Visitors coming to Prague from Holland or Scandinavia may get the impression that Czechs don't like cycling. Seeing bikers in the streets of the Czech capital is not a rare thing nowadays, but compared to other European cities, there are still very few of them. Besides, you almost never come across bicycles parked in the streets. Yet, strange as it may seem, statistics say that every second inhabitant of Prague is a bicycle owner and Czechs claim that cycling is their favourite sport.
So, where are the bikes and what keeps the cyclists off the streets? For one thing, many Czechs are wary of using their bikes in the city for fear of theft. But that's not all: what keeps the cyclists off the streets is a bit more complicated than that. Prague councillor for transport Petr Stepanek says one of the reasons could be that Czechs are also simply fond of driving their cars:
"Czechs are still amazed that they can buy expensive cars and some of them behave accordingly. 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 favours the weaker participants - pedestrians and bicyclists."
Czechs definitely don't belong among the most tolerant drivers in Europe. But if you have to cycle through streets stuck with cars with no lanes reserved for bikes, politeness doesn't really solve the problem. Michal Krivohlavek of the Auto-Mat Initiative, which was established a few years ago to promote the rights of cyclists, says there are simply too many cars in the city.
"Prague is the most motorized city in Europe at this moment. We were second at the top ten after Rome but I think two years ago we hit the top. There is one car per 1.4 people. Most trips in Prague - 43 % - are made by public transport, 33% by cars, 22% on foot, and 2% on bike."
Councillor Stepanek, himself a big cycling fan, says his council is the first in the history of Prague that had the courage to suggest that they would limit access of city centre by cars. But Michal Krivohlavek is sceptical, arguing that politicians promise a lot but little is actually done on the ground. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues try to push through smaller changes which, however, have a big effect on the every-day life of cyclists.
A few years ago, Michal Krivohlavek set up his own project called Ruzove Kolo or Pink Bike. You can attend his workshop and get your bike painted bright, fluorescent pink to make it more visible. I was curious how he got the idea at the first place.
"When my fourth bicycle was stolen two years ago in Prague I decided that the fifth one was not going to be an easy target for thieves. I bought brand new bicycle and the same day I painted it pink. And I hoped it was going to take out the bike from the black economy of stealing and reselling the stolen bicycles."
And did it work?
"Even the pink bikes have its limits. I got rid of it by parking it for two weeks in the city when I was too busy. When you park the bike for more than two weeks in the streets, even the pink bikes can be stolen. But it works perfectly on a regular basis that you leave your bicycle in the street and pick it up in two three days later."
But instead of talking all the time about obstacles to cycling I wanted to hear something more positive. I asked Mr Krivohlavek to give me some reasons why I should prefer my bike to the public transport or cars.
"It's really quick. It's incomparable with other means of transport. If you are in the city centre, you can get everywhere in the city in 20 to 30 minutes. I am not doing any sport because I get regular portion of body movement during the transportation. I think it's a great advantage. Otherwise, 90 % of people in Prague have occupation where they sit all day long and afterwards they are seeking some occasions to move their bodies."
Having heard of the benefits of cycling, I decided to try it for myself and travel to work on bike. I arranged a date with Tomas Prousek, who works at the Prague Town Hall as a cycling advisor and helps beginner-cyclists to find the easiest route from their home to their workplace. We met early in the morning at a metro station close to my house, some 15 minutes from the city centre.
So we are now standing at Budejovicka and we want to get to the centre. Is it easy? Are there cycling tracks along our way?
"The best route from Budejovicka to the centre is along Vltava River. There is, I think, the best cycle path in Prague. But from the upper level of Pankrac Plain it is complicated. I hope in five years it will be better, similar to Germany or Netherlands."
"It could be dangerous. It's a question of conditions. If you have a cycle path it is better. But here you have lots of parts of the route where you have to join the cars and it could be dangerous. Prague drivers don't know the cyclists."
With that we got on our bikes and I soon lost Mr Prousek out of sight. I only caught up with him down at the river in Podoli, where a new bike-path connecting the outskirts with the city centre has just been opened. We stopped at the river front which has been recently paved with cobblestones. Unfortunately, they are not really comfortable for bikers but cycling promoters succeeded in getting part of it re-paved so that bikers too can enjoy the lovely view of the river. Before saying good-bye, I asked Mr Prousek whether he has noticed some improvement over the time he has been using his bicycle to get around Prague:
"If I compare the situation in late 1980s with situation now. Then if I went from my home to the centre of the city to the centre of the town it was exceptional if I met one cyclists and now it is normal that I meet 20 or 30 and in summer it may be 100 cyclists because along the river there are a lot of leisure time cyclists."
When we parted I puffed and wheezed my way up the Vinohradska street to the Radio building. I have to say it would be faster to get to work by underground, but I guess regular practice could change that. But I definitely agree that if you want to get some exercise and wake up properly, there is nothing better than to get some body movement first thing in the morning. If you don't want to wind your way through Prague traffic, then join the mass bicycle ride this Saturday when roads will be closed to cars.