WHEN discussing transport problems in Slovakia, finishing the country’s highway connections is probably the first thing that jumps to many people’s minds. But the missing stretches of the backbone highway between Bratislava and Košice are not the only problem in the transport system because usable cycling routes are also lacking in most parts of the country. Though more has been accomplished in promoting cycling as a tourism product in Slovakia, the opportunities that regular commuting by bicycle can bring to cities and towns have mostly been overlooked. Many cities in other parts of the world have encouraged the use of bicycles to overcome recurrent traffic jams and inadequate parking for cars. Though it has mostly been non-profit organisations that have been pushing for better cycling possibilities in Slovakia, some positive signals have recently come from state institutions and Bratislava’s city council has declared its intention to augment cycling as part of the city’s overall transport system.
Cyclists can offer a long list of complaints about the current situation, such as a lack of concept planning at local and national levels to support cycling as a transport method, missing cycling routes or routes with little logic, and arrogant Slovak drivers who often place cyclists in life-threatening situations.
“The current situation for cycling in Slovakia is critical particularly because systematic support is lacking from the Ministry of Transport,” Marián Gogola of the Žilina-based NGO Mulica told The Slovak Spectator. “Because of this we are lagging behind in legislation and technical norms as well as in building a cycling infrastructure in Slovakia. The Czech Republic and Germany, for example, have comprehended that cycling is not only a sport but also an ecological means of transport that is particularly usable in cities; this has been missed here in Slovakia, but things are slowly moving forward thanks to civic activists.”
Gogola said the Ministry of Transport has declared its support for cycling, at least on paper, in its Transport Policy for the Slovak Republic through 2015, but added that nothing tangible has been accomplished at the state level. Gogola reported that some regional governments such as those in Žilina, Košice and Bratislava have become more active but this is mostly limited to cycling tourism because the regional governments have limited powers within cities and towns. Some cities such as Piešťany, Prešov and Liptovský Mikuláš have realised that by building cycling infrastructure they can help to improve mobility within their towns, Gogola said, but added that other towns such as Trenčín and Banská Bystrica have totally ignored cycling as a means of urban transport.
Can bikes be a solution for Bratislava?
While the development of cycling routes and encouragement of cycling as a means of transport is limited in nearly all parts of Slovakia, the impact of this is particularly apparent in Bratislava, as a strong pro-cycling policy could bring the capital city some relief from its over-burdened transport system and reduce the number of cars jamming its streets and using its pavements as parking areas.
“We are lagging behind by 30 to 40 years,” Daniel Duriš from Cyklokoalícia, an association that supports urban biking in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator. “In nearby Vienna, as well as in Poland and Slovenia, attention has been paid to development of cycling over the long term, while cycling as a transport means has been absolutely ignored for 20 years in Slovakia… Even Tirana and Bucharest are further ahead than Bratislava as they have bigger networks of cycling paths.”
Roman Bahník, a Bratislava-based architect, told The Slovak Spectator that the capital city’s entire transport system is in a dismal state, not limited to its failure to encourage greater use of bicycles for transport.
“The transport system has been collapsing in Bratislava for years,” Bahník stated, adding that Bratislava has failed to build city bypass routes to eliminate transiting vehicles from travelling through the city centre. “We have not solved the backbone transport system here, not to mention cycling transport.”
Bahník sees the capital’s underdeveloped cycling infrastructure as only one part of a wider transport planning problem, arguing that the city’s priority thus far has been to support the interests of property developers to the detriment of construction projects which would be in the public interest. He believes that this approach has resulted in an insufficient number of parking places for cars, undersized roads and failure to conceptualise plans for cycling routes as well as rest areas and public parks.
Bahník also believes there is another phenomenon at play: many Slovaks currently perceive owning and driving a car as a status symbol.
“If a car continues to be one of the status elements among citizens here, our movement towards cycling as a means of transport will be slower,” Bahník stated. “Cycling as a means of transport in Bratislava as well as in the rest of Slovakia faces a shortage of biking routes, non-conceptualised planning, insufficient bike stands at buildings and, last but not least, aggressive car drivers.”
The Bratislava city council appears to agree with that assessment and has resolved to improve the situation in the capital.
“If transport trends continue in an unchanged way, tens of thousands more cars will flood Bratislava,” Ľubomír Andrassy, spokesperson for Bratislava Mayor Milan Ftáčnik, told The Slovak Spectator. “To reverse this trend, we are starting to prefer an alternative to motor vehicles such as public transport, cycling and walking.”
Andrassy concedes that cycling routes built in the capital so far were almost exclusively for recreational purposes, but said the city council is seeking to change that approach.
“We will orient much more towards urban cycling paths so that Bratislavans can use bikes to commute to work as well,” Andrassy stated, adding that it is necessary to build infrastructure such as cycling paths and bike stands, while at the same time to start changing people’s way of thinking, particularly getting drivers to understand that bicycles also have a place on the road.
Andrassy said Vienna can serve as great inspiration for Bratislava, as 20 years ago it had less than 200 kilometres of cycling routes but now has more than 1,100 kilometres. Bratislava currently has about 100 kilometres of cycling paths, of which about 25 kilometres were built over the past five years, according to Andrassy.
The large difference in the availability of cycling routes is at least part of the reason why only about 2 percent of Bratislavans use a bicycle to commute to work compared to about 30 percent of Vienna residents, the TASR newswire reported.
“Bratislava wants to follow the same direction as other modern cities," Andrassy stated. "Our goal is to increase the share of cycling in the mix of transportation methods. This cannot be carried out in any way other than by a strategic decision that the city will significantly support cycling as a means of transport."
Earlier this year Bratislava's city council created a cycling commission as an advisory body to the mayor in order to involve those who are concerned about the issue into moving the development of urban cycling forward. Employees of the city council, representatives of individual city districts and members of civic cycling associations serve on the commission.
“The task of the cycling commission is to define a strategy for development of cycling transport and to propose implementation of specific routes,” Andrassy told The Slovak Spectator.
The commission has thus far proposed five priority cycling routes. One of these routes has already opened and the remaining four are in various phases of preparation or implementation.
“The aim is to build main radial cycling routes within the next few years,” Andrassy said.
Cyklokoalícia has prepared and proposed a number of steps for Bratislava, such as allocating 5 percent of the city’s transport budget for bicycle transport infrastructure, about €3 million annually. The association has developed its proposals based on the experiences of its members and by monitoring the behaviour of cyclists within the city. It has presented the city council with a list of 11 priority routes that are currently most-used by cyclists that lack lanes for cyclists or separate cycling paths.
“We are proposing bike paths for city districts; we are holding talks with the Ministry of Transport, which has promised to designate a national cycling coordinator,” said Gogola, adding that the Environment Ministry also promised to create a grant scheme for the development of cycling paths in villages and towns. “We will see how the current [political] changes will affect these plans.”
24. Oct 2011 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková