Being born Dutch means being born to ride. Some may say we are born with a bike in our hands. We bike a lot, it’s a simple truth. We learn how to ride a bike from an early age. Our level of self-confidence, self-conscienceness and, to some degree, plain arrogance rises the moment we get on that bicycle. We know how to ride on one wheel, how to ride with five bags of groceries and a crate of beer, with three kids (one on the back, two on the front), without hands, during storms, and hand-in-hand with your loved one (riding a bike right next to you). Once we are on a bike, we own the roads. Cars have nothing on us. We ride where we like, when we like and however we like.
With that being said, I was very interested to see an article on the Slovak news/blog website TREND.sk on the impact of bicycles and bikers on the quality of life of the people in the Dutch city of Utrecht (see full article here). The main point of this article is that studies have shown that the quality of life of the ca. 280.000 inhabitants of Utrecht has improved significantly, due to the fact that the majority of the Utrecht population uses the bike to get to school, work, pub, library, friends, stores, etc. The study (click here for the full report – in Dutch) shows a very interesting conclusion: the promotion of biking is good for the city and its people. Utrecht expects to save ca. 250 million euros per year, due to people biking. Biking results in less stress and therefore less time spend on sick leave (“PN” in Slovakia); more bikes and less cars in the city causes for better quality of air; bikes cause less noise than cars; and bikers live a healthier and more productive life, with less time spend in stressful, unhealthy, time-consuming traffic jams. The study also presents some very interesting statistics: 96% of the Utrecht families own at least 1 bike, while ca. 50% of the families own at least 3 bicycles. On any given day, 100.000 “Utrechters” are on their bikes, biking an average of 3.1km per day and 1.179km per year. All together, in 2015, the Utrecht population biked a staggering amount of more than 600 million (yes…million) kilometer. The infrastructure of the city of Utrecht is completely tailored to the biking population. Utrecht belongs to the top cities in the Netherlands with the highest density of bike-lanes. Multiple high-tech bike-garages have sprung up in the last years (the biggest one has a capacity of 12.500 bikes). The annual bike-fair “Bikemotion” in Utrecht invites each year ca. 30.000 visitors, who spend about 500.000 euros on bikes and accessories. Utrecht knows 28 bike-couriers, who are good for 40.000 deliveries per year, keeping ca. 10 delivery-vans from polluting the streets each day. The city rather invests in bike-lanes than in car-roads. All of this, in the end, also reflects in the employment statistics on Utrecht. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of jobs in the bike-sector increased with 50%. Bike-repairshops in Utrecht collectively saw a 31 million euros revenue. All in all, in 2014, the economical value of the bike in Utrecht came down to 38 million euros and 274 full-time jobs. In 2015, Utrecht biked 53 million kilometer more than the previous year, which resulted in 30 extra full-time jobs.
Ok, enough numbers and percentages. Why am I writing about this? Because I see a lot of potential in a city like Bratislava. Right now, it is outright dangerous to drive by bike through the city. The number of bike-lanes in the city can be counted on one hand and seem to be built in the most random of places. There is a bike-lane just outside of Vajnory, where I am living, starting from the roundabout (next to the shopping center Vajnoria) up the road in the direction of the highway. However, the moment you reach the top of the bridge, the bike-lane mysteriously disappears and will never been seen from that point onward. Why in anyone’s name is that bike-lane there? What purpose does it serve? This is just one out of many examples. Probably the most functional bike-lane is the one that leads all the way from Bratislava to Austria. But well…that doesn’t benefit anyone commuting to work in Bratislava. Many times I considered buying a bike to go to work instead of using public transport. The complete lack of parking places for bikes in this city and the simple fact that I love my life, however, kept me from doing so.
I do realise, however, that the problem around the use of bikes is not with the people itself. Point in case: to take a break from writing this blog post, I took a stroll to the Tesco in Vajnory, just outside the village. It is a nice day, warm and dry. On my way to and from the supermarket (ca. 20 minutes each way), I must have met at least 20 people (elderly, parents with kids and sporty people alike) on bike. People do want to bike. Why not in Bratislava?
Probably the most important reason is the the absolutely staggering number of cars in this city. Cars are everywhere, parked everywhere, wherever they wish. Bikes are nowhere, parked nowhere. The amount of cars also results in Bratislava being a noisy city and perhaps not the most healthy environment. There are traffic jams every morning going in and every evening going out of Bratislava. I understand that the way Bratislava city was rebuilt during the Communist era doesn’t allow for much space to make the city more bike-friendly. During Communist times, cars were not in such high demand as now. Families (sometimes even neighbours) shared one car, as was inherent to the Communist ideals. The amount of parking space and the layout of the roads were built in accordance to that. After Communism fell and opened the world to the Slovak people, the number of cars owned by people increased exponentially. The layout of the city, however, remained more or less the same. This resulted in the situation seen today: too few parking space for too much cars. This in itself should not have discouraged people to get on a bike. However, the fact that all these cars are also sharing the same roads, makes Bratislava dangerous to bike in.
That is not to say that there is no potential to make the city more friendly to the bike. The roads in Bratislava are generally wide, with wide pavements. Is it really not possible to create bike-lanes? The city has invested a lot in the last years to improve the public transport situation in the city. All trolly busses and trams have been renewed. There are “green” busses operating throughout the city. The city actively promotes usage of public transport. In a lot of busses they now promote on small TV screens the “Bratislava City card” – a card, primarily meant for tourists, that provides you with unlimited travel by public transport (among other benefits). Funny enough, in the promotion video, they show a happy couple biking across the new tram-bridge, crossing the Danube to Petržalka.
Reality, however, shows a city that is not ready for bikers. And that is a pity. The amount of traffic jams within the city every morning and evening could be reduced if more people would take the bike. More importantly, however, the lives of the Bratislava people could be significantly improved – better health, more movement, less money spent on gas and everything else that comes with owning and using a car and, if the argument in the Utrecht initiative is to be believed, a higher productivity. Also, as the study in Utrecht clearly shows, there is a huge economical benefit for the city itself. It creates job opportunities, it strengthens the local economy, and it saves money on other expenses.
So why not follow the example of Utrecht a bit more? Why not look across the borders and see how other cities or even other countries ensure a better life for their inhabitants? I am not calling for a bike-revolution here. I am simply trying to point out that there are cities out there that actively promote ways (in the case of Utrecht the use of bikes) how to significantly improve the lifestyle in a city while, at the same time, generate resources that can then be invested back into the city it came from. It is a virtuous circle that everyone will benefit from. I call on the Bratislava government to think about this. It is really worth your time.