BUDAPEST (AFP) — Budapest city hall is slowly embracing the idea already grasped by some commuters: that there is a two-wheel solution to the city's traffic problems and the resultant soaring levels of pollution.
In Paris, it took a devoted mayor and a month-long public transport strike to turn bicycles into an attractive option for local people.
In Budapest, the starring role has gone to Deputy Mayor Miklos Hagyo: a corpulent figure, he is perhaps unlikely poster boy.
But sporadic strike action over several months by the Hungarian public transport unions has helped to press home the urgency of the problem.
Driving around the Hungarian capital has become increasingly laborious, with the average speed for cars decreasing for decades to the point where uninterrupted driving is now the exception rather than the rule.
Nor, said Hagyo, has the rising number of cars reached its peak yet.
Public transport is not much better: buses moved at barely 15 kilometres (10 miles per hour in 2005, and the figures looks set to decrease.
On top of that of course, the growth of city centre traffic jams means air pollution levels have reached extremely high levels.
When Vector, an EU-funded research project carried out research in Budapest in April, the results were not encouraging.
They found that people in the capital suffered pollution levels about a third higher than in the Dutch town of Utrecht or Hamburg, in Germany, two other sizeable towns participating in the project.
"Bicycles could improve the car situation," said Janos Laszlo, head of the Hungarian Bicycle Club, pointing out that they take up less space and are entirely environmentally friendly.
But Laszlo has his work cut out for him in a city where cycling to work still suffers from an image problem.
"Big cars convey a high status in Budapest, unlike for instance in the Netherlands, where even royalty gets in the saddle," said utility biking expert Greg Spencer. "But biking is starting to look cool here as well," he noted.
Spencer was speaking at a recent forum to debate city hall's new Budapest on Bicycles plan.
The plan itself, which was ordered by the mayor's office, is a sign that the authorities are beginning to change their attitude.
Pro-bike campaigners had to struggle in the past just to get a single official nominated to have responsibility for cycling matters, hailed as a victory at the time.
The plan calls for a change of attitude towards cycling; the establishment of a bike-friendly environment; and infrastructure planning that also takes into account two-wheeled traffic.
In practical terms this includes setting up bike paths, theft-proof storage with shelters at metro stops and bicycle facilities at every new construction site, said Laszlo.
But it also involves teaching drivers and bikers tolerance.
"Neither cars nor buses seem to notice the odd biker on the right side of the lane," said Judit Lengyel, a 30-year-old Budapest resident who cycles to work every day.
"When I want to avoid a speeding car nearly hitting me by cycling in the middle of the lane, vicious honking is the least I have to put up with."
Currently, there are barely 180 kilometres (110 miles) of bike paths in Budapest. Even then, they are often shared with pedestrians, or finish haphazardly in an iron fence, a dead-end street or a major three-lane motorway.
Compare that to Berlin, whose cycling network extends to 620 kilometres.
But Budapest planned to double its existing network by 2013, said Hagyo -- and to increase cyclists's proportion of road traffic to five percent.
Laszlo said this figure had already been reached and said his target was 15 percent, a level his fellow campaigner Spencer also considered realistic.
The biking expert cited Paris as a valid comparison.
Both cities lack a northern European biking tradition; both are densely built making it difficult to build cycling paths; and both know only too well the problems of traffic pollution, says Spencer.
Yet in 2005, the French capital reported that 63 percent more people using bicycles than in 1997. And the numbers have soared since then.
City cycling really caught on in Paris with the introduction in 2007 of the highly successful bicycle rental scheme Velib.
Budapest has yet to opt for such an ambitious programme, even though ironically enough, the 20,000 grey Velib bicycles in Paris were manufactured in Hungary.
In April, some 80,000 cyclists rode in Budapest's bike-pride event Critical Mass, a record for the internationally organised event.
The Budapest on Bikes programme showed that at last the city was taking them seriously, said Hagyo.
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