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Europe’s sustainable mobility revolution

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:00

While major capital cities across the continent have been bringing in a raft of measures to try and tackle pollution, Sean Carroll from the European Secretariat of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability takes a look at how these cities are finding creative and innovative ways of improving urban environment and using cleaner transport

© Harry Schiffer, Eltis

When European cities dedicated large amounts of urban space to vehicles made of glass and steel and fuelled by a liquid buried deep within the Earth, it was done in the name of modernity. Cities were remodelled to fit the needs of private vehicles, with streets that were once public spaces cordoned off for car-owners. Pedestrians were banished to footpaths, and cyclists were largely forgotten altogether, stuck in a limbo between both.
The story of urban development in the 20th Century is inextricably linked with the rise of the automobile, and many of our cities, with great black tracks of asphalt taking up the majority of limited urban space, poor air quality rates, frequent accidents at times resulting in death, are a testament to this. Even our historic building stock suffers, as cars subject them to constant vibrations, while emissions speed up their decay.
As populations continue to rise and previously rurally-based inhabitants migrate to cities, the number of journeys into and out of city centres is expected to rise. As such, relying on cars as our primary mode of transport is problematic. With an increasing number of cars on the roads, we are destined to experience more severe grid-lock, greater infrastructural strain, and more drastic health problems, both in terms of respiratory complications brought on by exposure to air pollution such as PM-10s and NOx (fumes released by cars) and through a lack of physical exercise prompted by car use. Rising oil prices and greater noise pollution further exacerbate the situation.

All of the evidence points towards one conclusion – the way we currently get from A to B is not sustainable. A long-term change is needed.
To prevent traffic chaos and to meet EU laws on air quality, many members of the city network ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability are embracing new ways to travel, putting sustainability at the centre of their travel plans. Whether its Copenhagen’s revolutionary work on enhancing cycling in their city or Barcelona’s decision to adopt a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan that offers greater support for soft modes of transport (which additionally aims to reduce the number of deaths on the city’s roads by 30 percent), cities and towns are developing new mobility paradigms that put people first, using a mixture of political will, intelligent planning and stakeholder cooperation to make sustainable transport the norm.

Brussels recently made the decision to devote large swathes of its centre to pedestrians
Today it has the largest pedestrian zone of any European capital. “It’s a revolution,” said Mayor Yvan Mayeur, speaking at the launch of the zone. “The appearance and atmosphere of Brussels [has] changed. We’re going to live in a calmer city more suited to its inhabitants and no longer to cars.”

Dublin City Council and Ireland’s National Transport Authority have similarly released plans that will see vehicle access to the city centre restricted, with streets reserved for walking, cycling and public transport use. Through the measures, the Irish capital aims to make the city centre more attractive as a place to visit, shop and do business in.

It’s not just larger cities that are transforming how we move in urban spaces
By making soft mobility modes more attractive, the Swedish city of Malmö has created what is reportedly the most sustainable transport system in the country. Discussing the city’s progress, Milan Obradovic, Chairman of Malmö’s Works Committee, said: “In Malmö, children are the central motivation for us to create a better city. For their safety and future, it is clear that we must strive for cycling, walking and public transport to be the obvious choice for getting around.”

In Southern Europe, Vitoria-Gasteiz was recently crowned Spain’s cycling capital, drawing praise both domestically and internationally. MEP Michael Cramer, Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism, congratulated the city for its achievement, saying: “Vitoria-Gasteiz shows that political commitment at the top, a dedicated administration and a participative approach can quickly and considerably increase the share of cyclists in cities outside the established European cycling nations.”

To help cities across Europe follow these impressive examples, ICLEI is engaged in a number of EU-funded projects focused on enhancing sustainable urban mobility. The Eltis portal provides a wealth of information, showcasing best practice in urban mobility and providing valuable tools and resources.

The CIVITAS initiative works with local leaders across Europe to implement ambitious, clean urban transport strategies, while the Clean-Fleets project aids public procurers, helping them to purchase clean and energy-efficient vehicles. The SOLUTIONS project takes a more global view, making it easier for cities in Europe, Asia and Latin America to exchange and learn from one another on innovative and green transport measures.

While it is local governments that implement practical changes, the support of the public is required
One way to increase support for sustainable urban mobility is to show how the future might look. In October 2015, Johannesburg, South Africa will host the second EcoMobility World Festival. A month-long celebration of sustainable mobility options, the Festival features workshops, dialogues and an exhibition. Most excitingly, the Sandton Central Business District will be closed to private automobiles for the duration of the festival.

For one month, residents of and visitors to Sandton will be encouraged to get around by public transport, by bike, on foot, and with other EcoMobile transport options that will be provided during the event. The entire space of the Sandton CBD will be transformed. The streets – usually full of cars – will instead become available for walking and cycling, for leisure, for sport, for contemplation – for whatever residents, workers, and visitors choose to do.

The EcoMobility World Festival 2015 will show what is possible for European cities and for cities around the world. ICLEI has made it a strategic priority to help cities embrace sustainable mobility, and the Festival will help us visualize our target. Many European cities are already well on the way to the kind of sustainable urban future Johannesburg will portray.

Through local leaders’ work and perseverance the future of European transport will be healthier, safer and more pleasant. In short, our transport will reflect the type of cities we want to live in.