Flashback to last Tuesday. I am stuck at the side of a large road junction. I know I shouldn’t be here, I wanted to go straight on, but lacking confidence I have pulled over to the right and I am stuck against the barriers. Now there are two lanes of cars swinging across my line and I can’t get back to my lane.
And this traffic cop is giving me the eye. I don’t think I have done anything illegal, it’s just that I am an alien being in this landscape. He certainly isn’t going to help, that’s for sure. What I really need is another cyclist to follow, somebody who knows the ropes and does this regularly.
But there’s the catch. There aren’t any. This is Khreschatyk, the main street in upper Kiev and I am on my own. I’ve been out riding for over an hour and I have seen one other cyclist, and he was on the pavement (sidewalk). One of the fun parts of writing a blog that starts “When I see an adult on a bicycle…” is that I play a sort of game in every new city, being cheered by the first rider I see. However in 2 ½ days I saw just 10 cyclists, that’s like being back on the dark ages of cycling in Britain. The best comparison I could make was when as a student in 1980 I first tried to cycle from Durham into central Newcastle upon Tyne, a lonely and exposed figure on a morass of high speed roads and aggressive driving.
Before this turns into a rant I will say there are some positive things to say about cycling in Kiev, but it isn’t easy.
Generally I’m a pretty positive cyclist, maybe not in the category of the messengers but I have mixed it out in the fast lane of a lot of cities. And actually I don’t particularly feel in any danger here. It’s just that I am baffled and bemused. The previous day I rode with Randy Neufeld, Director of the SRAM Foundation from Chicago and he said that he felt hampered by not knowing what the rules or conventions were. I had mainly been frustrated by lack of continuity on that ride, but on my own I am just as destabilised.
To be fair I don’t feel like this down in the low town. The low city area of Podil has narrower streets and more congestion so it just feels like most older European cities that have yet to grasp cycling. If you can cope with London and Brussels you can cope with this. And the cobbled streets in the restoration area around Adriivsky may be hilly but they are much slower and tamer. 40 years of cycling instinct just kick in and I am happy taking my place in the traffic flows. But in the upper city the big roads are just un-navigable to a stranger.
The source of most bafflement from both days was how to make progress in a straight line. Having not seen any cyclists when walking the city centre Randy tracked down entrepreneur/activist Alexey Kushka and his business Veliki to hire some bikes out in the suburbs. From there we decided to try and head back to the city, allowing ourselves some exploratory diversions into the surrounding neighbourhoods and parks. The advice we were given was to stay off the trunk roads and ride on the pavements or try and get through the minor roads.
Initially that was fine, two experienced riders shouldn’t have a problem. But quickly we hit the issue of big junctions. When the major roads meet there are apparently no ways across. Pedestrians are sent off down underpasses, but that doesn’t work for us. If we want to turn left across the traffic flows it is illegal for cyclists under the Ukrainian Road Code if the road has more than one lane, and frankly I wouldn’t want to do it, far too exposed. Cycleable neighbourhoods and pavements are like islands cut off from each other by treacherous torrents. So we zig-zagged our way along looking for pedestrian crossings to make a very indirect way to the city.
In addition to the frustration of leaving our islands we had the challenge of the pavements. They are potentially good news because they are wide and quite inviting, the basis of a great cycling network. Only we got there too late. Many bits of the pavement not covered in cars are dedicated to the apparent backbone of the Ukrainian economy, small stalls which serve every possible need.
And there is no visible parking restriction whatsoever. We were just standing on corners checking navigation when we were honked at by cars being driven straight up the kerb to head for a parking space. And all this appears to be not only legal but policy, certainly a lot of the pavement bays were marked out with white lines and “managed” by bulky figures in dark coats.
But I have to admit I loved it. Taking on a new city is always a buzz and when I did fly down to Podil or had my photo taken by a tourist on Adriivsky as I battled the cobbles I felt like young Malcolm in the surprise Youtube hit of the last two weeks. “Dad I did it”. And it was good to follow hosts and activists Ksenia and Ira as they moved in confident Dutch style around their city.
So what’s the good news? ”I do not despair for the future of Kiev despite not seeing an adult on a bicycle”? This dangerously close to a policy manifesto which I don’t do in my personal blog, but I feel strongly that I want to say something positive for the people I met in Ukraine.
The best hope is always those people. Margaret Mead, American anthropologist says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” The city is full, stuffed by the free-for all on the roads, the dreadful congestion and parking and everyone told me that the majority of society accepts that it cannot go on. That is fertile ground for change.
The energy and passion of the Kiev Cyclists Association members and all the activists, entrepreneurs and civil servants we met in Yevpatoria and Kiev was infectious and they are determined to bring cycling to their country. The evening talk I gave in Kiev was well attended and apparently we attracted a lot of new faces. The quality of questioning was as knowledgeable and passionate as any other country I visit even if there is an acknowledgement that this is a really tough environment to promote cycling.
It was clear that we had really not seen the best of the cycling community in the city centre. There are green shoots, popular cycling parks and some suburbs where there are regular cycling numbers. I was told Trakhaniv island is not only the cycling mecca at weekends it is a good commuting short cut and could be a place to start building a cycling culture for all types of users, I certainly found it beautiful and welcoming even in the mist. It also wouldn’t take a huge amount of sharing for the current cyclists to tell others how they get around. By sharing their routes and shortcuts so much of the complete bafflement I felt could disappear and a little critical mass could emerge. Given that there is almost no regulation some informal waymarking could be put in place and would last for years. Kiev Cyclists Association have already painted their own cycle lane in one spot and nobody has erased it, how we would love to get away with that in some other countries.
Kiev activists can also take hope from the rest of the country. Crimea is a potential hot spot for tourism but there is clearly progress in places like Lviv. We know in many countries the capital city came to the party late simply because of size and inertia, but they can show there is nothing in Ukrainian culture that makes cycling impossible. For international cycle tourists and mountain bikers you can find lots of great places to go like Big Yalta.
Lastly Kiev has one extraordinary asset that most world cities would beg for, something money cannot buy. It has space. The streets are incredibly wide, the pavements and roads are wide enough for segregated bike lanes, there are plentiful parks and boulevards connecting them. But the space is just unmanaged. Look at this: four lanes of cars on the road – and six lanes of parked cars. Two lanes on the road, two on the near pavement, one on the other side and somebody double parked. Get hold of that and the potential for rapid change is high.
Right now it is a tough call to be an urban cyclist in Kiev, or a cycling activist but here is hope and enthusiasm not despair.
Cпасибі. Thank you.