Sunday, July 31, 2011

Submarine cycling

Here's a local cycling underpass as it appeared Friday afternoon (July 29). This tunnel lies on the bike path between Békásmegyer and Szentendre on the west side of Route 11. It's been flooded to varying degrees since the middle of the month, when summer apparently decided to clock out early and leave us under overcast skies and a drizzly cold front that seems to have no back end.

This underpass was created 8-9 years ago, when a Cora "hipermarket" opened in Budakalász. To give convenient access for potential customers to the east, they built a huge interchange that brings traffic right under Route 11, over the bike path and into the store's massive parking lot.

At the time, I was pleasantly surprised that they'd forked over for such elaborate infrastructure to maintain the continuity of the mere bike path. But time has shown that the net effect for cyclists has been for the worse. The underpass is a metre or two below grade -- often below the water table as things have turned out.

It's a rough guess, but I bet that at least 20 percent of the time there's at least 15 cm of water under there. At that depth, you can ride slowly through the tunnel, and even keep your feet dry if you're very careful. But during rainy stretches like we've had, it's too deep to cross. So you have to take a detour through the parking lot, around a McDonalds, and across some beaten down dirt paths created by the significant bike traffic that the situation has created.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Drinking and cycling

We were invited for dinner yesterday evening, and I was tasked with picking up a bottle of wine. The most convenient store on the way to dinner was this humungous Auchan I'd never been into, and it was fun looking over a new wine selection.

When I'm looking for a new wine, it's hard to tell what might be good. If you know your stuff, you can look for reputable vintners or reliable combinations of year and region. But I don't know very much about wine, so I rely quite a lot on labels. If it's an old-school design with gothic lettering and hackneyed clip art on it, I figure the vintner isn't up on the latest wine-making techniques. If the design is more contemporary, but just badly put together, I might assume it's some neophyte winemaker who hasn't learned the craft.

I went up and down Auchan's 100-metre wine aisle trying to decipher what all these labels were telling me -- and then I hit on this one, "Tour de Dúzsi." Looks promising, I thought. Inspecting the text on the back, I read: "Támas Dúzsi (the vintner), a former competitive road cyclist, honours wine drinkers with a cuvee that gives an imaginary bike tour with true Szekszárd flavours. This bottle blends the region's most characteristic varietals, and makes for a pleasant accompaniment for bicycle tours."

Which brought to mind a weekend bike excursion among the wineries of the rolling hills of that part of southern Hungary. It's a clever bit of marketing, a piece of text with no objective connection to the product, but a very effective emotional evocation of a kind of good time you can have with wine. It sure had me pegged, anyway.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pictograms Bridge Differences on Margit Híd

Hungarian Cyclist Club President János László straddles a freshly painted pictogram.
Last night, painting crews festooned Margit Bridge with brilliant yellow chevrons and pictograms of bicycles. They appear on the outside lanes of both the north and south carriageways and signify that cyclists, if they choose, are free to mingle with motor traffic in either direction. As part of the deal, the speed limit on the bridge has been reduced from 50 to 40 km/hour with the hope of improving the comfort and safety for cyclists.

I went out there last night to witness the painting, and I had plenty of company. RTL Club and Hír TV had cameras out, Hungarian Cycle Chic was snapping photos and -- no surprise -- Hungarian Cyclist Club President János László (pictured) was there to see the implementation of the traffic compromise he helped broker.

I asked him about the pictogram, whether it's really an acceptable substitute for a proper bike lane. "You know why I like it? It's a symbol of cooperation between the drivers of cars and the drivers of bicycles. It's the first example of this in Budapest."

The carriageway solution won't take away from the planned cycling accommodation on the bridge's sidewalks. On the northern (island side) sidewalk, a bright red lane will soon open as a dual-direction bikeway. On both ends of the bridge, the red lane will have ramps down to the road to facilitate entrance and exit for cyclists riding on the körút from Pest to Buda.

The south-side sidewalk will have no separate lane, but will be open to cyclists nonetheless as a shared-use path with pedestrians.

The arrangement at least tries to serve and respect everyone's needs, including cyclists of many persuasions. I can see reasonable options for everyone here, from professional riders with their courier bags to children with training wheels.
With the sidewalks still under works, a sign remains on the south side telling cyclists to walk their bikes. Not many do.
The changes seem to respect other road users, too. Tram passengers will hardly be affected -- so long as cyclists mind the traffic signal and let people cross the zebra at the Margit Island stop of the 4-6. And, of course, motorists still have their four lanes of traffic -- they'll just have to share two of them.
Accompanying the pictograms will be signs at both bridgeheads featuring a car and cyclist being all lovey-dovey. The still partially shrouded signs were designed by Peter Kukorelli, the same guy who came up with Budapest's "P" shaped bike racks.
Before work began on the bridge about two years ago, there were no cycling accommodations at all. This shortcoming became problematic as cycling levels grew, especially during summer weekends. During the couple summers prior to the renovation, the city began closing down one lane of traffic on weekends for cyclists going to and from the island.

About three years ago, when the renovation was in the planning stage, City Hall agreed to proposals by the Hungarian Cycling Club to include cycling accommodation on both the north and south sides of the bridge.

Then, just weeks before the work was due to start in the summer of 2009, it was learned that the City had unilaterally scratched the south-side bikeway. This provoked a demonstration of some 500 cyclists and then some effective reporting by Hungarian bike blogger András Földes (my summary here) about how the city could lose EU project funding because its grant contract was based on plans that included bikeways on both sides of the bridge.

The City recanted, and then recanted on its recant, and then a new mayor came in, and then the Hungarian Cyclists Club broadcast a YouTube protest saying that the evolving work appeared to short change cyclists ... . Which is all to say that it's been a long road.

But it seems now that this chapter is finally coming to a close. And it seems the pictogram was crucial in wrapping things up. Hard-core advocates had long wanted proper bike lanes on the bridge, but this was legally impossible without sacrificing car lanes. And, naturally, no city administration wants to go there.

The pictograms, a traffic management tool introduced in 2010's modification of the traffic code (KRESZ), raised the possibility of a compromise. They create quasi-bike lanes that fit into, rather than displace, car lanes. They're something along the lines of shared space and it will be interesting to see how many cyclists make use of them.

Without a doubt, though, the whole exercise demonstrated, yet again, that lobbying and political activism can bear fruit. And if advocates have an appetite for more, they might even get the big banana: bikeways around the whole körút. Afterall, what sense does it make to have them on just the Margit Bridge section of this street? In the interest of formal harmony, the bikeways on the bridge need to extend in both directions of the ring road and complete the circle.