Thursday, 17 April 2008

Budapest - cycling city?

I'm interested in comparing how good cycling is in other towns and cities, especially abroad. When considering alternatives for motorised transport, the humble bicycle is an obvious choice for getting around town. It's efficiency for getting from A to B is good and often better than the car and the ability to get places that cars cannot, often means time saved parking and accessing urban facilities such as shops, libraries, restaurants etc.

On a recent trip to Budapest, Psychalist was on the lookout for cycling facilities and how the Hungarian cyclists cope with their city. There were plenty of bikes around town and I got the impression cycling there is increasing in popularity.

One of my first impressions was of a busy and vibrant city that is pretty much dominated by cars. Many of the urban roads have been designed with the motorist in mind. Multi-lane highways course efficiently through the city using underpasses and flyovers to keep the traffic moving. This of course is a disinsentive to take up the bike. Conversely the cost of fuel is an incentive to cycle, being a similar price to fuel anywhere else in Europe. That said, the roads were very busy.

In 2004 Hungarians staged their first official critical mass bike ride to raise the awareness of the needs of cyclists and further the cause of improving cycling facilities. Every year since, they have had increasing numbers of cyclists taking part with an estimated 50,000 cyclists last year. Their efforts have been rewarded by getting cycling on the political agenda and being part of the urban planning. Appearently the number of people using bikes in Budapest on a daily basis has doubled each year since the first critical mass ride, showing the power of this peaceful form of demonstration.

For cycling, some parts of Budapest fare better than others. Along the Danube river and wider avenues, there are cycle tracks. These are well used as are the bridges to cross the river. Mixing with the pedestrians is a bit of a problem although most people seem to cope with it. Bicycle bells were heard often. In the busier parts of town, the roads are less suitable for riders. Here, the only cyclists appeared to be couriers, of which we saw a few. Some were riding fixed gear racers and others mountain bikes.

There are a few bike hire places in Budapest renting bikes for the day or for longer tours. A lot of the bikes we saw were quite smart bikes. The majority of them were mountain bikes, some racers and tourers and less so the urban bikes more commonly seen in western European cities. Schwinn started making bikes in Hungary in a joint venture with Csepel Bicycle, shortly after the change from communism in 1988. This was a common brand seen around the city including a fat wheeled cruiser but many other makes were also on show, most of them I hadn't heard of before.

There are many parks around the city for recreational use. The weekend proved to be a popular spot for joggers and riders to get their exercise.

I concluded Budapest isn't on the same level as other European cities for cycling but that shouldn't put anyone off cycling there as it has much better facilities than most towns, including the one I live in.

Major cities trying to raise awareness of cycling, hold regular critical mass bike rides around town. This Sunday April 20th (Earth day), Budapest is staging its annual critical mass ride. If you are in Budapest at the weekend I'm sure you could join in. Meet at Deák Ferenc tér, 5th District, 4:30pm.

Could we get a mass critical enough to have one in Blackburn?

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