Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Car Tax Dead but Congestion Charge Gets a Lift

A proposal to levy a flat monthly tax on Budapest car owners looked dead on arrival today. Budapest City Hall, grasping for a life line to pull BKV out of its financial quagmire, was considering a monthly tax of almost HUF 10,000 a month on car owners, which would raise an estimated HUF 32 billion per year. But the idea lasted about half a news cycle. Mayor Istvan Tarlos and just about everyone else denied having anything to do with introducing the proposal, and by Wednesday afternoon, the mayor was saying it was stillborn.

The encouraging news is that the idea of a congestion charge is still alive. Antal Rogan, mayor of District V and leader of the Fidesz faction in the City Assembly, pronouced that this would be would be a "more rational and reasonable solution."

I am in complete agreement. The reason a congestion charge would be better is because it would be levied only on drivers entering downtown. Car owners who don't come downtown or who come by another mode (public transport, foot, boat or bike) don't have to pay.

With congestion charges, the intent is to put a price on road use and thereby pressure some car owners to not drive downtown. The avoided traffic leads to reduced congestion, while the remaining traffic yields revenue that can be used to improve non-car mobility options (public transport, bike lanes and foot paths), which will lead to further reduction in car use. A virtuous cycle.

Congestion charges are very controversial because you're asking people to pay something that they currently get for free. However, the free-of-charge status quo does come with a price: travelers' time. It is partly because road use is free that they're so crowded. Putting a price on them will mean that those who don't really need to drive downtown will avoid the trip while those who do need to will be able to make the journey on less congested streets. This perspective prompted a New Zealand blogger to say that congestion charging should really be sold as a "congestion avoidance" scheme.

Some conservative bloggers have argued -- a bit disingenuously -- that such charges are unfair because they tax the poor so the rich can drive fast. But roadways are a valuable, limited resource and there's no reason why they should be free of charge to everyone at all times. And, in any case, a congestion charge can be implemented to include consideration for social fairness, including income-based discounts.

I imagine the flat, monthly tax seemed an attractive option to decision makers because it would be relatively simple and inexpensive to implement. A congestion charging scheme, by contrast, will involve a cordon of ANPR cameras that monitor every entry point into downtown along with enabling legislation at the national level and more. However, there's no sense in taxing every car owner regardless of their travel habits. I hope the city leadership can use the opportunity of the current crisis to push forward a sensible idea.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Courting the Cyclists

As part of my continuing series of occasional posts about how hip cyclists are, I offer this link about a hipster-targetted concert Saturday night by the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Unusually for a BFO concert, this event is starting at 11:30 p.m. and is staged not in the hoity-toity Palace of Arts on Soroksari ut but at a venue that normally hosts shows by pop and folk bands and rock stars from the dark and distant past.

Also unusually for a BFO concert, the playbill features a picture of someone wearing a sleeveless denim vest, over-ear headphones and a big furry wolf's head. This plus the bold, paint-brush font for the lettering tells you straight away that the event is not targeted at the usual conservative crowd.

The cycling angle comes from a post on the Hungarian Cyclists Club website, where BFO Conductor Iván Fischer makes a direct invitation to the hipster elite. Fischer made his last splash in the cycling world in the fall, when he conducted a free concert at Heroes' Square on the occasion of the European Car-Free Day Critical Mass. 

Now he's doing another concert just for cyclists -- apparently he really loves us. Either that, or he wants people to believe he really loves us, which, of course, is only natural. Fischer writes this on the cycling club's site:

Dear Budapest cyclists,
When at Heroes' Square, I saw the raised bicycles and thought, it would be nice to hold a concert just for young people, late at night, when older people are asleep, and when, for a few minutes, there aren't so many cars on the streets, and it's possible to bike to the concert hall. Now it's a reality -- for you - on the night of Jan. 21 at the Millenáris Teatrum. Come one and all to Midnight Music. Tickets will be very cheap, only for a small contribution to the costs.
The tickets are extremely cheap by BFO standards -- just HUF 1,200. And if you belong the cyclists' club or come by bike, you get a further 30 percent discount.

So, along with the concessionaires at Liszt Ferenc Airport and the fabric store at Jaszai Mari ter, Iván Fischer joins the queue of Hungarian opinion leaders who are desperately trying to ingratiate themselves with cyclists just because we're so cool.

Good luck to you, maestro.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Crash Prevention Efforts Out of Focus

Although police have determined that car drivers caused more than five times as many crashes as cyclists last year, authorities intend to make "two-wheelers" the focus of accident prevention measures.

That's the counter-intuitive conclusion of the National Accident Prevention Committee (Országos Baleset-megelőzési Bizottság) in light of year-end road-crash data published this week in the Metropol newsaper.

The overall numbers are encouraging, showing that injurious or fatal road crashes in 2011 were down year on year from 16,308 to 15,800 -- a 3.1 percent drop. Fatal injuries were down from 649 to 571, or 12 percent.

Looking at the causes of accidents, Zsolt Halmos, vice-president of the committee (a body of the national police force), had this remarkable thing to say:
 "The National Accident Prevention Committee this year plans to put two-wheelers in the spotlight since last year's statistics show that while those who caused the accidents were predominantly drivers (61 percent), the second-ranking category was cyclists (12 percent)." 
Maybe I'm missing something, but why would the number-two category of offenders be the number-one target of enforcement efforts?

