Prague was never considered bike-friendly in the past: have things changed?

Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

In this week’s Czech Life, I talk to Vratislav Filler of the NGO Auto*Mat which advocates sustainable development in Prague. In our interview we discuss Blanka Tunnel, traffic congestion and what is needed to make the capital more cyclist-friendly.

Vratislav Filler,  photo: archive of Auto*Mat
I began by asking him how the capital was regarded by cyclists in the past.

“It was not considered to be a bike-friendly city and it was never designed for that. I did learn that there were some initiative sin the 1960s though and there are even some long-lost bike lanes in Letňany. Nobody knew what they were for and hardly anyone knew they existed. In the 1990s, the stress was largely on improving the infrastructure for motor vehicles and not bikes at all. It was only when traffic congestion really began to get out of control, in the years 1995 – 2000 things began to change slowly. Things were quite perilous and there was at least a start to solve the worst problems.”

The NGO you are part of, Auto*Mat, has played a significant role in improvements. How do motorists see the situation now?

“Well we needed to find ways to improve conditions for cyclists while at the same time not constraining drivers and in a city like Prague that wasn’t easy. The city centre is full of too many cars so from the get-go it’s a bad situation. But I shifted my opinion from the past. Before, I thought it would be enough to improve conditions for cyclists, but now I see that they are only part of a broader equation.

“Cycling is a tool how to make the city more sustainable and more pleasant for all of us. If we get more people on bikes, everyone benefits.”

“Cycling is a tool how to make the city more sustainable and more pleasant for all of us. If we get more people on bikes, everyone benefits: fewer cars, more people exercising, and those driving into the centre being those who really need to, such as delivery vans and others. So we shifted in our approach. Now we think that we needs better urbanistic planning overall.”

In the past you campaigned against Blanka Tunnel, due to open in September after many years delay but held a bike ride through the tunnel this spring. Have you shifted your outlook on that project as well?

“Let me say this: at this point there is no politician who would or could block Blanka Tunnel, not after what it cost the city. So we look to its benefits, if it can serve as a true bypass to draw traffic away from the historic centre, streets such as Kamelitská, which are swamped by thousands of cars daily, that would be a change worth seeing – that would be great. Let the cars take Blanka and improve the situation, finally.”

There has been a lot of discussion in the past about limiting the number of cars one day which could enter the historical core daily. Do you think that could become a reality?

Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“It depends on different politicians’ backgrounds in different districts. I think that our transportation deputy for all of Prague is quite positive and thinks along similar lines: namely, that after we open this tunnel, we need to think about changes on the surface. A narrowing of car lanes in some places, changing traffic light times at some intersections, and other steps which could make the city more user-friendly.

“But it depends: some districts are very positive and the most important are Prague 1 and 2. Prague 1’s district council recently decided they wanted to make some necessary changes so finally there is some political will. Of course, not everyone will get on board: some politicians have different priorities, some think we should complete the Prague ring road, for example.”

As is stands now, what kind of a ‘calling card’ does Prague have when it comes to cycling?

“Urban cycling is more common, if not in the number of people who ride [an estimated 100,000 who ride at least once a week according to a 2012 poll] but in kilometres travelled. There are people who bike to work and others who only bike at the weekends, going on leisure rides or training.

“EuroVelo 4 goes from Paris to Prague yet in Prague the routes are not marked anywhere! So cyclists on lost-distance trips aren’t really supported.”

“But many improvements are still needed. Prague is on a crossing of long-distance cycling roads EuroVelo 4 and 7. EuroVelo 4 goes from Paris to Prague yet in Prague the routes are not marked anywhere! So cyclists on lost-distance trips aren’t really supported. What is needed is a kind of a ‘bike point’ in Prague where long-distance or vacationing cyclists could meet.

“There are other local problems: the system of Cycleways is only around half-complete and there are cycle paths that go down a stretch of road and suddenly run out! You have to get off and walk your bike or merge with greater traffic which can be uncomfortable or unexpected. There are bigger problems to consider than just marking EuroVelo when you consider that we have to improve and complete some 1,000 km of cycling routes. There is still quite a long way to go before things improve, to make all the modifications needed is more difficult.”