Like many parts of the world, Europe is starting to attempt some semblance of post-lockdown normality (even despite the ongoing Covid infection numbers…). In the cycling world, that meant another recent Velo-City cycling conference two weeks ago, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. This annual fixture is a fascinating gathering, bringing together all kinds of cycling culture aspects from Europe and around the world. In my university academic days, I was fortunate enough to visit four such events, and the most recent was back in 2015 in Nantes, France, during an overseas sabbatical. This post, originally from July 2015, summarises some of the interesting sessions and activities from the conference, as well as some observations on how this French city had embraced the bicycle…
After the highs of a month in the Netherlands, I still had another month to check out some of the “lesser lights” of European cycling (which, compared with New Zealand, invariably still means better than most of us…). The next stop after Enschede was a train ride to the Atlantic French city of Nantes, where the 2015 Velo-City Cycling Conference was held in early June.
The conference itself attracted over 1500 people across four days of activities. Invariably it has a wide range of people represented; urban planners, city officials, health promoters, cycling advocates, researchers – you name it, they’ve got a session for it. Presentations from the programme haven’t yet been posted on the website, but for now you can at least see the topics that were covered. And plenty of people have reported on their observations via social media, e.g. Twitter.
Some of the interesting things that I noted during the conference included:
- Economist Philippe Crist from the International Transport Forum gave a very inspiring simple presentation that introduced three adjectives to describe how cycling can support our cities: Serendipitous (people promote cycling for one reason and discover it has other unexpected benefits too); Resilient (cycling provides flexibility for our transport networks, our cities, society, and ultimately our planet); and Supernormal (cycling should be so ubiquitous, banal and fully integrated into our lifestyle that we no longer consciously notice it).
- In the past year or so, France has made some dramatic changes to the road regulations surrounding cycling. Following some local trials, the French transport Minister announced last year that all jurisdictions were able to allow cyclists to not have to stop at traffic signals for certain manoeuvres (e.g. going around the corner or across the top of a “T”) – there has been some recent publicity on this from Paris. Other rules introduce a minimum gap when passing cyclists and allow for “2 minus 1” roads (single traffic lane with cycling shoulders, as seen in the Netherlands).
- Cargo bikes continue to go from strength to strength in Europe, especially for commercial operations, and there are some very useful resources and events to help support people using them. Many of them are also electric (“e-bikes”). The French Postal service are increasingly using a range of cargo bikes for the growing package deliveries (a pity that NZ Post didn’t follow their lead…). Cargo bikes also have great use for deliveries in central city traffic-free areas around Europe, and some cargo-bike services are also collecting packaging waste from businesses after dropping off deliveries. One very clever innovation being trialled by DHL is the introduction of standardised mini-containers that can be quickly transferred between trucks and cargo-bikes.
- In the UK, a very effective campaign by the Cyclists Touring Club (CTC) has been the call for “Space for Cycling”. What started out as a promotion in London was widely liked by other regions as a simple clear message that could be pushed to the public and politicians elsewhere. Space for Cycling’s six themes are: Protected space on main roads; Removing through motor traffic in residential areas; Lower speed limits; Cycle-friendly town centres; Safe routes to school; and Routes through green spaces (much of this is not too dissimilar to my recent observations from The Netherlands). Quite a few other initiatives have sprung up around the UK with similar themes and aims.
There is a tradition at Velo-City conferences of a big bike parade around the city, and Nantes was no exception. All the locals are invited to join in and so we ended up with perhaps 5000-7000 people (depending on who you talked to) taking part in the 90-minute ride around some of the sights of the city. A lot of fun!
Away from the conference, I also took the chance to have a good look at what Nantes is doing for cycling (I should say that it is also producing some fabulous public transport infrastructure). In a fairly short period of time, Nantes has aggressively worked on improving its cycling provision (e.g. doubling the length of cycleways in about 10 years to over 400km). It has rolled out a number of interesting things, including:
- A network of major cycleway priority spines across the city. These are typically 3m-wide separated two-way facilities alongside major road corridors; sometimes that was a bit of a squeeze and the crossings at major intersections were a bit unclear as to who had priority.
- A relatively unique layout where the cycleway runs down the middle of the main central city street. It works here because of the low speed limit and the fact that it is mostly only buses that uses the adjacent traffic lanes.
- A public bike share scheme “Bicloo” with ~900 bikes across ~100 stations. The usage on site seemed relatively straightforward; no pre-registration needed.
- Nantes has been one of the main pioneers trialling the above-mentioned new French regulations. So there were plenty of intersections allowing bikes to ignore certain traffic signals, as well as some tests of “2 minus 1” layouts.
- Like other European cities, Nantes also is working hard on traffic volume and speed reductions, with 30km/h zones and special central-city restricted areas that limit what motor vehicles can use them (and when). There were also other tricks seen elsewhere such as contra-flow cycling on otherwise one-way streets.
Copenhagenize rates Nantes at no.7 in their recent Top 20 Cycling Index. Full marks for the city’s ongoing enthusiasm; clearly they have made huge strides in only a few years. They also have provided a great bike share scheme, and reducing traffic in the central city is an important improvement. But a world top-ten cycling city?
I’m not convinced; much of the cycling infrastructure is decidedly average (or even potentially risky at road crossings) and they still only have a cycling rate about the same as Christchurch. Maybe my previous month in the Netherlands had spoilt me…
The momentum is clearly there though, and I would be interested to revisit Nantes in, say, five years time and see how much further they have improved.
If you’d like to get to a Velo-City conference one day (and they are certainly fascinating events, with a bit of something for everyone), then next year is a pretty good opportunity with “Velo-CIty Global 2016” being handily located in Taipei in the “bicycle kingdom” of Taiwan, from Feb 27 – Mar 1, 2016. The Call for Papers has just been released too (open until Sep 18).
What lessons can we learn from Nantes’ strong pro-cycling growth strategy?