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Pedal power: Budapest's bustling bike culture

Al Jazeera: Pedal power: Budapest's bustling bike culture

As the world marks Earth Day, a grassroots cyclist movement in Hungary is revolutionising the city's transport system.

Kristina Jovanovski

22 Apr 2013

Budapest, Hungary -Tens of thousands of bicyclists hit the streets of the Hungarian capital in a show of "pedal power" designed to demand greater rights for two-wheel operators in one of the most traffic-choked cities in Eastern Europe.

The mass bike ride on Saturday underscored a growing trend in Budapest, as more and more people shun four-wheel vehicles and all their associated problems.

With the world observing Earth Day on Monday, the growing cyclist culture in Budapest offers important lessons on protecting the environment, not just in Hungary but around the world, activists say. Mass cycling events have had a significant influence over the city's infrastructure planning.

Miklos Szalka, who works as an urban planner in Budapest, has seen a significant change from the past.


"Before 2004, there just weren't very many people at all who rode on the streets of Budapest ... The levels just grow year by year."

- Greg Spencer, avid cyclist


"In 1990, there were very few bicycles on the road, and today there is a mass of bicycles everywhere," he said. "It's a very big change between the last 20 years, and we have to change our planning decisions as well."

The effort was spearheaded by Hungary's Critical Mass, a group started in 2004 that holds mass bike rides to raise awareness of cycling issues, and to illustrate its popularity to politicians in order to design the city' infrastructure with two-wheelers in mind.

While such Critical Mass events are held in hundreds of cities around the world, Budapest - a city of 1.8 million - has seen the biggest numbers by far. Organisers say more than 80,000 riders came out on Saturday - their largest ride ever.

Critical Mass' grassroots movement has led to a bicycling boom in the Hungarian capital.

"Before 2004, there just weren't very many people at all who rode on the streets of Budapest," said Greg Spencer, an avid rider who completed a Master's thesis on cycling in the city. "[Since] the movement started people started getting the idea that this is actually a viable way to get around ... The levels just grow year by year."

The number of cyclists nearly doubled in 2012 from the previous year, according to a survey by the Hungarian Cyclists' Club, an NGO that lobbies for improved cycling infrastructure.

In a 2011 Gallup poll, 19 percent of Hungarian respondents said cycling was their main mode of transport, coming in second after the Netherlands among European Union countries.

Bike activists say the financial savings of riding a bicycle along with improved infrastructure for cyclists are two of the leading reasons why cycling has become so popular so quickly. The cost of a single ride on Budapest's public transportation system is about $1.50, which is relatively expensive for Hungarians.

Pedal power

The co-founder of Hungary's Critical Mass, Sinka Karoly, said he and his partner were inspired to hold the first event when the then-mayor moved a Europe-wide car-free day from a weekday to the weekend, so that traffic would not be blocked.


"In 1990, there were very few bicycles on the road, and today there is a mass of bicycles everywhere. It's a very big change between the last 20 years."

- Miklos Zalka, urban planner


Aron Halasz, a member of the board for the Hungarian Cyclists' Club, said the cycling campaign has been the most successful civil movement in the last 20 years."We were really old school punks. We were like … 'We'll show you the truth, we'll show you there's a lot of bikers," Karoly said.

One of the main challenges was dealing with "really old-fashioned engineering" from urban planners, he said. "They were thinking the cycling is not part of the traffic, they have to move it away from the cars ... and [that] cycling is dangerous."

Szalka said cities and planners have taken notice of the cycling masses and are changing the way they view traffic.

Next year, the city's public transportation authority is expected to introduce a bicycle-sharing system similar to those in Paris and London, where commuters can rent a bike from docking stations throughout the capital.

But activists say more infrastructure is needed for riders to feel safe in the city. In a major victory for the movement, a parking lane was removed to make room for a bike lane on a major street in downtown Budapest.

Dangerous roads

When Zsofia Antal started cycling in 2009, one of her biggest challenges was dealing with fast-moving traffic while crossing Budapest's large bridges over the Danube River.

"That's where I tend to have conflicts," said Antal. "[Drivers] will roll down the window and shout at me and point at the pavement."

She said she was once crossing a bridge when car drivers passed by her and onto nearby rail tracks and a tram got stuck among the traffic.

"The tram driver was mad at me, not at the car drivers. I mean, it wasn't me who was on the tram rails it was the cars, but of course I was the cause of the whole problem and this [is] people's mentality," Antal said.

Her annoyance with public transportation was a large part of why she made the switch to bicycle, but the cycling community also appealed to her.

"I was like, 'Oh my god these people are so much fun, they're so nice'... I realised there is a lot more to it than what I initially thought and it got me, I became addicted."

Orsolya Liptay has helped build the cyclist community since 2008 when she founded Bike Kitchen, a non-profit repair shop that teaches fellow cyclists how to fix their own bikes.

Liptay said getting more urban space for bike riders has been a long, arduous fight. "Many times we weren't considered important but with ... very, very hard work we managed to [change] this."

But Spencer said he does not think the fight for a bicycle-friendly city is over.

"Budapest streets are clogged with traffic ... There's no untaken space where we can put the cyclists," he said. "Basically you have to take space from motorists and it's always been a struggle, and I suppose it always will be."

Source: Al Jazeera