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March 14, 2017 at 10:00 AM

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Amsterdam and New York have a “bicycle mayor”: Should Vancouver follow?

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Amsterdam is struggling to find parking for its 1.1 million bicycles. Photo: Joep Olthuis

Amsterdam is struggling to find parking for its 1.1 million bicycles. Photo: Joep Olthuis

By Joep Olthuis

The former bicycle mayor from Amsterdam, Anna Luten, is taking her innovative program to New York, both to reconstruct the city’s infrastructure around cycling and to influence the mentality of residents. The Dutch capital, where Luten developed her expertise, has about a million bicycles and 1.1 million inhabitants, of whom two-thirds cycle every day.

What are bike mayors exactly? According to Cyclespace, the advocacy organization that created and administers Amsterdam’s bike mayor program, they’re independent liaisons between municipalities and cycling advocacy groups, charged with “uncover[ing] the massive economic, health and environmental benefits of increased cycling capacity.” As part of this work, the Dutch NGO is helping to “accelerate the shift to human-centric cities” and has ambitious plans to export the concept to 25 cities around the world. As stated on its website, “Cyclespace coordinates the Bicycle Mayor network but works with local partners in every city to identify and run competitions to elect local Mayors, and then support them to develop and implement their ideas for action.” Luten is kickstarting the international efforts in New York.

In the words of Cyclespace, bike mayors “could find ideas to improve local cycling from the worlds of digital technology, public policy, urban planning, architecture, product and service design, communication and way finding … among others.” Essentially, the role of a bike mayor is to convey the voice of cyclists; the person “must be dedicated to this cause and will need to work with existing bicycle advocacy groups, political leaders, major projects and initiative funders, as well as with the business community.” Importantly, Cyclespace acknowledges that the role of each city’s bike mayor will differ with local challenges and opportunities.

I’ve lived most of my life in the Netherlands as a Dutch citizen, and cycling runs in my veins. Over the years I’ve lived in the Vancouver area, I’ve seen much potential to incorporate cycling into people’s everyday lives, as well as a need to move from frustrating car trips to happy and healthy bike rides. Observing the evolution of bike-centered solutions in North America has thus been a matter of personal interest and commitment for me.

In the last decade, New York has seen a significant transformation in its bike infrastructure. With Janette Sadik-Khan as commissioner of the Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, the city has gained a hugely successful Citi Bike bike-sharing program and more than 35 miles of protected bike lanes (between 2008 and 2013), totalling 400 miles of lanes improved or added to the city since the mid 2000s. Overhauling New York’s street infrastructure has had a tremendous effect on safety. In an interview with Bicycling.com, Sadik-Kahn has explained that “the risk of serious injury for cyclists fell 35 percent even as other risks fell, too,” while 9th Avenue “saw injuries drop 58 percent” and “even drop 66 percent for people who were walking.”

When asked in that interview why plans from the 1997 New York City Bicycle Master Plan weren’t realized until her own first year in office, Sadik-Kahn called it “a matter of commitment,” observing that “cities have to move quickly with infrastructure. Streets have been the same way for so long that people don’t really understand what’s possible.” She also acknowledged that implementing change comes with resistance and controversy and that “if you want to be popular, you don’t go changing things. It’s about getting things done.” Each city, she says, “has to fight on its own. But overcoming resistance is a critical test of leadership.”

All that being said, New York’s bicycle statistics are still nowhere near Amsterdam’s, any more than its bike-related infrastructure or mentality are similar to those of the Dutch capital. Luten has said, “In Manhattan, I actually don’t want to cycle yet. There aren’t enough proper bicycle lanes, and the people in cars aren’t used to cyclists … In the Netherlands, all the people in cars are cyclists, so they know how to move and how to get around the cyclists, but [in New York] they aren’t.”

