Cycling debates and putting human-oriented space on the political agenda

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited along to speak at Trondheim’s monthly Green Drinks meeting. I was asked to talk a bit about cycling without going too deep into the technicalities of my research (although my topic is thankfully quite tangible so it could have touched on this). I thought that given the audience of around 30 people is pretty well clued up on cycling (having a disposition towards going to events called Green Drinks) I’d discuss some of the issues that are more controversial amongst cycling lobbyists, planners and academics.

Specifically I touched upon 3 main topics, and tried to cover both sides of the debate:

  1. helmet promotion together with a cycling promotion agenda – shooting yourself in the foot?
  2. how green is cycling in the big picture of environmental emissions
  3. whether culture is a necessary precursor for an increase in cycling or if it is simply a matter of infrastructure

I have uploaded a copy of my presentation here in case you should be interested:

screenshot greendrinks pres

I was speaking together with one of the more high profile green politicians in Norway too, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, who has since 2015 been the City of Oslo’s environment and transport council member. In this role she’s been pushing for the rapid expansion of Oslo’s bicycle network together with the much discussed shift to car free streets in the city’s centre. You can read more about the car free plans on The Guardian, Reuters and The Atlantic.

Lan Marie Green Drinks
Rebecka (the evening’s moderator), Lan and me at Green Drinks Trondheim (and some guy enjoying his drink). Photo: Kristin Lønsethagen

She talked mostly about the changes Oslo city council has been making in recent years with changes to a more attractive city centre. Most people working with urban planning will recognise the difficulties that can be had when trying to reallocate land use. Lan and her colleagues have got around this issue by modifying the local planning regulations to include a passage that states something along the lines of: “In the event of a conflict over space between parking and bicycle infrastructure, the bicycle infrastructure will be prioritised.” This has reduced the number of the battles with local NIMBYs and car parking enthusiasts who may want to challenge the decision with the planning department of the city – but it hasn’t been entirely conflict free (see article in Norwegian). The city’s trade association representing shop owners has expressed deep concern with the removal of car parking spaces they believe carry many of their customers. Some residents have begun forming action groups against the removal of public parking spaces.

But the changes have come despite resistance: “We wouldn’t have done our job if the bicycle promotion initiatives hadn’t created debate” says Lan. With it’s own team of around 25 full time employees the Bicycle Project office of the City of Oslo has been able to do quite a bit in a small amount of time.

See some examples of their actions taken in 2016 (a more comprehensive picture of all the before and after photos can be found via the Sykkel i Oslo facebook page):

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The ambition levels from the red-green city government coalition (Labour Party, the Green Party and the Socialist Left) haven’t gone unnoticed. At this year’s Velo-City cycling conference in the Netherlands, the Cycling Embassy of Denmark gave their Leadership award for cycling promotion 2017 to the City of Oslo.

I also noticed this shortly after beginning my PhD in Norway and have thus chosen to use Oslo as a case study in my research – given the amount of exciting changes happening there. Trondheim has considerably higher cycling levels today (around 9% of journeys compared to Oslo’s 5%), but it had better watch out because Oslo is making rapid headway on its 1977 promise for creating a separate bicycle network (just slightly delayed!).

The initiatives taken in recent years in Oslo’s bicycle and city planning space have been an inspiration for many a bicycle advocate. If you’re not familiar with the changes you can get up to speed with this short video from the not-for-profit Streetfilms. Happy viewing!

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