Sunday, January 24, 2010

Riding in a Wintry Wonderland

Bicycle Ice and Texting
Originally uploaded by [Zakka / Mikael]

If you don't normally ride your bike during winter, this is a good week to try it. Taking a cue from their brothers-on-bikes in Copenhagen -- where cyclists, as a matter of course, write SMSes while riding one-handed on frozen ponds without helmets -- the Hungarian Cyclists Club is telling Hungarians to buck up and get on their bikes. Fair-weather cycling is for pussies.

The Bike to Work in Winter campaign runs all this week, with each day having a different theme and corresponding special event.

Since it's run by the government in partership with the Hungarian Cyclists Club, the campaign includes programmes throughout the country. But Budapest will be the center of activity, so if you're living in the capital, there will be plenty to take part in.

The campaign officially kicked off on Sunday with various organised recreational rides around the countryside. Then starting tomorrow, the workweek programme begins according to the following schedule of themes and events:

This is just to provide non-Hungarian speakers an idea of what's on offer. For more specific detail on places and times, check the Bike to Work homepage.

By contrast to the spring and fall Bike to Work campaigns, this winter programme DOES NOT involve a contest to see who can rack up the most kilometres. Neither does it require registration. It's a short but sweet programme to persuade people that transport cycling can be an all-weather activity. Just put on your hat and gloves, and before you get far you'll be warmer, and definitely more invigorated, than your car-commuting colleagues.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Welcome Back, BKV

Strike's over. During the weekend, the management of Budapest's public transport company BKV agreed to give workers pretty much everything they'd asked for, which is to say, everything that was taken away in the renewed collective contract.

Management didn't have a chance in winning the fight. During the last year, one corruption scandal after another befouled the already dubious name of BKV management. Among the most recent cases, there were several lavish severance packages given to BKV officers with hardly any tenure and millions of forints worth of legal service contracts given to firms that did no work.

To read the news, BKV managers seemed like nothing but a bunch of crooks, so when they tried to patch up finances by eliminating employees' hot-meal tickets, you couldn't help but want to punch someone in the face. It's a shame that a few greedy managers have done so much to undermine the reputation of BKV. Public subsidies are necessary for public transport to function, so when the people's good will dries up, so does the service.

We cyclists may be less reliant than most on public transport but I, for one, like to have it in a pinch. I blogged earlier about how I'd hurt my knee over the holidays and haven't been able to bike. BKV was my stand-in for a few weeks, and then the strike hit. Last week, I joined hundreds of others for half-hour waits on HEV platforms and more than a couple claustrophobic rides on the 4-6 tram line.

In some circles, it's heresy to say this, but the bike alone is not enough for me to live car-free. Having a functioning public transport system has been key, and this past week I missed it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bikes a Cheap Bailout from Strike

Apparently, the public transport strike really is getting more people on bikes. I'm in the market for a cheap (read: disposable) used bike so yesterday I stopped by my local bike shop. It's a tiny, window-front store (Blue Cet kerékpárbolt at Török u. 5) and has space for no more than 20 bikes, including a few that are chained up on the sidewalk out front.

They didn't have anything I wanted, partly because there's been a run on merchandise since the BKV strike began Monday. In five days, the store's sold at least 10 bikes to commuters desperate for a stop-gap alternative to BKV. A run like that is unheard of in January, the owner told me.

A terrific mainstream endorsement for biking the strike appeared in Thursday's edition of Metropol Budapest. On an inside spread with the daily sztrajk update were a few paragraphs on how two college students, Nikoletta and Cecile, were coping. A picture shows the pair standing on a tram platform, all bundled up in knit scarves, with one holding a bicycle. The caption reads simply: "She went by bike."

In the article, Cecile explains that the Budapest strike hasn't been difficult compared to the last one in her native France. Here, most lines of transport are still running, though with less frequency. In France (presumably, during the last strike in fall, 2007), public transport nearly shut down completely.

This brings to mind an odd thing I noticed about the strike. It doesn't seem to have caused much in the way of chaos. The first morning, as I mentioned in my first post on the strike, there were traffic jams and the sidewalks were packed with involuntary pedestrians. But the next morning, car traffic, at least in Buda, was almost normal. The crowds had also diminished on the the suburban train to Szentendre (HÉV). The only place where I've consistently run into uncomfortable congestion is on the slow-downed 4-6 tram line.

All this has made me wonder if there are lots of people who are simply staying at home. I reckon most workers can do this for a few days without straining relations with their bosses. However, as the strike drags on, pressure will increase to find ways to get to work -- especially, as public transport and the road network -- not to mention local bike routes -- DO seem to have unused capacity. It'll be an interesting week ahead.

According to the latest news, worker unions and BKV management are still at loggerheads with no progress in negotiations since the get-go. The strike, already the longest in Hungary in 10 years, was to continue indefinitely.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cyclists Strike Gold with Transit Slow-down

Budapest public transport workers went on strike this morning, leading to the predictable traffic jams and opportunistic truancies among city workers. I myself am working at home today. Although it's a limited strike, creating a slow down rather than a freeze at the BKV transport company, this morning's long trek to my son's daycare persuaded me that it'll be best to avoid cross-town travel.

