Every June for the past 11 years, thousands of painted and decorated cycling enthusiasts have taken to the streets of Thessaloniki, celebrating the freedom and enjoyment of this cheap and convenient means of transport. Look up as they ride past apartment blocks and there are even more bikes stored on balconies.
To the uninitiated, Thessaloniki looks for all the world like a city in love with cycling. In reality, it’s a complicated relationship.
The cyclists are in fact activists promoting the bicycle as an antidote to the city’s car culture – and many are naked, representing the ‘indecent’ exposure of humans and the planet to pollution. And those balcony bikes? Bought in a moment of enthusiasm, they’re now mostly unused as owners revert to their cars.
“People who are inspired to buy a bike by events like the naked cycle ride abandon them once they realise Thessaloniki is not a friendly city for cycling,” explains Kostas Terzopoulos, one of the city’s most active cycling campaigners.
“There is no culture of respect for cyclists, who have to share the same space as cars, so it can be uneasy and even dangerous on the roads,” he continues. “There is also a lot of pollution, which doesn’t create a very nice environment for cyclists.”
Road transport is one of Europe’s main sources of air pollution and a particular challenge in urban areas, damaging human health, liveability and economic viability. It is also one of the chronic stresses cities are having to learn to address as they strive to become more sustainable.
Being able to bounce back in the face of stresses that weaken the everyday fabric of city life, as well as after acute shocks such as extreme weather events, is the continuous resilience challenge to which cities must now rise. Mobility is one of the primary issues at the heart of Thessaloniki’s urban resilience strategy.
“In Thessaloniki there is a considerable problem with traffic congestion which is a major stress for citizens,” explains Anthi Tsakiropoulou of the city’s sustainable mobility and network directorate. “There are also limited public transport options and very low active mobility – both walking and cycling – and the level of service for cyclists is very low.”
Taking a new path
While road transport has dominated the city’s mobility planning efforts over the last 50 years, the bike has now overtaken the car. “We decided we wanted to develop our first-ever action plan to promote cycling and develop new infrastructure in the city,” says Tsakiropoulou. The city is not alone in wanting to give cycling a push.
The bicycle might be a humble, 200-year old form of transport but it is a fast-growing component of modern European mobility planning schemes. The Graz Declaration of 2018 marked a significant point for pedal power, formally acknowledging cycling as an equal mode of transport.
Thessaloniki would have a long way to go to achieve the success of Europe’s most bike-friendly city, Copenhagen, where 62% of citizens commute to work or school by bike. But to put itself on the right path, it knew it had to do things differently – and include citizens in the conversation and the solution.
We wanted to make it clear we are interested in citizens' needs and in developing our plans with them
“Not many projects happen this way in the city,” says Tsakiropoulou, “but we wanted to make it clear we are interested in citizens’ needs and in developing our plans with them. Engaging citizens also helps to raise awareness of the issues, define the city and citizens’ difficulties and highlight opportunities for promoting cycling, developing cycling culture among younger citizens and providing new cycling infrastructure. Finally, it gives the administration insight into what’s going on in the city.”
Starting to pedal
The city knew exactly how to go about doing things differently thanks to its involvement with the Urbact Resilient Europe network, which enables cities to share their learnings from urban resilience projects and make use of participatory governance guidelines.
The first task was to bring together a mix of people from the city’s sustainability, planning and transport departments, local agencies, universities, schools, NGOs, including cycling clubs, and citizens.
Over two years, this local group organised a series of meetings, surveys and family-friendly cycling and educational events. The goal was to lay the foundations of cycling’s integration into the city’s daily life and infrastructure by co-creating new solutions and an action plan with citizens.
At a kick-off public event, local residents learned how cities around the world have encouraged cycling and were asked how they thought Thessaloniki could make itself more cycle-friendly. Their ideas, from providing compulsory cycling training to expanding cycle parking near businesses, were included in the action plan.
A cycling event held on car-free day during European Mobility Week had a big turnout while other events, less typical for the city, reached different audiences. The city department responsible for welcoming refugees, for example, organised free bicycles for children to enjoy, encouraging them to explore and feel part of the city.
Two family-friendly cycle events passing through quiet streets and connecting various schools helped pupils and parents realise that it is safe to cycle to and from school. They also appreciated the road safety courses run by the police and on-road bike training provided by local competitive cyclists.
Once the city action plan was ready, Thessaloniki submitted a proposal for regional funding to implement it – and secured funding to expand the current cycle lane network and renovate a portion of the existing one. The action plan will also be integrated into the city’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) and other neighbourhood, urban and metropolitan level projects.
The city is clear that applying the lessons learnt from the Urbact Resilient Europe network played a big part in this success, as Andreas Karadakis, project and finance manager, explains: “I think the most important thing we gained from our participation in the network was the methodology of participatory action planning.”
Thessaloniki intends to build on this first experience and apply the same methodology in future projects during the implementation of its resilience strategy for 2030. In doing this the city will join a growing European movement to include citizens more frequently in decision making to improve quality, transparency and ownership of plans and policies.
This movement reflects concern about the growing number of European citizens feeling they are not being heard and losing a sense of belonging.
According to Carnegie scholar and international democracy expert Richard Youngs, ‘an increasing number of successful examples of participation has helped dispel doubts about whether citizens really want to be involved in decision making or can engage open-mindedly with complex policy debates.’
Youngs points out that, among many other examples, the French government has established a citizens’ assembly to discuss climate change and Madrid city council a permanent assembly to deliberate on local issues. A network of citizens’ assemblies has been established in Polish cities and the Scottish parliament is setting up a citizens’ jury to issue recommendations on a wide scope of political challenges.
At the European level, the recent year-long Cities4Europe campaign set out to help change the way politics is done in Europe by inspiring cities and other levels of government to explore and use new ways of involving citizens in policy making.
The new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also added her voice to the debate, setting out in her political guidelines her wish for a new push for European democracy and commitment to involving citizens.
Thessaloniki knows only too well how valuable this citizen-centric approach can be. But it would be the first to say that it isn’t always an easy ride!
“There are very different opinions about mobility and people are used to thinking only of their own benefits,” says Tsakiropoulou. “Car drivers don’t want to give up car parking for cycling infrastructure for instance while others are adamant that cycle lanes separated from the road are the solution.”
It’s certainly true that cycling, ‘may have encountered more enemies than any other form of exercise’, as one 19th century author wrote. But Thessaloniki has worked hard to help citizens see cycling as the city’s friend and to appreciate that, in the words of US journalist Rick Smith, ‘An engineer designing from scratch could hardly concoct a better device to unclog modern roads – cheap, non-polluting, small and silent.’
Cycling enthusiasts like Kostas Terzopoulos might be continuing their campaign for even more radical cycling-friendly measures, but both they and the city are at least now in agreement about the truth of this statement.