Skip to Content
Streetsblog Chicago home
Streetsblog Chicago home
Log In
Beyond Chicagoland

A tale of two cities: What cycling in Vienna and Budapest reminded me about Chicago

Waiting for a light on a sidewalk-level bike lane in Vienna, which appears to have a seamless network of car-separated bikeways. Photo: John Greenfield

Note: I'm no expert on any of the cities I visited on this trip, and I haven't thoroughly researched their transportation systems. Rather, this post reflects my initial impressions of what I saw. If you feel I got anything wrong here, feel free to leave a comment or email me at jgreenfield[at]streetsblog[dot]org.

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to visit Hungary, the country my paternal grandfather emigrated from in the early 20th Century, for my first time. I spent most of my vacation in Budapest, where I had a wonderful time checking out the grandiose classical architecture, soaking in thermal baths, and sampling the excellent food (great pastries) and wine.

View from Buda Castle across the Danube River towards the Hungarian Parliament building in Pest. Photo: John Greenfield
View from Buda Castle across the Danube River towards the Hungarian Parliament building in Pest. Click to enlarge. Photo: John Greenfield
View from Buda Castle across the Danube River towards the Hungarian Parliament building in Pest. Photo: John Greenfield

The good times during my visit were tempered somewhat by the reelection of Hungary's authoritarian prime minister Victor Orban, as well as my awareness of the war in nearby Ukraine. By coincidence, on my way home to the U.S., I ran into the wife of an old bandmate of mine at the Munich, Germany, airport. While visiting her family in Krakow, Poland, she delivered donations of socks and underwear to Ukrainian refugees.

A strolling band performs in a Budapest median, presumably in conjunction with the upcoming election. Note the political signs in the background. Photo: John Greenfield
A strolling band performs in a Budapest median, presumably in conjunction with the upcoming election. Note the political signs in the background. Photo: John Greenfield
A strolling band performs in a Budapest median, presumably in conjunction with the upcoming election. Note the political signs in the background. Photo: John Greenfield

Being a sustainable transportation geek, while in central Europe I naturally checked out lots of local walking, biking, and transit stuff. To pass the time while my partner attended a string ensemble workshop, I spent a few days biking solo from Vienna, Austria, back to Budapest via Slovakia. My route was about 220 miles, almost entirely on bike trails along the Danube River. Instead of sleeping in a tent, I "credit card camped," staying at inexpensive hotels and pensions.

A rough approximation of my bike route from Vienna to Budapest, with overnights in Bratislava and Komárno, Slovakia, and Szentendre, Hungary. Image: Google Maps
A rough approximation of my bike route from Vienna to Budapest, with overnights in Bratislava and Komárno, Slovakia, and Szentendre, Hungary. Click to enlarge. Image: Google Maps
A rough approximation of my bike route from Vienna to Budapest, with overnights in Bratislava and Komárno, Slovakia, and Szentendre, Hungary. Image: Google Maps

Given the challenging early-spring weather I encountered – one day of stiff headwinds, plus downpours during the last half of my journey – I'd describe my experience as character-building. But if you're ever in this part of the world during warmer months and enjoy bike touring, I'd definitely recommend this itinerary. (I navigated via this printed guide, plus Google Maps on my phone.) The route is basically all downhill, and it goes past lots of quaint villages, Roman ruins, and medieval castles.

A trolley bus at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia. Photo: John Greenfield
A trolley bus at Bratislava Castle in the Slovakian capital. Photo: John Greenfield
A trolley bus at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia. Photo: John Greenfield

Lufthansa airline wanted to charge me a $460 total surcharge to bring my own touring bike. So instead I rented a slower-but-comfy mountain bike-style touring cycle with panniers from the Vienna Explorer rental and tour company and dropped it off at their Budapest outpost, which was very convenient, and only about a third of the cost of the airline baggage fee.

Budapest transit map.
Budapest transit map. Click to enlarge.
Budapest transit map.

One of the biggest takeaways from my vacation was that the transit systems in all three capital cities I visited – Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest – seemed to be much better than the CTA. In Budapest I mostly got around by buses, trams, and subways. Transit in that city seemed to be everything it should be: cheap, ubiquitous, frequent, reliable, fast, and dignified.