Aggression, antagonism and safety concerns are among the challenges that Luten knows need to be dealt with. The back-and-forth among media headlines will be familiar to many readers, with stories such as “How to solve NYC’s rude-cyclist problem” (New York Magazine), “A green light for bicycle aggression” (New York Post), “When Will NYC Crack Down On Reckless Cyclists” (Huffington Post) and “Cyclists need protection from reckless driving, not from themselves” (StreetsBlog NYC).

The planning and funding of infrastructure are other key issues. Luten aims to approach New York with the experience she has developed in Amsterdam, where she managed problems such as the issue that while 68% of journeys are by bike, cyclists only get 11% of the infrastructure space allocated (whereas cars get 44%). This causes bike traffic jams, with the result that some cyclists become stressed and don’t behave properly on the road.

Back in Vancouver

Let’s circle back to our own city. Nowadays there are some excellent bike routes here, great strides having been made through programs such as Ungap the Map from HUB Cycling, one of Vancouver’s strongest bike advocacy groups. Both effort and expertise are needed to keep up this momentum, as bike-path saturation and connectivity among bike routes and places are still lacking. Cycling through town doesn’t feel like second nature yet even to me, let alone to people who haven’t grown up on a bike. Lack of accessibility plays a large role in this, reducing the possibilities for jumping quickly onto a bike to do an errand or get to work. The ease of doing so is precisely the source of success for many places in the Netherlands.

Would a bike mayor actually be useful in our city? In some respects Vancouver is in a situation quite similar to New York’s. Much of the surface infrastructure is built to support cars first, with the resulting challenges and limitations that come with this, but cycling is on the rise in both cities. In 2005, 50,000 trips were taken on bikes in Vancouver, with numbers almost tripling to 131,000 over the subsequent decade. As in New York, about 10 percent of Vancouverites cycle to work: a number that, while a long way off from Amsterdam’s, is growing each year. Further improvements in infrastructure, safety and mentality could accelerate bike usage in Vancouver, and having our own bike mayor could potentially help us achieve these goals, especially given that the city’s actual elected mayor, Gregor Robertson, is already an avid cyclist and bike supporter himself.

Cycling has almost tripled over the last decade in Vancouver. Photo: Josep Olthuis

Cycling has almost tripled over the last decade in Vancouver. Photo: Joep Olthuis

Vancouver’s current cycling mode share of 7% has already met the 2020 targets of the Transportation 2040 Plan. Continuing strong leadership is needed in order for us to take this to the 12% target set for 2040. A bike mayor both very knowledgeable in Vancouver’s local challenges and opportunities and able to bring stakeholders together in coming up with innovative solutions to advance cycling further could conceivably be a great asset in bringing us to the 2040 goals.

When I spoke to Ellie Lambert at HUB Cycling about the possibility of a bike mayor, she replied that HUB doesn’t have a stance yet on whether the city needs one. She did, however, comment: “We … are watching the progression of bike mayors around the world with interest. We believe that the more pro-cycling voices that are involved in decision-making the better, and it seems that the creation of positions such as Amsterdam’s bike mayor and Atlanta’s chief bicycle officer has helped facilitate dialogue and improved cycling conditions in these cities. HUB Cycling will continue to advocate for better biking across Metro Vancouver and work with municipalities such as the City of Vancouver to create conditions that allow more people to cycle more often.”

The fact that groups like HUB have already helped facilitate dialogue and improve cycling conditions in Vancouver, and that bike use has risen, leaves us with a question. Are the current pro-cycling voices as influential as they could be, or could a bike mayor give them even more weight by bringing together the strengths of multiple stakeholder groups and working more closely with city officials?

Some might argue that Mayor Robertson is effectively fulfilling this role himself, having put in great effort advocating for, and having been substantially responsible for, the addition of much of Vancouver’s bike infrastructure, including the separate bike lanes in the downtown core. At the same time, as a politician, he lacks the independence that is one of the strengths of a designated bike mayor, who can act as a liaison and advocate among disparate stakeholders, outside of a political agenda.

Either way, we’ll certainly want to watch, and learn what we can, from Anna Luten’s progress in New York.

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