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Despite the stunning success of the Budapest Critical Mass bicycling movement, City Hall is making slower progress than ever on bike path development. According to cycling advocate Greg Spencer, local bicyclists need to ride everyday and get involved politically to get the wheels rolling.
BUDAPEST'S Critical Mass bicycling demonstration has been a huge success for so long, the newspapers have run out of superlatives to describe it. In the fall of 2004, the biannual ride drew 4,500 participants, inspiring news headlines about unprecedented attendance.
Record setting became the norm when the count doubled to 10,000 last spring and doubled again in the fall to more than 20,000.
This last Saturday, between 30,000 and 40,000 took part, according to various reports.
The on-line news site Index.hu noted with a yawn that Critical Mass had drawn "a completely normal crowd."
Consider this: if the numbers continue to double each occasion, next spring's Critical Mass will be nearly as big as the first anti-Communist demonstration in Budapest in 1956.
With crowds this big, you would think some big changes are afoot. At least this is what I thought when I started some research in the spring of 2005.
I was doing a thesis project as an environmental student at Central European University, and I wanted to find out what Budapest needed to do to become a more bicycle-friendly city.
The question that burned on my tongue was how the city's leaders intended to respond to the upsurge of cycling activism on display at Critical Mass.
What I found out amazed me more than the phenomenon of Critical Mass itself. From my interviews with bicycling activists, transport officials and city assembly members, it sounded like the prospects for bicyclists weren't getting better at all - they were getting worse!
While City Hall had been making slow but steady progress through the 1990s on a bike path network, it completely cut off funding two years in a row from 2002-2003.
Then in 2004, the mayor's office declared that future funding for bike trail developments would be allotted only for paths that could be piggybacked onto larger road projects, ie those dedicated to cars.
This was quite a blow to the idea once expressed in city planning documents of building a coherent network of 500 kilometers of bike paths that would allow bike riders to get from any starting point to any destination safely and in a reasonably direct line.
I learned part of this story from Balázs Tôkés, a transport planner who, I was surprised to find out, had been working at City Hall from the late 1980s in the capacity of bicycling affairs coordinator.
Tôkés was one of the many discouraged people I met during my research. At the time, his job description was being changed so that he'd spend a substantial part of his day on city priorities other than cycling.
Just weeks before my meeting with Tôkés last spring, his boss, Mayor Gábor Demszky, had told the newspaper Népszabadság, "It's not worth spending a more serious amount on bike paths, because 140km of paths have already been built and just a few people use them."
(Local cycling activists note that at least 70% of these paths are nothing more than painted lines on sidewalks, which do little good for cyclists or pedestrians.)
I had to ask Tôkés how the mayor could turn his back on cyclists at precisely the moment when Critical Mass was gaining such momentum. His response was that a lot more people drive cars than ride bicycles.
In Budapest, bicycles don't account for a very big share of traffic - between 1 and 2%, according to official estimates. On a good day, that might mean 30,000 trips are made by bicycle in the city.
That may sound like a big number but, in the larger picture, it is not a Critical Mass, Tôkés said.
Another dispiriting interview I had was with András Lukács, head of the Clean Air Action Group, an NGO that fights for fewer motorways and more trains, buses and bicycles.
Lukács was frustrated - and no doubt still is - with City Hall and its obeisant approach to motorists.
He told the story of his effort to get Pál Vajda, the deputy mayor in charge of city operations, to back a proposal to raise the price of street parking permits above the nominal amount currently charged.
When the media ripped the idea apart like a pack of starving jackals, Vajda abandoned it.
I asked Lukács about Critical Mass. Don't these thousands of bike-riding voters represent political fruit that's ripe for the picking?
Lukács argued that, although it may be an impressive spectacle, Critical Mass is not an effective lobbying tool because: one, it's a one-off event with no followthrough; and two, it consists of a highly democratic, freewheeling bunch of people with no strong organizational core.
One after the other - from local cycling NGOs, to transport consultants to city leaders to Hungarian MPs - nearly everyone I spoke with who'd been involved with the issue sounded discouraged about the prospects for improved cycling conditions in Budapest while also being skeptical of Critical Mass's ability to do anything about it.
The biggest exception, not surprisingly, was Gábor Kürti, managing director of the Hajtás Pajtás bicycle courier service, and the main organizer behind Critical Mass.
Kürti acknowledged the current barriers cited by my other sources. But he was confident that in the long run, if Budapest continues to strive to become a world-class city, it will start to accommodate cyclists just as places as diverse as Paris, Bogotá and Seattle have.
Kürti noted that the numbers of pleasure cyclists during summer weekends on the roads leading to Városliget and Margitsziget approach "Amsterdam numbers." He continued, "Making the leap from hobby cycling to everyday cycling really has only one obstacle - the lack of a safe, connected 400-500 kilometer system of paths."
Naturally, cyclists will get this coveted network a lot more quickly if they involve themselves in a local NGO, and start pestering City Hall. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
On criticalmass.hu, Kürti encourages the riders from Critical Mass to keep the flame burning throughout the year by using their bikes for everyday travel. He's right. The more bikes that are on the road, the more safe all cyclists will be and the sooner City Hall will take seriously the clarion call of Critical Mass: "We're not blocking traffic - we are the traffic!"
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