Wed, Apr 04, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Prague to ban bikes from historic squares, streets

RIGHT OF WAY:Cyclists will soon be banned from historic central spots in the Czech capital by officials citing pedestrian safety — yet 1,000 cars will not

The Guardian, PRAGUE

Standing astride his bike in Prague’s storied Wenceslas Square, Jakub Panek waxes lyrical about the joys of cycling to work in one of Europe’s most historic and enchanting cities.

“There have been situations where I’ve had to stop and get off my bike because of the number of tourists, but no one has ever complained,” said Panek, a production specialist with Post Bellum, a non-governmental organization documenting the Czech Republic’s experiences under totalitarianism.

“My experience has always been pleasant. It’s faster than cars or public transport and I feel more free,” he added.

Yet a leisurely ride through Prague’s baroque streets could soon be banned under restrictions due to be enacted by the city center’s municipal authority in the coming weeks.

In a move lamented as “transportation populism” by local pro-cycling lobbyists, the Prague 1 municipality — whose jurisdiction covers the city’s main historic districts — is to ban cyclists from some of the most famous pedestrianized zones between 10am and 5pm, saying they are a hazard to tourists.

The prohibition, which officials say could take effect on May 1, would restrict cyclists in areas including part of Wenceslas Square, the iconic Old Town Square with its landmark clock, the busy Karlova street approaching the 600-year-old Charles Bridge and Josefov, site of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

In a city where cyclists are already less common than in many of its European counterparts, pro-bike groups say the rule will further inhibit riders at a time when Prague is already falling well short of its official goal of cycling accounting for 5 percent of all journeys in the city by 2020.

Legislators in Prague 1 are unapologetic.

“We are not against cyclists, but the problem is space,” Prague 1 Mayor Oldrich Lomecky said, adding that the approach differs radically from those of famously bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen.

“In a pedestrian zone, the advantage should be for pedestrians, not cyclists. Every day there is conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. This is the core of the problem,” he said.

Such reasoning confounds Panek.

“I’ve heard of no bad situation happening from cycling,” he said, pausing to make way for one of the nearly 1,000 cars with permits to enter central Prague’s supposedly pedestrian-only zones that will soon be off-limits to cyclists like him.

Auto*Mat, a pro-cycling campaign group, has complained that the municipality’s professed concern for pedestrian safety does not extend to cars, which proliferate in the tourist district’s cramped streets, including some of those meant to be reserved for walkers.

“Data shows there were 21 pedestrians hit by cars over the past 10 years, and only three involved in accidents with bicycles,” Auto*Mat’s Vratislav Filler said.

The city has 900 cars for every 1,000 inhabitants — more than double the ratio of some comparable western European cities, he said.

“The council just doesn’t think supporting cycling or creating corridors for cyclists is necessary in the city center. It means cyclists are going to be forced on to streets that are dangerous because they have heavy car traffic and busy tram lines,” he added.

The municipality has been emboldened by the impact of a 2016 ban on Segways, the two-wheel scooters that were popular among the 12 million tourists who visit the city each year. Cycling restrictions were initially envisaged as targeting only motorized bicycles marketed at tourists as replacements for Segways, but will now apply to all bikes, with councilors claiming that police are unable to tell the difference.

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