Joint illustrated article series by the Capa Centre and Fortepan
Heti Fortepan 53.
2022. May 12.
A Little Amsterdam on the Great Hungarian Plain
The Untold Success Story of the People Cycling in the Hungarian Countryside
In the minds of most Hungarians, bicycle riding is associated with the Netherlands or Denmark. In fact, it has an long tradition in Hungary, too, and—thanks to the cyclists of the countryside—Hungary is one of the top bicycle-riding countries in the EU. In the Southern Great Plain region, every third adult uses a bicycle for transportation. Written by Ákos Bereczky, micromobilty expert.
Until the 1880s, bicycles were expensive, luxury items; they developed into their current form after 1888 (the year Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre). Cycling was simply an urban pastime or hobby at the turn of the 20th century, but these excursions soon expanded beyond the capital city’s limits. In 1936, Ferenc Kirchknopf, former president of the Hungarian Cycling Federation recalled these times the following way: “smaller and larger groups formed—including young women who were also very keen—and the typical Sunday activity was: a bicycle excursion. Most groups preferred a trip to Gödöllő […], on another road, leading to Vác, Göd was the favorite destination of cyclists. On a bright, sunny Sunday, flocks of cyclists would ride on the highway and hundreds of bicycles would park around roadside inns and taverns called csárdas.
People in the countryside were wary of the invention, mockingly calling the bicycle the “spinning wheel of the devil” and the cyclist a “Viennese scissors-grinder.” “In one extreme instance, the villagers lined up armed with scythes and hoes against the cyclists. They were afraid that the horses would be spooked and the bicycles would hit their small animals,” Kirchknopf related. In the 1920s, the press was writing about the “baffling” fact that “this fast and cheap means of transport” was not widespread in the countryside and reapers persisted in walking to the fields instead of cycling. In fact, the largest obstacle at the time was rather the quality of the unpaved, muddy roads full of potholes.
While due to mass production, bicycles became more and more accessible and inexpensive, the Great Depression inevitably increased their popularity both in Budapest and in the countryside. In 1935, the estimated number of cyclists in Hungary was 400,000. In the countryside, factory and agricultural workers started to cycle to work. Covered bicycle parking facilities were built next to some schools in the cities of Makó, Kiskunhalas, Győr, Székesfehérvár, Salgótarján, and Tata.
The debates about women’s cycling in country towns are a good indicator of the spreading of bicycles (the same disputes had already taken place earlier in Budapest). Bicycles brought a new kind of freedom to women; decisions on their own, independent mobility, and, on top of it all, it happened openly, in public spaces. Thus it led to emancipation debates, starting with should women be allowed at all to ride bikes? In the town of Cegléd, “scantily cad,” women riding bicycles “in seductive attires” were subject to fines by the police (1928). In Nagykőrös, women were banned from using men’s bicycles (1930).
Before the war, “cycling was not a ‘gentlemanly thing to do.’ The gentry did not care that industrial and agricultural workers and shop assistants were cycling by the tens of thousands. The number of people cycling has multiplied since then. The bicycle is becoming, as in foreign countries, the most important vehicle of the people,” wrote the communist writer and ideologist Iván Boldizsár in 1945. After World War II, cycling had an important role in substituting and alleviating the hiatus in the public transport system which was damaged and destroyed in the war. The cycle path laid out in 1950 in the city of Diósgyőr along the Szinva River was used by ten thousand factory workers every day. In the countryside, it was convenient to combine cycling and commuting by train. “Bicycle traffic volume keeps growing […] many people commute between their homes or workplaces and the railway station by cycle. Therefore, suitable routing for bicycles needs to be identified [around railway stations],” suggested architect and railway historian Mihály Kubinszky in 1956.
The demand for bicycles kept growing in the 1960s. “In our smaller towns and villages, the bicycle has become an almost indispensable vehicle of transport, and there are quite a few families that own two or three, even four bicycles. Bicycles are used for smaller trips, such as commuting to work or going to the grocery store,” reported the police in 1962, estimating that were over 2.2 million bicycle users in the country. Hundreds of bikes were parking around beaches, bars, sport centers, post offices, markets, and in the courtyards of factories and agricultural collectives. “I cannot afford a car, but I wouldn’t buy one even if I did. Have you seen the throng of bicycles at the entrance? People here use bicycles,” said a lathe worker called László Rozmán in the Sárvár sugar factory in 1973.
Csongrád and Békés counties, including the cities of Szeged, Békés, Gyula, Békéscsaba, Hódmezővásárhely and their surroundings became one of the most “cycling” areas in the country. According to the recollections of the people living in this region in the 1960s and 70s, the public transport system had gaps here too and the bicycle was an ideal vehicle of transport for everyday commuting to work or school or for doung errands in the towns and villages of the flat lands. People carried packages, gas cylinders, and instruments, and even some offices had bicycles for their employees. In the most rural areas, as nothing else was available, cycling was frequent. A large number of bicycles parked by onion, sugar beet, and corn fields around Makó and Tótkomlós indicated that farm laborers were at work.
