Sometimes global challenges call for complicated solutions. In other cases, simple actions can bring easy change to complex issues.
Active mobility belongs to the latter: walking and cycling are an easy, low-cost way to accomplish a lot, from lowering cities’ carbon emissions, reducing traffic, air and noise pollution, to keeping people healthy.
In recent years, the Covid pandemic has prompted more and more urban residents to embrace active mobility – that is, to hop on their bikes or walk. But with transport still accounting for a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, and with air pollution “the largest environmental health risk in Europe”, greater efforts are needed to encourage drivers to leave their cars at home.
The key to doing that? Seek people’s involvement to make tailor-made plans and include users in urban sustainable projects, say European urban mobility experts. Ultimately, if people aren’t convinced about embracing change, authorities’ decisions will remain just ink on paper.
“Mobility is a human act,” said Juan Caballero, European Mobility Week’s Campaign Manager as he kicked off the webinar “Combining citizens’ involvement and urban planning to foster active mobility in cities.” Today’s online event was organised by Eurocities within the framework of the Covenant of Mayors – Europe.
Fostering people’s participation is also an action listed in the EU’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP). The guidelines encourage local authorities to “communicate, inform and engage citizens and stakeholders” in the implementation and revision of sustainable mobility strategies.
Examples from European Mobility Week
“People naturally move; as a society, we need to find an agreement on how to best do that around towns and cities,” Caballero remarked.
It was no surprise that the European Mobility Week’s campaign manager was tasked with opening the webinar. Since 2002, the European Commission’s flagship sustainable mobility campaign has made active and participatory mobility its trademark.
Every September, European Mobility Week props city dwellers to try sustainable mobility solutions and see how they can be adopted and adapted to their own lives.
For cities big and small, the week-long campaign is a creative opportunity to reach out to residents and promote behavioural change. A few examples from the 2022 edition illustrate the countless ways in which cities enroll locals’ help.
In the Serbian city of Niš, locals took part in the creation of the local Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan. In North Macedonia’s Veles, high-level politicians – including the mayor – and people of all ages came together to take part in car-free day. In the Cypriot town of Aradippou, residents expressed their concerns about cycling in an open debate with municipality officials as part of last year’s European Mobility Week.
Through a child’s eyes
A trailblazer in the active participation model, Eurocities member Valongo is now ripping the benefits of its multifaceted efforts. The Portuguese city won the 2021 European Mobility Week Award in the smaller municipalities category for its green mobility plans and “permanent measures and activities that integrate public opinion.”
Valongo sought to restructure public spaces to make room for people instead of cars. All along, the city embraced a holistic approach that put inhabitants at its core. Roads shrank, curbs grew larger, green areas multiplied as did bike lanes, safer sidewalks and wheelchair ramps.
Meanwhile, theater shows helped Valongo to raise public awareness on sustainable transport while locals took part in city-sponsored sporting activities and mobility surveys. The input from local organisations, schools and children helped to fine-tune municipal plans and ensure their widespread adoption.
The city sometimes resorted to simple measures to design areas reserved for pedestrians, such as drawing colourful pictures on pavements or placing pots and barriers. This was a nod to tactical urbanism, a method that calls for low-cost, easy solutions instead of more expensive infrastructural works.
In the digital age, Valongo became a lot more inviting, prodding people to meet in person instead of on their phones.
Children’s involvement, in particular, prompted local officials to look at their work through a different lens: “It was like seeing urban planning through the eyes of a child,” Paulo Ferreira, a Mobility Councillor in Valongo told participants of the Covenant of Mayors – Europe webinar.
Changes like the erosion of car space always bring mistrust and resistance, Ferreira conceded; it takes political courage to press on with new plans, he added. However, “once people start using the new system and see that it allows them more quality time and space, they will change their mind”, the Valongo official said. “We think we’re on the right path,” he concluded.
In Vienna, balancing gender and mobility
The participatory approach to policy plans doesn’t just mean interacting with locals; it also requires to cater to the specific needs of different user groups.
In Vienna, where data show that women are more likely to walk and take public transport while men are more inclined to cycle and drive, local policies were adapted accordingly.
The Austrian capital’s new planning model aims to offer equal opportunities to men, women as well as older residents and people with a disability.
In recent years, Vienna has worked to increase women’s safety in public spaces by, for example, adding street lights in darker areas to protect those walking at night. The city also built broader sidewalks, barrier-free pavements and timed traffic lights to allow older pedestrians more time to cross the street.