20 May 2009

Copenhagenize at Velo-City 2009

I spent four days at the Velo-city 2009 conference in Brussels last week, as a guest of the City of Copenhagen. It was a wonderful time spent at the world's largest conference dedicated to bicycle culture. 700 delegates from all over the world. Right off the bat, I'll say that I dubbed Brussels Velo-Shitty. What a crap city to cycle in. Dismal. I've rarely seen a Northern[ish] European city so overrun by cars. But they know it, I guess. As the Brussels Mobility Minister Pascal Smet said,

”The organisation of Velo-city is an ideal trigger for the host city. In the case of Brussels, this stimulus was exactly what was needed – the city is now seen as up and coming in terms of implementing cycling plans. Velo-city has acted as a major accelerator for decisions and plans that were pending. People who were working on these projects are highly motivated to succeed in transforming Brussels into a cycling-friendly city.”

He makes it sound so effortless but my god they have work to do.

I hung out for the most part at the City of Copenhagen stand. I had the opportunity to meet scores of great people - most who knew this blog and copenhagencyclechic.com - and to put faces to alot of names. The mood was wonderful throughout the week and the City of Copenhagen stand was a busy spot. Apart from me, the City invited Henrik from Baisikeli [used Danish bikes for Africa] and Ole with his Coffee Bike. In addition there were 8 people from the Copenhagen Bicycle Office and the traffic department.

We were busy at the Copenhagen stand because, well, we're Copenhagen but also because the city is hosting the Velo-City Global conference next year where the whole world will come. Free coffee from Ole's coffee bike was also a magnet.

There were many stands around the exhibition area, mostly European. Some bike brands but also cities and towns and NGOs. I found myself speaking non-stop in three languages at the stand and when I needed a break I'd head out to a Belgian NGO Cyclo who had a little cycle ring where you could ride their bikes. It was interesting to see how so many European bicycle advocates are not gearheads. Just regular people with a love of bicycles and bicycle culture.

The City of Brussels has bike lanes but most of them lack logic. You're separated from the traffic and then chucked back in. And repeat. But these lanes, above, were freshly painted - as though in a hurry because of the VeloCity conference - but at least they show there is some political will.

I don't know about this bike rack though. Maybe a truck went around in the dead of night, chucking them out before the conference started.

Here's a more civilised separated lane. For 100 metres at least.

The city just started their own bike share programme Villo, as you can see on the poster. On our last day there was a transport strike. Usually prime time for bicycles to be pulled out of the garage. Instead, traffic jams.

The Deputy Mayor of Copenhagen, Klaus Bondam, came on Friday and spoke at the European Parliament, after which he showed my little music video about Copenhagen's bike culture. Here he is talking bicycles with Niels Tørslev, head of the Copenhagen Traffic Department and Ole with the coffee bike.


There were loads of lectures about all manner of bicycle subjects. One of them was interesting, not least because we've been banging on about it for ages here on Copenhagenize.com. Marketing the bicycle.

Can you make a 'hero brand' out of urban cycling? A Belgian marketing guy, Guillaume Van der Stighelen, co-founder of the marketing company Duval Guillaume spoke about how if you want to get people to ride, you have to forget about telling them about safety, about how healthy it is and all that. Just make it stylish and cool. The president of the European Cyclists Federation asked Guillaume a question on his blog and you can read the answer here.

"There is no reason for this strange behaviour. Some will say you can’t ride a bike in your office suit. Nonsense. You don’t need lycra to ride. You don’t have to race that bike. I rarely go faster than twenty kilometers an hour. Doesn’t make me sweat."

"That’s where your fight is, Dr. Ensink. Nothing to do with saving the planet or shaping your body. It is status. Your industry has to think how they can giev status to bikes in the city. Don’t think it is impossible. I’ll give you an example. The hotel where I stay in New York offer free bikes for guests since last year. They are cool shoppers, shiny red with the logo of The Bowery Hotel. At night, when I’m meeting some friends in the very fashionable venue for fancy advertising people The Odeon, I get more looks than anyone who would arrive in a stretched limousine. There is a large terrace, and you can tell from the ladies’ faces, this guy is cool, he’s healthy, his success is big enough not to depend on car brands. Wow. That is where you want to be, Dr. Ensink. And most of the communication I see from bike brands, city bike organisations and biker’s federations won’t get you there."

Indeed. We need to stick our fingers in our ears and shout "lalala" when the safety freaks and sub-culture geeks talk about cycling. The average person won't listen. Making a hero brand of urban cycling requires a whole different approach.

