A Dutch woman’s journey to an e-cargobike in Prague – sharing the joy

Publikováno: 06. února. 2024, 27 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 09. února. 2024
Publikováno: 06. února. 2024, 27 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 09. února. 2024

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.

Definition of cycling = Doing errands by bike

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!

First experiences in Prague: my city bike

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 importance of proper bike parking around the home

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.

Going electric, going big: from E-bike to E-cargobike

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!

Theft and parking

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:

  • neighbourhood secured parking storage (€5,36 per bike for a month)
  • bike boxes placed on the sidewalk, on request of a minimum number of local inhabitants (€70 per year + €17,50 per quarter per bike)
  • bike racks placed on the sidewalk on request of an inhabitant (no cost – Prague does this for public places, but would they do this around apartment blocks as well?)
  • bike platforms placed on a car parking spot on the request of a minimum number of local inhabitants (no cost – fits 10 bikes; initially a platform stays for a period of three to six months, which serves as a test whether there is a need for more space for bicycles and whether the neighbourhood can continue with one less parking spot for cars).

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.

Servicing my bike

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.

Rebuilding my mental map of Prague

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.

New, inspiring layers on my mental map of Prague

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.

Who am I? And do I have a right to be here?

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.

  • I’m a pedestrian and I walk on the sidewalk… with a big cargo bike. Sometimes an intersection just seems too dangerous and I will get off my bike and walk on the sidewalk. It’s uncomfortable, the bike is too big for the sidewalk, it’s heavy to push, and there might be no lowered edge to get up onto the sidewalk, but when it’s a short distance, and the intersection is crazy, I will still prefer it. Pedestrians then have to get used to me with my big bike in their space. It’s never a problem, but people do look.
  • I’m a cyclist, pedestrian, cyclist, pedestrian, cycl… on shared walking/cycling paths. When there are no people around, I like to get my speed up (18-20 km/h), and I will be most happy, because there are also no cars. When there are other people present, I slow down to a fast walking pace (6-7 km/h), use my bell (which Czech people are surprisingly unfamiliar with), smile, say thank you, and try to keep as much distance as possible. On my way to the supermarket I always pass a place with a lot of children around, and I take care to go very, very slowly, to scan the surroundings for sideways-incoming, running children with their attention elsewhere, and to be ready to stop completely. It has never been problematic so far, and I also get a lot of smiles. I will not join the debate here on whether these joined walking/cycling paths are a step forwards or backwards; I will just put in my best effort to make it work for us all by being considerate and communicative.
  • I’m a happy cyclist! On roads with low car volumes, and clear views of side streets and parking, I can ride at my own speed, and look around at the houses, the people and the shops. On some bigger roads, I can still be pretty happy: they might have bike lanes, which helps to feel safe, to feel that I am allowed to be there. An example would be the change on Jelení Street, where a picto-corridor was replaced with an official bike lane, which definitely improved my sense of safety and belonging.
I really have to tell myself: I have a right to be here!
  • I’m a scared cyclist! It seems to me, that most bigger roads now have some kind of bike lane painted on the edges (except for the Magistral of course…), and although this can really help to feel safe, as in the example above, there are also many cases where it’s not enough. The bike lane might be very narrow, unclean, or have parked cars on the right side (mind those doors!) and a high volume of cars on the left. On narrow roads I’m also a bit scared when I’m ‚holding up‘ the cars behind me. I will still be going 22-25 km/h on my electric bike, but it’s not enough for the cars. This is an interesting experience, because my internal (Dutch) interpretation of the link between what the road looks like and the legal maximum speed on those roads usually says that it’s a 30 km/h road (like in a residential area), and the cars behind me should take it easy. Of course, in Czech reality such roads are 50 km/h. The high speed with which cars approach, in combination with beeping car horns makes me fear that one of them is not going to stop on time. These are also the moments where some drivers make the effort to turn down their car window to shout things at me. Unfortunately there is never any time, and my Czech is not good enough, to have a real conversation about their grievances. It is in these moments I really have to tell myself that ‚Yes, I have a right to be here. There is no other way to go. And if you are annoyed by my presence, go ask your government for good infrastructure for all modes of transport.‘ As was pointed out earlier on Městem na Kole, having a cargo bike does make it a little bit less scary, because it is a big beast and drivers will think again before they try to overtake me and push me into the lane of parked cars.
  • I’m a car… – What often happens on bigger roads, is that the bike lanes stop. In my experience, this often happens when the road reaches an intersection, and things get difficult. Suddenly I am no longer allowed to be a cyclist, but I have to behave like a car. Instead of passing waiting cars on the right side, I have to wait behind them because there is no space left on the right. I never realized how disgusting car exhausts are, but now I know. When I want to turn left, I have to cross multiple lanes in the same manner as a car, even on roads with a high average speed. I also once almost rode onto the highway, because signage and road design were not clear at all.

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!

Sharing the joy

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.

Suzanne Verhaar
Originally from cycling paradise, the Netherlands, I prefer to live here in Praha. Working hard to improve my Czech and learning a lot about history and society. I don't miss home at all, except for one thing: joyfully and safely riding my bike at all times.

Komentáře k článku

Martin Malec 18. 2. 2024, 14:48

Great report about your Prague experience. I consider Prague now since the beginning of covid pandemic to get better and better each year, compared to Brno where I live, where the situation for bike commuting is totally stuck in some 1990s thinking and basically doing absolutely nothing to improve the really bad situation. Prague was very similar just 6 years ago but since then it seems there has been a lot of roads where instead of no lanes or other bike infrastructure marks at all things get repainted, a lot of one way lanes get legal for bikes in both directions, etc. However the baseline was so bad just a few years ago and the investment volume going in this direction is still so little compared to the subsidizing the individual car infrastructure that things are moving still at very slow pace.

Are there some shops selling reasonably priced cargo ebikes in Czechia you are aware of?

What type of insurance for bikes parked outside the block buildings would you recommend?

Suzanne Verhaar 18. 2. 2024, 15:09

Hi Martin, thank you for your compliment and insights. I have not cycled in Brno, but I hope improvement will come and I can check it out!
'Reasonably priced' is a rather vague term... I recently saw a 2nd hand Urban Arrow on sbazar for 70.000 CZK. I think that's reasonable, but it's also not far off average prices for 2nd e-cargobikes in the Netherlands. I think there are some online shops in CZ for new bikes, and their prices match NL. But then I also don't know about the price for a (second) car.
Quite a bit cheaper would be to get a 2nd cargobike and add the battery and motor yourself, but it's still not cheap and not as comfortable.
I have a Generali active sports insurance at the moment. I still have to read the fine print...

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