Far from bicycle paradise: how far?

I met Danila and Anya on Konushennaya Street, they arrived by bike on time, while I was late because of a traffic jam. These two are a couple and wherever they go they go by bicycle even though cycling in St. Petersburg is a challenge. There are no bike lanes, dangerous drivers and, especially now, in the winter months, bad weather.

We head off to their workplace – a small hostel in the center of the city, where everything from door signs to the decorations are handmade by Danila and Anya. Tall and angular, with dark hair and a moustache, Danila seems the more serious and rational of the two, while Anya, a tiny girl with a round smiling face seems to be the one with crazy ideas.

Emotional experience

Danila was the first to start cycling in the city. Three years ago he finally decided he’d had enough of public transport and bought a bicycle. The first bike trip of the young psychology student was to the university and, to his surprise, this new means of transport cut his morning commute in half.

Anya and Danila on their bikes. Photo by Natalia Smolentceva

His girlfriend Anya only purchased her bike last February. For the first month it stood without any use against the wall in their room, because it seemed too cold for her, explained Anya. “But when spring began we started going for rides, first just in our free time, every evening, and more, and more,” she said. “I felt such a lightness physically; the trip became so much more interactive…” Danila continues: “when people and buildings fly by you feel the speed more and you feel like a rocket!”

“And since then I am riding all the time, no one mode of transport can replace a bicycle, even when I have to transport heavy things,” Anya continues, her eyes shining. Bicycles are not just a mode of transport for them: it is now a necessity, an addiction.

Why a bicycle?  “It is freedom” comes the immediate response. You can wake up at night and go wherever you want; you are not dependent on the public transport routes, timetable, and traffic jams. For these two, cycling is not only the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B, but also an emotional experience.

“There is a pleasant moment when you pass by the traffic jam, everybody is standing there for ages and you pass like a bullet from the gun,” said Danila.

Enjoying the process

Every citizen of a big city is used to subtracting at least two hours from his or her day for transportation. With a bicycle these hours are never “wasted”.

“Bus routes are the same every day,” said Danila, “but with bicycle, you are free to choose the way you want and enjoy it.” It is a certain philosophy, maybe, to enjoy the process of life rather than the result, the process of studying, rather than the fact of having the diploma, the journey, not the destination.

Another passionate cyclist, Josh, is a good example of a person who enjoys process more than result. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, he keeps traveling around the world, teaching English and learning local languages. Josh likes hitchhiking, couchsurfing and, of course, riding his bicycle.

In December, it is already too cold outside to walk without gloves or hat, but still no snow. “A good weather to ride”, says Josh when we meet. One of his trousers legs is rolled up but he does not feel cold, he says.

For Josh, cycling was also a form of independence back at university in Ottawa, but now it is more of a convenience. “I have different students all over the city”, he explains, “and it is a lot easier for me to ride to these clients rather than wait for the bus”.

Josh on his bike. Photo by Natalia Smolentceva

After leaving Canada, Josh traveled across Europe in search of adventure: in Romania and in Ukraine, and the first thing he bought in these places was a bicycle. When he arrived in Russia, he first lived in Samara. He noted that cyclists there are tougher and their driving style make roads much more dangerous. “Riding bicycle in Samara is completely different from riding in St. Petersburg,” Josh says with a sarcastic smile.

According Josh, Saint Petersburg is not a “bicycle paradise”, but there are nice thing here too: “everything is mostly flat, and I haven’t encountered ice on the roads,” he says, before adding, “so far”.

The Russian winter still remains one of the biggest obstacles for cyclists in the city. The problem is not the temperature, because in Netherlands and Denmark it can also get cold in winter, but the dirty roads. “The main problem is the mud on the road and salt and chemicals they use”, says Anya. Danila is very optimistic that he will be able to cycle all the winter long. “You just need a good pair of gloves”, he says.

People on bikes

Cyclists are still quite special in St. Petersburg. Normally they are creative young people: designers, IT specialists, students and hospitality workers like Anya and Danila, or English teachers like Josh. There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, there are some jobs where you cannot go by bike, arriving sweaty, untidy and unprofessional. But some people have found a solution to this problem. “I work at this one school”, says Josh, “where I have to wear really professional clothes and I can’t bike in a suit and tie, but I can store my stuff at work. When I get there I take a shower and change, it’s fantastic”.

The second major obstacle to cycling is that for some people a car is a status symbol and a bicycle is something for the kids or students. It doesn’t have to be this way: in Amsterdam wealthy layers, clerks and politicians use the same means of transport as students and children.

“Even in cities where there are bike lanes, and bike laws, it is all about the people”, says Josh, “it’s about what they think is possible and what they think is nice. For many people the problem is the idea of riding a bicycle: it is tiring and too dirty and too cold, but once they start cycling they find it a much better option”.

Getting better

In recent years, cycling in St. Petersburg has become easier. Danila has noticed the change in the three years that he has been cycling: “more drivers understand that cyclists can be on the road”. More people are starting to use bicycles in their daily life. Two years ago bicycle activists created an organization named Velosipedization. They work closely with the local authorities to address the problems of bicycle infrastructure in the city.

According to the city’s transport strategy, until 2025, 200 kilometres of bicycle paths are to be built and 16 new bicycle routes are planned to connect residential districts with the city centre. The situation with infrastructure now looks quite ridiculous: there are currently only 25 km of bicycle paths in Saint Petersburg, while in Amsterdam and Copenhagen this number is around 400 km, despite both being 7-8 times smaller than Russian northern capital.

“Do you have bike lanes here?” Josh asks, “I’ve never seen one!” This is not surprising, given most lanes are situated in the parks are rarely used by cyclists.

Local cycling rules

In the middle of the city. Photo by Natalia Smolentceva

Saint Petersburg cyclists have their own rules and tips on how to ride in the city. According to the traffic code, it is forbidden to ride a bicycle on the sidewalks. Moreover, in the city center it is very difficult.  Cyclists in Russia are unlikely to be stopped, even if they violate rules. “Some cyclists don’t respect rules themselves, so they disturb others and create a negative image for all cyclists”, says Anya. She was quite afraid to ride on the road at first, because she has no driving license, and although it is not obligatory the knowledge of traffic code definitely helps one to be safe.

“There is a main rule on the road in our country, it is a rule of 3 Ds – dai duraku dorogu (let the stupid pass)”, she jokes. “So you ride according the rules, but if you see an insane driver, it is better to let him pass, wait a bit, and it is especially important when you ride a bike”.

Cycling is not only physically dangerous in the city, but leaving your bike on the street can be risky, even though new places to park it have appeared this last summer. “I saw some robbers myself and even confronted one person who came to cut the lock on my bike once”, says Anya. She recommends buying a cheap bike, because it is less likely to be stolen, and locking it with the chain.  Josh locks his bike with an extremely thick chain, as it is already his second bike in three months.

Even with the lack of bike lanes and bike parking places, Saint Petersburg is becoming more and more bicycle friendly each year. Today it is not strange to see a cyclist on the road. Bike parades are held all year round and the first city bike system was introduced this summer. Is this growing popularity of bikes a part of general westernization, sharing the same values of urban planning?

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