Number of Prague cyclists doubles – despite City Hall’s approach, say activists

Spring Cycle Ride 2013, photo: CTK

A recent study for Prague City Hall found that the number of people who regularly get around the city on bikes has doubled over the past two years, reaching 120,000, or around 10 percent of the city’s population. But biking advocates say this was achieved in spite, rather than due to, the authorities’ approach to cycling in the city.

Spring Cycle Ride 2013,  photo: CTK
Thousands of bike riders rode up Vinohradská street in the centre of Prague on Saturday during the Spring Cycle Ride 2013. Up to 2.500 people on all kinds of vehicles including a penny-farthing and a chopper bicycle joined in the 10-kilometre ride despite the drizzle and rain.

Organized by a Prague-based advocacy group Auto-mat, the 12th Spring Cycle Ride was part of a campaign to popularize cycling in the city, and to show how many people are interested in getting around the city on their bikes. Before the ride began, I talked to some of the participants about their experiences with cycling in Prague. 58-year-old Zdeněk Šmída lives in the district of Libeň.

“This is my third or fourth ride. I like the fact that so many people come, and I think it’s important to show that people can cycle in Prague. But I only get on my bike at the weekends because during the week, it’s too difficult.”

Michal Hájek, who is 31, says drivers should be more tolerant to cyclists on the road.

“I came because I like riding in the city and I think it could be better than it is now so I hope it will improve.”

What should improve? What do you think the authorities should do to improve the conditions for cycling?

“They should build better cycling paths than just the red lanes on the side of the road. I also think they should tell people who are getting their driving licences that cyclists also used the roads and they should be more tolerant.”

Spring Cycle Ride 2013,  photo: CTK
Michal Kostka took his young son along for the ride. He says he cycles to work regularly but does have several concerns about biking in the capital.

“A lack of infrastructure, and inconsiderate drivers. I think many people don’t cycle because of this, especially if they’re not experienced riders who can handle the difficulties of Prague traffic.”

Insufficient infrastructure and lack of safety are among the most common concerns of Prague cyclists. But despite these complaints, the number of people using bikes to get around the city has in fact doubled over the past couple of years.

A new study commissioned by Prague City Hall found that around 120,000 people now use their bikes regularly while during the summer season, up to 200,000 people ride their bicycles at least once a week. In winter, the number drops to 44,000 cyclists. The so-called modal share of cycling in transportation increased by some one third in the past two years, and reached two percent. The study also suggests that 40 percent of bike riders fear for their safety.

In spite of these developments, Prague City Hall has come under criticism for failing to consistently improve the conditions for cycling in the city. While between 2008 and 2011, the city annually spent around 60 million crowns on new cycling paths and other infrastructure, the council originally proposed to cut the budget to zero this year. After a public outcry, the authorities earmarked 25 million for the development of cycling but cycling groups say the city should spend more much – at least one percent of its total transportation budget which would be 80 million crowns.

Prague City Hall refused to comment on the latest report or and on the criticism coming from cycling advocates who complain that city officials fail to meet their own goals in supporting cycling in the capital. For example, the authorities last year reconstructed only one crossroad that was dangerous for bikers, failing to improve the conditions on a larger scale.

Vratislav Filler,  photo: archive of Vratislav Filler
I discussed the situation with Vratislav Filler from the group Auto-mat who says the Spring Cycle Ride is one way of letting the authorities know of the problems involved.

“It’s just one of many tools we use. This is very visible, maybe not in the media but definitely in the streets.”

The recent study for Prague City Hall suggested the number of people using bikes on their regular journeys in Prague has doubled over the past two years. Why do you think that happened?

“There are several reasons that have come together. Since about 2006, the conditions for cycling were gradually improving with new cycling paths and lanes and things like that. The effect of all this became apparent with a delay of several years. So the number of cyclists started to grow rapidly but in the past two years, we have in fact not seen any positive development in the infrastructure but the number of cyclists is still growing because they are making use of the previous improvements.”

Who is the typical urban biker?

“Well, there is no one like that. There are several groups of people some of whom ride bikes more often. For example, men tend to be more frequent bikers than women. It could also depend on things like the kind of building where they live because if you live in a flat and you don’t have a place to store your bike at home, it’s more difficult for you to ride it.

“In the past, people who would come riding in the city were mostly recreational riders but that has changed, and now many more people are riding who are not really dedicated cyclists.”

As we could hear from some of the people who took part in Saturday’s cycle ride, most of the complaints were related to the lack of good infrastructure and also to safety. Do you agree that these are the two major issues?

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
“Yes. All the polls that have been done show that people don’t feel safe on the bike in Prague including people who cycle don’t feel safe. Here we have to distinguish between actual and perceived safety but improvements to the infrastructure should help both; safer crossings would make cycling safer and would also make people feel safer. But there has been almost no progress in this respect.”

When you look at the existing infrastructure in Prague, is the basic network complete?

“The core network is I would say 50 percent finished but it’s fragmented. There are several routes where the paths are continuous, albeit with several problematic spots but there are other routes that not covered. A special issue is the centre of the city with all the paths ending on the edge of the historic centre and do not continue inside. So there is no road or path cyclists can use to get through the city centre.”

City Hall officials did not want to comment on this issue for Radio Prague. How would you describe their attitude to cycling?

“They say that everything is ok. They have a concept which they say is being fulfilled. But the reality is different. Maybe it’s being fulfilled on the paper but its content is not being realized because the conditions for cycling are not improving that much, especially when it comes to the reconstruction of the individual crossings, the effect is very limited.

“There is no significant political support for cycling. None of the top politicians is interested in cycling, there is no one like Boris Johnson in London. We tried to approach some of the council members and asked them for support. Some of them said ‘sure, I like cycling’, but they don‘t do anything to turn the political support into real support in the decision making process.”

Spring Cycle Ride 2013,  photo: CTK
On the other hand, the study shows the numbers of cyclists are rising – is that not a sign that the city is doing things to help cyclists?

“Well, it is a sign that the city was doing things to help. I think the big jump in the numbers came in 2010 and 2011. I wish I could say that people get on their bikes more because it’s fun and fashionable but in Prague, without the proper infrastructure, it will actually be very difficult for more people to cycle.”