The urban bike magazine

Cycling In Prague: An Uphill Struggle

Prague is unique among European capitals. Romantic, narrow alleys and ancient cobbled streets form a city set on several hills where you can watch the sun set in spectacular colors over the roofs of the vast historical center… In one word: a nightmare.Yes, you understood me correctly. I am calling Prague a nightmare.

Jan Krcmar is living in Prag since 2006, where he works as a PR-Expert. Jan grew up in Vienna. In the capital of Austria the bicycle became his first choice of means of transport. Today he is living with his family in a car free household and counts on his bike, public transport and carsharing.
Image © Andreas Stückl

A Paradise for Bike Lobbyists

Well, at least a nightmare at first glance. Prague seems to have all the attributes that would make you think you could not possibly have any mentally sane people cycling the streets of Prague. And yet you find them. A lot of them. And from all walks of life, all ages, all professions. It turns out that Prague is in fact a dream come true. A dream come true for cycle-lobbyists. Let me explain.

Let’s start with the hills. The most common argument you hear from people about cycling in Prague is something along the lines of: “You can’t cycle in Prague, too many hills.” Not true. Sure, saying that there are hills in Prague, some of them steep, is topographically accurate. But like many other hilly towns Prague has an ever-growing cycling community of people who have realized that it takes the body a few days to adjust to cycling uphill. And that the pleasure of cycling downhill is way worth the effort. Of course, many people in Prague have taken to electric bikes to tackle the steep roads. Among them was the former Danish ambassador who could be seen on his e-bike in a suit and tie, cycling along in a strict Copenhagen style. When the local cycling lobby Auto*Mat organized their “Cycle to work” campaign in 2012, only eight per cent of participants claimed that hills were a problem on their commute.

Fact two: cobbled streets. Yes, that is a huge obstacle. Cobblestones may look great on your holiday snaps, and boy, does the texture of the rough surface look awesome in Instagram. But you might as well rename cobblestones to “tire killers” or “wheel breakers”. They are yet nothing a mountain bike cannot handle and unless you have a single-speed bike, you survive. And hey, there is a thriving single-speed community in Prague as well who obviously doesn’t mind getting a vigorous massage when going downhill a cobbled street.

Problem three: romantic, nice little narrow alleyways in the historic city center. They too can be a challenge, especially when they are packed to the brim with tourists. But the good news is that you are allowed to ride your bike in most pedestrian zones in the center of Prague, a privilege many other cities don’t grant their cyclists.

Bicycle Spiral in Prague

Image © Andreas Stückl

So what does all of this mean for the reality of cycling in Prague?

As I said, Prague has an ever-growing cycling community. Each year more and more people take up cycling to school, to work, to shopping, to leisure, wherever. Sadly however, politicians only slowly realize that cycling can only be supported and encouraged by improving cycling infrastructure. Prague does not offer cyclists many cycle paths or lanes. In fact, a lot or cyclists in Prague inappropriately use sidewalks for their commute. Which, from the standpoint of a cycle-lobbyist, is frankly a thorn in their flesh. While a damage to the image of cyclists, this fact serves as the ultimate argument for more cycle paths—because people want to ride. And if you don’t build more cycle paths, they will still ride. On the sidewalks. Or on dangerous roads.
Currently the quota of cyclists in Prague is at about two percent, which is stunningly low given that the Czechs are a cycling-crazy nation. Most Czechs have an expensive mountain bike at home, which they strap to the roof of their cars on a weekend to go for rides in the gorgeous countryside. This also means that for many years the city administration has invested primarily in bike paths at the edge of town.

Luckily, more and more bike lanes are being painted on the roads of Prague every year, and the city has to gems to offer to cyclists: The bike lanes along the Vltava river, which makes for a particularly beautiful ride, especially in the morning hours, and an own cycle-highway, complete with a tunnel for cyclists. This ultramodern bit of cycling infrastructure, constructed on the site of an abandoned railway track, can serve as an example of how easily bike paths could be created.

bike tunnel in Prague

Image © Andreas Stückl

The future looks bright for cyclists in Prague, as the city has finally caught up with many other cities and realized that you don’t even need to build or paint cycle lanes. Prague has discovered the virtues of restricted speed zones. Following the introduction of a 30 km/h speed limit in a residential area, many other local politicians have discovered the advantages of calming traffic. Slower traffic means safer rides. Therefore you don’t even need a bike lane where cars are going at a safe pace.

So, fingers crossed: Prague needs more cyclists, as it has one of the highest numbers of cars among Europe’s capital cities and public transport is running on the limit of its capacity. One of the easiest ways out for Prague is encouraging people to cycle more. It’s as simple as that.

Images © Andreas Stückl

Jan Krcmar is living in Prag since 2006, where he works as a PR-Expert. Jan grew up in Vienna. In the capital of Austria the bicycle became his first choice of means of transport. Today he is living with his family in a car free household and counts on his bike, public transport and carsharing.