Thought you were going to get off without a mention of helmets, didn't you? Wrong. The European Cyclists Federation, the umbrella org that represents most of Europe and who hosts the VeloCity Conferences produced this button, attached to my badge, along with a brochure. Not some little NGO, the ECF itself. They printed 500 of them, thinking they could use them throughout the year but they were all gone after day 3. A real hit. Nice to know that there are so many people out there in Europe who would rather be bicycle advocates instead of helmet advocates.

I had great, positive conversations with like-minded bicycle advocates from Britain's CTC, the Dutch Fietserbond, including their traffic consultent Theo Zeegers, as well as advocates from Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Catalunya, Italy. All wearing these buttons proudly.

The conference wrapped up at the European Parliament with the signing of the ambitious Charter of Brussels for Europe.

EU Vice President, Siim Kallas presented how the European institutions are promoting cycling to work and the European Commissioner for Transport, Antonio Tajani opened the conference on Tuesday 12 May by explaining the key role the bicycle has to play in the action plan of the Green Urban Transport Paper.

The European Parliamentary debate saw the constitution of a parliamentary intergroup for cycling in the European parliament being discussed as well as appointing a European Bicycle officer within the European Commission.

The goal in the Charter is that the EU has a 15% modal share for bicycles by 2020. For a change, I feel that is actually a feasible political goal.


Brent said...

I haven't been to Brussels for twenty years, but I'd wager its bicycle infrastructure is light years ahead of that here in Los Angeles. I think we'll need to keep Mikael away from SoCal so that he can maintain whatever shred of illusions he has about bicycle culture in this city. ;-)

Nate (Salt Lake City) said...

Loved the paragraphs about marketing.

If cars were marketed like bicycles the entire auto industry would be in even deeper trouble.

The automobile experience - soporific, anxious, insulated, and expensive - has, over time, been translated by the marketers into something that is elemental, exciting, and ennobling.

A project that is still lingering out there for some talented filmmaker is to make a 30-second advertisement that would sell cars in the same way that bicycles are sold.

It would be funny stuff.

Mikael said...

hey brent, i lived in Pasadena in 1987-88 and rode my bicycle everywhere in the town. i've cycled in New Delhi and other cities, too, so SoCal is a piece of cake, mate... :-)

great idea, Nate. that video.

Anonymous said...

A goal of 15% for the EU? That's impressive. Thanks for the live reporting and it's nice to have a critical eye on cycling infrastructure.

administrador said...

Brussels is a horrible city to cycle (I do hate its cobbled streets), I cycle everyday though.

sindändùne (Álvaro) said...

Thank you very much for this inspiring post Mikael. I regretted not having had the time to go down to Brussels to the Velo-City.

I've pondered for years how best to promote cycling in my home town (Alcalá de Henares, Spain), and this really brings new fresh ideas. One day, when I go back I'll put everything I'm learning to good use.

Mange tak.

workbike said...

Great post, and I I really want an 'Ask me why I cycle without a helmet' badge now: great that the ECF are making it clear where they stand.

bentguy said...

Is there a pdf of the brochure that they handed out available anywhere?

Kiwehtin said...

Your "lalala I don't hear you" comment made me laugh seeing that's what one comes up against all the time when debating the merits or need for (cycling) helmets. No matter you bring out all the logical and factual arguments, you'll always find someone then saying they can't fathom why a rational person wouldn't wear one. It's as if they have programmed themselves not to even see anything that doesn't fit with their preconceived ideas...


Nice to see the exhibition was a good experience. It is disappointing to see that a place so close to the Netherlands/Fietserland could be so behind in cycle culture, especially when smaller cities in Belgium are much more cycle-friendly. It's strange how there are such cultural differences from one part of Europe to another (in such a relatively small area, that is). But then, in North America, you do see the same kinds of differences from region to region, it's true...

Anonymous said...

What Bentguy said - I want access to that brochure! Val

anna said...

Interesting observations. And I love the badge! Although, I suppose, "Ask me why I cycle" could also be quite successful ;-). A goal of 15% cyclists in the modal share sounds very good. But where are we actually at the moment throughout Europe? I'm not really up-to-date..

Meagen Farrell said...

Um, why DO you bike without a helmet? I lost a couple friends as a child because they weren't wearing helmets. I am a hobby cyclist myself, and my husband was a bike commuter who started wearing a helmet after several cars try to run him off the road.

Killian said...

Hi! I've been reading your blog for a long while and it's brilliant, thanks for posting about cycling in a cool entertaining way! One comment regarding your article about Velo-City. You mentioned advocates from Germany, France, Spain, Catalunya, etc. The latter is a region from Spain. It would be like someone saying "I've been on holidays in Sweden, Syddanmark and Denmark" :-)

Brent said...


