Getting around the Czech capital is like an improvised adrenaline sport. It is hard to imagine Prague without jammed roads, elusive parking spaces and aggressive drivers.
It’s a tragic comedy. The drivers who are angered by traffic jams are in a trap of their own making. They create the very situation they find so irritating.
The same goes for parking. Sure, we could argue that parking is difficult because there aren’t enough parking spaces. On the other hand, we could say there are way too many cars. Your car today is taking the space of the car which stole your spot yesterday.
How to pass a Porsche
The preponderance of cars in the city has created a paradox: the fastest way around town is no longer the fastest way around town.
Do you know how to overtake a Porsche in a Prague street? I did it last week easy: on a bike. In the centre of Prague, cyclists are without a doubt the fastest people moving. If the Porsche and I started at the entrance to the Muzeum metro stop, I would reach Malostranská faster than than him. Thanks to biking I save about an hour every day. That’s half a working day each week.
The advantages to cycling don’t stop there. Space, for example: in the space you need to park one car, you can easily fit five to seven bikes. What’s more, you can ride your bike basically from door to door.
Then there are the psychological aspects. Bike riding is just fun. It is something you enjoy anyway and it brings different thoughts to your mind than sitting in a car. Plus nothing is a major problem when you have a bike: For want of a nail, you can ride from Labuť to Mánes and back easily. If you had to walk, drive or take public transport, you’d go mad.
Finally, bikes do not cause traffic jams and pose no major threat to pedestrians. If you need more reasons, there are the advantages to the environment and to your own physical condition.
The problem has two wheels
Have you ever noticed how few people there are among all those tonnes of cars? Usually you’ll find one 100 kg person needs a metal box ten times his weight to haul him around.
Maybe that’s why drivers are so often so aggressive. Many people have come to treat their cars as home sweet home. Upset a driver behind the wheel and it’s almost like you’ve broken into his bedroom. Do you know why don’t pedestrians lose their tempers and shake their fists at one another? Because they know they are all in the same space, which they have to share. And drivers tend to lose the human touch. In situations when we would normally say “excuse me”, they can only hit the horn.
Despite their advantages, Prague cyclists also face two problems: Hills (read: sweat and strain) and danger (read: reckless drivers). The first problem is easy to solve. There are many electronic bikes you can buy to help you uphill. Charging the battery costs only a few crowns, and it lasts long enough to help you overcome all the obstacles you’ll encounter in a day in the city. No sweat.
The second problem is more serious. Biking around Prague is an intellectual exercise: you have to think for the dozens of drivers around you. In Copenhagen, they came up with an elegant solution. if there is a collision between a cyclist and a car, the blame is almost always given to the motorist. Motorists are protected by a tonne of scrap metal, and cyclists are protected by the law. Drivers have slowed down because they’re afraid of the bikes.
In the Czech Republic, however, it’s the other way around. When you consider how our few bike lanes so often end in the middle of sharp turns or just before dangerous intersections, it looks like the paths were made to eliminate the cyclists.
Tomáš Sedláček is the chief macroeconomic strategist at ČSOB.