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  • Tony Rose

    This is an account of my most recent cycling experience in Prague. I have only started cycling recently and up until Sunday my kids loved it.
    “I get to see my kids 8 times a month. 6 of those are school days and 2 are Sundays. It’s not as much as I’d like but that’s the law. On those Sundays we always try to do something fun and interesting like a bike ride and picnic to Stromovka or Vysehrad, or a trip to the zoo. Today we were gonna ride our bikes from Vinohrady to Vysehrad then down along the river for a picnic. About a year ago a friend gave me a bike which is great for getting around and also for trips with my kids.
    This morning I rode my bike from Zizkov to Vinohrady, where my kids stay with their mother. I was gonna pick them up as arranged. I was feeling pretty good and had the makings of a good picnic in my backpack. The sun was shining. As I reached their block I bumped up on the sidewalk to pedal the last few metres to their doorway. Before I reached their doorway (in what would have been a matter of seconds) a Mestske cop on a bike(on the sidewalk too) overtook me and cut me off. Mestske Police officer 3206 demanded to see some identification. I explained I was just going to the next doorway and we could talk there. I went to move past him and he kicked my front wheel, grabbed my bike and blocked me.He shouted at me so I shouted back and an argument ensued. Suddenly a second cop in a different coloured uniform appeared. I mistakenly took him for a České republiky police officer.I gave the second cop, who unfortunately turned out to be Mestske Police officer 1210, my I.D. then pushed by them to ring my kids’ doorbell. I mentioned on the intercom to their mother that I was having a bit of hassle with the cops but could she send the kids down with their bikes anyway.
    My daughters are 8 and 10 years old. They appeared on the street as these two “big tough” cops were shouting at their dad. Cop 1210 was refusing to return my I.D. even though they had both written down all my details. So now it’s me, my two kids and our bikes on the sidewalk while the cops are shouting at me in a threatening manner. I’m exasperated so I’m shouting back at the cops. The kids got so upset that they burst into tears. My youngest was so shook up she had to go back inside to her mother’s place. My oldest daughter wanted to stay with me because she didn’t trust what the cops might do(and show some solidarity with her old man). By this time there were small groups of passers by stopping to see what was going down. There were also other people cycling by ON THE SIDEWALK that the cops didn’t seem to care about. My kids mother came out to say that the wee one was so upset she didn’t want to ride her bike today (we’d been talking about this trip on the phone these last few days and she’d been really looking forward to it). So their mother took their bikes back inside.
    Our cycle trip to Vysehrad was ruined before it even got started. On a peaceful Sunday morning, on a quiet street, two cops with nothing better to do had managed to make two wee girls cry and spoiled their Sunday day out for a bike ride and a picnic. The kids are now scared to ride their bikes down the street because it’s illegal and they feel unsafe to ride alongside traffic on the road in case of an accident.
    So I asked cop 1210 what the rules are about kids cycling on the road or on the sidewalk. He proceeded to tie himself up in loops of inconsistency.He didn’t know the law and he wasn’t carrying the civic code handbook of the Mestske Police(a small paperback).I had no idea up until then it was illegal to ride on the sidewalk. I’ve been riding on both the road and the sidewalk for the last year and so have my kids.Every single day I see scores of people riding on the sidewalk.I see scores of cops ignoring them. I only discovered there is zero tolerance to bikes on the sidewalk here when I googled it tonight.
    The cops left, saying they will process their complaint and send a letter from whatever authority deals with this stuff to my kids’ mother’s address. I refused to give them my address. This whole episode lasted around 45 minutes (I guess) and created a lot of bad feeling and an ugly atmosphere all because I bumped up from the road to ride the last few metres on the sidewalk to my kids front door. All Mestske Police officer 3206 had to do was tell me it was illegal and warn me not to do it again.
    This is the second time in a matter of days that I have had an ugly run-in with the Mestske Police(the other was about busking). There is no consistency in their dealings and they come across as petty, vindictive, thuggish and of low intelligence. As far as I can see they have absolutely no idea about community policing or of how to read a situation and react. My kids have met 3 cops on the street in the last few days and all these cops have managed to do is convince an 8 year old and a 10 year old girl that All Cops Are Bastards….. well done boys, a round of applause for you. Let’s all give a big hand for the Mestske Policie!!!
    We didn’t ride our bikes to Vysehrad today. Instead we used Prague’s excellent public transport system to get to beautiful Stromovka Park where we ate our picnic watching the ducks and the nutrias by the pond in the sunshine.
    Oh, and when Mestske Police officer 3206 saw my Irish identity card he said to his pal Cop 1210,”IRSKO JE BORDEL”- a nice wee flourish of Xenophobic racial & cultural superiority to embellish the shit they were serving.”

  • deschutes

    I’ve lived in Prague for 6.5 years. I lived in Portland OR and Vancouver BC before moving here. Where Portland and Vancouver were very bike friendly and safe for cyclists; the very opposite holds true for Prague! Being an ESL teacher here, I’ve had numerous discussions (and bike rides) with my students. The first point I want to make: Czech car drivers are openly hostile towards bikers! I have seen how aggressive they are first hand. Students have told me about coworkers of theirs who have been hit by cars–and some of them died from injuries. I have had other students in class tell me “bikers have no place on the road with cars at all”: this was said very firmly, and unapologetically. One student even went so far as to say “if a biker is hit by a car on a city street–its his fault–he should not be on the road which is only for cars!” This is the attitude here, you have been warned. Another problem is the very narrow streets with big curbs: there is no where to go if a big lorry comes up behind you: the truck drivers are even worse than the car drivers! They are a very rough lot. Because of these factors, when I do bike here, I take great pains to go only on select roads with clearly marked bike lanes, or the bike only routes for example along Vltava or Berounka rivers.

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