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You're reading: The trials of cycling in bike-hostile Moscow

MOSCOW — One popular joke in Moscow goes: "When the drunken driver was taken to the police station he was already sober. Why? Traffic jams."

With congestion in the capital is going from bad to infernal, an increasing number of people see cycling as a solution.

But riding a bike in Moscow
is somehow a different experience from cycling in any other European
city. With no bike lanes but plenty of road rage, most cyclists in Moscow,
myself included, keep off the streets and stay on the sidewalk. But
while cycling on the pavement, you need to watch out not only for
pedestrians and baby carriages but for the sudden opening of car doors.
Yes, parking on the sidewalk is also OK in the Russian capital.

Traffic jams have become as recognizable a feature of Moscow
as the Kremlin’s onion domes. Congestion is so bad that it’s common to
travel three hours from downtown to the outskirts in rush hour.
Motorists are estimated to spend an average of 15 hours a week stalled
in traffic.

So in a truly revolutionary step to make Moscow
bike-friendly and ease congestion, the city government has earmarked
more than 600 million rubles ($20 million) over the next four years to
build cycling paths and bike racks.

I started cycling to work in
the summer of 2010 when a colleague, who lives much farther from the
office than I do, mentioned that he occasionally cycles to work. Just
five years ago the only people who rode bikes in Moscow were either teenagers or eccentric elderly men. Now it’s not unusual to see an investment banker cycle to work.

I
try to cycle to work a couple of times a week in warm weather, which is
May through early October here. Despite the lack of bike lanes and the
hostility of motorists and pedestrians alike, cycling in Moscow
can be a joy compared to the headaches of driving: You fly past the
gridlock and don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot.

For Vladimir Kumov, founder of Let’s bike it!, a group that promotes cycling in Moscow,
the awakening came two years ago when he spent three hours in traffic
driving in from the airport after a three-month trip to Argentina, where
he cycled all over town between his job and Spanish classes.

“People
are tired of wasting their time in traffic, tired of seeing this city
clogged with cars, and are starting to realize that we can change the
way we live now,” he said.

My cycling day starts with carrying my bike down three flights to the street. One of the issues that Moscow
cyclists face is a near complete absence of bike racks. Because there
are none in my neighborhood — and I had a bike stolen once even from
inside my apartment building — I keep my bicycle on my balcony. Carrying
the bike up and down the steps is probably the most physically
challenging part of my journey. Like most Soviet-era apartment
buildings, mine is not equipped to meet the needs of cyclists,
wheelchair users or parents with prams.

There’s only one cycling path in this city of 12 million and no bike lanes on the roads whatsoever. Traffic rules in Russia
provide for cycling on the road, although cyclists are not welcome
there. Nor are they appreciated by pedestrians. For me the choice comes
down to this: Either risk breaking your neck on the road, where
motorists are aggressive and routinely run red lights, or cycle on the
sidewalk, even if that means getting nasty looks and having to dismount
often to maneuver through crowds.

An overwhelming majority of cyclists in Moscow prefer not to test their luck on the dangerous roads.

My
10-kilometer (6-mile) route takes me through some of the city’s
greenest and most picturesque areas — leafy Sparrow Hills and the park
near Moscow State University. But some parts of
my route are unpleasant in a bizarre way. I still can’t grasp why a
pole with a road sign had to be placed right in the middle of a
sidewalk, on a cement slap so large that I have to squeeze through every
time I ride by.

And there are other small inconveniences, like
steep and uneven curbs, which also have me hopping on and off my bike —
and are a nightmare for the handicapped. The city has made some
progress in recent years making the sidewalks more wheelchair-friendly.
Even so, it is not uncommon for an embankment to end suddenly with a
flight of stairs.

The AP Moscow bureau is
inside a sprawling compound that houses the offices of scores of
foreign media organizations as well as apartments for journalists and
diplomats. Still, there’s only one bike rack for the entire compound, so
I normally leave my bike chained to a railing, which is more or less
safe because of video surveillance.

The Kremlin, apparently, is no better equipped.

When Masha Gessen, a prominent journalist, had a meeting with President Vladimir Putin
in September, his staff told her there was nowhere to park her bike
inside the Kremlin, so she had to leave it chained up at a bus stop
nearby.

Desperate to do something to ease Moscow’s
traffic congestion, city authorities hope that cycling can be part of
the solution. Muscovites own about 3 million bikes, but few use them as a
means of transportation, according to a recent report.

In the next four years, the city plans to increase the number of bike paths to 72 and the number of bike racks to 17,000.

The
city expects the bike paths to help increase the average speed of
cycling to 15.5 kilometers (9 miles) per hour and the share of those
cycling to work from 0.01 percent to 1.2 percent by next year. For the
city of 12 million, that would be 144,000 people.

While supportive
of the city plans, cycling activist Kumov remains skeptical, largely
because many of the paths are going to be built in parks, thus chiefly
to promote cycling as recreation and not as a means of transport.

“The way the plan looks now will probably make little difference,” he said.

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