Car Free Day in Poland: 22th September, 2004

Significant involvement of more than 100 local authorities in the Car Free Day 2004 is good news (see national website here). Even better news is the growing number of municipalities across Poland that implement sensible cycling policies all year long and build cycling facilities. The case of Gdańsk where the Cycling Infrastructure and Promotion Project co-financed by Global Environment Facility resulted in top-quality facilities is closely followed by the city of Cracow where innovative procedures of bicycle audit and the standarization of cycling infrastructure have already significantly improved conditions for cycling in some places and promise much progress in the coming years. Warsaw Road Authority once notorious for their neglect for cyclists now announced public consultations for the cycling facilities and switches from uneven concrete blocks to smooth sealed surfaces on cycleways, much desired by the users.

Critical Mass rolls across Poland, with 15 active rides and the Warsaw Mass consistently attracting more than a thousand cyclists. This is happening in a country where grass root activism has become nearly extinct and sociologists and media worry about people's dramatic withdrawal from public participation of any kind. (Interestingly, the Polish media have not taken any notice of the Critical Mass. CM have never been reported in the national media and have grown, spread and remained absolutely grass-root way).

However, the picture is not so bright. Cycling in Poland is very dangerous. Every tenth person killed in traffic accidents in Poland is a cyclist (and the roads accidents in Poland are numerous). This is about six hundred cyclists
killed every year, more than in Germany with twice as many inhabitants and much more bicycle traffic in streets. The accidents are often caused by sheer neglect of the cyclists themselves (no lights, reflectors, careless ride, alcohol abuse). However, poor road infrastructure and lethal habits of Polish drivers play significant role. Cars do speed in Poland despite potholes, narrow roads and tight curves. And - paradoxically - the problems grow when cycling facilities are built. The underlying reason for all the trouble is the Traffic Law and serious flaws in the regulations.

Polish Traffic Law is inconsistent with the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (1968) and its article 16, paragraph 2. Cyclists on the cycleway
parallel to a road with right of way must stop and give way to cars every time a cycling track comes to a junction. This makes cycleways useless. In all other countries that are parties to the Convention, cars changing direction must give way to the oncoming traffic and to the cyclists on cycle tracks travelling straight ahead. Another example of weird regulation is the article that says that when being overtaken, non-motorized vehicles must come as close to the right side of the roadway as possible and stop if neccessary. If taken literally, this rule may force cyclists to topple when stopping in some emergency situations and/or be guilty of being run over by a car. Well, it seems that nobody takes this rule literally or even seriously, but then what is the need of such regulations?

Another problem stems from the regulations on road construction and technical reqiurements for road facilities. They make it very difficult to provide good quality cycleways or even to properly design the traffic calming measures. For example, instead of simple contra-flow lanes, the Ministry of Infrastructure regulations promote two-way bicycle lanes in one-way streets. This results in slow-moving cyclists forced to use the "fast" (left, in the UK - right) side of the one-way roadway, with cyclists having no visual contact with the drivers. No traffic calming or similar measures are required to implement such facilities. No requirements for curve parameters for segregated cycleways exist, which results in many sharp bends where bicycles would rather need to be turned by hand. Those road engineers and planners who co-operate closely with bicycle users and take their needs seriously have real trouble designing facilities that at the same time provide safety and comfort to the cyclists and meet the legal requirements.

The most intriguing part of the regulations is the guidance to cut cycleways short before they cross the roadway and paint the zebra crossing ahead in order - well, already guessed? Yes, in order to force cyclists to dismount and walk with their bicycles across the street. Seriously.

And - by the way - walking across the street is not safe at all. Pedestrians constitute enormously large part of the road accidents victims in Poland. Roughly 2000 pedestrians get killed each year, or some 30 percent of all road fatalities. This is way above the EU average. In many countries, pedestrians have right of way when entering the pedestrians crossing (and cars halt in advance when drivers see pedestrians approaching the zebra). In Poland, just entering zebra crossing in front of an approaching car is an offence. Keep this in mind when you hear that Poland's authorities say they work hard on road safety and support the rights of vulnerable road users.

Marcin Hyła