Over two years ago I moved to Prague for some new inspiration in my life. I’m enjoying the country and the city very much, meeting interesting people and visiting beautiful places. There’s not a lot that I miss about my home country, but there is the cycling…
In two years living here, I have tried different bikes and different routes to create a Prague biking experience that would give me the cycling pleasure I long for. I love the fresh air, the interaction with people, the physical exercise and positive mental state it provides. To be clear: Prague infrastructure and driver behaviour are very far from perfect; there is much to be desired. However, with the right bike I am now rediscovering the joy of cycling the city. This is the story how I managed that.
When I talk about the pleasure of cycling, I don’t mean the recreational activity that most Czechs think of. What I mean by cycling is the act of doing my errands by bike. Going to the train station, the supermarket, the doctor, my friends, my fitness club – all on bike. At first one would not think of this as something that could bring pleasure. Even I was surprised how much having the right bike here has now changed my experience when cycling through the city.
Two years ago, before moving to Prague, I was living in Arnhem, a city of 300.000 people in the east of the Netherlands. It is one of the very few places where hills play a part in the urban landscape, as it is located on a ridge created by the last ice age. My home was located ‚on the mountain‘, at 60 meters above sea level. Going to work in Utrecht meant taking my bike from the easy-access basement of my apartment block, flying down hill to the train station in 5 minutes, parking my bike in the indoor 24-hour free bike parking garage, and hopping on the train. Coming back was slightly harder, 10 minutes cycling up. No wonder that when electric bikes started to appear, Arnhem adopted them very quickly! I didn’t buy one though, I decided they were for old people only. When I was young I cycled 8.5 km to school, and 8.5 km back, so surely I was still fit enough to take on the hills of Arnhem!
When I moved to Prague in September 2021 I brought my two bikes: My upright Dutch city bike with 21 gears, and a light-weight racing bike. I rode my city bike to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Dědina to arrange my registration: one hill down, one hill up, and a few incomprehensible intersections – not pleasant. The bike was too heavy and didn’t have enough gears for me to ride these hills without putting in a huge effort. I also rode to the supermarket: they have a bike parking rack! But the big road that I needed to cross felt too big for my small bike… and something else was missing. I rode a few more times, but the feeling didn’t change. This was not a bike for Prague. After six months it returned to its home in the Lowlands.
The supermarket experience did bring me a light bulb moment. Never before had I realized the importance of proper bike parking around the home. When I want to go to the supermarket, it should be quick and easy: get your bike, hop on, navigate the big intersection, park, shop, return home. Although there was a way to deal with the intersection, what bothered me most was having to get the bike out of the basement. There were two doors that needed to be unlocked and locked (both when leaving and when coming back, so 8 movements in total!), the hall was very narrow to maneuver and I would need to lift the bike up the stairs. Even if one would do this very fast, it would still cost me 5 minutes – definitely not quick and easy.
I was left with my racing bike. I cycled along the Berounka, the Vltava, and the Labe. I cycled to Vienna and Ljubljana. It was fun. It was recreational. The most important thing was to get out of the city as quickly as possible. It was not a solution for commuting around the city. I couldn’t pack my groceries on it, I wouldn’t ride it in normal clothes on my way to see friends, and I would be afraid to park it anywhere, for fear of getting an expensive bike stolen. And it still requires maneuvering it out of the basement to start with. No problem if you go for a longer recreational ride, not a solution for running errands.
At the beginning of 2023 I made the decision to save some money for an e-bike. I want to cycle! Although I am not a senior citizen yet, Prague deserves some electric support when riding up a hill. I had no solution yet for the parking problem, but I hoped that during the time it took me to save enough money, I might find a way to deal with it.
I wanted to buy a bike here, so that the shop would have the expertise to service the bike when needed. During my search I was really surprised how much more common (e-)mountain bikes were than electric city bikes. I didn’t want a sporty bike, I wanted an upright city bike, one that I could attach paniers to for hauling groceries, and one that I could ride whilst wearing a dress or a skirt. After a few months of saving, I had the money ready, but the parking question was still an issue and I had not found the right bike yet.
Then, last Summer, when I was back home in the Netherlands for a few days, luck came my way. I could buy a second-hand e-cargobike for a reasonable price! I didn’t think about parking, or servicing, or how heavy a cargo bike would be on the hills, I just bought it. I found somebody to bring it to Prague, and it arrived on my birthday!
Suddenly the parking and servicing questions became acute. As I had no indoor parking space for such a large bike, I had to park it outside and lock it to a lamp post. I got some big (motorcycle size) locks and good insurance. The first few weeks I anxiously looked out of the window every morning to see if it was still there. That feeling has now subsided, but it could still happen.
I am also expecting a message from the police or the public garden service that my bike is not allowed to be parked there. The grass and trees around the panelák I live in are owned by the city district, and my bike could be damaging the grass. When I think of it, one hardly ever sees a bike parked outside here. In the Netherlands, you see bikes parked everywhere (a bit like cars in Prague). If your house or flat doesn’t have a garage, basement or front garden, you will park your bike on the sidewalk. And when it’s going to be parked there for a longer time, you will lock it to a metal hook sticking out of the wall.
