MOSCOW - With winter coming, and the end of this year's bicycling season, it is worth looking at Russian cities' relationship with two-wheel transportation. First of all, the number of people choosing to get around by bike has actually become noticeable. In response, Moscow's city government has started to think seriously for the first time about bike traffic, and how it might co-exist with automobile traffic.
I am among the people who bike, in Moscow as well as St. Petersburg. And I can tell you that neither city will become a bike mecca anytime in the near future. But last spring, I finally got completely fed up with cars.
Once upon a time, I was a car guy. I tried all the great ones: Maserati, Mercedes SLR, Bentley, Porsche. But now, before I even get behind the wheel, I start thinking about traffic jams and about how I’ll have to spend an hour looking for a parking spot. I think about how I’ll end up getting towed, or I’ll get pulled over by a cop. Driving has become a horror.
I’ve been biking in St. Petersburg for a while now. Biking in St. Petersburg isn’t bad, because the distances are short and the streets are narrow. Going from the bank to cafe to store to the gym takes half a day by car, but it’s a quick trip by bike. Young people in St. Petersburg are poorer, so their parents aren’t going to be buying them expensive cars. It’s nice to ride along the Neva in the evening.
But then I decided to get on the bike in Moscow. Here’s a couple of observations.
- 1. The air in Moscow is awful. I tried to get around this by buying an air-filtering mask. I’m not sure who the mask-makers used as a model, but the mask pinched my nose and fogged my glasses. The most important thing it accomplished was to make me look like a terrorist, which is not a way to make friends with local police.
- 2. The sidewalks are safer, but it’s impossible to go more than 10 kilometers an hour on them, and that’s when there’s no pedestrians. If you’re on the road, maybe 20 kilometers an hour. Of course, that’s a lot faster than cars move during rush hour.
- 3. Contrary to popular misconception, in my experience drivers treat cyclists like people, and they yield when they should. The problem is when cars are double- and triple-parked. You’re forced to swerve suddenly into traffic, a delicate task in a split second, except of course when traffic is backed up anyway.
4. Cyclists can stop anywhere they want, but they can’t leave their bikes anywhere. There is basically no bike parking in the city. Even worse is the worry that your bike will be stolen while you’re out. Out of five bikes I’ve had, three have been stolen. You can set your watch: don't leave a bike without a lock for more than one second, or a locked bike for more than a minute.
The biking season is ending in Russia. But the important part of that statement is not “is ending,” but “in Russia.” Snow and cold are annoying for bikers, but in Finland one can bike all year long, thanks to well-groomed roads. That’s not the case in Russia.
My point is that although there is hopeful chattering in bike forums in St. Petersburg, bikes are not going to become a serious alternative way to get around in any Russian city without some major changes.
To begin with, there are plenty of people in Russia who don’t even know how to ride a bike, including my wife. Secondly, biking won’t become any easier until members of our government start using two wheels to get around. The mayors of London and Paris get around by bike, but it’s impossible to imagine their counterparts in Moscow and St. Petersburg doing the same.
It’s more likely that bikes will continue to be a mode of transportation reserved for a few idiots like me.
That’s all. The bike season is over. You are all free to go.