Cyclists Double Despite Daily Dangers

Cyclists aim to improve urban transportation in a city where cars stand for success

By Marcia Caceres

Despite limited bike paths and vague regulations protecting Prague cyclists, the number of people using bikes in the capital as a chief mode of transportation doubled since last year. According to a recent survey commissioned by Prague City Hall, some 120,000 “transport bikers” ride to work, shops and public offices daily.

Vratislav Filler, of Auto*Mat, an organization that aims to improve the quality of urban transport and public spaces in Prague, said he expects the number of cyclists to keep increasing.

However, in the past two years, he claims there is a lack of improvement in the city’s cycling infrastructure, where currently no bike lanes or bike parking spots can be found in the city center.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Cycling

One of the biggest issues preventing more cyclists from taking to the roads is a lack of continuous bike lanes.
Photo by Marcia Caceres

The Czech Republic maintains a communal public transportation system that was built up during the former communist years. Metro, bus and tram routes served everyone equally during the regime.  Yet when cars and bikes became available for an independent mode of transport, cars symbolized a higher status and power, explained Dinah Spritzer, a journalist and New York University professor. “After communism, if you finally had the chance to buy and afford a decent car and not ride public transport, that was a major achievement. The idea of riding around town on a bicycle in a polluted city was not particularly appealing,” she explained. The transformation of roads for the integrated transportation of both cars and bikes therefore remained stalled, limiting bike routes to the outskirts of the city.  “Czechs are massive bike enthusiasts, but biking is for fitness or for seeing the beauty of the countryside, not for sweating on the way to work. And it is really only the younger generation, or so-called hippie types, that pay attention to cycling’s environmental advantages, in contrast to the West where these benefits have been touted for decades,” Spritzer added.

Nonetheless, during Prague’s semiannual Critical Mass Bike Ride held April 20, young and old cyclists, donning colorful costumes, covered the park of Namesti Jiriho z Podebrad, displaying an increased acceptance of biking in the city. Those who attended the event represented a post-communist generation interested in “expressing their freedom,” Labo Kopriva Nettle said, one of the 2,000 Critical Mass participants.

“Without bike lanes everywhere, I’m the soft meat that can be crushed easily, but I pay very good attention.”

One of the biggest issues preventing more cyclists from taking to the roads is a lack of continuous bike lanes.

One Critical Mass attendee, Pavel Hamrik, a graphic designer from Brno, enjoys the environmentally friendly ride despite the dangers. In the past, he had small incidents with Czech drivers. He said, “Without bike lanes everywhere, I’m the soft meat that can be crushed easily, but I pay very good attention.” He attended the event to see how many others shared his cycling enthusiasm.

According to the statistics of the Czech police, there were no cycling fatalities last year , however 14 cyclists were seriously injured and 125 retained slight injuries.

One cycling tragedy that may have struck home for Prague’s cyclists was the death of Jan Bouchal.  Bouchal, chairman of Auto*Mat and leading campaigner for safer roads, was struck down by a car while riding his bike in January 2006. Since then, construction improvements along with the city’s first unofficial bicycle map were reasons for the spike of cycling interest in the recent survey, explained Vratislav Filler.

Mark Baker, avid cyclist, freelance journalist and travel writer for the Lonely Planet based in Prague said that although awareness of cycling has enlarged, city government has not dedicated sufficient resources to cycling infrastructure: “It’s the last thing on politicians’ minds after they’ve decided on spending for nearly every other kind of transport.”  Monika Krobova Hasova, City Hall councilor in charge of cycling, told Czech News that the government will invest 25 million crowns, which equals one-half million dollars, in cycle lanes and paths in Prague this year.

In comparison to neighboring Hungary, where more than 80,000 cyclists joined a Budapest Critical Mass Ride April 21, the Czech Republic seems to trail behind its neighbor.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Cycling

“Czechs are massive bike enthusiasts, but biking is for fitness or for seeing the beauty of the countryside, not for sweating on the way to work.”
Photo by Marcia Caceres

Despite lagging behind at least one post-communist country, City Hall participated in a “Cycle to Work” initiative with Auto*Mat, trying to increase the number of transportation bikers. The campaign’s purpose, according to the government website, was to revive the streets and “reduce unnecessary flooding of towns with cars.” Last year, 2,536 employees joined the month-long campaign in Prague, and, as of the first week of May, 3,700 people had already registered, confirmed Vit Masare from Auto*Mat to Czech News. Prizes were awarded to the employer of each participating town that best supported the cause. Each week, one participating team that cycled at least three-thirds of their journey to work also received a package full of prizes.

Nevertheless, progress on bike lanes, paths or parking needed for easy cycling in the Czech capital remains undetected. Filler and seven other members of the cycling committee of quit, declaring the impossibility of moving agendas toward cycling renovations. He said, “According to City Hall, their concept is being fulfilled, but the improvement is not showing.”

Baker explained that, although the Czech Republic remains at least a decade behind Austria and Germany in promoting cycling, Prague is far ahead of Bulgaria and Poland’s Krakow or Warsaw. However, he added, “The deal is that Prague shouldn’t be comparing itself to other post-communist countries. Berlin and Vienna are the regional capitals in this part of the world, and that’s the level of cycling infrastructure and culture Prague should be aiming for.”

For those interested on cycling, online sources are offered on City Hall’s website. Sources include maps, instruction manuals, and information websites.

Auto*Mat 

Cycle to Work Campaign

Marcia Caceres is in the NYU Class of 215, majoring in Journalism and Anthropology. Her hometown is Bogota, Colombia.

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Categories: Culture, Summer 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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