Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ferenciek tere project neglects the main problem

Artist's conception of the refashioned Ferenciek tere. View from the south side of Ferenciek tere
looking down Kossuth Lajos ut toward bridge. Image is taken from a 3-D montage at the project website.
Work will begin next month on a major refashioning of Ferenciek tere and Marcius 15 tér, two squares at the Pest foot of Erzsébet híd that until now have been blighted by the noise and stench of some of the city's worst traffic. Unfortunately, despite the project's many virtues, it looks to be a wasted opportunity to improve cycling conditions.

According to the description published on the website of the Budapest Transport Centre (BKK), the changes will make for "a much more livable, cleaner and more attractive downtown environment" that will make it worthy of its place along the capital's touristic and recreational belt.

Ferenciek tere today: the only way for pedestrians to cross it is to go down through the underpass.

The biggest improvements are from walkers' point of view. They'll get two zebras across Kossuth Lajos utca, enabling them to cross on the surface rather than having to go down through underpass by the Ferenciek tere metro stop. This long overdue change will enable people with disabilities to cross the street and make it more convenient for everyone else.

Ferenciek tere AFTER: The project would replace the underpass with a level crossing that's more accessible to everyone.
Although difficult to perceive in the conceptual images, pedestrian space on both sides of Kossuth Lajos utca will be widened and, together with some plantings, visual improvements and expanded "shopping opportunities", the square should be a more inviting place for residents and tourists alike.

From cyclists' point of view, though, what sticks out is the absence of any bike lanes along the Kossuth Lajos utca. It's ironic that while the project includes upgrades to all the side streets in the area, it does hardly anything to the major artery of Kossuth Lajos, the main source of the neighbourhood's environmental problems.

Four local environmental groups have therefore criticised the project because it does little to alleviate the "the terribly noisy, polluted motorway atmosphere." In a joint statement, reported on, the groups say that although they supported the project throughout preparatory discussions, their main concerns were always for bike accommodation on Kossuth Lajos (and Rákóczi út -- the whole length of the street between Keleti Station and Erzsébet hid) along with the realigning of bus routes down the centre of the street (this as a preliminary measure paving the way for the return of tram service).

Bike accommodation on Kossuth Lajos  has been a priority of the bicycle lobby at least since the mid-90s. Removing (some) space from cars and giving it over to cyclists and pedestrians would restore life to the street, rehabilitate local retail and make for a huge improvement in residents' lives. But at every opportunity, including a major road resurfacing about eight years ago, officials at City Hall have said no. With a straight face, they say there's no room for bicycles, despite this street being the widest arterial in the city.

This enormous urban freeway, with its six lanes of fast-moving, heavy motor traffic, now cuts downtown in two, and makes going from one side to the other a hassle -- certainly if you're on a bike. I hope the upcoming project at Ferenciek tere is a first step toward solving the problem, and not the city's final word on it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Beer-opening experience

As part of my continuing series of local businesses connected to the cycling scene, I give you Pest-based manufacturer Tipton Eyeworks. You may ask, "What do eyeglass frames have to do with cycling?" I could give a range of answers to this (e.g. they help you see where you're going, they keep bugs out of your eyes), however the one that seems most relevant at this point in time is the hipster connection. Tipton specializes in retro eyeglass frames made of recycled materials -- it's hard to think of a fashion accessory better suited to the hip-to-the-jive, fixie ridin' urbanite.
Tipton doesn't have figures on its penetration of the hipster market, but according to this poster, the potential is huge.
I learned about Tipton this past summer while scanning the news one day on A day or two earlier, my prescription Ray-Bans had fallen apart, the victim of a series of manglings meted out by my two-year-old daughter, Sequoia. I'd superglued them together, but this was a stop-gap solution and I desperately needed a new pair. As if bidden by my subconscious (there was no google hocus pocus here -- I hadn't done an "eyeglass" search), a banner ad appeared on the caboodle homepage -- "Tipton Eyeworks: Handmade in Hungary." Clicking further, I learned that Tipton's frames were not only locally designed and manufactured, they were made of recycled vinyl records! Good Lord, I thought. Locally made, recycled materials, rock'n'roll looks -- they're pushing all my buttons!

