Author: Desislava Georgieva
Published On: 08/12/2023

The hardest thing to make sense of is always the obvious. Thus, when it comes to cycling in Varna, many things are discussed, but one eye-popping thing almost never. Namely – the disconnection of the Asparuhovo district and the whole south from the rest of the city. There is no bike lane on the Asparuhovo Bridge. About 30,000 people are without bike connectivity. “Nothing prevents cyclists from riding in the carriageway, on a par with cars,” critics would counter. That’s right. But there’s nothing stopping people from riding in the other side of town alongside cars, just like all over the world – yet bike lanes are being made. They’re built not just because they offer convenience, safety, health… But also because cycling is a consensus public priority.

In a series of articles we will look at some of the problems of bike lanes in Varna. The task is voluminous, largely subjective, so we will only highlight them. But we will focus on the most obvious, the indisputable – the situation with the Asparuh Bridge. All the more so because its long-awaited renovation must happen sometime – and we must react.

Besides, we were hit by an unexpected surprise on the spot – the bridge turned out to be forbidden to pedestrians. Ever since mankind has had it, man has used his two legs to get around – not on the Asparuh Bridge, however.

Teodosi Byalkov is an average Varnian with an average bike. What distinguishes him from the majority of his fellow citizens is that he loves to get around by bike, loves urban cycling. We ride with him on the Asparuh Bridge. We want to check if it is possible to cross the bridge by bike, not using the lane. We aim for the narrow strip between the bridge’s curb and fence. But it might be feasible – even if it’s not an official cycle lane, the space in question is theoretically over a metre wide, it could be passed – and our worries would fall away.

We don’t live in the southern areas, so we take the bus stop at the Shipyard – halfway towards Asparuhovo. Initially there is a sort of sidewalk-alley – great, we drive on it. Except that the sidewalk and the adjacent lane lead to the area under the bridge. If we want to transfer to the facility itself, we have to jump over the two curbs on the carriageway – it’s difficult for a body with two legs, even more so for a body with two legs and a bicycle leaning over the curbs. Crossing is strictly forbidden, very dangerous – under no rules can you cross.

We break them. We are on the bridge itself, at the beginning – at the corner where the strip between the curtain wall and the fence starts, on which we will eventually ride 4 kilometres. Hop, there is a sign: ‘Warning, danger zone! No pedestrians allowed”. The sign has been lying down since the hurricane of November 18, otherwise it stands straight.

It is not known when it was put down. But because of it, walking is not happening. And it has been walked for decades, which is the point of the strip in question. Can an inner city facility not be walked on!

We’re still at the very beginning of the bridge. The strip here is wide, a high fence extends from the carriageway: one, pedestrian or cyclist, feels protected from the honking cars. Bravo! But only fifty meters later a surprise – the strip becomes narrow, the only divider from the carriageway is the low kerb. Most importantly – the bike can go no further! No way. It gets stuck.

It can’t, because the bike’s handlebars don’t “squeeze” between a trolley pole (also used for lighting) and the outer fence of the bridge. The handles rest against both. It’s just that the space is narrower than an average sized handlebar. You could, of course, solve the problem, but you’d have to stop, get off… Turn this way, that way… Or shoulder the wheel. And so you ride on the bridge, and every 50 metres!… – you get off – because the pillars are in the way.

They appeared in the strips next to the railings in the 1980s with the city’s trolley service. Reminiscent Varsovians say they were originally in the middle of the space separating the oncoming lanes. Until then, the people of Varna cycled in the side lanes, they slept for the view, the sun, to enjoy the wind… We, the next generations, do not associate the bridge with such aesthetics. For us, it is only significant from a transport point of view – to get over it quickly. There is nothing else, because the pillars narrow the space.

There is no point in specifying that in large stretches the strip we are creeping along is worn, overgrown. There are wires sticking out of the poles… – but these problems are regrettable, the narrowness is the big one.

Shall we move on? To count the poles and dismounts from the wheel? No sense. Besides, some authority might notice us. Fine us, deeming us specifically to be pedestrians, i.e. violators of the particular sign that fell from the storm.

WHAT TO DO

The options are not great. Just the lanes on both sides should be narrowed slightly, and the posts moved all the way to the fence (maybe just one side – in a two-way lane). This would turn the current lane(s) into the desired bike lane. If the poles do indeed tightly support the fence, the recall from the lanes will be quite minimal – vehicular traffic will not suffer. Now that cyclists and scooters are rolling across the tarmac, the inconvenience to the motorists themselves is much greater.

It is also important to make it clear that the space freed up should be enclosed by a high fence – not just a kerb – so that all users feel safe.

An option whereby, the lanes themselves are delineated with a bike zone would be cheaper and easier. On net, the bollards would not move. But it would limit already heavy car traffic. The current bike lane will remain unlit. And whenever an area of the roadway is simply cleared for bikes and trolleys, and there is no fence, the risk to all users is high.

An option would be to have city buses specifically accommodate bikes. But this would not be cycling, it would be cycling transport.

Because of all this, the condition of the Asparuh Bridge is crucial. When, how, if at all.. it will be repaired, no one knows. Against the backdrop of the huge problems with the facility, the missing bike lane seems to be too much of a whitewash. It is, however, only if we accept that bikes are not a public priority. If they are, there is no way that 30,000 people in the nation’s third largest city, and more to come as we expand south, will be cut off from good, convenient, modern, and viable bicycle transportation. Whoever-when-whatever… repairs the bridge should keep that in mind.

AND WHY NOT…?

Theodosi Byalkov, however, looks much further ahead, on a large scale. “And why not think about ships” – he says – “connecting the two coasts? They would be beneficial for pedestrians, cyclists. It’s bold as an intention, it’s far-reaching, but it’s ideas like this that achieve the essentials. We’re not just talking about the convenience of residents going from one point in the city to another, or just to relieve traffic. We’re also talking about the fact that in a tourist city claiming to be a cultural centre, and developing along those lines, the boats would only be beneficial. Consideration could be given to subsidising them or some other form of funding. If it is a management priority, if it is thought about, it will happen.”
The Public Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development is starting a discussion and preparing a petition for comfortable and safe bike lanes in Varna. Support us by making a donation to Ecovarna: https://ecovarna.info/podkrepete-ni/ for #IndependentNews.

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