It was with huge excitement that I set off on a long train journey on 2 June from Newcastle to Nantes for the largest international cycling advocacy event of the year, Velocity2015. I cannot thank Philippe Crist enough for the free 3-day pass he kindly offered me. Some of you may remember his superb presentation on the economic benefits of Cycling at the Love Cycling Go Dutch conference in Newcastle nearly two years ago. Velocity2015 was a great event and a fantastic platform to meet other campaigners and engage in wide-ranging discussions. I felt immensely energised at the end of the week and also amazingly proud of what NewCycling and all their volunteers have achieved. I hope I can explain here what I learned and share with you what will stay with me.
Cities must change: cycling as a “future maker”
At the grand opening plenary and throughout the event, we heard that cities must embrace and implement a transport transition – cities of the future will not be dominated by cars – they just can’t, there isn’t the space and quite frankly space is too precious to give it to cars. Nantes is a prime example of a city which started this transition. In 2008, modal share of cycling was 2% – the then mayor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, returning from Copenhagen, allocated a budget of €40m to build cycleways, not just paint on the roads, major corridors were created, the beginning of a network, proper space re-allocation, complemented by measures to expand pedestrianisation and regenerate old industrial areas into spaces for people. Cycling was from the outset integrated into the city plans, not an after thought. Seven years later, with a modal share of 5%, the city is reaping the benefits and forging a solid reputation as a green and prosperous city – green European capital in 2013, host of Velocity2015, and number 7 of the top 20 cycling cities in the world according to the prestigious Copenhagenize Bike Index 2015. The vision and direction is now given by the new mayor, Johanna Rolland, who is not resting on these achievements and continues to invest in cycling infrastructure, beyond the core urban area and by making safe cycling routes to schools. So Velocity2015 wasn’t just about cycling but about the kind of cities we want in the future, something that NewCycling has been advocating for some time and more recently in a letter to the Newcastle Leader, Nick Forbes.
It wasn’t just urban design and active travel that were on the central stage of the conference, climate change was very much on the agenda, maybe not so surprisingly as Paris is hosting the COP21 in November. There was a clear and real acknowledgement that transport is a big polluter, that reducing carbon emissions generated by transport is more than ever a necessity and that cycling is part of the solution. Olivier Razemon from Le Monde, summed it up “if we were pedalling like the Danes and the Dutch, we could really contribute effectively and quickly to our carbon reduction targets”.
It is about people
The exhibition space at la Cite, Nantes Conference Centre, was packed with exhibitors from the cycling industry in particular bike-sharing companies, and there was no doubt that we were here to talk about cycling as a means of transport on its own and how to make everyday cycling “super normal”. Most importantly, rather than the object and various forms it can take from a tricycle, tandem, cargo bike to your standard bike, the focus was on people and future generations. Nantes fully celebrated the people who cycle, and the people from Nantes and Velocity2015 put up a magnificent show, the Velo Parade, a colourful ride around the city which gathered 7,000 (very loud!) people – absolutely breath-taking, exhilarating and a fantastic way to see and explore the different parts of Nantes.
Join the fun at the Velo Parade. Photos credit: Philippe Crist
Cycling is about people, fairness and social justice. In car-dominated cities, cycling is not a safe option and people are denied the right to travel as they would like to. It is not a level playing field – cities have to stop accommodating the needs of all current road users and prioritise investments which will enable everybody, women and children, to take up cycling. Should we not start seeing cycling to school as a human right? Currently abused and denied because of our road layouts?
Velocity2015 also gave women a platform to speak – debates in the planning and engineering sessions tended to be led and dominated by men. Giving space for women to meet and speak out is essential to make progress towards fairness and a more human and civilised urban space. It was Lake Sagaris who said that “cars take up space that we need for gardens, food, sociability and the development of our children” and also reminded us that pedestrians and cyclists are natural allies. And Amanda Ngabirano from Uganda who articulated with determination why inclusive cycling is so important: “when we plan safe cycling for women and children on our streets, then everybody else is catered for”. I found out that it is a woman, Marianne Weinreich who co-founded and is the current president of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, a great source of inspiration, knowledge and expertise – worth reading their publication about how good shoppers cyclists are. I met and chatted with the amazing Sue Abbott a writer and campaigner from Sydney whose latest battle is to oppose the removal of a cycleway. And this takes me to a final reflection which is how cities can better themselves, in a context of sheer necessity versus what, us, local campaigners, experience as an uphill battle.
Cities learning and a bit of (friendly) competition
Many cities are embarking on the transport transition. In France, Nantes, Rennes, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Paris are investing in cycling infrastructure. And it isn’t always easy. Strong leadership, well-communicated policies and steady investment are in place to deliver changes. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Groningen are still very much leading in the field: ”it isn’t rocket science, go and see Dutch and Danish cycling infrastructure and copy it” as Oliver Razemon from Le Monde put it. So what are we waiting for? Maybe English cities including London which are all still very much lagging behind (not one made it to the top 20 cycling cities of the bike index 2015), could do with some national benchmarking and some form of ranking to stimulate change, kick start and accelerate their transformation.
A friendly battle of the cities was organised by the Cycling Embassy of Denmark during the conference: Politicians from Copenhagen, Groningen and Paris were quizzed by the audience. Even the top cycling cities in the world are not resting on their laurels and continue to develop policies and put in place measures to increase their modal share. Christophe Najdovski, Paris Deputy Mayor in charge of transport, mobility, roads and public space, admitted that Paris was in a different league but said that the city was on the right track having recognised the importance of space reallocation from cars to people. Cities are forging links, a strong united voice for urban change will help pioneer cities as well as the “followers”.
In Nantes, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Mikael Colville-Andersen from the Copenhagenize design company. I’d like to leave you with him. This interview (starting at 58:50) and all his TED talks are vitamin shots for our city leaders. If Mikael is up for the challenge, he knows he is very welcome in Newcastle.