But that was just for starters. I went down to their workshop -- a sprawling flat in a turn-of-the-century building at Belgrad rakpart 26 -- and a young Hungarian/Dutch guy Peter greeted me at the door. He invited me to peruse the frame selection, which was considerable -- not surprising as this is the place where they're made and shipped out from to scores of eyeglass shops around the world.

I tried on several pair, all very cool looking, but most of them somehow TOO cool for my 47-year-old face. I may have harboured fantasies of looking like Buddy Holly, but when I put on a pair called "Holly", I decided these were more suited to a 18-year-old guitar slinger. After a bit, I settled on a model called "Bank ". The name makes them sound conservative, but they actually look much trendier than anything a real banker would wear (except, apparently, in France, where Tipton sells 45% of their product).

The Banks I tried on were made of three plies of plastic. The front was black grooved vinyl -- from a recycled record, as promised in the ad. The inner ply was a mosaic acetate of gold and brown and rust, and the middle ply, a nice cream colour -- like cookie filling. But these things weren't just attractive, they were substantial. In particular, the bridge was nearly a centimetre thick, which would make it more than twice as strong as my flimsy Ray-Bans. I thought -- knock on wood -- these things may well be a match for Sequoia.

So the Banks were definitely for me -- the only problem was that the bows (or "temples" as Peter called them) were a little short and didn't hook securely around my ears. No problem, said Peter. He scrounged through another drawer until he found a pair with longer bows. You'd have to understand the depth of my feelings about beer to appreciate this next bit: The frames that Peter presented had brushed steel bows which in profile looked like bottle openers. "Those look like bottle openers," I observed. "Actually, they ARE bottle openers," replied Peter. "You can really open a beer with them."

The hilarious thing is that Peter was almost apologetic about it. As if glasses that doubled as beer openers could somehow be -- I struggle to understand this -- undesirable. In fact, when he went to the computer to check the list price, this specific pair was half off. Apparently, glasses that double as beer openers are hard to sell. In France, anyway, but I say no more.

I scratched my chin as if mulling the the matter over in my head. And then I said in the most nonchalant tone I could muster that I would take them.

I've had these things since July -- about three months. They have been very effective in keeping bugs out of my eyes and helping me see while I'm biking. Sequoia has thrashed them several times, and they've retained their shape perfectly. And I've opened probably 40 beers with them. During our vacation in Turkey, they were lifesavers. Vacation apartments in Muslim countries tend not to have beer openers in their utensil drawers. Thank you Tipton Eyeworks!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Andrássy lanes drawing a crowd

Photo from the "Happy Mass" celebration following the christening of the red lanes this past May.
Photo stolen from
Andrássy út, with its new twin red bike lanes, generates about 1,000 bike trips per day, according to a post on Kerékagy. Budapest's showcase boulevard now draws about 6,000 cyclists per week and 23-24,000 per month.

The data was collected by an automatic counter installed with no fanfare in June by BKK, the umbrella organisation in charge of city transport. As on the kiskörút and on other streets where cyclists have been counted in recent years, the traffic on Andrássy is consistently higher on weekdays than on weekends.

As Kerékagy noted, this indicates that Budapest has a well-developed transport cycling culture. This has been true for several years already, but even less than a decade ago, Budapest had very little bike traffic, and the traffic that did exist was almost all on weekends.

If you're a cyclist you might not be surprised that 1,000 trips per day does not make Andrássy a major cycling street in Budapest. The kiskörút was averaging more than twice as much bike traffic this past summer. And on the Buda-side riverbank path, the numbers are apparently even higher. Critical Mass organiser Gábor Kürti recently did a manual count of traffic at Gellert tér, and he  reported counting 216 cyclists in just 10 minutes during rush hour.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fall time's fall time

This is the pothole the morning after it caught me by surprise.
Looks conspicuous now, but the night before, it was under a pond of water!
It's fall time in Hungary, and the elements are conspiring to weed out fair-weathered cyclists. On Tuesday, they nearly weeded out me.

