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Briton Mark Taylor, like many other residents in Smolenice in western Slovakia, can easily get around his own town, and nearby Trnava, and everywhere in between, by car.
But because he cares about the environment, he says, he shuns cars for a more sustainable means of transport: bicycle.
Taylor moved to Smolenice, about 20 km away from Trnava, where he previously lived, several years ago. He still works in the city, though, but he refuses to use his car to commute.
“I always try to get to work by bike, bus, and on foot,” Taylor said.
If there are no bees, there are no trees, there are no flowers, and there will be no us.„
While he believes longer-distance routes between towns are not as well-developed as in, for instance, the Czech Republic and western Europe, Taylor says he has noticed how Trnava has become a more cycle-friendly place in recent years – it has built 22 km of bike lanes, with plans for another 100km.
Peter Bročka, Trnava’s mayor, is a well-known cycling enthusiast.
Cycling as a means of urban transport has become a prominent topic in recent years as many towns and cities look to become more sustainable.
But the picture for urban cyclists across the country is mixed with some places seemingly far more encouraging of cycle use than others.
“Local authorities in Trnava are not afraid of building bike lanes in an autocentric society,” Ján Roháč of The Ekopolis Foundation’s Cykloplatforma Slovakia said.
The same could be said about people in the neighbouring spa town of Piešťany, sometimes dubbed ‘Slovak Amsterdam’. Cycling is in most locals’ DNA, though the town lacks an extensive network of bike lanes.
However, Galanta and Nové Zámky, for example, have wide roads, but they have not built bike lanes, according to Roháč.
“It’s reprehensible,” he said, adding that all towns should promote cycling, and cycling safety, within their boundaries.
Most Slovak towns could have great cycling infrastructure due to their geography and size, according to Roháč.
“There’s plenty of money for it,” he said, pointing out that the state is planning to allocate €100 million to cycling transport as part of its Covid-19 recovery package.
In major Slovak towns, there are already special schemes running for bike-sharing, and the use of e-bikes and e-scooters.
Public transport better but not ideal
But cycling is only one form of sustainable transport town authorities should be looking at, experts say.
“City public transport must also work,” Roháč pointed out.
Buses are one of the most common forms of public transport in Slovakia and are, generally, much more comfortable than even a decade ago, with providers regularly replacing their vehicles.
There is also an app, UBIAN, providing detailed information about bus and train connections, although it is not always possible to use the app to purchase tickets.
But data provided by the Association of Public Transport Operators in Urban Agglomerations shows fewer people are using them – the number of people using city public transport dropped from 581 million passengers in 1999 to 375 million 20 years later.
Marek Modranský from the Institute for Public Transport says towns should increase bus frequency to persuade people to use them more and make city transport faster and more comfortable.
Cutting services to save money is a false argument, he believes.
“Today, almost all towns realise further reductions in bus frequency have no impact on overall savings,” he said.
Tomáš Vašek from the Lepšia Doprava civic association believes progress on making urban transport more sustainable is being held back by a lack of professionalism among those responsible for its development, as well as a general negative attitude towards public transport, including among politicians.
In Bratislava, city transport has visibly improved in recent years, although there is still room for improvement, experts argue.
“New tram lines, increased speed, better use of railway transport, and simplification of transfers and access to stops would help,” Vašek added.
A 2018 survey by the Dopravný Podnik Bratislava public transport company showed that only 41 percent of respondents used city transport daily and 64 percent were satisfied with it.
“The investment debt in transport and public spaces is huge,” Metropolitan Institute Bratislava Director Ján Mazúr admitted, blaming the situation on what he calls an unfair system of financing for the city.
Despite this, Bratislava Region has developed an integrated public transport system. Available to 718,000 inhabitants, it covers both bus and rail transport in the region, allowing users to purchase single tickets for use on both.
It is often cited as a positive example for other self-governing regions, despite unreliable rail transport, some of which in central and eastern Slovakia have established their own integrated public transport companies.
“Their goal is to make travelling by public transport [trams, trains, regional buses] as easy and smooth as possible,” Modranský said.
Simply making public transport better is not enough though, in his opinion, to get more people using it.
“Local authorities should make drivers’ lives more difficult by tightening parking policies and introducing restrictions for cars in their centres. It is the only way to stop towns being killed by cars,” he said.
Circular economy maps
In the meantime, towns are also learning to be more sustainable in other ways.
Recycling has been beefed up through legislation. Biowaste makes up most of the mixed municipal waste collected in Slovak towns but for more than a year most municipalities have had to recycle kitchen waste. Among other things, this will help Slovakia meet EU targets for recycling and improve the environment.
In 2020, Slovakia failed to meet the EU requirement of 50 percent of municipal waste being recycled.
“If we manage to sort and recycle biowaste, we can fulfil our European commitments much faster and, in particular, make a significant contribution to a better environment,” Martina Gaislová from the JRK waste management company told Odpady-portal.sk, a website about waste.
Moreover, the Institute for Circular Economy, which helps towns improve their waste management, has created circular economy maps of all eight Slovak regional capitals, as well as the town of Bardejov, to help people reduce their waste production.
The maps show people where to find zero-waste shops, second-hand clothing stores, composting sites, rental and repair shops, and even community gardens for anyone wanting to live a more sustainable life.
Urban farming and beekeeping
In Bratislava, local resident Adam Gubran and several other families have set up a community garden in Východné, in the Rača neighbourhood. They are hoping to receive a grant for the project from city authorities.
Having previously grown herbs on his balcony “it was one of the first things that occurred to me when I moved here,” he said.
Community gardens have been springing up in towns for some time.
Last year, city officials came up with the Bratislava Neighbours project to green its public spaces. This includes creating community gardens, as well as tree planting.
“Community gardens are also an ideal place to create a new community or strengthen an existing one,” the city’s spokesperson, Dagmar Schmucková, said.
Bratislava currently offers 14 plots of land on which residents can start their own community gardens. They can also find their own spot in the city, although this requires a longer approval process.
Meanwhile, urban beekeeping is growing popular, too. The NGO Živica has set up several apiaries around the country, including in Zvolen, a “forestry” town known for collecting rainwater. Most, though, are scattered around Bratislava, including one in the Grassalkovich Garden outside the Presidential Palace.
When it was opened two years ago, President Zuzana Čaputová highlighted the insects’ importance.
“If there are no bees, there are no trees, there are no flowers, and there will be no us,” she said.
The Spectator College is a programme designed to support the study and teaching of English in Slovakia, as well as to inspire interest in important public issues among young people.