Taking It to The Streets

MT
Editor’s note: this is the second in a two-part series on bicycling in Moscow.

With the arrival of summer, bicycling might seem like an attractive option for getting around the city, but Moscow can be a dangerous place for cyclists, and many enthusiasts choose only to bike in parks, if at all. Despite the drawbacks of cycling in the Russian capital, a small but growing community of dedicated cyclists is trying to change the way Muscovites think about the bike.
Compared with some European cities, such as Berlin and Amsterdam, where bicycles sometimes seem to outnumber cars, the number of cyclists in Moscow is almost negligible. And the ever-increasing number of cars in the city makes it difficult to encourage new riders.
Maxim Golushko, a spokesman for the Moscow traffic police, was unable to give an exact figure of the number of cyclists killed annually in Moscow and said it is hard to say whether cyclists or drivers were to blame for the growing number of accidents involving bikes. “Hardly any motorists, let alone cyclists, know the basic rules of road safety,”‑Golushko said. ‑‑
“Cyclists do go on roads in Moscow, but it’s a real risk,” said Vitaly Peretsipkin, a cameraman and regular cyclist. Peretsipkin used to commute to work by bike until he was hit by a car. After that experience, he decided to buy a van so he could take his bike out of the city, where it is safer to cycle.
Peretsipkin believes that cyclists have a hard time promoting their activities in Moscow because “in Russia, a bike is neither fashionable, cool nor prestigious.”
Although the city lacks bicycle lanes and bicycling has recently been banned in the popular Tsaritsyno and Kolomenskoye parks, the Moscow government is officially in favor of cycling. In February 2008, the Central Administrative District held a conference that proposed, among other things, bike parks at metro stations and in the city center.‑
Calls to City Hall to find out their proposals and current policy on cycling in Moscow went unanswered. Peretsipkin says you can divide cyclists in Moscow into three groups: people who use bikes for work, such as couriers, of which there are very few, cyclists who regularly commute to and from work and people who cycle for sport and recreation.
Igor Maslennikov, a postgraduate student, used to cycle to work every day but was forced to stop when he was banned from taking his bike into his office building.
“Although it only takes 15 minutes to get to work by bike, my colleagues there used to look at me as a bit of a freak,” Maslennikov said, adding, “it’s very difficult in Moscow to find anywhere to park your bike.”‑‑
Over the past five years, Maslennikov has noticed a gradual increase in the number of cyclists on the road, but he believes that the growth is mostly among people who use bikes for recreation. “Bikes are certainly much more available and cheaper than they used to be in Russia,” Maslennikov said.
As more people in Moscow take to two wheels, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of cycling organizations, some of which are pressuring the authorities to improve life for cyclists in the city. Masha Sotova is project manager at Velomania, an online community of cyclists who organize biking events around the capital, lobby city authorities and increase awareness of cyclists, particularly among drivers. Last year they printed out leaflets of the Highway Code and handed them out to motorists waiting at intersections. The traffic law gives equal rights to all road users, including cyclists, but “Many Russian drivers view cyclists as pedestrians,” Sotova said. Velomania also organizes excursions through Moscow at night, since they say it’s safer to bike through the city then.
Sotovo does not believe that building special bicycle lanes is the answer to their problems and instead thinks that the only real solution can be an increase in mutual respect between cyclists and drivers. “The few bicycle lanes that have been built are in the wrong places, such as parks, and cyclists don’t use them,” Sotova said. “Instead, they just become part of the pavement.” She said the lack of parking for bikes outside office and apartment buildings is also a major factor.
Sotova rejects the idea that Russia’s climate is a serious deterrent, pointing to countries such as Sweden and Canada, which have a similar climate to Russia but where cycling is viewed as a serious alternative to driving, at least in cities. “Last winter, I met a group Canadians cycling along Kutuzovsky Prospekt on their way to work,” she said.
Critical Mass, the international cycling movement, has taken a more extreme approach and has staged events in Moscow. In 2005, a number of Critical Mass supporters were arrested by OMON riot police after an unsanctioned protest ride through central Moscow blocked roads and caused traffic chaos. Sotova does not support them and believes that they are too extreme. “Their actions only discredit cyclists in Russia,” she said. Their organizer in Russia, Dimitry Kokorev, who also heads the protest group Russia Without Cars, declined to be interviewed for this article.
There are also a number of clubs that promote cycling for recreation and exercise in and around Moscow. Karavan, which Peretsipkin helped found, is one of the biggest and does not support Critical Mass or any other cycling protest groups.
“We do not try to fight for cyclists’ rights in Moscow, because it’s a very complex problem,” Peretsipkin said. “Karavan was set up for the pleasure of cycling out of town.” They are, however, planning to send a petition to Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, demanding that a car for bikes be added to every train. Currently, bikes are only allowed on off-peak suburban services.
“At the moment in Russia, cycling is perceived as a sport or hobby and not as a viable means of transport,” Maslennikov said. “I hope that in a few years there will be a government-launched campaign to promote cycling, but until this happens, I doubt if it will really catch on in Russia.” Sotova is more optimistic and thinks that the number of cyclists will continue to rise by itself, but a little help from the authorities wouldn’t hurt.
“The government must help change people’s mindset, otherwise the relationship between cyclists and motorists will never change,” she said.

Cycling Clubs in Moscow