On the way home Tuesday, I was cruising down Kiralyok utja, a fairly busy artery running through the Romai part neighbourhood of Obuda. It was cloudy, the light was dim and droplets from a drizzling rain were beading up on my glasses. Despite this raft of visual handicaps, my mind was musing on some abstract point about cycling infrastructure as I casually slalomed between puddles and storm detritus. Then suddenly, a more concrete aspect of infrastructure intruded on my reverie. BAM! My front tire fell into a gaping pothole, and at least one of my hands slipped off the handles. I skittered off the road and careered right for a hedge. In the helpless moment before impact, I thrust my right arm toward what I thought would be a solid fence underlying the greenery. Luckily there was none. I penetrated the hedge and fell down half way through. On the ground with a throbbing pain in my shin but no apparent bones broken, I disentangled my legs from the bushes and pushed myself to my feet.

A tight shot on the enemy pothole -- warts and all.
As one car after the other splashed by without acknowledging my plight, I cussed the motoring public. However, a boy about seven or eight years old walked by just then and, with an embarrassed grin, asked me if I was ok. I was too shaken to acknowledge the comedy of it just then, but by now, I can see that it must have been hard for him to suppress a cackle after seeing an adult bike straight off the road into a hedge for no apparent reason. Still, he must have recognised trauma on my face, and it was sweet of him to inquire about my well-being -- and to refrain from actually cackling.

Thankfully, I came through with nothing more than bruised bones. It reminded me of the hazards of riding in less than ideal conditions on roads that are less than forgiving. For a car, cracks and holes in the paving barely transmit through the suspension. But for cyclists, they're a real hazard. Every time I have an accident like this, it happens in the cold, dark period between now and April, when visibility declines and holes in the paving are concealed under mud puddles or glazed with ice.

This is the hedge I ran into. Didn't destroy it, but I did give it something to think about.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to check out exemplary cycling infrastructure in the town of Zwolle, Netherlands. All the roads there are like new, exceptionally well maintained, the cycle tracks amazingly well designed, the street lighting bright and clear.

It's not an original thought, but the point it underscores for me is that the test of good road infrastructure is not how well it serves at high noon on a sunny summer day, but how well it works in the rain, after dark for a bike commuter on the verge of the road.

Of course, we live in Budapest, and when we hit the streets we make allowances for the surprise pothole and the gaping seam in the tarmac. For the sake of our own hides, we adapt to it, but that doesn't mean we should accept it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bikes for Bubi?

With the help of HUF 25 million (EUR 88,000) in European Union subsidy, Hungarian bike maker Neuzer has developed a new bike-and-dock system, and it was presented last month in Budapest as the ideal technical solution for the upcoming Bubi bike sharing scheme.

On September 20, city and government officials held a press conference to show off Neuzer's new suite of equipment, including bikes, docking stations and payment consoles. The system took the Esztergom-based company two years to develop at a total cost of HUF 60 million (EUR 212,000).

Company President András Neuzer told the press that his developers looked at existing systems and tried to correct their imperfections. For instance, several theft-prevention features have been incorporated, including a GPS system that will track bicycle locations.

In general, however, the Neuzer system would work like others that have been implemented in hundreds of cities around the world in recent years. The bikes can be removed from the automated docking stations with a contactless card, used for short periods and returned to any other docking station in the city.

The Neuzer bike-sharing system was first shown off in 2011, at an international bicycling trade fare, Eurobike, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. At that show, 11 cities had inquired about using the system for their own bike-share schemes, the company claims. At the press conference, Neuzer said that several Hungarian communities have expressed interest in the product.

Pál Völner, state secretary in charge of infrastructure at the National Development Ministry, said at the conference that the Neuzer system and Budapest's BuBi bike-sharing scheme have been developed "in harmony" with one another in the interest of developing everyday transport cycling in the capital. Völner said Neuzer can apply for the equipment tender for Bubi, which is being implemented by BKK, Budapest's umbrella agency in charge of urban transport.

According to the BKK website, Bubi will comprise 1,000 bicycles at 75 docking stations -- 57 in Pest, 17 in Buda and one on the south end of Margit Island. The scheme would launch in the fall of 2013.

Neuzer would be at least the second factory in Hungary to produce technical equipment for bike-sharing systems. The Dutch-owned Accell Hunland, based in the Hungarian village of Tószeg, produced the original bikes for Paris's Vélib system.