The Critical Mass Bike Ride held in Prague in late September was a celebration for those who promote sustainable transportation. Some 4,000 people took part in the 16-km ride from Palachovo náměstí through Vinohrady and the magistrála to Pankrác and back to the square, the most in the history of the event. Critical mass is one of the rare occasions when cyclists can move around the city without having to fight for space with cars. But the situation is slowly changing for the better.
The number of people who use bikes in Prague regularly is growing along with the number of new routes and facilities for cyclists. About 24 km of new routes have been completed this year, expanding the total number to 360 km of marked cycling routes and 135 km of cycling paths. New bike lanes now run through Štefánikův bridge, and on Pobřežní, Chotkova Vršovická streets. City Hall has launched a new updated version of its cycling map of Prague with recommended cycling routes and information available in English. The Czech Republic’s first city bike store opened in Prague’s Nusle recently, offering bikes with special lights, comfortable seats, bag racks and large fenders.
For next year, Prague City Hall has earmarked about CZK 70 million on building 33.5 km of new cycling paths and routes. Part of the plans is a new cycling artery for the eastern part of the city, making it easier for cyclists to travel from the centre of Prague to Zahradní Město and Hostivař districts. The route will go through Slovenská and Ruská streets to Strašnická metro stop and further east to Zahradní Město. In the long run, the city is planning to build 670 km of cycling routes across the city trying to avoid contact with cars.
But even in spite of these changes, Prague still has a long way to go before reaching the level of biking infrastructure of cities like Paris or Berlin. “Prague City Hall’s infrastructure policy is based on models that were used in Europe thirty years ago. That’s why the quality of life in Prague ranks low compared to other countries, says Michal Křivohlávek from AutoMat, an organisation which promotes sustainable transportation. The vast majority of people travel by foot or use public transportation when moving around Prague, but the city keeps pumping large amounts of money into creating better conditions for drivers, he says. Vratislav Filler from the biking web site prahounakole.cz agrees that the main problem lies in the reluctance of politicians and bureaucrats to reduce automobile transportation in the capital. In many cases, such changes would require a law amendment. When infrastructure reconstructions take place in the city, cyclists just need to wait and hope that the results will be bicycle friendly.
Clean, quiet and fun
As a result of this policy, automobile traffic is increasing noticeably every year. Prague has the worst air pollution in the country, and 70% of it is caused by cars, according to statistics provided by Auto-Mat. There is one car per every two inhabitants which is more than in Berlin or London. “I find it strange that City Hall is investing so much money in building infrastructure for cars when the same amount of money would better serve many more people if it were invested in improving public transportation,” says Nathan Heilmann, who came to Prague several years ago from the United States. Like many cyclists in Prague, he would like to see improvements in the amount of useful bike lanes and paths. “Biking is by far the fastest way to get from one place to another in Prague during the work day. Parking a bicycle is never a problem. You can ride your bike in places you could never drive. You never have to worry about eating too much or getting enough exercise when using the bike regularly. Riding a bicycle is clean, quiet and fun,” says Heilmann. What he finds annoying though are drivers who treat cyclists as second-class users of the road. “Having virtually no protection from injury if an accident occurs, I must put great faith in drivers’ ability to handle their automobiles properly.”
But not everyone has such faith in drivers. Although the number of bikers in Prague is growing (47% over the last three years), it is still less than 2%. According to Auto-Mat, one third of Prague inhabitants would travel by bike if the conditions were better.
Activists from Auto-Mat are working to make it happen. For example, last year they convinced city hall to build additional bike lanes on Štefánikův bridge even though the lanes should have been part of the reconstruction of the bridge in the first place as it is the city’s new regulation to make new constructions and reconstructions bike-friendly.
Auto-Mat is expecting something similar to happen in Letňany where a reconstruction of several streets is about to be comleted but no bike lanes are included. “We’re taking bikers into consideration when new roads are built or the old ones are reconstructed. The construction workers will come back to fix those places where bikers have been forgotten,” said Eva Kubátová, who works at City Hall’s environment office when asked why new roads lack cycling lanes.
“In theory, everyone seems to be an advocate of biking, but action requires more effort from project managers who must think of ways to create space for bikes between the sidewalk and the road. And only a few want to do it,” says Křivohlávek. His organisation Auto-Mat together with Nadace Partnerství, which promotes Greenways in central Europe, organised a panel discussion with experts from Berlin and Prague officials in September, hoping it could provide new inspiration for the city hall’s transportation policy.
About 400,000 people in Berlin use bikes every day, and 20,000 of them combine biking with public transportation. Berlin has more than 200 km of bike lanes and 1,315 km of bike paths in the center of the city. The number of people using bikes regularly in Berlin is 12% and the city is hoping to raise the proportion to 15% by 2010.
Another example showing that bikes and cars can live together in a big city just fine is Paris. The city known for its aggressive drivers and huge traffic turned into a bike-friendly zone last year. Today, there are 20,000 bikes available for rent at 1,400 locations across the city. The “Velib” project was the Paris mayor’s idea of making the city more ecologically friendly and reducing traffic. And it seems to be changing the way people get around the city. As the National Public Radio said, “Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe was vilified by motorists for widening sidewalks and replacing car lanes with bike and bus corridors. He’s been accused of trying to eradicate cars from the French capital. But the new bike scheme has been so successful that his poll numbers are shooting up.”