On the right track

Mala Širola has been an enthusiastic cyclist for three years and can often be seen riding through the city centre with her mother Tamina. Yet she’s still only five.

“I think it’s very important to start teaching children about how to cycle safely when they are really young,” says Tamina. “It can be dangerous and I know I need to teach Mala that we share the road with cars and pedestrians and that her bell is to let them know she is there – and not for ringing when she wants to!”

Not surprisingly, when Tamina saw that the police were running a workshop on cycling safety for young children during European Mobility Week she signed her daughter up. “It was a great education session with a friendly approach where the kids learned a lot,” she says.

“Every activity involving children is excellent.” says Krešimir Miletić of Zagreb’s office for social protection and people with disabilities. “Our intention is to educate people to change their habits and everything starts in childhood. If you learn about healthy modalities of travel as you are growing up, then those modalities will easily become part of your own lifestyle and help to change things in the city.” And Zagreb is intent on change.

​First class campaign

Mobility is one of the main strategic issues in Zagreb, a city whose transport infrastructure was designed to cater for about a fifth of its current population of one million. It does, however, have one big advantage over many others with this same predicament. The city’s abundance of green squares, parks and forests mean it has great potential for encouraging more environmentally-friendly modes of transport like walking and cycling.

Zagreb is certainly on the right path. There’s a public bike sharing scheme and an ongoing expansion and improvement project for the city’s cycling infrastructure for a start. Some businesses, including Tamina’s, provide bikes employees can use for their commute. According to a 2019 study of Europe’s healthiest capital cities, which ranked Zagreb 16th, over 24% of the city’s residents now regularly walk or cycle.

Zagreb’s enthusiastic involvement in European Mobility Week since its launch in 2002 makes the city’s commitment to doing even more very clear. In fact, this week-long annual campaign dedicated to improving public health and quality of life through the promotion of clean mobility and sustainable urban transport, has become something of a passion in the city.

Named a finalist in the European Mobility Awards in 2008 and 2011, Zagreb finally won first place in 2012. What was the city’s secret? A well-organised campaign featuring a wide range of activities – 62 in total – which reached more than 150,000 citizens. But the city’s approach to the campaign has even more to recommend it.

Representing the vulnerable

“At first the city office for transport was delegated to coordinate European Mobility Week,” says Miletić. “Then we realised that we need to design activities that relate to all the city’s citizens and that the campaign’s goals include a lot more than just traffic issues – health, education and social topics too. As our city office for social protection and people with disabilities has a lot of contact with citizens, including various groups representing vulnerable people, it was given the task.”

Everything should be designed for everyone
— Krešimir Miletić of Zagreb's office for social protection and people with disabilities

This switch means the city’s Mobility Week programme has a wider focus than many. “Everything should be designed for everyone,” continues Miletić. “We want all groups of people to be involved, from little children in kindergarden to the elderly and families to people with disabilities.

“Mobility is particularly important to people with disabilities, enabling them to be part of the everyday life of the city. With 11% of the city’s residents registered disabled, they and their families make up around a third of people in the city who are facing mobility and disability problems.”

Finding solutions to these problems has been made easier in Zagreb thanks to its long-standing culture of working closely with local NGOs. This is due in part to its Healthy City strategic project which has encouraged the participation of community organisations to help improve the lives of vulnerable people of all ages and those with special needs.

These relationships are playing a significant role again now that Zagreb has pledged to turn the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights into tangible local actions. On signing this pledge last year, Zagreb made a commitment to ‘provide all citizens with the opportunity to make use of the services that will help them have a good quality of life -and live a life tailored to their needs’.

Ideas from the front line

This all means that when it comes to Mobility Week, the city has a deep understanding of local needs and priorities and NGOs and local organisations of all kinds come knocking, eager to help and with fresh ideas for activities.

So it was in 2019 when the Mobility Week theme, safe walking and cycling, was announced. In came the local museums with a plan to give free entry to children who had arrived on foot or by bike with their families. Anyone arriving by bus was able to turn their ticket into a free entry pass to the museum.

The Zagreb Association of Blind and Partially Sighted People, meanwhile, proposed education sessions with their members and cyclists. “We had detected some issues with bicycle lanes and the tactile pavements and crossings our members use to orientate themselves,” explains the association’s president Branimir Šutalo

“Sometimes cyclists weren’t paying attention to these accessibility solutions so our goal was to help them understand how they are used and ensure that interaction of the two groups in traffic is as safe as possible.”

NGOs also work with the city to run education sessions with bus and train drivers about the issues and problems people with disabilities face using public transport. Drivers learnt about the importance of releasing the ramp allowing wheelchair users to get on the bus unaided and of making announcements so that blind people know when to get off without having to ask.

People using wheelchairs don't want to be helped when they enter a bus or tram, they would rather be independent
— Krešimir Miletić of Zagreb's office for social protection and people with disabilities

“People using wheelchairs don’t want to be helped when they enter a bus or tram, they would rather be independent,” says Miletić. “There can also be accidents when drivers act without good training. Drivers were thankful for their better understanding and said they would always like to help but sometimes hadn’t known how to approach and communicate with this group.”

From kindergarten to care home

The everyday travelling needs of visually impaired people were brought home to children too during one Mobility Week activity. Led by The Croatian Association of Guide Dogs and Mobility Training, education sessions in elementary schools helped pupils appreciate the difficulties people can face and the assistance dogs can give.

Other activities saw children from all the local schools exercising, walking, hiking, cycling – and getting excited about trains! Aware of how curious children are, they were taken to the public train depot to see where the carriages sleep at night. Apparently, this activity was among the most enjoyed of the week – alongside being able to cycle freely through the city streets on car-free day!

The idea behind activities for the older generation was to address the mental stress of the lonely as well as health and mobility. “We wanted to encourage the elderly to move more and also to get in touch with other people and make their social networks larger as both are good for their health, especially when it’s all done in nature,” says Miletić.

Wherever you looked for the whole seven days you’d see this movement! Gymnastic sessions in parks, groups walking to the botanical gardens, Nordic walkers on their way to the mountains and tai chi, bowls, chess and darts at the sports park.

Noticing new needs

When Mobility Week was over and life returned to normal – albeit a healthier normal – the city got back to work with the wide range of permanent mobility measures it’s got on the go.

These range from traffic calming measures near schools to free on-demand transport for people with disabilities – a service that enabled over 28,000 people to get to work, school, social events and medical appointments in 2019.

One novel idea emerged from the city’s realisation that mobile phones were creating a new vulnerable group when it came to travel. A study showed that 50% of the city’s pedestrians and 33% of cyclists use their phones while navigating pedestrian crossings – and 20% don’t even notice when the signal is red. The city has now installed a new type of traffic signal that reflects on the pavement next to crossings so even people engrossed in their phones can still clearly see the red light.

We are particularly proud of a new social service for women with cancer
— Krešimir Miletić of Zagreb's office for social protection and people with disabilities

Another solution to a very specific problem came from a local organisation. “We are particularly proud of a new social service for women with cancer,” says Miletić. “A support organisation asked if we would cover the cost of a taxi service to and from chemotherapy sessions as patients already have a lot of medical expenses at this time. We think this is human and a very good use of city funds.”

It is not hard to see why Šutalo says Zagreb is, “a trailblazer for new mobility and accessibility solutions – and its Mobility Week activities make me positive about the future.”

It’s a future in which little Mala and her peers, brought up to be aware of and to enjoy clean transport options, will play a big part too.

Tiphanie Mellor