From Biking to Solidarity

Mariann Majorné Venn

By Mariann Majorné Venn, on February 3rd, 2015

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The proportion of people using bicycle for everyday transport in Budapest has increased beyond all expectations after the political change. Along with this, a number of NGOs came to existence, aiming at improveming conditions for urban cycling, and later, striving for a new paradigm in the use of urban space. In 2011 one cyclist group went even further: through a series of actions they committed themselves to social solidary.

These days it is hard to believe for the youth of Budapest that two decades ago, almost nobody used bicycles for transportation in Hungary’s capital. Cycling in the city was considered irresponsible and risky and annoying for both car drivers and pedestrians. These opinions originated in a context characterised by lack of cycling infrastructure. But now many seem addicted to this new form of mobility. Besides environmental and health consciousness, cyclers usually mention the transformation of their attitudes towards the city, a more direct and lively connection with the people, the joy of encounters and discovery. Strangely enough, this communal urban experience was brought to a wider public by a blockade of taxi drives in 1990 when a lot of people had to walk to their destinations in a city empty of automobiles: 25 years later, this positive experience still comes up in many conversations.

Cycling booms in Budapest

 Since the early 2000s, within few years, cycling burst into the daily life of the city. Dedicated groups of people and NGOs played major role in this change. In the first years bicycle couriers who quickly became the emblematic figures of the city and the group called Friends of the Urban Biking started to organize smaller or larger ad hoc cyclist events. The car-free day of 2004 was organized on a weekend day by decision of the mayor. This provided a good opportunity for Hungary’s largest bicycle demonstration ever, with about 4000 people participating. The event attracted the attention of the press and public. The Hungarian Bicycle Club was formed and the dialogue begun between the policy makers and the groups dedicated to urban cycling. The Critical Mass of the year 2005 was attended by 20.000 cyclists. This was such an impressive popular expression that those press organs with the most offensive and critical tone retreated and began to deal with the matter. In 2006, 32 thousand people attended the Critical Mass and in 2007, 50 thousand, while other Hungarian cities and even nearby cities in Romania (Oradea, Tirgu Mures) organized their own parade.

 The bicycle traffic increased tenfold in a few years and the gradual construction of cycling infrastructure – bike paths, -lanes, bicycle crossings, storages – started. Finally, in 2013, Critical Mass organizers announced that the movement had reached its goal in Budapest so they would no longer organize a mass parade. The success of Critical Mass can be regarded as the greatest achievement of the civil remedies in Hungary. Of course this could happen only because really a lot and more and more people in Budapest recognized the joys and benefits of biking, changing the traffic map of the city of nearly 2 million inhabitants.

 New generation recapture the city

 No doubt it was at the beginning, but it is probably still true that, in Budapest, daily bike use is more than a rational alternative of transport. Since the mid ‘90s, the bicycle courriers have become the symbol of freedom and of an emerging subculture breaking up with old conventions. This generation has noticeably sought to reformulate its relationship to the city and its community. In the early years the cyclists ensured continuous criticism and daily conflicts and infringement with the old top-down ways, and more and more saw themselves as a kind of a guerrilla movement, and demanded their place in the city more and more loudly.

 With the spreading of cycling many pubs and community meeting places became “cyclist” places and thereby a manifestation scene for a new kind of city usage paradigm. After the opening of the Szimpla Kert (Simpla Garden) in 2002 the spreading of the ruin pubs have started, which (at least at the beginning) has also brought a sense of freedom and liberation from rules and material constrains. Along with this, “new generation” civil organizations came alive, one after another – one of the most active was perhaps the association of Zöld Fiatalok (Green Youth Association) – and initiated various actions to take back the city.

Volunteering and social solidarity

 At Christmas 2014, many heard the news that the municipality of Cserdi – an almost 100% Roma inhabited village in Baranya county – had donated large amount of food (potatoes, onions) produced by the village public workers to families in need in Budapest.

Through this gesture the charismatic mayor was intended to express the importance of social solidarity between Roma and non-Roma. Perhaps it was less clear from the news that in the donation action one partner and a great help for the Baranya county mayor was a biking group from Budapest.

BudapestBikeMaffia “A group of bicyclists linked by the willingness to help. Rebels who distribute food to the homeless. Volunteers who deliver food to children’s hospital. A community which by organizing awareness raising actions effectively fight against social inequalities.” – as the group Budapest Bike Maffia is described in an internet article, also revealing that the Bike Mafia “is an organization which for the first time channeled directly cycling as a tool for social work.” The following sentence confirms what said earlier about the expansion of the bicycle culture: “With this we achieved that young people joined us in greater numbers, since in Budapest riding the bike – thanks to the Critical Mass – became the revolution of youth and young adults, perfectly expressing the desire for freedom. […] Cycling is therefore a revolt full of positive attitudes, in Budapest as well as in many other cities. Thus the Bike Maffia joined with social work can be a hit; this form of helping is a kind of revolution.”

 The Budapest Bike Maffia launched in 2011 Christmas Day when the cycling activists – based on a sudden idea – distributed sandwiches made of donated ingredients to homeless people. Next day they gave the remaining long-lasting food staff to a homeless shelter. Since then, several hundreds of volunteers who took part in the various actions of the past few years. The main “target group” of the team is people living on the streets. In addition to the various forms of donations they protested together with the homeless against alienation and inhumanity. The latest plans target the young audience of the ruin pubs: they plan volunteer community cooking.

 Cycling and the URBACT method

The youth revolution of transport has transformed the conventional and rigid ways of using the city as well as our attitude towards public areas, which in a way led to undertaking community and social solidarity. In Budapest the cycling experience awakened many people who since then became a determining factor of the image and development of the city. Embracing spontaneous urbanization trends, expansion of a more community-based urban planning and management: all of what we refer to as URBACT method began in Budapest with the expansion of the bicycle transport.

Photos credits:
More to read:
Die Velo-Gulasch-Mafia (in German)


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