Bicycle Commuting in Bratislava From the Eyes of a Washingtonian

After watching the video Cycle Commuting in the US from the eyes of a Dutch Cyclists, I thought to myself…“this is something I have got to write about too”. In the short film (see it below the article) the author makes several observations about how cycling infrastructure, clothing, bike choice and commuter demographics frame “the commute” in the US.

Almost all major US cities that count as commuter hubs feature the following: commuters who “race” to and from destinations… “racing” to keep pace with motorized traffic, unprotected bike lanes, and a very low percentage of women, children, older and non-athletic riders. How funny it was to hear the calm Dutchman’s accent critiquing and dissecting my commuter culture. Yes, it’s true, when living in Washington D.C., I often would commute in spandex. Yes, and I’d race the traffic… “better to move at their speed than get blown by at 30 or 40mph”.

What really stood out, was that despite living in Central Europe, my commuting culture hasn’t really changed. Traffic in Bratislava, Slovakia is very aggressive, the infrastructure is minimal, laws go unenforced, many roads in poor repair, and I am still racing to safety.

Except for the months of December and March, I am generally riding my cyclocross bike, with clip-less pedals and averaging 22mph/35km in traffic. Actually, I kind of like it, but I actually believe that on my route….this is the only real choice.

I won’t waste time imagining raised or guarded bike lanes, or special lights like they have in the Netherlands. Oh, did you hear about the heated roads to keep ice and snow off?

Bratislava is a commuter battleground.

At present it is, or at least was, waning in terms of accessibility for cyclists. 12 years ago when I first arrived here, there were 60% less vehicles, so despite not having special facilities and infrastructure, cycling in the road was very safe. Very few people had access to powerful cars and hands free mobile devices had yet to be conceived. People often ride singlespeed bikes that were made prior to WWII or small 1 or 3 spd folding bikes with large baskets. Locks, locks were very minimalistic, lets imagine a 3mm thick cable or 10 small links of chain and a suitcase lock.

The Movement

Looking at the commuter movement here, and it is a movement, you’ll see two groups. Sports/”this is my car” types -this is the group I’d assign to myself- and the indie/fixie crowd…making a statement that they look good and don’t need a car. Disclaimer: As a serious cyclist of 24 years, I have a hard time accepting the logic of fixed gear riders who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of a trend…in a city built of 1 mountains and three large hills, where cars will not stop even for the elderly and stroller pushing parents, it is ludicrous. Group A. the sports group, tends to ride American style, aggressively facing the perils of traffic, leveraging athleticism to stay or feel safe. Group B. generally rides the sidewalks (pavement for British readers) or cruises benignly and usually helmet free along the shoulder.

Anyway, back to the Dutch approach. Old Europe (Western) can go slow. What I mean is the twisty turny roads, arched bridges, canal side paths and lanes that predominate old cities like Amsterdam, already mean that it is the car that doesn’t fit well into the scale of the city. On the other hand, both the US and large swaths of post war Central Europe, where communism struck its paint strokes feature the wide and straight boulevards that make automobile use the predominate mode, and very logical to a point. Structurally speaking it is this similarity that leads to the high speeds and racer mentality necessary to face many of the routes here.

Last note on this dynamic.

There is another similarity, social change. In many respects the US and Central and Eastern Europe share this too. Americans have been pushed harder and faster to “modernity” than any other population. Cars, planes, the internet, tablets…medication, fast food and now social media were all unleashed with little regulation to keep things in check. While Europe has or had all of these things, a sense of incremental introduction can be sensed.

In the Eastern Bloc though, there was little change…until in one fell stroke the market was opened. Once the momentum of “economic prosperity” hit places like Bratislava, lets say in 2003-5, people sprung for cars, cable tv and all the other luxuries that their new purchasing power could buy. Riding a bike or taking the very well developed public transport network become totally uncool.

Only now, through the early stages of civil society, and some realization that not all that preexisted the changes was bad or worse, do you see the movement to have a more humanistic city develop, Cycling has a role in this. Cyclist here, in the US and other places without a Dutch style commuter culture are literally a human sacrifice to force recognition of the need for civil society or at least equal access public space.

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