Budapest’s bicycle revolution

As visitors will immediately notice, the Hungarian capital has undergone an astounding bicycle revolution in recent years. Cycling promoters have named the city 13th on their 2013 list of the most cycling friendly cities, with 55 points, while Copenhagen itself got 2nd with 81. Budapest has also organised the biggest Critical Mass bicycle demonstration in the world. Organiser Gábor Dezső Kürti, known among Hungarian cyclist enthusiasts simply as Kükü, tells us how it all happened.

Foto: WikiMedia Commons/ Critical Mass Budapest

By the 1980s bicycles had virtually disappeared from the streets of Budapest despite hundreds of thousands of people owning them. It simply never occurred to people to use them as a vehicle for transport. Occasionally, people would cycle for fun on the weekend and children would ride in playgrounds, but most bikes only sat around in basements collecting dust. It had become a ‘universal truth’ that you were putting your life at risk if you rode a bicycle in Budapest. And, since nobody cycled, this seemed to prove it was impossible. Many kilometres of bike paths had been constructed at public expense, yet remained empty.

The first bike messenger service, Hajtás Pajtás, was started in 1993, and by 1999 a real subculture had grown up around them. Messengers riding from one squat bar to another that was opening at the time were followed by friends who would, in turn, draw their friends to the new scene. When in 2004 the mayor of Budapest, defending car traffic in the city, shifted car free days to the week-end, it was the messengers who mobilized this core circle, which led, through their contacts, to reaching a broader group of other cyclists.

From this day on, Critical Mass (CM) events, organized twice a year, have become the largest in the world, expanding from a relatively small subculture of messengers to the mainstream. In 2006 even the President of Hungary, László Sólyom, rode with them in support. Urban cycling in Budapest took a different path than in other European metropolises: whereas the development of cycling usually ensued from the development of new infrastructure, in Budapest it was spread by a grassroots movement.

As Budapest was full of bicycles not in use, the entry threshold to overcome was only the fear of cycling in urban traffic. The CM movement, recognizing this, instead of focusing on the perils of the road and accidents, which had been typical in cyclist organizations all over the world, shifted to a new slogan of “every road is for cycling” and rejected the prevailing anti-car agenda for an “every trip has its own means” compromise that appealed to the public. Cycling advocates did not speak out against cars and, further, talked about their own car use. They did not put bicycles ahead of public transport, and they promoted the choice of the most appropriate vehicle for the given situation.

The majority of people participating in the demonstrations together with tens of thousands of others had not dared to ride in the streets of downtown Budapest. It is difficult to explain the change in their thoughts and feelings, but on the days following each demonstration thousands of people conquered their fear and used their bikes in traffic for the first time. By 2008, it had become clear to observers that the number of cyclists was doubling each year. The vicious cycle had been broken. Nobody any longer claimed that it was impossible to cycle in Budapest, as it was obvious from the empty windows of cars and buses that thousands were riding.

The sight brought in new riders, and those who tried it once did not give it up. Cyclists arriving at workplaces, universities or bars regarded it as a mission to recommend cycling, and CM stickers were put on bikes, signposts and bars everywhere in downtown Budapest. Cyclists also appeared on television, radio and the press, spreading the word and lobbying for articles, reports and interviews. It once occurred that three separate television channels broadcast live images of the ritual lifting of eighty thousand bicycles simultaneously in a park at the end of one Critical Mass demonstration.

Following the initial successes of the “bicycle revolution”, the role of the CM movement declined. Initially, ninety per cent of cyclists decided to use their bike every day under the influence of the CM. This leadership role has since been taken over by the community at large; word of mouth and the sight of bikes in the streets has encouraged more and more people to begin cycling.

The most recent CM demonstration in spring 2013, which was also the largest so far in Budapest, marked the cycling revolution’s transition from social movement to social institution with the organizers handing over the leadership reins to the Hungarian Cyclists’ Club. Membership in the club this year increased from 1200 to 2500. The development of cycling in Budapest is irreversible. From the five per cent share of traffic today it will soon reach ten per cent without any special effort. But to increase it further, serious professional work is needed.

With changing attitudes towards means of transportation should come changes to the distribution of space for transport including widening streets and restricting lanes to certain types of vehicle. These changes will require political and legal decision makers to keep the ball rolling. In the meantime, the number of voters who cycle has increased, and politicians know what is expected of them at next year’s elections.

Gábor Dezső Kürti

Gábor Dezső Kürti

is the main organiser of the Critical Mass in Budapest.