For inspiration I looked at a few options the city of Rotterdam offers for bike parking for inhabitants without private parking:
Some of these solutions will work for cargo bikes, some won’t. I recently came across a great precedent right here in my neighbourhood in Prague-6, where two motor bikes were parked on a part of the pavement that was marked especially for these kind of (motor) bikes. I was only missing a bike rack to lock the bike to. I have started writing a letter to my local council, to ask them about the possibilities for something like this closer to my home.
I also need to be able to service and repair my bike. Although there are one or two shops familiar with my brand of cargobike, servicing it there will not be cheap (yes that is a Dutch stereotype). Fortunately, in August I learned about the existence of Bike Kitchen Prague (BKP). This is a bike workshop on Štvanice Island where you can work on your own bike, under the excellent supervision of a few wonderful engineers and mechanics. They do not charge you, but a voluntary contribution is much appreciated. And totally worth it!
I now know how my (complex) bike works, and can do the majority of repairs myself. My relationship with my bike has also grown into real appreciation, I want to take good care of it. Perhaps this is how certain men feel about that car they are always cleaning and tuning! I’m very happy to have found a place with kind and knowledgeable people and I highly recommend everyone to come to BKP to service your own bike, develop your skills, and grow the community. They are open every Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Whilst moving through a city we create a mental map of how the different streets, neighbourhoods, and city districts are connected. We experience places we find problematic, and places we love every time we come across them. As someone who cannot drive a car, I have always relied on the excellent public transport network in Prague. My mental map of Prague consists of metro stations, tram lines and the occasional bus to take me to the city centre, to the swimming pool, the office, IKEA, the cafe, and the train station.
When I acquired the cargo bike, it became possible to consider taking the bike instead of public transport. If I have to guess, I think I might have replaced around 50% of my trips from public transport to riding my bike. This is creating new, inspiring layers on my mental map of Prague. The first times I had to go down to Malostranská I followed tram line 2, but then I discovered the shortcut through Park Maxe van der Stoela, avoiding the crazy crossing of Dejvický Tunel and Ulice Milady Horákové. When I have to go to the eastern part of Prague (for me, everything east of the Main Railway Station), I now cycle through Letná, down to Strossmayorovo náměstí and onto the Magistrála. I’m still grappling with the southern direction; Ladronka and Stadion Strahov are ok, but Plzeňská and Anděl always make my blood pressure rise.
Every time I go somewhere is an experiment. I use the Na kole Prahou and Mapy applications to suggest routes, but always adjust them based on my personal experiences and preferences. I don’t want ascents to be too steep, and if I can stay away from cars, I choose that. However, I don’t want to get the feeling I’m riding extra kilometers when I know it could be shorter and still safe! Sometimes I stay away from the main roads, but get stuck in a neighbourhood full of one-way streets. Sometimes I’m surprised by how enjoyable the bike infrastructure is (like the A26 route), and sometimes I’m frustrated by the dangerous crossings and incredibly inconsistent solutions.
All this develops my mental map of Prague, to make every next trip safer and more enjoyable. I know better how to avoid cars and dangerous crossings, and where to enjoy new vista’s of our beautiful city, and every time I strengthen my conviction that it can be done: living a cycling life in Prague.
When riding a cargo bike in Prague, one frequently has an identity crisis: „who am I?“ Sometimes I am a cyclist, at other times, I am more of a car, and I can also be a pedestrian. On separated cycling infrastructure things are straightforward enough, but since that type of design is very rare in Prague, I seldom feel that sense of worry free belonging. Usually I share the infrastructure with other modes, which can be OK, and, as described above, I have become better at finding the good routes to my destinations. There is nothing wrong with sharing, taking each other into consideration, and communicating our spatial intentions. In that sense, the newly introduced shared spaces are a beautiful experiment in human cohabitation! However, the ‚cycling routes‘ in Prague are such an incredible amalgamation of different pieces of infrastructure, that I often have to change my identity every few hundred meters. Here follows a short description of my multiple personalities.
It is obvious that drivers here are not used to cyclists. The behaviour when they encounter me (from shouting, to car horns, to the way they sometimes think they can overtake me) shows they aren’t. In Prague, car drivers are the king of the road. And unfortunately some drivers (not all!) then think they do not have to show any consideration towards others.
Now I think of it… perhaps I understand their feeling… In the Netherlands, bikes are the king of the road, and no, they are not always considerate to others either… See the video!
Cycling in Prague is a mixed bag. People who have lived here (a lot) longer than I have, have told me that over the past 10 years things have been improving, and I sincerely hope that will continue. Of course, it is important to use the infrastructure that is available, and continue to ask for more of the good stuff. I hope my presence on the electric cargo bike will help a few extra people to try it. It is healthy, it is often fun, it is cheaper than a (second) car, it is creative, and it is social. I love it. Dutch children love it. They are amongst the happiest in the world, and one of the principle reasons for that is cycling.
I rediscovered that joy by finding the right bike and the right routes through a city that also does a lot to make me happy. I would like to share that joy with any one who is interested. If you want to try a cargo bike, or need to move some stuff, get in touch on Twitter (@Suzanne_Verhaar), and let me know. Sharing the joy is doubling the joy! In a country that is becoming more affluent every year, it would truly be a joy if we could translate that not into a second car for every household in my neighbourhood, which will never fit, but into getting every household more e-bikes to consider for more trips.