 6 p.m., every bike rack, signpost and window grate in front of the Jewish Quarter hangout had several bikes chained to it, so latecomers (such as myself) had to search, squeeze and cheat to secure their wheels.

Inside, it was elbow-to-elbow mayhem, and getting to the bar looked like an impossible mission. However, a spot smack dab in front of the beer tap miraculously opened up moments before the show started. So by the time the models began strutting down the ad hoc catwalk in front of the bar, I not only had my pint of Pilsner but also a prime point of view to shoot the action.

Virtually everyone there was in their early to mid-20s, roughly half my age, but I did see a couple similarly geezerly attendees (relatively speaking, of course), including Gabor Kurti, director of local bike courier company Hajtas Pajtas and lynchpin of the Budapest Critical Mass movement, and Janos Laszlo, president of the Hungarian Cyclists Club. Laszlo interpreted the turnout as vindication for immersing himself in the urban cycling movement. "Have you ever seen so many people turn out for a photo exhibit?" he asked in disbelief. I agreed it was remarkable, especially with so many having come by bike. Laszlo shook his head in wonder. "And in the middle of winter!"

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bike Sharing: a Boon or Bust?

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Over the last year or two, there has been a lot of hubbub about bike sharing due mainly to the massive system launched in 2007 in Paris, Velib. Now bike sharing is sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe, with systems already launched in Krakow, Bucharest, Ploieste (Romania) and Prague and plans or studies underway in Warsaw, Wroclaw and right here in Budapest.

I guess you have to be suspicious of anything that gets fashionable, as fashions fade. Bike sharing has always been a difficult proposition due to theft and vandalism, and although smart-card technology has mediated the problem, it's not a cure-all, as experience in Paris demonstrates.

In this region, as I argued in a recent article, we might be jumping into bike-sharing prematurely. In some cities, there's a basic need for safe places to ride, and if that isn't sorted out first, bike sharing could be a non-starter.

During a December visit to Bucharest, I learned that this is a concern for the Cicloteque sytem launched just last summer. With just 50 km of paths and an otherwise hostile environment for cyclists, Bucharest saw little use of the system during its first few months. Interest at the university-based service picked up somewhat when students returned to class in the fall, but it fell off drastically as soon as the weather turned cold. Cicloteque's been shuttered for winter as organisers seek a replacement for the original corporate sponsor, Unicredit Bank.

I won't say that bike sharing can never serve as a starting point, though. In Barcelona, for instance, the huge Bicing scheme launched in 2007 seems to have singlehandedly created a lively urban cycling culture where one hadn't existed.

I believe Budapest is a rare city in this region that is actually ripe for it (and any other cycling promotion measures). By now, there are scores of examples to examine around the world (see map), and Budapest will have to take care to find the most successful approaches in comparable contexts.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Mystery Bump Molester

Coming back from a winter vacation in the States, I was pleased to see an improvement on the Buda bank bike path just north of Margit Bridge. Two annoying speed bumps -- created last summer as an ad hoc measure to slow down cyclists passing through a temporary train stop -- had been notched out to allow for smooth passage.

At first, I assumed this had been a guerilla action by a fellow cyclist, like one that took place in the fall. From the looks of it, somebody had taken a pick axe to the bumps, and just busted out a gap of some 15 cm -- just enough to get your wheels through providing you're paying attention and haven't had too much to drink. My heart filled with gratitude for my comrade in arms who stuck his neck out with this righteous act of vandalism.

On second thought, however, I wondered if it might rather have been the half-assed handiwork of a legitimate street crew. Afterall, the ad hoc train stop ceased to function several months ago, so the speed bumps ought to have been properly removed. If this was the case, I could only shake my head at yet another example of cyclists getting the short end of the stick from our public services.

So I was feeling a little cognitive dissonance there for awhile: should I be grateful or pissed off, and at whom? But I decided that at least one thing's for certain: no matter who did the work -- the fact remains that the two speed bumps are 90 percent intact and still posing a threat to life and limb -- or at least rim and spoke -- to unwary cyclists. Whoever put the bumps there should come out and remove them entirely.