Czechs cycling through the COVID-19 crisis

Photo: Vít Pohanka

The COVID-19 crisis leads to some unexpected positive trends. Many Czechs have exchanged their cars for bicycles. In fact, so many people are getting on their bikes that it can lead to congestion on some of the most popular cycling paths and forest roads in the country.

Photo: Vít Pohanka

The spring of 2020 has been so far mostly dry with mild temperatures. With so many children out of school and learning online, parents working from home, no wonder that whole families and groups of friends want to get some fresh air. After all, it is easier to keep social distance in the open fields and forests. And since most Czechs still live in smaller towns where it is easy to get to open countryside, you there are more bikes than would be usual for this time of year. While this is generally a positive trend, it can lead to problems, too. Miroslav Matoušek is a chief-forester at Kinský company, which harvests thousands of hectares of woods in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands:

“Cyclists often kind of assume that the forest is an alien environment to any sort of motorized vehicle. They do not understand that the forest, to me, is sort of like a factory. Work goes on in the forest all year round, as it is the main source of income for the owner. Of course, we are doing our best to mark the work areas using tape. Our workers even have warning signs on their vehicles that they place at the beginning and end of their work areas. Their experience with that is that every second or third cyclist simply kicks the sign into the ditch as if it did not mean anything.”

What makes matters worse, Czech foresters are battling bark beetle infestation. So there are more workers and vehicles on the forests roads that are mostly privately built and maintained but which many people consider almost dedicated for cyclists:

Photo: Vít Pohanka
“As always, there are reasonable people, and then there are people who act inexplicably. Forest roads are mainly built so that we can manage the forest, which mostly means transporting timber. Because of that, they are quite narrow, just wide enough so that a transport vehicle can get through. Problems arise when cyclists and our vehicles pass each other on the roads. The fact that people are capable of, for example, walking with their children and bikes under a hydraulic crane that is picking up timber is hard to understand, and such a situation has been described to me by our employees.”

Cycling is becoming gradually more popular in big Czech cities, too. Albeit slowly. Stanislav Kozubek is a former racer and headed the special commission of the Prague City Hall:

“The number of cyclists is indeed increasing. According to one of our studies, the number of people on bicycles in Prague has been growing slightly but steadily since 2012.”

This is generally seen as a positive trend. Even though there are cities in Europe, where the number of bikes in the streets can be overwhelming, such as Copenhagen. Stanislav Kozubek adds with a sigh:

“That would be a beautiful problem to have. But I do not think that is something to worry about in Prague in the near future. Although I must say, there are segments of bike paths in Prague that are starting to become clogged up in the summer. An example is the A2 bike path which follows the Vltava river through Braník and Modřany up to Zbraslav. That path gets very full during the summer with many cyclists, inline skaters, and parents with strollers and children frequenting it. We have counting devices installed there and according to our data, six to eight thousand cyclists pass through there each day of the summer. Parts of Prague such as the A2 can get very congested but, in general, there is still a lot of room for bicycle traffic to grow in this city.”

Stanislav Kozubek,  photo: archive of Stanislav Kozubek
How about safety? What does the trend in the bicycle accident rate in Czechia look like? Is it growing or decreasing?

“The accident rate is also slightly increasing in proportion with the increase of cyclists, the growth is not too dramatic. The most important thing is for cyclists to realize that they are not on the road by themselves. There are other participants in road traffic, and whether you are a motorist, pedestrian, or public transport driver, you should be mindful of the others. All in all, we consider the rise in the accident rate to go hand in hand with traffic congestion in general. We do not believe that it is going to rise dramatically.”

The main bicycle season is starting. The borders are still more or less closed, fewer people will be traveling abroad and the probability that the number of cyclists will continue to grow. Besides helmets, what should be some things that riders should pay attention to when it comes to staying safe?

“It is important to stay alert and look around. Even if you have the right of way, keep your eyes open for cars coming in from adjacent streets. Try to foresee movement around you – that is very important in Prague mainly. When people do not follow these basic principles, the outcomes can be quite unfortunate.

“Of course, we are all just human. It does not matter if you are a cyclist or motorist, the key is to be cordial and mutually respectful of each other. I am not saying that all motorists are bad and that all cyclists are good. As a driver myself I have seen how certain cyclists are capable of behaving irresponsibly because they believe that they are the ones that are in danger and that if they get in the way, drivers will simply stop and go around them. The key is mutual awareness and respect. As cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians, we all share the road.”

When it comes to bicycle safety, how does the Czech Republic compare to such cycling powerhouses as the Netherlands and maybe Denmark and Germany?

A2 bike path in Prague,  photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.5
“Those countries have been certainly ahead of us historically. But we have come a long way when it comes to safety, with the usage of helmets and light reflectors increasing in recent years. In that respect, I believe that we are closing up on the West, so to speak. Nonetheless, the western countries do have that historical head start and it will take a still longer time to fully catch up. Still, I think that our situation is not bad at all and comparable to the traditional cycling countries.”

So despite the devastating health and economic impact, the COVID-19 crisis has so far also had some unexpected positive effects. One of them might be increased cycling activity. It is just important to keep in mind that basic safety rules apply everywhere, no matter whether you are riding in a city or in the beautiful Czech countryside.