Since early September I am the proud owner of a bike in Krakow and since the day I bought it I am wondering how I was able to enjoy Krakow without a bike. To thank me for this climate-friendly investment the Krakow weather rewards me with summer-like sunny days and golden shimmering, autumnal parks to re-discover the city step by step.
There is no day that I am not dragging my bike out of the basement compartment, pushing it through three doors and a gate, taking a deep breath and setting off with a passive aggressive look on my face. Why passive aggressive if I love the biking so much? Krakow is not exactly a bike friendly city, at least not like I am used to from my hometown (which is, to be fair, the 2nd most bike friendly city in Germany). It is changing though, but people just seem to have a tough time getting used to bikes in the general traffic. And there could also be a lot more done in the biking infrastructure.
I live in the city district Krowodrza. When this district slowly began to grow, formerly as suburbia of Krakow city, cars were not really a thing (as in: they were not really invented yet) and consequently they also did not clog the streets of Krakow. Wide, sprawling streets which could easily accomodate a pedestrians walk, a bike lane, parking spots, a minimum of two car lanes and ideally also space for busses and trams were not really a priority of city builders back in the day. This leads to a situation today where those little alleys are already quite tight for just one or two of the abovementioned groups. At some point in the more recent history somebody had the brilliant idea to create a very confusing net of of one-way streets. And to spice things up a little, this person or somebody else decided that the one-way streets would not affect bikers. Instead, somebody painted some bikes on the street, et voila: you got a bike lane. Unfortunately, nobody really seemed to consider that cars in a one-street way in a city which is not used to bikers do not expect to potentially clash with bikers. This leads often enough to slammed breaks and reckless manoeuvres. If a biker bikes into the direction of the one way street however it is not much better, to be honest, because the ruthless car drivers of Krakow seem to hate it if they have to mosey behind a bike. The first opportunity is often used to push the biker away and to speed within a whisker of said bike.
There are alternatives to these narrow roads. I could, to get home, share the road with trams, for example. The problem is that I am as fast – if not faster – as the tram on a longer distance, because I don’t have to constantly stop for passengers to get on and off, but taking a short distance I cannot compete with the speedy modern Krakowiak-Tram. If I happen to be in front of a Tram, or a bus, I can feel the hot breath of the vehicle in my neck and I also feel the annoyed and judgemental looks of all of the passengers and the operator on me and that is truly a miserable feeling!
Generally, bikes are allowed in traffic to use the roads just as the cars do. Very often you can find some randomly appearing bike lanes in the middle of roads to lead a lost biker across hectic intersections. Bike commuters with sleek costumes and neon coloured helmets speed past me with their racing bikes and I feel very lost and lonely with my lady’s city bike plus matching basket. I like to bike on a road as long as there are some real bike lanes and I don’t run the risk to constantly get in between busses, mini vans and crazy, maniac SUVs. I am not so much the suicidal, reckless kind of person.
When it comes to smaller streets, like the one just by our house, I have no problem to take the street. And that is where my passive-aggressive attitude comes in handy. No matter how fast I go (and no exaggerations, I am not a racer), there are always tailgaters. Most of the times this is absolutely unnecessary, because tailgating only means that the corresponding car will only be faster to stop again at a zebra crossing/ traffic light/ traffic jam. Sometimes, if the situation seems to be a little bit too dangerous, or if I am not in the mood to wait behind stinky exhaust pipes in a the already polluted city (never) I quickly hop on the pedestrians walk, drive a few metres and then it is usually the biggest joy to wait at a zebra crossing for this one particularly annoying tailgater and just as he or she is approaching the zebra, annoyed and swearing, I get off my bike and slowly push my bike to the other side of the street. What a pleasure.
But do not get me wrong. I like to give space, drive slowlier and be a cooperative member of traffic. But sometimes I can’t do anything. It’s not my fault, I did not design this city.
But, enough already. Not all is bad. As I said before, there is a lot done about biking infrastructure in Krakow, but it takes some years (generations?) for bikers to becaume a normality in the urban image.
Time for the eco-bikers to rise
At the moment there are not too many everyday bikers in Krakow. There are, as mentioned, speedy scooters who are perfectly equipped in the streets every day to commute to work and back. There are a few old people who slowly make their way threw the city on bikes as old as they are. There are sporty outing bikers which can be seen during weekends either in small groups or as a father-son-team. And then there are those very bad bike-riding, probably vegetarian, ecos. In Poland they are considered to be a very dangerous kind of pro-European, non-patriotic species. That’s where I belong.
And I just love to have my bike take me anywhere. I can visit friends in the Eastern part of the city Nowa Huta and thanks to new, wide, concrete bike lanes it takes me only 30 minutes (bus is about the same time). I can take the picturesque bike lane along the Vistula river that has been created for weekend bikers who want to escape the hustle of the city. I can take this way to visit the school in Bielany where I used to work as a volunteer many years ago. I can drive to the national park “Zakrzówek” which must be one of the most scenic spots in Krakow, I can watch rafting competitions by the river or I can bike away for an icecream or an alcoholic beverage in a monastery a few kilometers down from Krakow. It is truly idyllic.
But investments are not only done when it comes to roads for day-trippers. Every time a new road is build or repaired a proper bike lane emerges. When the tram tracks were renovated last year all around the old town the city without further ado decided to cross out one car lane and instead build a nice bike lane. It is great. The direction I usually take this road to takes me all the way downhill. Even greater. Additionally, one can find more and more firmly grounded cycle racks, that is very comforting for my paranoid me.
It takes a thick skin (or a don’t-care-attitude) to make it through Krakow traffic (I am working on my snappy responses for Polish naggers), but it is definitely worth it to get a bike in Krakow (and not suicidal if you are not out for it). I am a lot more flexible, get to see corners I have not seen before or only through bus windows, I go on little trips a lot more regularly just like this and I obviously exercise a lot. For my husband the bike means saving almost an hour every day, because of shorter commuting times to work. The time that can be saved by owning a bike is unbelievably valuable!
So, just in case you haven’t decided yet: Yes, go for that bike. Get it. You will not regret it.