Wheeling the axe: Prague to ban bikes from historic squares and streets

Cyclists will soon be banned from historic central places in the Czech capital by officials quoting pedestrian security yet 1,000 autoes will not

Standing astride his bike in Prague’s storied Wenceslas Square, Jakub Panek waxes lyrical about the elations 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” says Panek, a production specialist with Post Bellum, an NGO documenting the Czech Republic’s experiences under totalitarianism.” My experience has always been pleasant. It’s faster than automobiles or public transport and I feel more free .”

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

” Cyling is faster than vehicles or public transport and I feel more free ,” says Jakub Panek.

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

The prohibition, which officials say could be operational by 1 May, will limit 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 equivalents, pro-bike groups say the rule will further hinder riders at a time when Prague is already falling well short of its official aim of cycling accounting for 5% of all journeys in the city by 2020.

Legislators in Prague 1 are unapologetic.” We are not against cyclists, but the problem is space ,” says Oldrich Lomecky, the Prague 1 mayor, acknowledging 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 .”

Such reasoning confounds Panek.” I’ve heard of no bad situation happening from cycling ,” he says, 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 security 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 vehicles over the past 10 years, and only three involved in collisions with bicycles ,” said Auto* Mat’s Vratislav Filler, pointing out that the city has 900 vehicles for every 1,000 dwellers- more than double the ratio of some comparable western European cities.

Segway scooters were banned in Prague city-centre in 2016. Photograph: Alamy

” The council only doesn’t think supporting cycling or generating corridors for cyclists is necessary in the city centre. It entails cyclists are going to be forced on to streets that are dangerous because they have heavy car traffic and busy tram lines .”

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 regulations were initially saw as targeting merely motorised bicycles marketed at tourists as replacements for Segways but will now apply to all bikes, with councillors claiming that police are unable to tell the difference.

Other administrative districts with bike-friendly policies say the city centre’s posture undermines their efforts to help cyclists.

” It’s a very stupid decision that will cut off central Prague from the infrastructure that’s been provided for cyclists elsewhere in the city ,” said Jan Cizinsky, mayor of the Prague 7 region that includes the sprawling Letna Park, which overlooks the city and boasts some of its best cycle routes.” If they want to create more space for pedestrians, it would be better to reduce the size of open-air pavement eateries .”

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