By Roxana Zyman, PhD, CSU Correspondent
An Introduction to Cycling in Warsaw
If you stand by a bike lane as an observer on a sunny summer day in Warsaw, you see cyclists going on bikes every minute. In recent years, riding a bike in Warsaw on properly built bike lanes has become a frequently seen sight, but it has not always been like this.
During the last few decades, the biking culture has changed tremendously in Poland, including in its capital Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million residents, within a greater metropolitan area of 3.1 million inhabitants. Bicycles went from being viewed as modes of transport for poor people in the countryside to recreational means in the city on the weekend, to being used progressively as means of daily transportation. The last trend seems to be currently further advanced by the COVID-19 pandemic now that people look for alternative to buses and subways.
Poland’s capital city has now bicycle lanes and tracks up to a total of 530 km. It includes bike lanes and wild trails, paved paths in the parks and forests belonging to Warsaw and on the city’s bridges across the Vistula river – Poland’s largest river, which flows though the capital city from the South to the North.
The Vectors of Change and the Transformation of the Cycling Culture in Warsaw
A couple of decades ago, there used to be hostility between cyclists and car drivers, about their rights to proper bike lanes. With the global environmental movement on climate change, mentalities have changed, and the tension has been gradually eased. Scientists, doctors, teachers, social activists and different media channels and platforms contributed as vectors of change to increase awareness of the benefits of cycling. Travelling to countries with more prevalent biking as well as seeing more cyclists and attractive new bike lanes in Warsaw further inspired a higher number of new cyclists.
Among the vectors of change, a notable role was played by the social movement called “The Warsaw Critical Mass” – in Polish “Warszawska Masa Krytyczna”. The Critical Mass is a mass cycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of each month in cities around the world. Inspired by the similar movement from 1992 in San Francisco, the first Critical Mass in Warsaw took place in 1998, and afterwards on the last Friday of each month, regardless of the weather and time of year. Within recent years, up until 2020, the Warsaw Critical Mass has been the largest monthly cycling event in Europe, as in the summer months the number of participants exceeded 2,000 people. In the winter, the attendance was smaller but it did not stop taking place. The gatherings have been temporarily suspended since March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Warsaw Critical Mass is organized by volunteers who want Warsaw to be friendlier to cyclists, and it has been accompanied by lobbying in public offices and other activities enabling the achievement of its vision and goals. The vision of the Warsaw Critical Mass has been Warsaw as a cyclist-friendly city, in which you can move freely and safely. Its goals include: the creation of a coherent network of comfortable and safe bicycle paths and the accompanying infrastructure including parking lots; the use of asphalt as the basic surface of bicycle paths and the maintenance of the main bicycle routes even during winter; greater share for bicycles in traffic. In addition to its main goals, during its journeys it has tried to promote bicycle lights and reflective vests among the participants, which improve road safety.
These solutions have contributed to the overall transformation of the biking culture in Warsaw. It is now well accepted by experts, policy-makers and regular citizens that cycling is an environmentally friendly and less expensive mode of transport, a form of relaxation and physical exercise with health benefits for the cyclists and for other people who, as a result, could breathe cleaner air.
Important and concrete positive changes have taken place in the city: the will of public officials to cooperate with cyclists; the appointment of a Representative of the President of the City of Warsaw for Bicycle Transport Development; bicycle transport as debate topic in local election campaigns; improvement in the quality of bicycle routes; the possibility of transporting bicycles in public transport; the constant increase in the number and length of bike lanes.
The Cycling Infrastructure in Warsaw
The extent and variety of the bike lanes network in Warsaw have been continuously increased, amounting now to a total of 530 km, more than 250 bicycle parking facilities including bike racks for parking and specialized traffic signs for cyclists. It is nowadays easy and pleasant for many people to go to work or to run errands by bike. Many forests and parks in Warsaw have bike lanes. The city has bridges with bike lanes across the Vistula river in the southern, center and northern districts, the bridges being located at a few hundred meters from each other.
The bike lanes along the banks of the Vistula river have lots of trees on both sides, but the city’s West-bank riverfront – now called the Vistula Boulevards – has asphalt bike lanes and walking promenade, while the East side of the river is preserving wilder nature along bike tracks.