Halmos explained that there's a "misconception" that accidents caused by cyclists are harmful to cyclists only. On the contrary, he said, it's very often the case that a cyclist turns unexpectedly into the path of a car, causing the driver to steer into the opposite lane and get into a head-on collision.

I don't dispute that this sometimes happens. What's left unexamined is that such mishaps end disastrously because the others involved are in cars. 

Sure, there are freak instances when a serious injury or even death results from a cyclist-cyclist or cyclist pedestrian accident. But I would wager that more than 99 percent of road fatalities involve one or more cars. Death and injury in collisions depend on an excess of kinetic energy -- 1/2 mass times velocity squared -- and this is the magic ingredient that motor vehicles bring to road crashes.

That  being the case, why aren't cars in the committee's "spotlight"?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Diversion Time

BKV: Not a particularly diverting experience, either.
For the past several weeks, local news sites have been chronicling the financial crisis facing Budapest public transport company BKV. With payment deadlines on several huge loans coming up next month, a day of reckoning is drawing near, and BKV's prospects look dismal from every angle: they don't have enough money of their own and their would-be backstop, the Hungarian national government, can't handle its own problems, let alone Budapest's. And in any case, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has little incentive and far less good will to stick his neck out for political independent István Tarlos, the capital's mayor.

Anyway, Erik D'Amato lays out the state of play in a thoroughgoing post on caboodle.hu. The article sums up the financial and political aspects of the story, and takes the added step, seldom taken by Hungarian journalists, of considering the impacts on "you the reader." If the crisis does devolve into a transit worker strike and service shutdown, hundreds of thousands of people will be stuck without their usual mode of transport.

Erik mentions an index.hu survey on what mode of transport readers would use in case of a BKV shutdown. The #1 response (by a 2-1 margin over #2, a private car): the bicycle. Erik editorialises:
"(That's) something that might be a fun temporary diversion in summer, but hardly one in the dead of a Central European winter."
On the contrary, I imagine the Index readers fully appreciate the challenges of riding a bike in a Central European winter: You need to dress warmly and you need to beware of slippery spots when it's below freezing. Not a big deal. Commuters in Denmark and Sweden bike through winters that make the ones here seem like a trip to the Király baths: a little dank and gloomy, perhaps, but generally pretty warm.

I can imagine a Scandinavian reading Erik's comment about the fear of cycling in the "dead" of one of our winters, and thinking. "What a bunch of wussies!" Just the same thought occurred to me this morning as I was bumping down the tracks on the HÉV by Pannonia telep. I looked out the window and noticed a woman about 65-70 years of age bicycling along on the road next to us. She was bundled up in a scarf and big ski parka, and, although her determined expression did not suggest  she was having "a fun temporary diversion," neither did she seem in an advanced state of hypothermia. I imagine she was regarding all of us in the HÉV, and thinking, "What a bunch of wussies!"

That said, I don't look forward to a BKV shutdown. The system carries approximately 55-60 percent of city traffic in downtown Budapest, so you can't take it away without causing major problems.

On Friday, as a first condition of getting emergency government subsidies for BKV, Mayor Tarlos submitted a plan to secure the long-term financial sustainability of the public transport system. Along with fare hikes, the plan calls for the implementation of an inner-city congestion charge and the establishment of a network of park and rides on the congestion zone's periphery. These ideas were mooted several years ago by former Mayor Gábor Demszky, but there's never been any action on them. Just as the city has made no real attempt to achieve its stated goal of a 15% modal share for cycling by 2015.

If there will be a silver lining to the BKV crisis, it may be that it will finally kick-start some ad hoc action on the city transport system's strategic development.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter: It's not Just for Drinking Anymore

Winter in Copenhagen, a shot from the blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic.
I hate to start a new year on a negative note -- so I'll save that for post #2. This first post will focus on a little ray of sunshine from a place that doesn't have much of that this time of year -- Denmark. A photo exhibition of Copenhagen's renowned cycling culture will be held Thursday evening at the Európa Pont at Millenáris Park. It'll be a selection of 50 photos by Denmark's most prolific cycling shutterbug Mikael Colville-Anderson. Readers will know him as the blogger behind Copenhagenize.com and Copenhagen Cycle Chic.

Putting a local spin on the event, the Hungarian Cyclists' Club will follow up with a workshop on winter cycling. Very timely subject matter considering the threat of bankruptcy now facing Budapest public transport company, BKV. Those who haven't saddled up since September might consider pumping up their tires. At the workshop, bike club President János László and COWI Magyarország engineer and cycling expert Péter Dalos will preside.

After that, the local blog, Hungarian Cycle Chic, will host a fashion show featuring the clothes and cycling accessories of various local and international designers and manufacturers.

An English description of the photo exhibition, entitled "Monumental Motion" and being staged in various cities throughout the year, is here.

What: Cycling photo exhibition and winter cycling programme
When: 6-9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Európa Pont, Millenáris Park, 1024 Budapest, Lövőház u. 35.