The interior of a (dog-friendly) tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
The interior of a (dog-friendly) tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
The interior of a (dog-friendly) tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield

Efficient transit routes appeared to serve every corner of Budapest. The buses and trams work on a proof of payment system, where you buy a ticket in advance instead of waiting in line to pay on the vehicle, as is the case with CTA buses, which increases "dwell time" at stops. Occasionally fare checkers come aboard the Budapest vehicles, and there's a stiff fine if you're caught without a ticket.

A center-running tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A center-running tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A center-running tram in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield

Budapest streetcars generally have their own right of way, and there are limited stops, which means transit is often faster than car-based transportation. For example, it was delightful to pass stopped automobile traffic during this ride on Erzsébet krt., one of the ring roads in the Pest side of the Danube.

While I spent a lot less time in Vienna and Bratislava, it seemed like the transit situation was similarly good in those places.

Biking in Budapest was a different story. There seemed to be very little dedicated space on streets for cycling, and the few bike lanes I saw were limited to paint on the road, usually next to multiple car lanes, and often fading. I didn't see any protected bike lanes at all.

A bikeway in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A bike route in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A bikeway in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield

As a result, biking seems to be a fairly unpopular mode in the Hungarian capital. Most of the people on bikes seemed to be "strong and fearless" cyclists, often delivery bikers. I saw few, if any, women, children, or seniors on bikes.

A "scooter ninja" in a painted bike lane on a Michigan Avenue-like shopping street in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A "scooter ninja" in a painted bike lane on a Michigan Avenue-like shopping street in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield
A "scooter ninja" in a painted bike lane on a Michigan Avenue-like shopping street in Budapest. Photo: John Greenfield

In contrast, cyclists were everywhere in Vienna, a city with fairly similar geography. That was despite the fact I've never heard heard of the Austrian capital described as a cycling Mecca.

Bikeways are everywhere in central Vienna. Image: google Maps
Bikeways are everywhere in central Vienna. Click to enlarge. Image: Google Maps
Bikeways are everywhere in central Vienna. Image: google Maps

The obvious difference from Budapest was that in Vienna it seemed like every main street where it was at all possible for motorists to drive fast had off-street bike lanes.

Rush hour traffic on a boulevard bike lane in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield
Rush hour traffic on a boulevard bike lane in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield
Rush hour traffic on a boulevard bike lane in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield

In some cases the Vienna bike lanes were raised above the street, but below sidewalk level. In other locations, they were simply painted on the sidewalk. And on some streets the bike lanes were located in grassy medians between lanes of traffic.

A bike lane between street and sidewalk level in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield
A bike lane between street and sidewalk level in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield
A bike lane between street and sidewalk level in Vienna. Photo: John Greenfield

I saw Viennese of all ages on bikes, wearing everything from Lycra to business attire. During my 24 hours in town traveling all over the central city, navigating via audible Google Maps directions, I found it very easy and comfortable to get around on two wheels. On any street where I might have wanted dedicated, protected biking space, it existed.

In Vienna, biking seemed totally mainstream. Photo: John Greenfield
In Vienna, biking seemed totally mainstream. Photo: John Greenfield
In Vienna, biking seemed totally mainstream. Photo: John Greenfield

The contrast between Budapest and Vienna really hammered home something I already knew about cycling in Chicago, where the bike network is is probably somewhat better than in the former city, but nowhere near as cohesive and low-stress as in the latter. If Chicago wants to use biking to improve traffic safety, reduce congestion, and fight climate change, we've got to make it a comfortable and convenient option that "normal" people will consider using. That means creating a citywide network of connected, protected bikeways.

You can view more of my transportation photos from Budapest, Vienna, and Bratislava here.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog Chicago

Communities United: Reports of Bikes N’ Roses’ death have been greatly exaggerated

According to the nonprofit shop's parent organization, BNR has paused its retail component, but is still doing after-school programming and looking for new staff.

Pressure is mounting to replace embattled CTA President Dorval Carter

Here's a look at what elected officials and other media outlets have said about the issue recently.

April 19, 2024

Service boost means BNSF Line will get Metra’s first-ever across-the-board weekend schedule, starting April 29

In addition, Halsted Street station will get weekend service, and Downers Grove's Fairview stop will become an off-peak stop.

April 19, 2024
See all posts