“It seems impossible to count the number of bicycles racing from here and there, coming out of minor roads abrubtly joining main ones, and bicycle stands on the corners or edges of squares… But this is nothing compared to the entrances of markets and the canning factory! Simply put: there is a swarm of bicycles. And it is increasing. Small children who cannot even get on by themselves ride bikes, girls and boys, men and women, the young and the elderly bikes here. Yes, Nagykőrös is the city of bicycles! Even more, or even better, than Kecskemét or Szeged. Which is completely understandable given the fact that it has a surface of 40 thousand jugers. It is only the bicycle that can connect and bind together inseparably, unify, and make such a great extension of land resonate with the city. At the canning factory alone, there are two thousand bicycles in the courtyard waiting for the change of shift,” reported in 1965 the magazine OrszágVilág about Nagykőrös.
In the city of Győr, tens of thousands of industrial workers were employed in factories. The workers commuted by train, bus, or bicycle to and from nearby villages. Within the city, they circulated on foot or by bicycle, like the city dwellers. Around the time of the shift changes, there was a dense bicycle traffic between the factories and the residential areas. Covered bicycle parking facilities were built at the factories. In 1973, the Lenin (today, Baross) Road was turned into a pedestrian mall, which gave a boost to cycling, along with the renovation of the inner city carried out in the 1980s.
In Hungary, the logistic requirements for producing bicycles could not at first be met: there was a lack of machines for producing specific parts. Later, in response to the increasing popularity of cycling, two factories started to produce bicycles: the Kühne factory in Mosonmagyaróvár between 1934 and 1949 (mostly producing bicycles intended for agricultural workers) and the Manfréd Weiss Factory in Csepel (Budapest), from 1929 on. After its nationalization, in the period between 1946 and 1990, the latter factory has produced 10,4 million bicycles for domestic sale, including such iconic models as the SR26, the Tacskó (“Dachshund”) and BMX for children, and the foldable “Camping.”
As early as 1976, in a conference on urban development organized by the ministry responsible, attendees came to the conclusion that in all cities of the Transdanubian and the Great Plain region, bicycle traffic had a great importance, and that in order to protect the ambience, the character, and the quality of the buildings of the inner cities, bicycle traffic should take precedence over car traffic. In 1982, the Institute for Transport Sciences estimated that the number of bicycles in the country was 3-4 million and according to its data, in Békés county there were 616 bicycles for every 1,000 people (at the time, the equivalent number was 710 in the Netherlands.) “Bicycle transport is especially important, and could become even more important, in smaller towns,” forecast the experts about half a century ago.
Due to the increased traffic, there was a growing number of injuries suffered by people cycling (around 2500–3000 a year). Transportation planners tried to separate the different modes of transport from each other, mainly in order to get cycling off the roads and streets in favour of car drivers. The development of cycle paths started in Győr, Kecskemét, Szeged, Hódmezővásárhely, and other cities in this period. But a safe, attractive, main cycling route network enabling direct access is yet to be laid out in Hungary, especially in its big cities.
Cycling has been an outstanding option for transportation for many social groups which are ignored by decision makers, as they are usually eclipsed by other, “louder” groups deemed more important. The groups ignored include the children of Békés county pedaling from under the seat tube on oversized bikes, the kids from the housing complexes of Miskolc or Szombathely, the schoolchildren of Cegléd commuting by foldable “Camping” bikes from the outskirts of the city, the farmer cycling with three crates of fruits from his orchard to the canning factory of Nagykőrös, the elderly ladies visiting graveyards by bike, the Roma, and those with lower incomes.
The mobility of these groups was adversely affected by the deliberately increased motorization in the second half of the 20th century. Automobiles do not provide a free and independent means of transport for children, most of the elderly, or for those who cannot afford to maintain them (only the role of passenger dependent on others). In addition, tailoring the public road network to the needs of car drivers has significantly worsened the safety of pedestrians and cyclists and degraded the quality of public spaces. In spite of this, or at the same time, Hungary is still considered a “cool” cycling country, thanks to the people cycling in the countryside. According to a European survey, it ranks third after the Netherlands and Denmark in a list of “most biking” countries; 22% of Hungarian respondents primarily used bicycles for commuting on an average day. According to a representative survey carried out by the Medián company in 2020, the main mode of commuter transport of every 17th adult in Budapest, every 6th adult passenger in the country as a whole, and every 3rd adult commuter in the Southern Great Plain region is the bicycle.
We would like to thank the following people for helping the writing of this article with their recollections: Gábor Bátori, Gabriella Kiss, Zoltán Kunhalmi, Katalin Vasné Arany, Péter Tóth, dr., and Tamás Sztaniszláv. Arcanum Digitheca provided invaluable sources for the research for this article.
Text: Ákos Bereczky, micromobility expert | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/cycling-in-the-countrysideIf you have a family photo to share with Fortepan, please write us at email@example.com