The most recent reconstruction of the Vistula Boulevards began in 2013 and its first finalized segment was opened in 2015, followed by additional segments, well linked to further bicycle lanes going in all directions of the city. One can easily go by bike from the center of the city to the Vistula Boulevard and along the West-bank of the Vistula River. The West-bank riverside promenade is great for a bike ride away from the car traffic, passing by the modern building of the Copernicus Science Centre with riverfront gardens, the Museum on the Vistula, and the Multimedia Fountain Park with water shows, river beaches, restaurants and sport clubs – all very lively during summer.
It is possible to continue the bike trip on any of the bridges over Vistula in order to shift to exploring the bike tracks on the Eastern side of the river. Cycling on the wilder East side of Vistula is more peaceful and offers the impressive views from across the river of the Warsaw Old Town and more distant sky-scrapers.
The City-Wide Public Bike Rental System
The city of Warsaw has offered since 2012 a city-wide bike rental system called Veturilo – one of the largest urban bike systems in Europe – which now includes about 400 stations with bikes for rental (including 11 electric bike stations) spread throughout all districts of Warsaw offering about 6000 bikes.
The bike rental scheme has grown in both popularity and service size each year in the last eight years, reaching more than 11 millions of bike rentals so far. The reasons are its convenience and affordability.
During the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown, bike rental services were closed at the end of March. This led to some public calls to lift the ban of bike rentals, organized by people who needed to go to work or to do grocery shopping and wanted to rent a bike to ride instead of taking a public bus or subway which was considered less safe. The government lifted the ban on bike rental services in May with the promise that Veturilo would regularly disinfect bikes and stations to make the bike rental service safer to use. Cyclists have been recommended to wear gloves when using the bikes.
Conclusion and Remaining Challenges
In conclusion, the people of Warsaw have been increasingly embracing cycling because of the perceived individual health benefits, the ease of bicycle use and bike rentals, the fun of biking and the desired mitigation of carbon emissions. It looks like the COVID-19 pandemic may further advance the increase in the use of bikes in Warsaw because of the necessity to avoid public transportation, but time will tell whether this is a long-lasting surge in cycling.
Although Warsaw has seen a proliferation of cycling in the last decade, there are still relatively fewer people biking in the city compared to big cities in Western Europe. Among the further challenges to tackle in the near future in order to increase this number, I can mention four:
1. The first important challenge is to build more bike lanes and a broader biking system connecting new and old circuits to the city center and the North and South of Warsaw.
2. The second challenge is tackling the winter temperatures and decreased natural light and visibility during late fall and winter. Unlike other European countries with milder winters, the biking season in Poland is according to the weather, from spring to autumn. Even the bike rental service is available only between May and November, and overall there are less enthusiasts to cycle during the Polish winter. Some brave people still venture to bike in winter in Warsaw and more would do so if the bike lanes were quickly cleaned of snow and ice and if on dark streets there were additional street lamps to prevent accidents.
3. The third challenge is further educating the population of all ages about the benefits of cycling, including on public health and sustainable urbanization.
4. The fourth challenge is that although we can learn things by doing them, more sociological research on the determinants of biking behaviour in Warsaw is necessary in order to implement the measures that would increase the number of cyclists all year round. Such research should include the views of current cyclists and future potential cyclists as well as of various professionals whose expertise can help.
About the author: Roxana Zyman has worked in international development, sustainable urbanization, education, public administration and public policy in Poland, Romania, the United States and at the United Nations. She co-edited the book “Sustainable Urbanization in the Information Age” (United Nations, 2008) and contributed to other UN books.
Iwińska, Katarzyna, Malgorzata Blicharska, Livia Pierotti, Marko Tainio, Audrey de Nazelle, “Cycling in Warsaw, Poland – Perceived enablers and barriers according to cyclists and non-cyclists” in Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Elsevier, Volume 113, July 2018, Pages 291-301, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965856417308054
“Veturilo” in In Your Pocket Essential City Guides, 05 May 2020, https://www.inyourpocket.com/warsaw/Veturilo_105056v
“Warsaw Public Bike”, https://www.veturilo.waw.pl/en/
“Warsaw Public Bike Veturilo”, https://warsawtour.pl/en/veturilo/
“Warszawska Masa Krytyczna”, http://w.masa.waw.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=289&Itemid=40
San Francisco Critical Mass, https://www.sfcriticalmass.org/