Tracy Metz (LF '07) reports on how cities are taking cycling seriously, with Amsterdam setting the pace.
Urban cycling is all the rage in cities nowadays. For tourists it’s a fun way of seeing the city, for locals in cities that are not used to bikes it is a form of transport activism. In Amsterdam, it’s utilitarian; biking is simply the cheapest and quickest way to get around. Not in lycra, but in high heels or a business suit, or with groceries in front and a child in back.
Now Amsterdam leads the world as the first city in to elect a bicycling mayor, in the person of Anna Luten.
The cycling mayor is a brainchild of Steven Fleming, one of the founders of the Amsterdam-based NGO Cyclespace. Cyclespace hopes to expand this internationally with a Global Bicycle Mayor Program and is now talking to thirty cities; Moscow, El Paso, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Beijing, Chicago and Warsaw have expressed interest. Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have also elected cycling mayors, and last month Sydney joined the club. The first Bicycle Mayor Summit is being held on June 10th and 11th in Amsterdam as part of the international conference Velo-City.
Anna Luten (29) was elected Amsterdam cycling mayor in June 2016. She does it for the good cause, alongside her day job as a brand manager for Giant’s LIV range of sporting bikes for women. Ironically, Amsterdam scores poorly on bike-sharing rankings: there is no need to share, everyone already has a bike, and often more than one. So what is Luten’s mission in a city where everyone, from high to low, bikes?
Success, she says, is part of the problem: there are more and more bikes on the streets in the Netherlands as a whole, where bike use has grown by 11 percent in the past ten years. There is a nationwide push to create more long distance bike paths between cities, such as the Velostrada between Leiden and The Hague, in order to increase bike use by another 20 percent.
In dense Amsterdam, space for cars, pushbikes, electric bikes, scooters, riksha’s, pedestrians, tourists on segways and even in cutesy horse-drawn carriages is at a premium. High on her agenda, then, is the creation of more space for bikes. After all, they account for almost two thirds of all trips in the city center, but they only get 11 percent of the infrastructure–while cars get 44 percent .“I’m afraid people will stop biking simply because they think it is too dangerous,” Luten says.
She is especially motivated to get more kids on bikes. Children in migrant communities tend to bike less. Anna Luten went to ask them why. “It turned out that either they live too far away, or they don’t have a bike.” Her suggestion: create a system of bikes that kids can borrow or can pay off gradually. Cyclespace has a plan to open a pavilion outside the city center where kids from the neighbourhood can pump their bikes and learn to repair them. “We have to keep innovating or we’ll fall behind,” she says.
The cyclists themselves are part of the reason biking can be dangerous. ‘We are so rude!” she exclaims. “We’re good at going with the flow, but the idea that traffic laws such as red lights and crosswalks and one way streets might also apply to bikes–not here! We’re an example for other cities in the number of people on bikes, but not always in how we bike.” It’s common to see people on the phone or staring at the screen in their hand as they negotiate traffic. Luten: “Even Amsterdammers like myself sometimes feel anxious in traffic nowadays.”
The risk grows along with the increase in the number of tourists, who do not recognize the sound of a bike bell and step out into the street without looking, sometimes pushing a cyclist over in the process. Cyclespace recently started a project to track rental bikes to learn where and how long tourists use them. “Maybe we need to develop alternative routes for tourists on bikes,” says Anna, “or teach them how biking works in Amsterdam before they take off. Maybe we can even show an instruction movie on the planes over.”
Another issue, also space-related, is bike parking. Amsterdam is building facilities for over 30,000 bikes near the central station by 2030, including parking underwater and on floating manmade islands. Bike parking is an important part of Amsterdam’s new 6-year cycling plan (2017-2022): of the 54 million euros this plan entails, over 22 million are for bike parking alone. One of the problems the city faces is getting cyclists to put their bikes in the garages; it’s so much easier to just lean it against a wall. Discipline has increased, however, as the city has designated parking spaces on the streets and enforces them by towing bikes that are parked incorrectly.
It has amused her to see how much faith some people have in her “power” as cycling mayor. “The other day someone asked me what I can do to get rid of all the puddles on the street after a rain shower.”
Anna Luten recently moved to New York and is working on starting a cycling mayorship there. This fall her successor will be elected. “Living in New York City now, I see the similarity between how we act on a bike in a way and how pedestrians act over here. The big difference is that cyclists are more aware of others and of the traffic around them than pedestrians. People here are so focused on their phone that they cross the street without actually looking. Technology nowadays is becoming a problem. Cycling can help us bring back the human aspect. It’s human progress.”