On a relatively undistinguished junction in Prague a small but moving ceremony took place Thursday night. Under gently falling snow around seventy people gathered around a white bike mounted on a lamp column and a small group of candles.
The group consisted of local cycle activists, critical mass riders, walkers and supporters of sustainability group Auto*Mat. Speeches of friendship were made with quiet dignity and a minute’s silence was held, bareheaded in the cold near the banks of the Vltava River.
Every January for seven years they have gathered on this corner to commemorate the life of one of their friends and colleagues Jan Bouchal, killed by a car on this corner in 2006. But this year the gathering had special meaning. After six years of campaigning the city council finally remodelled the junction to make it safer for cyclists and this year they have agreed to a permanent memorial to “Pup“ as he was known.
An open competition has been held amongst local artists to create a design and following a public fundraising campaign the design will be permanently installed on the spot. Echoing the spirit of the ghost bikes that have become a symbol of unnecessary cyclists deaths around the world a suspended bicycle will rotate around the column high in the air, called “Bike to Heaven”.
I was invited because I was in Prague working at a conference to share the findings of the BICY Project, a three year project to develop cycling in central Europe. Daniel Mourek, our Czech ECF board member invited us to ride with the local critical mass and share the occasion with them, something of an honour to be a guest on their occasion.
But it was easy to feel at home with this group. As in so many countries and cities where cycling and sustainability is hard to promote the activist community is tightly bound and the cyclists fill a tribal niche. On the critical mass I recognised the forerunners that I have seen all over the world, riding fixies, cargo bikes, folders and recycled bikes in a number of designs. Prague is not an easy cycling environment. On average only 2% of local traffic is cyclists which in winter means almost none are seen on the streets and it is a battle to get the council to do positive things for transport cyclists. The city centre should be a great place for cycling as it is largely traffic free but I saw only a single cyclist while I was there apart from the group I was with.
In this tough environment Jan Bouchal was a real leader of the group, one of the founders of the Auto*Mat and it was clear by the way he was described as “our friend” that he was a very valued person. I wish his friends every success in their campaign to raise the money they need for the memorial but even more so I wish them every success in their campaigns to make Prague a cycling city.