Until 1991, Tirana was a biking city. As most citizens under the socialist regime did not own a car, they moved through the city on bike. All of this changed with the introduction of democracy and the free market, when car ownership drastically increased and became a symbol of independence, individuality, and newly acquired wealth. Anyone walking through Bllok on a weekend night understands that a car is one of the most important status symbols. Someone told me a joke once: “Welcome to the city where the cars are more expensive than the houses.”
Coming from the Netherlands, I have been biking in Tirana since arriving here in 2010. When I started to bike, most people thought that I was insane. Drivers were reckless, and not used to sharing the road with more vulnerable road users. But over the years, I have seen the amount of bikers grow, and by now I am hardly ever the only biker on the street.
The current Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, has often tried to promote biking in Tirana, as a way to reduce pollution and save costly public space for other purposes than driving a car. This is reflected in the Tirana 2030 Masterplan, where Strategic Project 11 includes the development of a network of dedicated bicycle lanes through Tirana.
One of the presuppositions of the Tirana Masterplan is that the absence of dedicated bike lanes causes less people to take the bike and create an unsafe situation for bikers. This presupposition is of course correct, but developing dedicated bike lanes is not the end of the story. What makes Tirana traffic so unsafe for bikers is not the absence of a demarcated space, but rather the fact that all other road users – cars and pedestrians alike – ignore that they are there.
For example, bike lanes next to a row of parked cars are dangerous because of people swinging open their car doors without checking whether a cyclist is approaching. Other bike lanes, separated from the main road and elevated to the level of pedestrians, are often used by those pedestrians without any regard for the cyclists for whom they are meant. Bike lanes are moreover often used for parking, and many times I have found police cars blocking the bike lane in my neighborhood.
Most other “dedicated” bike lines often just suddenly break off, and it is often difficult to enter them without risking your life. There are more than enough examples: the beginning of the central bike lanes of Rruga e Kavajës or Bulevardi Zogu i Parë; the abrupt end to the bike lane from Coin to the Pallati i Kongreseve. The bike lane along the Ministry of Innovation, which is always blocked by cars, and so on.
This leaves the cyclist no other option but to bike in the middle of the road, safe from swinging doors, randomly crossing pedestrians, and dead ends, but at the mercy of cars driving at speeds much higher than the 40 km/h that is supposedly the speed limit within the city.
No matter how many bike lanes are built under the new Masterplan, the most important road safety component is the behavior of those who use it. An actual improvement of the current situation means first of all a full overhaul of driving school certification, as well as the examination for a driving license. I find it difficult to believe that the old, overweight (and often inebriated) men that I see driving around in worn-down Mercedeses are indeed the best instructors for road safety. Second, it means that the Traffic Police actually starts giving the right example. Countless are the times that I see police officers without a seat belt, calling while driving, or ignoring the red traffic light. Many times, I have seen Traffic Police cars use their sirens and claxons without necessity, sometimes even forcing other road users to endanger the lives of others.
And what about the media actually reporting the truth about so many unnecessary deaths on the Albanian roads? Instead of “Massacre on Road to Shkodra (With Exclusive Photos)” perhaps “Another Three Useless Victims of Not Wearing a Seat Belt”?
All this to say that although the infrastructural improvements for bikers in Tirana are very welcome, it is only a change in drivers’ mentality that can bring parents to send off their children on bikes. This change is not measurable in terms of “number of bikers” or “number of bike lanes built.” It can only come about through a combination of proper road safety education, consistent enforcement of the law, and giving the right example.