Most Muscovites feel that getting on a bike in this city is little short of lunacy, and not without good reason. This week, the temperature is hovering around 37C, and an acrid smog is hanging over the city from burning peat bog fires. For months in winter, it’s icy cold and the roads are treacherous. And throughout the year, Moscow’s streets are polluted, jammed and full of motorists who take a Social Darwinist approach to driving.
In short, it’s a cyclist’s worst nightmare. Nevertheless, a small but growing number of young Russians are trying to promote the bicycle as the obvious alternative to sitting for hours in the city’s traffic jams or riding its packed metro system.
Vladimir Kumov is one of the founders of “Let’s Bike it!”, an action group that is planning a series of “flash mobs” and demonstrations on bikes over the summer to promote cycling, as well as seminars and lectures that invite leading urban planners to Moscow to discuss how the city can become more bike-friendly. Ultimately, while Moscow might be a long way away from a decent cycle lane network, the goal is to get the government interested in funding the rise of cycle culture.
“I studied in Buenos Aires for three months and was amazed at how quickly they’d transformed the city and made it bike-friendly,” says Kumov. “There’s no reason we couldn’t do the same thing in Moscow.”
He admits, however, that the challenges are great. At the moment, even genuine cycling fanatics find being on two wheels in Moscow hard going. “I cycle all the time in London but Moscow is an utter disgrace for cycling,” says Thomas Marshall, a British investment banker who has lived in the Russian capital for the past two years and frequently takes part in cycle races across the world.
“Cycling to work is impossible – you’d have to have a death wish to try. I once took my bike on the metro to go out of town, but only managed to get it through the gates after having several whistles blown at me and being practically assaulted by the babushkas who guard the station.”
The activists are lobbying the Moscow government to make life easier for cyclists. One thing they are working on is persuading the metro authorities that bikes should indeed be allowed underground. Another small step would be having bike racks installed outside metro stations and education institutions. The administration of one district of the city has agreed to a programme next year that should see studies done of how cycling could be promoted and how much funding is required, says Kumov.
As for the vagaries of the Russian climate, Kumov insists that it’s no big deal. “Of course it’s harder to cycle in winter but in Copenhagen people cycle all year round, and I’ve even been to Rovaniemi in northern Finland in winter; it was minus 27C and loads of people were cycling.”