I cannot believe two weeks have gone by since I was enjoying the sunshine of Budapest – it has a sort of “last summer” feel already with the mini-winter that has hit Belgium.
I realised that while I was musing on the Danube and food I didn’t finish my post about the cycling, which is somewhat of an oversight for a cycling blog. I thought I should complete the process because Budapest is such an important milestone in the Danube Cycle Route and a major part of Eurovelo6, the rivers route linking the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube so it may be of interest to fellow travellers. And I want to thank the campaigners at the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kerekparosklub) for their hospitality.
Whenever a league table of European cycling levels is published many people are surprised to see Hungary competing with Denmark in second or third place. In fact when I showed the graph to some Hungarians in Budapest they were surprised too.
This is because there are still really high levels of cycling in the rural areas of Hungary, largely driven by economic circumstances. But Budapest itself followed the trajectory of most of the Eastern European capitals after the Iron Curtain came down by embracing the car with enthusiasm. Not long later they had the joys of congestion and cars had overwhelmed residual levels of cycling. Unfortunately this rush to the car was also supported by the economic engine of the EU which financed a whole load of so called improvements in the form of new roads.
When I was first in Budapest in the winter of 2008 with the ECF board we were taken on several bike rides around the city which showed the first signs of a counter-revolution. There were lots of plans to improve the infrastructure and particularly to create attractive riverside routes for the Danube Cycle Route.
However back then it was very hard to imagine because what was in place was disconnected and dysfunctional.
Five years later you can see the benefits of that investment. It’s not a wholesale transformation of the whole city but it is clear that there is a really big change, especially along the river. OK, there is a heck of a difference between freezing December and sunny March too but there were also a lot more cyclists everywhere I walked and cycled. The confidence of the bike industry seems to be up too, the cycle show Bringaexpo which was hosting my visit has just moved to a bigger venue.
And credit to the EU funding programme too, from previous spending on “roads to nowhere” a significant proportion of the EU infrastructure subsidy to Hungary has now started going on cycling facilities, especially where it can boost tourism. It means the job can be done properly, for example the Margit Bridge is a protected heritage structure so this tunnel through the bridge footings cost around 3 million Euros so the EU share meant it could be done safely and in keeping the integrity of the structure. There were also wide paths across other bridges, cyclists shared with pedestrians but with plenty of space for both.
In the city areas there were fewer segregated facilities but the on-carriageway routes were wide, direct and seemed to be respected by the drivers.
Once we got further east towards the exhibition centre there was a nice ride through parkland which is symbolically important to the advocacy community here because it is the final point of the Budapest Critical Mass. This amazing gathering is not the underground movement of other cities, at its peak it had over 80,000 participants and was joined by significant politicians. Interestingly 2013 will see the last ever CM here because the leaders feel it has achieved as much as it can as a protest movement and it is now joining forces and trying to bring its energy to the broader cyclists groups. It was great to be at a meeting with them and see the injection of passion that comes from that direct action side of campaigning. Diary date 20th April if you happen to be able to get to Budapest – should be a good party.
As a visitor who really appreciates the Danube and as someone who has always loved cycling and walking by water I can perhaps permit myself one moan. Like so many countries and cities the waterway is a corridor for other modes of transport.
In the really bold cities like Paris we see city administrations trying to claim that space back for people. I think the authorities here have bottled it in places, for example south of Margit Bridge they have let fast roads keep the river bank and pushed
pedestrians and cyclists up onto a raised embankment. This means the views are nice enough but distanced from the calm of the water. Just look at these two photos. Stunning view of the Parliament building – then pull back the lens to see what the actual view shows.
t isn’t like this all the way along, but I can’t help but feel that was an opportunity lost.
However if you are planning a ride down Eurovelo 6 or even just a short stretch of the Danube Cycle Route can I recommend you include the Budapest stretch and do take a few diversions across the bridges and out to areas like Hero Square, it is becoming a good place to ride a bike again. See my earlier post for just taste of the architecture and history in Budapest and from what I heard the ride round Lake Balaton is a treat for future occasions..
And credit to the cyclists organisations and their friends and supporters. The movement is relatively small and underfunded compared to many in Western Europe however they have lots of creativity, bags of energy and a real willingness to work together to go forward. And they do some rather amusing campaigning, always good to see advocacy with a smile.
I look forward to more chances to visit them too, it really feels that I am among friends