One of the recent controversial policies of the opposition-led Budapest city government is the recent increase in the number of bike lanes in the city. You can find them all over, most prominently on the main ring road around downtown. In fact, in many cases an entire lane of traffic has been taken from cars in favour of cyclists.
Nobody should really be surprised, since Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony promised to make this happen during the municipal election campaign. However, the method used to make the bike lanes has come under fire. Going beyond the usual criticism from pro-government news outlets, the bike lanes have received much criticism on Facebook and other social media, even from people who otherwise support the mayor.
The reason for the criticism is quite simple, these bike lanes were essentially drawn overnight along main roads, taking away an entire lane from cars and giving it to bikes. Even now, when there is less traffic due to the pandemic and summer vacations, these bike lanes have made driving on Budapest’s already narrow roads even more of a headache. This is clearly a policy that had little thought behind it, other than “I promised bike lanes so there will be bike lanes”.
Does that mean bike lanes are a bad idea? Absolutely not! Bicycles and better public transit are the future of modern, livable cities, not cars. Budapest has a pretty good public transit system, you can usually get from point A to B just slightly slower than you would with a car, but bike infrastructure is absolutely dismal.
It stems from the fact that Budapest politicians, left or right, think that making a city bicycle-friendly means painting lines on already existing roads. This is not the case and will only result in increased traffic and upset citizens, as shown by the recent situation.
Making a city more human-friendly is a long-term process that requires proper planning and a sizeable investment. You cannot simply make a city bicycle friendly overnight.
Let’s use Copenhagen as an example. Copenhagen vies with Amsterdam for the title of most bicycle-friendly city in the world. They have separate bike lanes that sometimes, but not always, run parallel to roads, as well as a complex infrastructure to support this system, such as separate bridges for cyclists. But they did not make this happen overnight. Copenhagen began to pay specific attention to its cycling infrastructure in the 1980s and has made it a consistent priority since 1996 to increase cycling safety in the city. This has been so successful that this method is now called “Copenhagenization”.
When you compare Budapest to Copenhagen, they are quite similar when it comes to public transport. Hungary has plenty of metro, tram, bus, and trolley bus lines, and the 4-6 tram line is actually the busiest in the world. 65% of transit in Budapest is through public lines, with the other 35% being cars. However, when it comes to bikes, the two cities could not be any more different. The share of bicycles for commuting in Copenhagen is 28%, while it was only 3% for Budapest in 2012. Despite reports showing that the number of cyclists in Budapest has greatly increased over the last few years, in part due to the MOL Bubi bike-sharing program, when compared to other modes of transport it only makes up a very small proportion of the total.
This can most likely be attributed to nearly non-existent cycling infrastructure that is often done in a very haphazard way, almost like an afterthought in urban planning. Cyclists often get to choose between either cycling right next to cars without a separate lane or having to share the sidewalk with pedestrians. The result is that both drivers and pedestrians are hostile to cyclists, and cyclists just can seem to get a break.
So, what should be done? Well, the reality is that Budapest needs a long-term plan, similar to the “Finger Plan” in Copenhagen, that will guide the city’s transition to one that is more friendly to cyclists. This will require at least a few decades and plenty of money, but the good news is, we live in a country where the government is no stranger to large projects. Over the last decade, the Hungarian government has engaged in multiple large-scale infrastructure investments, such as the Paks II nuclear power plant expansion, the brand new Puskás Ferenc stadium, and the Liget project. However, a project like this would require cooperation between Viktor Orbán’s government and the opposition-led city of Budapest, something that may be a greater obstacle than any amount of money.
Hungary is currently going through something that broadly fits into “Westernization”, in the sense that more and more Hungarians have enough disposable income to be able to afford decent cars that they then want to drive. Except this trend happened in the mid-20th century in North America and Western Europe, and many Western European cities have spent the last few decades refocusing their cities from car paradises to people-focused places. If Budapest wants to catch up to them, then we need to take bicycles seriously and overcome any partisan challenges that stand in the way.
Featured photo by Márton Mónus/MTI