Power to the Pedal: Easier Riding in Prague
On a cold early spring morning, Prague’s fabled Wenceslas Square is packed with tourists and crowded trams trundle along Vodičkova Street. Cars are everywhere, but here in the heart of the city, there is not a cyclist in sight. However, times may be changing. There is growing public and private momentum to promote cycling and urban bikers say the efforts are beginning to pay off.
New Infrastructure and Civic Activism Encourage Riding in Prague
“The setting now is very good,” says Daniel Mourek, vice-president of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) and a member of the municipal government’s cycling committee. Elections in October 2014 brought in bicycle friendly City Council members and “there is now a political consensus” to accommodate cycling as part of urban transport, Mourek says.
Designated bicycle routes that didn’t exist a decade ago are ever more common, and laws have been enacted to require that cycling be integrated into transport and parking infrastructure, says Mourek, who commutes to work by bike. “For me, the bicycle is the easiest, quickest means of transport.”
Cyclists enjoy a better ride
Commuters say that Prague improving its cycle-friendliness. David Hoffman, a regular cyclist, who daily commutes 25-minutes to his work at BankWatch, a non governmental organisation, has seen more people getting around on two wheels in the five years since he began commuting “Last year, on the first warm days, there were more people than ever,” says Hoffman from his office in Libeň, a district northeast of the city centre. “I was waiting for the cold weather to come so I could have the streets back to myself”, he said laughing.
Other than the EuroVelo 7 and EuroVelo 4 that loop along the Vltava and Labe rivers, and a few connecting paths used mostly for sport, commuter lanes were nearly non-existent just a few years ago. Today, there are marked bike lanes on some main thoroughfares and a 2006 law mandates that cycling facilities be incorporated into all new and refurbished roads. Cycling advocates claim other victories, including a law mandating parking for bicycles in all new buildings and efforts to make Prague’s ubiquitous red trams and its underground systems more accessible to bicycles. Karlín, a low-lying district along the Vltava that was devastated by flooding in the summer of 2002, has been redeveloped and has some of the city’s best cycling infrastructure.
Yet so far these measures haven’t transformed the Czech capital into Amsterdam or Copenhagen, or even Berlin and Vienna, where some local cycling advocates look for inspiration. Surveys show that 200,000 of the city’s of 1.2 million people ride a bike at least once a week, and 120,000 ride at least three times a week. Cycling accounts for an anaemic 1% of mobility in Prague compared to a 6.24% average in the European Union, according to the ECF. It has a long way to go to catch up to Berlin (13%), Ljubljana (12%), or Vienna (6%). The city’s 2020 target for cycling, 5 to 7%, is less than half that of the EU average target of 15%.
Prague’s bike culture is growing
Prague is behind most other big European cities in another way: there’s no citywide bicycle share system, though pilot efforts have sprung up in some districts. Cyclists say other challenges include turf battles between city agencies in charge of streets, traffic signals and transport. Mourek, who also works on the greenways programme for the independent Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation, says interdepartmental bureaucracy can delay projects for months – even longer. He points to a law requiring the installation of 1,000 bicycle parking stands per year in the city, adding: “Last year you could count them on your hands.”
Mourek also said public perceptions have to change. “It’s the typical problem in Prague,” he says. “There is no culture of cycling.” To achieve that, local groups and businesses sponsor a Bike to Work campaign in May. There are also efforts to build a critical mass with other towns, and Czech groups regularly participate in cycling events such as the April Bike Festival at Vienna’s city hall.
There is also growing civic action and enterprise: Bajkazyl (“Bike Asylum”) is a funky bar that offers service and hosts cycling events, and Auto*Mat, a group founded in 2003, promotes alternatives to cars. Plus, the city seeing a surge in bicycle tour operators and upstarts such as CityBikes.cz, a manufacturer of urban and electric bikes. All in all, the changes are making Prague a far hipper place for cycling.
Image © Timothy Spence
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