Mikael has several posts addressing helmet use, but perhaps you might start with this one: http://tinyurl.com/69svqs

Executive summary:

1) Helmet safety studies are inconclusive. Some (perhaps most) pro-helmet evidence is anecdotal. Some people argue that helmets may actually increase danger in certain falls, as the extra weight causes the head to twist oddly.

2) Cyclists are almost always safer in large numbers. That is, the more cyclists you have on the streets, the safer the streets become for cyclists.

3) Cycling has fallen in countries with mandatory helmet laws. Helmets create (and reinforce) the impression that cycling is dangerous, they can be uncomfortable, and in commuting use they mess up one's hair. They also look dorky. (Then again, I wear one...)

4) If helmet use leads to reduced cycling, the overall negative effects outweigh the positive.

Kiwehtin said...

For Meagen-
When you bring up examples like this, you need to remember the quite conclusive evidence that:
- it is better cycling-centric infrastructure that makes for the safest cycling;
- helmets protect against some kinds of crashes nut aren't a panacea. If a car hits you at very high speed your helmet is not likely to protect you, not being designed for that kind of collision;
- people are lost to all other kinds of accidents and assaults for which nobody thinks to require protective gear: bullet-proof vests, stair- and ladder-climbing helmets, in-car helmets (unsecured objects flying forward at the velocity a car was at before suddenly stopping in a crash are responsible for all sorts of severe head injuries or deaths) and I could go on...

Cycling in general is safer than many other everyday activities.

For Killian-
Catalonia is not merely a region like Murcia or Extremadura, comparable to various regions of metropolitan Denmark; together with the Valencian Country and the Balearics (plus Rosselló/"Roussillon" in France), it is the homeland of the Catalan language and a culture that is quite different from Spanish culture in general. The Spanish language is present there only because it is forced on Catalans (and other territorial ethnic minorities). In the case of Denmark, mentioning Catalonia is comparable to mentioning Greenland or the Faeroe Islands, or Lapland in the case of Sweden or Norway (or Scotland or Wales in the case of Britain).

Melbourne Cyclist said...

Nate - good idea (although how *are* bicycles sold? I don't actually remember seeing a bike ad). We also need an ad for the flipside: advertising bikes in the same sexy, cool, "your life will be wonderful, your home tidy and spacious, your partner sexually satisfied, your children bright and well behaved, and your lawn perfect...if you buy this," way that they advertise cars...

Mikael said...

I cycle without a helmet because:
A. I feel safe and secure on a bicycle, regardless of which city I'm in. And cycling is one of the safest activities on the planet.
B. A bicycle helmet is not designed for anything more than protecting a head from non-life threatening injuries in solo-accidents under 20 km/h. So I don't feel that it is necessary to wear one.
C. If I wore a bicycle helmet the logical route would be to wear one in a car or on foot, as well as wearing a lifevest when on the beach or in the swimming pool. That would just be silly.

My kids don't wear them for the same reasons. I've taught them and continuing teaching them how to ride safely and sensibly and to enjoy cycling as I did as a child.
Those are my reasons.

Peter said...

I am sure you have heard the helmet stats before. I am a Family Doctor in England and despair to see so many of my obese patients die of heart disease.
This helmet/safety debate in England distracts attention from the real safety issue for cyclists of providing infrastructure on the ground enabling people to have the confidence to cycle.
All the Best

Roxana/Artemidoros said...

You're so right about the marketing.

By the way, it is official. Seville will host Velocity 2011. We'll be waiting for you, Mikael. ;)

leu' said...

Do you think Brussels is horrible for cycling?
Come in Bucharest to see the hell on earth.

Kevin Love said...

Adding to what Kiwehtin said...

We do the same here about Quebec. Canada is, to quote Lord Durham, "Two nations quarreling in the bosom of a single state."

Anonymous said...

A Belgian marketing guy, Guillaume Van der Stighelen, co-founder of the marketing company Duval Guillaume spoke about how if you want to get people to ride, you have to forget about telling them about safety, about how healthy it is and all that.

'Cause we all know that you can't market better health! (Providing, of course, you exclude athletic shoes, women's diets, the myriad of health magazines, etc. etc. etc.)

Teodoro said...

I ride a bike almost every day.
One thing I've never used is an helmet.
The day I'll HAVE to, I'll leave the bike home!

Wim Poelmans said...
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Wim Poelmans said...
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