Will Budapest become the cycling capital of Eastern-Europe?

Will Budapest become the cycling capital of Eastern-Europe?

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Zagreb and Novi Sad. Each city has truly inspiring bicycle activist communities, working on making their cities more bicycle-friendly and less car-centric. They are working on a more liveable future and they were interested in how we are fighting for the same cause in Budapest.

criticalmass2013-andrassyThe last Critical Mass in Budapest, 2013

The capital cities of Croatia and Vojvodina, Serbia had their own summer festivals, putting the bicycle in the center of attention for a weekend. They organized Critical Mass bicycle rides when hundreds of cyclists took over the streets with the police blocking car traffic for a short time. These rides give the opportunity to see public spaces from a totally different angle. Smiles, bell and horn sounds, music and waving pedestrians owned those asphalt stretches before cars, noise and smog came back for the rest of the time.

These festivals included conferences too. Engineers, urban design professionals, entrepreneurs and advocates were invited from the Balkans and other parts of Europe. They gave lectures on how they imagine the alternative future for their cities, others just talked about how life is in cities where these imaginations are real. I had the opportunity to attend both of these festivals and to talk about how Budapest is transforming into a bicycle-friendly city and what the world’s biggest Critical Mass gave to the citizens. The same topic, we spoke about on the Velo-City conference in Vienna too.

What’s so interesting in the relationship of Budapest and its bicycles?

Budapest, this beautiful city of nearly 2 million people suffered the same history that went down on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Like in every major city in the Western world, cities were originally designed for people. But after WWII the concept of progress turned against those people. The futuristic idea of  progress that was described the three words “faster, bigger, stronger” took over our cities and turned living places into an infrastructure to serve the economy. Cities were redesigned for machines and as roads got wider, public places shrunk and sustainable traffic solutions – such as bicycles, or tramlines – were erased from the urban landscape. At the end, cars took over the streets. Almost every major city from east to west suffers the result of this “progress”: air-pollution, noise, lack of public spaces made our cities unliveable.


photo: retronom.hu

As a result, people adopted to this new way of living in which machines dominate the life of humans. Of course some tried to escape, but they couldn’t finally. From 1990 almost 300000 people left the center of Budapest and with other non-sustainable ideas of development the city turned into a grey stretch of asphalt and not much. Ironically they had to come back to the city due to the lack of infrastructure, job and schooling opportunities which turned small villages to non-living sleeping towns, and small roads where hit by constant traffic jam.

But in the late ’90-s a small community of bike messengers featuring some green activists thought city-life could be different. They organised a small bike ride with 50 participants, which they named Critical Mass. After the first ride in 1998 nothing really happened.

Then in 2004, the mayor of Budapest Gábor Demszky refused the demand of a real Car-free Day on 22nd September saying “Budapest will never become Amsterdam”.

That sentence activated the community that grew into a subculture in the previous years. The leaders of a bike-messenger company and some green guys came together and organized the first big Critical Mass demonstration, calling it the “Real Car-free Day” for 22nd September. Some 2000 people took to the streets. It was unexpected, because that time you couldn’t see more than 20 bikers a day.

What did the public think about cycling?

While moving around the city was nearly impossible because of the huge amount of unnecessary car use, the public thought that the bicycle was rather a child’s toy than a solution, something one should only use in the forests or parks – strictly bringing the bike by car. Bicycle infrastructure meant yellow painted lines dividing sidewalks, which only favours the car by not considering the bicycle as a means of transport.

There was lack of knowledge and willingness from politicians to change this non-sustainable system. But that did not stop the growing community of bike enthusiasts, whose biggest help to organise were the brand new opportunities that web 2.0 just gave them. They formed communities, organised different actions and informed each other through the pages of the community. Huge but peaceful Critical Mass demos were held every spring and autumn, and other smaller activities sustained the attention of both cyclists and the public.

As a result politicians started to react a bit differently. Not that different, but they tried to look like someone who cares about the needs of the public.

