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.
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.
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.
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