For people living in St. Petersburg, it is better to leave one’s bike at home. The streets are far too dangerous! Some dare anyway and plunge boldly between the cars. Slowly, these people grow in number - and a bicycle movement is generated.
Car next to car, bus next to bus, close together - St. Petersburg is a metropolis with a lot of traffic. There is no room for cyclists on the roads. Bike paths? There are only a few - not even marked lanes.
One who dares to bike these streets is 63-year-old German teacher at the Saint Petersburg State University Lev Ryazanovsky. No matter how long the path is or how cold it gets around his nose, he is on his bike. His everyday attire: sports shoes, a backpack, comfortable pants and an outdoor jacket. For over 50 years, this 63-year-old has used only his bike to get around. Why? He did not have a car and "besides, a bike is faster in a big city anyway," says Lev.
Lev is one of the few cyclists who ventures out into the street despite the bad conditions for cyclists. In St. Petersburg there are only 30 km of cycle track. To put this in perspective, in Munich, a city which is one fifth as large as St. Petersburg, there are 500 km of cycling track.
In St. Petersburg, the brave cyclists must either ride on the six-lane road or drive on the sidewalk. Both solutions are not very satisfactory. Lev can not be deterred from his everyday adventures, though. "Sure, it is very dangerous sometimes. I have had many accidents. But I am nevertheless still alive!"
However, many people of St. Petersburg are afraid and don’t ride their bikes because of that reason. Therefore more and more bicycle activists are fighting for safe routes and better conditions for cyclists since 2012. One of them is the 31-year-old Daria Tabachnikova. She is the leader and voice of the "Velosipedization" movement. She is also an economist and is doing a master’s in Urban Studies.
As an activist, she only travels by bike, of course. Almost every day she is in the city with her rickety blue bike and her big bike basket. Functional clothing? None - she wears a fancy coat and black boots with high heels - typical Russian. She is the perfect picture of a young dedicated bicycle activist: sporty and by no means old-fashioned.
The bicycle activists are active in many areas. "We work together with the city administration on the implementation of bicycle infrastructure," says Daria: "We also help them to design bike racks and try to control the agreements." They also advertise in order to improve the image of cycling and provide bike courses.
Daria is convinced that if there were a better infrastructure, many people would go by bike, because St. Petersburg has the potential to become a great cycling city“The city is big, but not too big. Moreover, Petersburg is very flat and wide - there are many open spaces, "says Daria: "So you can ride well in the city centre. Even better than in many other European cities, such as Tallinn."
The movement could already be achieving success: 16 bike paths are planned. "That was a long fight!" says Daria proudly. Since 2012, she has struggled with more than 160 other bicycle activists for a bicycle-friendly city. How have they made a difference? The bicycle traffic in the city has quadrupled and the public opinion has changed from rejection to support. On Facebook, Vkontakte and Instagram, the movement has 12,000 supporters, and this number grows everyday.
According to bike fans, cycling is not only environmentally friendly and healthier than other methods, but also faster. It only takes Lev 40 minutes to bike the 7.5 km to his university. His record is 20 minutes. By bus and metro, he would need at least an hour for the same distance.
In addition to the ever-growing number of bike fans, Daria mentions another great success: "The City Officials don’t laugh anymore when they hear the word cycle lane!"
Apparently now also the city government has realized that they need to change something. In the socio-economic and transport strategy of St. Petersburg there is a special "bicycle infrastructure” already anchored.
Daria is satisfied to the already achieved successes. She is looking proudly at the urban bike sharing system "Velo Bike" near the Vasileostrovskaya metro station, where we met her. Since the beginning of July 2014, people from St. Petersburg and tourists can easily hire bikes for a certain time from April to October. Following the example of other European projects, depots were established, which can be used with a credit card and a smart phone. Very simple: you can get the bike at one station, and give it back on another one.
Just now, during our interview, there are two guys renting a bicycle. It is going very quick: After two minutes, they sit on their bikes and drive off. Other people have watched the events curiously and come closer now to read the information boards. They seem to be very interested. Vyacheslav Petrov, a member of the Committee on the development of Transport infrastructure told the "Metro" newspaper: "More than 12,000 people have registered in the system in 2014. They made more than 24,000 trips". Today, in summer 2015, citizens can already rent 800 bicycles from 90 bike rental stations in St Petersburg, mainly in the centre.
Without Daria and her movement, this project would have been unthinkable. They organized the financing of the project and brought this idea in the first place to the city council and the politicians. The cyclists are hopefully able to use the new promised bike paths soon. According to the Committee on the development of Transport infrastructure, two bicycle lanes will appear in St Petersburg later this year.
A great success for the bicycle activists was certainly the international cycling conference that took place in St. Petersburg in May 2014.
"Bikes in the city: Challenges for the Future" was the theme of the conference. Bicycle activists from several European cities were thereby working together to find solutions.
Daria is happy about the latest developments, but she isn’t satisfied yet. “The common transport policy supports and encourages still the car drivers. We want to change this!",says Daria.
For many Russian people cycling is something for the kids at the playground or for small villages. Bicycles are not supposed to be in big cities.Because of that, cyclists are often more or less knowingly ignored by other road users in St. Petersburg. Daria knows: There is much work to do!
Lev is - despite of the bad conditions - happy at all. The river walk is the perfect way for him. And the bicycle is the best means of transportation in St. Petersburg in spite of all the barriers. However he dreams, that his city could be a proper cycling-city in about 20 years. “With everything in it: Bicycle lanes, signs and parking-lots.” And Daria is ready to fight for this goal: “Less cars and more comfort for cyclists.”
And until this day Lev will ride the 15 kilometres to the university and back on his bike, day by day. Without any bicycle lane. On his blue folding bike. He’s not that fast with it – but it is close to his heart. And you can notice that. And somehow it suits him.
1) It’s better to avoid busy roads (e.g. Nevsky, Liteiny, Moskovsky Prospect).
2) While planning a route on the map, try to find a way through the side streets. Maybe it takes you a little more time, but you’ll spare your nerves and protect your lungs.
3) Neither dream nor stare at historical facades of buildings during biking. Keep your eyes wide open and have your fingers on the brake.
4) Always chain your bicycles outside and bring it into your apartment in the night to avoid random thieves.
5) Don’t underestimate such obstacles as crater-like potholes and tram lines.
6) Don’t be afraid of the traffic police. Because bicyclists don’t have a number board or car registration, „Gaishniki“ react phlegmatically to these poor people who have evidently broken the rules.
7) Stay cool, even if a driver cuts, oppresses or just ignores you. You can curse him with whatever your language can offer, but let the obscene gestures remain.
8) Search the water: there are wide pavements along the Neva River, which can stretch for miles without crossing.
9) Plane your bike excursions in the city center on the traffic lower weekends and during summer in the evening and night hours.
10) In the metro or tram you are not allowed to take your bike. But you are allowed to do that in the suburban trains, provided the acquisition of an additional appropriate bike ticket.