Riga struggles to develop cycling culture

  • 2013-07-24
  • By Laura Kenins

CLEARLY CONFUSING: Bike lanes are marked, but not maintained, leaving motorists, pedestrians and cyclists battling over the same space.

RIGA - Cycling in Riga can seem like total bedlam: crowds of pedestrians strolling leisurely through bike lanes, one cyclist on the street trying to weave between moving and parked cars and a tram, while a 12-year-old on a BMX barrels down the sidewalk straight into a crowd. The city’s cycling infrastructure is vague and underdeveloped. Riga has three official bicycle routes, with separate lanes for cyclists, going between suburbs and the center, and a handful of other separated bike paths outside the center. The official routes primarily begin outside the city center, leaving cyclists who live or work in the center with limited options.

While it’s common in Europe to situate bicycle paths on the sidewalks, often marked only with paint, most of the sidewalks marked as bicycle routes in the center of Riga don’t show a separate lane for cyclists, only a bicycle symbol painted on the pavement. These symbols are often far apart and the paint is rarely maintained, resulting in a series of faint, irregular markings that are easy to miss. Pedestrians on these streets aren’t necessarily inclined to leave space for cyclists, and it’s difficult to blame them if they don’t realize they’re on a bicycle route.

The only separated bicycle path in the center runs up Skolas Street – a good start but insufficient by itself. Cycling maps are available from the city’s transportation department, but the current infrastructure seems to be designed for day-trippers and not for using bicycles as everyday transport – one book released by the Riga transport department, “Get to know Riga on bike,” has useful safety tips, but gives only information on scenic bicycle routes on the outskirts of the city.

A central argument is that Riga’s streets are too narrow for pedestrians, cars and bicycles, especially when parking spaces and tram tracks are thrown into the mix. But most European cities have streets built in previous eras of transportation, and many have made their streets work for cyclists. Riga cyclists aren’t used to riding on the road, and on many streets in the center there is no shoulder large enough for them to travel on alongside drivers. Drivers aren’t used to accommodating cyclists, making it dangerous to travel on narrow city streets. Meanwhile, plenty of people are using their bicycles as everyday transportation, and the resultant chaos on the city’s streets is hazardous to cyclists, pedestrians and drivers.

Earlier this year, Riga City Council embarked on a pilot project to study potential bike lanes on streets in the center, alongside cars. The study incorporated three streets: Elizabetes, Dzirnavu and Lacplesa streets, all wide enough to accommodate a bicycle lane, and marked the recommended routes with blue cyclist symbols painted along the road. But this project was a failure: few cyclists were sure if this was an initiative of the city’s or of activists, and many drivers just didn’t notice the markings. Activists in other cities have painted such “guerrilla bike lanes,” and a Riga bike activist group called (K)ritenbrauceji initiated a similar project in 2010 as part of the contemporary art festival Survival Kit.

Architect and urban planner Toms Kokins disagrees with the argument that Riga lacks space to accommodate three forms of transit. Kokins has been actively advocating improvements to the bicycle infrastructure for several years. In a presentation made for the Riga City Council last November and available online, Kokins showed that the necessary space could be found on many existing streets, pointing out that often more than half of regular sidewalk space on a street is covered by snow or slush for more than a third of the year, and plenty of space could simply be used more efficiently year-round.

During Riga’s Bike Week in early May, Kokins and other cycling advocates and activists made a presentation to the city’s mayoral candidates on potential improvements for cycling. Riga has had a plan for developing cycling infrastructure for the past ten years, developed with the advice of a Danish expert, but minimal progress has been made. Following the presentation, the city invited Kokins to be part of a working group advising the city council on bicycle infrastructure. The working group plans to make major improvements to bicycle routes in the center over the next two to three years, and Kokins hopes this plan will result in significant changes.

“The number of cyclists in Riga is growing every year, especially this year,” Kokins says. “People are understanding in that it’s not only a sport, not only an extreme sport, or for children – they’re understanding that it’s a normal way to get to work.”
The idea of building more separate, raised bike lanes like the ones on Skolas Street, while popular with city council, is an option that would happen slowly and expensively, resulting in a sparse network through the center. But it’s clear that infrastructure is already not keeping up with cycling residents’ needs, and the city needs more urgent solutions. It’s better for cyclists to travel on bike lanes in the road in the city center, Kokins says – a solution that can also be implemented cheaply with signage and painted lines – while on busier roads outside the center, where cars are travelling at higher speeds, separate bike lanes (some of which already exist) should be used.

How does Riga compare to its neighbors? In Liepaja, the city has already built a useable system of bike lanes on central streets. It’s easier to implement in a smaller city like Liepaja, Kokins says: “In Liepaja, the important thing is taking care of people... In Riga, they’re busy with the port, with transit, with Eurovision, and so on, big projects that will be seen, wondering what we can offer to Europe, what we can offer to Russia...” In doing so, Riga ignores the needs of the people actually living, working and paying taxes in the city. Compared to the other Baltic capitals, Riga also lags behind. Tallinn has over 160 km of bicycle lanes and continues to develop cycling infrastructure. And Vilnius’ Mayor Arturas Zuokas famously drove a tank over a car parked in a bike lane in the city in 2011.

As for the reckless cyclists, what can we do about them? A public education campaign is also important: not only for cyclists, but for drivers and pedestrians as well, that cyclists and bicycle paths exist and should be respected. “This is what we tried to do as activists, to begin a discussion,” Kokins says. He thinks it will be a slow process to stop cyclists from riding dangerously, but suggests education, videos and publicly fining riders as possibilities.
Whatever the city chooses, the time to act is now, Kokins thinks. “If nothing happens this year, next year, in three years, it will be a catastrophe. Right now is the very last moment to finally start doing something.”