In Budapest, public transport commands a 55 percent modal share, which means a transit strike can have devastating consequences. However, transport cycling advocates anticipate these events with perverse glee because they force people to consider, and try out, alternative means of transport.

Naturally, most people who take up cycling as a way to cope with a transit strike will go back to their regular means of transport once the crisis subsides. But under certain conditions cycling gains can be locked in. It all depends on what kind of experience the crisis cyclists have during their two-wheeled foray around the city. A text book example occurred in Paris in 1996 when public transport workers went on a strike for a month. Rush-hour traffic in Paris is awful under normal conditions, but with the metro shut down, the city's boulevards froze solid. Many people who tried to use cars to get to work found themselves stuck in traffic for hours on end. With cars an unrealistic option, commuters began to bike, walk and, being Parisians, roller-blade.

Serendipitously, Paris's new mayor had just launched an ambitious programme to encourage transport cycling in the city. Bike paths were being built and cycling NGOs were working at fever pitch to promote their cause. When the strike was over, they were prepared with a publicity campaign about planned cycling developments to encourage strike cyclist to stick with their bikes. In the years since, cycling levels in Paris have jumped dramatically -- and advocates credit the transit strike for providing that first spark.

Similarly, a public transit strike here in Budpest in April of 2008 is credited with accelerating a rise in cycling levels that began circa 2004 with the first big Critical Mass rides. Who knows how much it contributed, but at the time the Kerekagy blog reported record numbers of cyclists in the city.

It must be said that one of the contributing factors to the big cycling numbers during the 2008 strike was the pleasant spring weather. By contrast, the kick-off of this latest strike coincided with a major drop in temperature. Until a day or two ago, we were having unseasonably mild temperatures in the mid-teens (Celcius), but this morning it was below freezing.

Despite that, I noticed a few newcomer cyclists along with the usual hardcore winter riders when I got out this morning. On my way up Romer Floris utca, the steep street leading to Lance's day care, I normally see just one other cyclist -- it's a pretty steep street, and therefore, not a favoured bike route. But this morning, I spotted three others. On Margit körút, there were several cyclists riding on the sidewalks: newcomer, strike cyclists, I figured. The usual winter riders are hard-core types who ride with car traffic on the carriageway.

The main impact on traffic, however, was not a rise in cycling levels but rather a rise in car traffic (bad) and foot traffic (still good).

The increase in foot traffic was especially noticeable on Margit bridge. Normally the 4-6 tram is the quickest way across the span (with a major renovation going on, private passenger cars are banned). The 4-6 carries more than 300 people at a time and during normal operations it departs about every 2-3 minutes during rush hour. But this morning people had to wait up to 10 minutes. Perhaps because of the cold weather, a huge number of people chose to hoof it instead. Nothing like a brisk walk to ward off the chills.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hobbling into the New Year

It's been more than a month since my last post and, not coincidentally, several weeks since my last bike ride. In early December, during the single spell of truly wintry weather that we've had this season, I made an ill-advised ride down an ice-encrusted bike path and had a painful fall. I ended up re-injuring a knee that was not entirely recovered from a ski accident several years ago and so, for the past several weeks, I've been hobbling around on foot and experiencing winter cycling culture vicariously from the sidewalks.

When I had the crack up, I knew straightaway what reaction to expect from friends and colleagues: "What the Hell were you doing riding a bike in a sub-freezing temperatures on an icy path?" The short answer was, "going to work". Of course, I also have the option of taking BKV, but relying on BKV for my entire commute adds approximately 30 minutes to the journey each way. That's why I use my bike for commuting when it's at all possible.

I recognise that snow and ice can make cycling dangerous and that we all have individual responsibility to protect ourselves. However, it's also true that cities are responsible for ensuring the safety of their roads. In northern Europe, where snow and slush confront millions of urban cyclists all winter long and not for just a few weeks each season, cities don't discriminate between bike tracks and roads -- they keep everything clear. In some cities (allegedly) the bike paths are cleared BEFORE the motor routes. I know that in Göteborg, Sweden, city policy calls for the plowing of all bike paths within 12 hours of snowfall.

Not to sell Budapest entirely short: some of the shared bike/pedestrian paths get cleared and/or salted after snowfall. But the path I was on, on the Buda quay north of Margit Bridge, there's never any attempt to clear it, whether of snow, dirt or, lately, with the Csepel Sziget sewerage project going on, of construction detritus. A prime example of the path's neglect happened this past fall when a tree fell across it during a windstorm. I was riding around the tree for a week or so and at one point contemplated removing it myself. I thought the fastest way to get a street crew onto the job would be to drag it onto the adjacent roadway. Unfortunately, it was too heavy to budge and the tree remained for a few weeks longer.

One hopeful development for this path is that it will soon be connected to the portion south of the bridge via a new tunnel under the renovated Margit Bridge. Once it becomes a contiguous extension of Buda korzó, perhaps maintenance crews will also begin treating it with the same care as the rest of the path.