Some little infrastructural developments took place, but not in a professionally satisfying way.

elso CM bpn 1998 09 25 Francois Panchard cm2009-erzsebethid
Critical Mass Budapest: 1998 – 2009 (Photo: Francois Panchard, Flickr)

So as it turned to 2006, the Critical Mass grew even bigger and even the president of state joined the ride. But as the community needed to develop itself, it became clear that it needs a professional advocacy group. Hungarian Cyclists’ Club was formed as an NGO with the aim to convince politicains and urban planners to make the streets more bicycle-friendly. Besides Critical Mass was a strong movement, it had a branch of engineers and self-developing, enthusiast activists around who could wear a suit and talk to decision-makers or appear in the media properly.

From that time it was also clear, that the biggest “tool” to transform Budapest into a bicycle-friendly city is to get more people cycling.

When a politician sees cyclists while sitting in his car and going to work, he will see a voter – we thought.

And while the movement had an NGO becoming expert of urban design day-by-day, an even more popular movement on the street could use its power to force building partnerships with municipalities.

The example of Budapest shows that making cycling popular and less subcultural is the key to get more people on bikes. The movement’s “knowledge” was growing and international examples became more and more available via the internet and the evolving social media. As Critical Mass rides became more popular and as the media coverage slowly turned to be friendly rather than opposing, community leaders saw that cycling, and the need of a liveable city connects so many different people in a politically fragmented society that was unprecedented.

In my opinion 2008 was the year, when the changes on the street level became truly visible. The growing amount of cyclists and the differencies between them made it clear: the city is changing. And the movement changed with it.

While many grassroot, local communities were fighting together for better cycling conditions, several popular campaigns were launched. The ever-growing, nationwide Bike to Work campaign has started, which still has thousands of participants each year. With the partnership of state institutions, advertising agencies, cycling celebrities and media, it could reach all those people, who would’ve never thought they could ever bike to work.

Relive to joy of childhood – Bike to Work. TV ad by the world-known agency Y&R

As part of the international movement started in Copenhagen, Cycle Chic have also become a buzzword in the bike life. Cycle Chic is a blog, that aims to show that anyone can ride a bicycle and it is not a subcultural activity anymore. Average city trips don’t require special bicycles and clothing, so high heels, suits or any kind of fashion matches the bicycle perfectly – says the movement, which quotes Amsterdam or Copenhagen as best examples. Cycle Chic documents everyday cyclists as role models and organizes bicycle fashion shows even with such fashion magazines like InStyle.


As a result the once revolutionary crowd of the Critical Mass rides grew to tens of thousands of participants and made it to the pages of foreign newspapers. The rides became festivals and cycling became appreciated and safer as the number of everyday cyclists grew bigger and bigger.

BKK_1994-2010szamlalo 2010-2013

The rise of cycling citywide and at the bicycle counter located on a busy bike lane, built in 2011

When something gets popular it sells. As cycling became fashionable and cool, international brands as well as local ones started to promote themselves with the image of cyclists. Telecommunications giants, banks and even McDonald’s or the national oil company uses bicycles in their ads.

In the meantime, partnerships of the Hungarian Cyclists’ Club were fruitful in road code changes, infrastructural developments in different cities and the bicycle became part of urban planning processes. Not only bike lanes were built, a bike share scheme was launched in the Hungarian capital this year which makes the bike an accessible tool to anyone who doesn’t even have an own bike.


As a small, subcultural group started a huge transformation towards liveability, the mass became an everyday sight and it was not critical anymore. For that reason, the organizers of Critical Mass decided to stop their demonstrations, saying it has reached its goal: cycling became mainstream. And it did, definitely. Now its much more important to gain bigger supporting base for the Hungarian Cyclists’ Club to make their advocacy work stronger and more effective.

In the end of 2014 Budapest is still not Amsterdam, but it is on a good way to become a new Berlin in Eastern-Europe.

Photos – if not credited otherwise – by Cyclechic.hu




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I live in Budapest and I can be enthusiastic about anything.

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