To cycle or not to cycle, that is the question in Prague

Prague is home to beautiful cycle paths in quieter areas of the city, but when it comes to hopping on two wheels in the heart of the city centre, it can be a safety gamble with aggressive drivers behind the wheel of cars, coupled with narrow historical streets.

According to Time Out, a publisher of tourist guides, Prague is home to the second-best public transport system in the world. But when it comes to other forms of transportation, in particular, cycling, the city is certainly not boasting about its conditions for those getting around on two wheels.

According to the Global Bicycle Cities Index 2022, Prague ranked 73 out of 90 countries for its cycling conditions, accumulating only 25.87 points out of 100. The countries with the best cycling conditions had scores that were closer to the 100 point mark.

Cities were judged based on 16 criteria, including the number of cycling accidents each year, cycling infrastructure quality, and road safety. Trailing Prague in poorer cycling conditions were cities like Istanbul and Cairo, and Utrecht in the Netherlands claimed the top spot for the best biking conditions.

Daniel Bečvář | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But it’s not a total flat-tire when it comes to improving the conditions in our city. Auto-Mat, an NGO based in Prague is working to change these conditions and make cycling safer for everyone. I spoke with one member of the Auto-Mat team, Daniel Bečvář.

“We focus on sustainable transport in the city, but also sustainable living in general. I just graduated three weeks ago, and I was studying social geography and regional development. So I’m interested in topics about living in the city and countryside and the people who live in these cities.

“I’m just interested in people, and especially how transport influences their behaviour. I think that’s why I like working for an NGO, because I feel responsible for society.”

The work Auto-Mat does ranges from analysing Prague city documents, to hosting campaigns like Bike to Work which is hosted every May. Daniel explains further.

Photo: AutoMat

“Auto-Mat is an NGO based in Prague, we are interested in cycling and sustainable living. We advocate for cyclists, we watchdog construction in Prague and see if cycling infrastructure is included in the reconstruction of roads. If needed, we write complaints and recommendations for how to include this. We take inspiration from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands because we think Czech society should know how cycling in other countries could work in Prague.”

When it comes to cycling in Prague, Daniel hasn’t always had the best experiences.

“It really depends on your road, or on the trail you’re on. For example, my first time on magistrala, which is the highway through the city centre, drivers were not respectful. The first time a driver used his horn to honk at me, I understood because when I changed lanes it was not very visible, but in the other two cases, the drivers were just angry, and I wasn’t sure why. I was just using the road or the street which is designated for cars and bikes, there is no mark that bans cyclists.”

That dynamic between drivers and cyclists is a contentious one in Prague, although Daniel believes that the relationship is improving on a yearly basis. Data also that shows cyclist deaths are declining in Prague. In 2022, 50 cyclists died compared to the 127 in 2000, data from the Transport Ministry’s department of road safety shows.

“Since last year it’s totally different than 10 or 20 years ago, and the number of accidents is actually dropping. But still, it’s not ideal and respect between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians is needed.”

Photo: Anna Šolcová,  AutoMat

When it comes to making the streets of Prague more adept for cycling, Daniel and the Auto-Mat team have some ideas, but as he explains, reshaping the infrastructure in a centuries old city is no easy task.

“In order to create the best solutions for cycling infrastructure, you need really wide roads where you have lanes for cars, lanes for cyclists, sidewalks, and greenery. When you count all these components, it’s clear you need wide streets, which is complicated because Prague is a very historical city with streets that are quite narrow.

“We know that it’s impossible to make a cycle path in the real city centre of Prague, but we should build cycle paths from the peripheral neighbourhoods of Prague to the city centre, and then in the city centre, people should only be using public transit, or have streets which could be constructed in the way I described; with separate lanes for cars, cyclists, and sidewalks.”

Daniel explains that taking steps such as building lanes on streets exclusively for cyclists as a tangible step for making Prague streets more two-wheel friendly.

Photo: Tomáš Cach,  AutoMat

“We could encourage this through specific infrastructure, liked implementing separated cycle lanes. For example, on Vinohradska, there is a cycle line on the street, so the street is for cars and cyclists together. But if you built a lane that is specifically for cyclists, it would mean more safety.”

It’s also important to consider the infrastructure of other major European cities. While some might think of Scandinavia as a biker’s paradise, Daniel recalls an experience in Munich that gave him insights into how Prague could function better as a city for cyclists.

“Munich is not the typical cycling city like Amsterdam or Copenhagen - but there are bike lines that are colourful, and the lines are, for example red, and the pedestrians know that these lanes are just for cyclists. In Czechia we do have this, but pedestrians do not seem to care, and frequently cross cycle lines. So we also need more respect and maybe even better education.”