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Breaking a Vicious Cycle

Pedal-pushing foreigners try to get locals out of their cars and onto their bikes

Breaking a Vicious Cycle
Photo: Lyndsey Matthews
By Casey Dean
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This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

The most conspicuous evidence of growing interest in combating climate change among Czechs might be bike theft.

A handful of Carbusters Magazine staff members crowd around a small table in their Prague office. The subject of bike thieves surfaces repeatedly amid the dialogue on transportation in the Czech Republic -- mostly because someone stole Sam Fleet's bike last night.

Carbusters Magazine is a project run by the nonprofit World Carfree Network, a global network for organizations and individuals of car-free initiatives that discourage dependence on cars and encourage sustainable lifestyles.

Their office is fittingly located just down the street from a bike shop in Prague 10, a block from the tram depot and three minutes from the Strašnická stop on the metro.

In 2000, Carbusters moved to Prague, "where cheap rent and low printing costs facilitate its work with activists in Central and Eastern Europe," according to its archives. Editor Justin Hyatt says the magazine could be based anywhere, given its global aims and international audience, but he is one of a growing number of residents endorsing change locally.

Aside from theft, Hyatt cites several aspects of Prague that make the task of bolstering the city's cycling community a challenge.

First on his list is solitude. Though the streets are crowded with cars, Hyatt often pedals alone.

"It's a lot more of a lonely thing here," he said. Hyatt moved from Budapest, Hungary in July to head Carbusters. A US citizen, Hyatt was raised in Germany and spent the past six years in Budapest.

"In Budapest, when I go somewhere -- to a pub or cafe -- there are usually a dozen bikes in front. Here it's mine... Or my colleague's." He said he intends to speak with locals about his perspectives as he masters Czech.

Hyatt's is often the solitary bike outside a bar, but at least it can accompany him on the subway.

"The most positive thing about cycling in Prague is that you can take a bike on the metro -- and for free," he said.

Hyatt added other potential cyclists may be deterred by poor surfaces, hills, cars and declining air quality.

From across the table he engages Daniel Mourek, the international affairs coordinator for Central and Eastern European Greenways, in a discussion of the effects of Communist-era rebound. When a post-Communist society finally has money, everyone wants to be the owner of a car.

"It's a social case in post-Communist countries," said Mourek, a Prague native.

Petr Štěpánek, the Prague City Hall councilor with responsibility for the environment, made the same observation to Radio Prague in September, though he added he has observed an improvement since the 1980s.

"Czechs are still amazed that they can buy expensive cars and some of them behave accordingly," said Štěpánek. "That's something no infrastructure will solve and we have to work on relations between people. We have to work on a road culture that also favors the weaker participants -- pedestrians and bicyclists."

There is another historical aspect of Prague that puts off cyclists: "My biggest pet peeve is cobblestones," Hyatt says.

Mourek consoles him with the assurance that this year, 150 million crowns ($7.3 million) has been budgeted for building new, smooth bike paths in Prague. This allocation is more than three times last year's figure.

The Czech Republic has about 1,000 kilometers (621.371 miles) of bike trails, whereas there are 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) in Hungary and the Netherlands boasts 17,000 kilometers (10,563 miles).

Funding and local interest in city biking are on the rise, but Prague has some steep inclines that put off beginning cyclists.

Hyatt doesn't much mind the hills, but there's no ignoring the automobiles.

The Prague Post reported an increase of nearly one-third in car-versus-bike accidents in the first half of 2007 versus the same period in 2006. Prague streets saw 1,209 such accidents in the first six months of this year.

Despite this, Prague's somewhat surly drivers are not the worst, says Hyatt. He speaks of the notoriously non-courteous drivers in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he says he would have been killed had he employed the tactics he uses navigating Prague.

Whether walking, cycling or driving, Czechs are suffering the effects of pollution, according to an annual release from the Environment Ministry. Reports from the Czech Environmental Information Agency (CENIA) attribute declining air quality to traffic congestion and industry in the region.

The Czech Republic ranks below the rest of Europe in air quality; 62% of the population inhales excess levels of soft dust particles produced by automobiles.

These sources of pollution are also widely believed to be causes of climate change.

Czech President Václav Klaus disagrees. He recently expressed surprise that former US Vice President Al Gore, an outspoken proponent of combating climate change, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a letter to the US Congress earlier this year, Klaus wrote, "Communism was replaced by the threat of ambitious environmentalism."

The Carbusters staff members scoff at Klaus's position; a few roll their eyes. Several express doubt that his statements have much influence on public opinion on the topic.

"I think people who think about it usually disagree, but people usually don't think about it," says WCN fundraiser Christi Brooks of the president's view.

The local government, however, is playing an active role in making Prague more biker-friendly, following a European and global trend.

"It's true they're doing something," Mourek tells his colleagues. "They give money, there is more focus ... you cannot say they aren't doing anything." He adds that the real results of government action may not be visible for another five years.

"It means you always have to create pressure," he says from the head of the table. "But on the other hand not always criticizing what the government is doing.

"There are only a few places in Europe and the US where cycling is equal to cars," he concludes.

The efforts of Carbusters are directed less at government than at promoting the action of local citizens to bust car-reliant lifestyles so there are fewer communities where cars are king.

"We provide a platform for exchange, resources, coordinating projects," Hyatt says.

Fleet pipes up with a suggestion for publishing an article about bike locks in a future edition.

Carbusters subscriptions are low -- in the single digits -- in the Czech Republic.

The majority of the 1,500 copies are distributed to American and European subscribers, graphic designer Bas Ruyters estimates. The magazine is distributed for 40 CZK or $4 in the Prague bookstores Shakespeare and Sons and The Globe.

WCN recently made available to Czechs and their neighbors a publication specifically targeting audiences in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

Best of Carbusters, published in September, is a compilation of articles from the magazine translated into the languages of these countries.

Western Europe is ahead of this region in phasing out cars, and countries of the post-Communist bloc have some catching up to do.

"'Useful' can be any article that questions the need for car-based planning to be at the top of policy making," Hyatt said of the articles selected for the book. "Some of these fundamental issues need to be discussed as widely as possible."

Kamila Blažková, WCN office manager and European Volunteer Service coordinator, believes Czechs are demonstrating a slow but positive trend in environmental awareness.

"I think they are just starting to think more about it," she says.

Evidence of this could be seen on October 18th at náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, a square about 30 minutes' walk from the city's commercial center, just as it could on any other third Thursday of the month.

Headed by Mourek, Prague's monthly Critical Mass Rides are a peaceful demonstration of the joys and benefits of cycling.

"Critical Mass rides are graceful picturesque rides of cyclists, kick scooter riders, inline skaters and other non-motorized means of transport through the city, which evoke waves of attention in the streets," states the AutoMat website.

While Prague has 1.4 cars per person, half the population of the city is also reported to have a bicycle.

"I think their last Critical Mass ride in September was the biggest," Hyatt said of the trend. Prague TV's weblog estimated an attendance of more than 2,000.

Perhaps there would be even more participants, like Fleet, had their bikes not gone missing.

Prague Critical Mass Rides
World Carfree Network
Carbusters Magazine

Casey Dean is a Duke University junior from Pinedale, Wyoming. She is studying English and journalism.

• This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague

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