Ghosts of Bikers Passed

The "ghost bike" memorial to Jan Bouchal on a traffic island at nábřeží kapitána Jaroše in Prague 7.

I made a pilgrimage a few days ago.

I cycled to the intersection of nábřeží kapitána Jaroše and Dukelských hrdinů, near the Vltava River in Prague 7. I don't normally head down that way on my bike. It's not a welcoming place for cyclists. It's one of Prague's most dangerous intersections, where cars and trucks and trams converge from three different directions.

Journalist and cycling advocate Jan Bouchal was struck by a car there on January 6, 2006, as he was riding his bike home from work in Mala Strana. He died in hospital six days later.

A "ghost bike" memorial has been set up in a traffic island at the intersection in Bouchal's honor, to let drivers and passersby know that a tragedy occurred there. I visited in bright daylight, but the memorial still left me feeling sad and unsettled.

I didn't know Jan Bouchal, but by visiting the site I somehow felt a connection to him, and to all cyclists who've been killed while riding.

I did know Brian G. Bourke. I worked closely with Brian at the Syracuse Herald-Journal in Syracuse, NY. I was the Arts & Entertainment Editor. Brian was the newspaper's music writer and critic. He was as passionate about cycling as he was about music.

It was September 1992. Brian had just finished a hard summer's work of writing and reviewing and decided to take a biking holiday. He chose to ride from Syracuse to Kentucky, if I remember correctly, to visit friends. I shook his hand, told him what a great job he'd done all summer, and wished him a safe journey.

A few days after he left, I got a call at work from the Pennsylvania State Police. Brian had been hit by a car. I had to tell his mother that her son had been killed. He was 30.

Brian wasn't wearing his helmet when he was struck by that van. Because of Brian, I never go on a ride without mine on.

I've tried to do some research about Jan Bouchal's accident (that's him at left), but I haven't been able to find out very much about the tragedy itself, other than that Bouchal was struck by someone described as a "reckless driver." Was the driver charged with any crime? Was Bouchal in the proper lane and wearing a helmet when the accident happened? What time of day did the accident occur?

I've heard that Prague ranks last among European cities when it comes to people walking or riding to work. There are too many cars and too many jerks driving them and not enough bikes and bike paths.

Hell, Czech drivers don't even stop for pedestrians on zebra crossings, let alone pay much attention to the fate of cyclists sharing the same road with them.

According to an article on Jan Bouchal in the "Prague Post," the rate of fatalities per million people in 2004 was 40 percent higher in the Czech Republic than the European Union average. And that in 2005, 337 cyclists and pedestrians were killed on Czech streets. I could go on and on.

If Prague had some decent bike paths, there's no reason why Jan Bouchal would have been forced to negotiate this terrible intersection on his bike.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I think Czech drivers are the worst, but that I'm not a big fan of the Critical Mass bike rallies, which Jan helped to organize. But I wholeheartedly agree that the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular, need to do more to encourage cycling as a legitimate means of transport.

There are a few hopeful signs, but there's still such a long road ahead before cyclists in the Czech Republic are afforded the respect they deserve.

I just wish Jan Bouchal was around today so I could have an energetic debate with him about the merits of Critical Mass.


Anonymous said…
The drivers are maniacs in the UK too, but for some reason they stop religiously for pedestrians waiting at Zebras. Not sure why they bother given all the other ridiculous things I see regularly.
Praguetwin said…

Nice blog. I've often contemplated doing more of a "Prague Blog" but I tend to get bogged down in boring old politics. Every once in a blue moon a get a decent story out.

You can see mine here.

Take care and see you around!
Anonymous said…
Jan Bouchal was wearing a helmet when he was assassinated by the greedy, self-destructive tool that is the urban car. It did not save his life.

Helmets actually save few lives of all the cyclists who crash. It is also not required for adults to wear them. So, related to this last bit, when a cyclist wears a helmet he or she is taking too much responsibility in proportion to what Czech drivers do, which is generally less than nothing. From illegal talking on a non-handsfree mobile to parking illegally when it could create conditions for collisions to polluting with their popular Diesel cars... and so on.

The main problem in the centre of Prague is not the lack of bikepaths, or even bikelanes, which are two separate things. It is the sheer number of cars, the high speeds of cars, the illegal behaviour of cars and the emissions of cars. There also needs to be safe and appropriate bicycle parking.

I think that the small amounts of traffic-calming and bike paths (the latter outside of the centre)do almost nothing to quell the sheer onslaught of vehicles. Their numbers. Since I have lived in Vinohrady, several thousand parking spaces have been added to the area just to the east. This number will double in the next few years. This means all these new cars passing my flat. And if 20% of their drivers behave better than average then it still means the situation is getting worse.

Grant, you are totally right-on about some things and I love that you are doing this Blog.

But Critical Mass has done wonders for cycling in all the cities where it is complemented by other activities. And, as I mentioned above your analysis of what is needed - helmets and bikepaths - simply seems misinformed.

So, once again, I hope my words can help.

Thanks, and be safe out there.

- Todd
Anonymous said…
I bike regularly in Prague to and from work and I must add that the Czech disregard for bicyclists let alone pedestrians is unbelievable.

I have never seen such a disregard for the rights of others as I have seen here.

As the police and the city officials could care less about anyone other than themselves, I doubt that anything will change anytime soon.

Such is life in Prague!
Grant said…
Dear Todd,

Thanks for the nice words, and for reading.

I agree with everything you say. Everything.

However, I never said that bike paths and helmets are what's needed. That's naive.

Helmets should be mandatory, and it'd be great to have more bike paths, for sure, but we really need are fewer cars and more informed and considerate drivers, and cops who should be more willing to ticket or arrest careless motorists. It's a madhouse out there. Very, very dangerous for cyclists in Prague.

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