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Valongo embraces active mobility to improve quality of life and tackle energy crisis

8 December 2022

In 2022, EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK promoted Better Connections to improve sustainable mobility policies, practices and behaviours across Europe, and beyond. As the year comes to a close, we sat down with Alderman Paulo Esteves Ferreira of Valongo, Portugal - a 2021 EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK Award winner - to learn how the municipality is using sustainable mobility to strengthen connections in the local community, reduce its carbon footprint and to tackle the ongoing energy crisis.

What did it mean to Valongo to win the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK Award for smaller municipalities in 2021?

Besides being a surprise, we were filled with pride and the feeling that we are doing the right thing. Sometimes we have an idea - a strategy for the city - but that does not mean it is right. Each person has their own opinion and their own truth, so sometimes we think something is right and it might not be. But when someone from outside, impartial and within the scope of [many] applications tells a small town in Portugal that they are [doing something] right, it is a joy and brings great pride to be recognised for doing things well.

What are the objectives of the sustainable mobility transformations in the city?

We were elected in October 2013, and the idea has always been that we will be here for a maximum of 12 years because that is what the law allows us with a three-term limit. Therefore, we thought, “what are we going to do to receive this municipality and transform it into something better? And what is this 'something better'?” There was an image that was very attached to Valongo of being a dormitory city, a crossing city where people just pass through. There are those who sleep [here] because they are going to work in Porto, but it is cheaper to live here. We want to change this image of a dormitory city, a crossing city, to an image of a city where people can really live, and live with quality of life.

Is there anything in particular that you are most proud of or that you think worked better for people in terms of mobility transformations?

The [measure] that had a greater impact, with a relatively low investment, is what we did on Lagueirões Avenue, where we had four car lanes and we removed one on each side to get people to run. It is an example of what we want to do in terms of changing the importance of the car in the city and passing this importance on to the people. However, there was a lot of resistance at first. I was even confronted by some people who lived there. Now, I think it is unthinkable [for Lagueirões Avenue] not to be like that. If another political executive comes along and wants to change it, people will not accept it.

There is usually some resistance to changes on roads or spaces for cars from the population. How did Valongo deal with this?

It is worse in small towns than in big cities because in big cities people who don't like it don't complain to anyone. There are many people who don't live there, who just work and visit, so it's easier to accept. In the small town, people complain directly to us, everyone knows each other and we are directly confronted when we go out on the street. I am confronted frequently. What I do first is to explain what we are doing and ask what exactly is wrong because many times the person does not even know what is wrong.

We are not doing this to upset people; we want to please, not displease. If we want to be politicians with a long-term strategic vision, we have to have the courage to do things that people often don't immediately recognise, but eventually will, as happened with Lagueirões Avenue. At first there was a lot of criticism, but now everyone thinks it’s spectacular. Right now, those who live there say that their houses have increased in value, however, that recognition took half a year.

The 2022 theme for EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK is Better Connections. How can citizens make use of these sustainable mobility transformations to better connect with other people, places and new ways of getting around?

Returning to what I said at the beginning, there were many people who only came to Valongo to sleep. They get in their cars, enter the garage, enter the elevator, and go home. When one wants to do something, they go to the elevator, garage, get in the car and leave to go to the supermarket, to the cinema or out of town. And what we're trying to do is give people an opportunity to remember that they can do things within the city, like take a walk, see the shops, talk to other people, go to the mountains... There is even a workshop for kids to understand the importance of Valongo. We are creating a set of possible outdoor infrastructures. We are going to hold municipal art workshops, create bike paths to connect these points, and work on riverbanks so that people can walk along the river. Instead of going to the seaside, you can walk along the riverside here. This is what will lead people to connect with themselves and with the city, develop social ties with their neighbours and create a face-to-face social network. So this is the transformation, which in the future will certainly last. There is no going back.

Europe is experiencing an energy crisis. How does Valongo deal with increases in energy and fuel prices through sustainable mobility policies? Is there a connection between the two?

Yes, because by creating these possibilities to use other means of transport, we are giving an alternative to the car. Travelling by car is very expensive, so now people can walk to the centre, which is not as dangerous as it used to be. By creating these tours and projects related to bicycles, we are giving adults and children another option. Parents usually pick up their children by car, which wastes fuel and is expensive, but children will be able to move around on foot or by bicycle because now it is safe. When we bet on these soft modes and invest in more sidewalks and bike lanes, we are giving an opportunity to reduce spending on fossil fuels and gasoline. Walking is also much more economical.

We have [also] renovated public transport, for example, our train stations to make them more inviting, but also to support intermodality. It is a transfer from bus to train, bus to bicycle, to create alternatives so that people can leave the car and, therefore, reduce their carbon footprint. And we've already done something else in this regard, which was to change all the public lighting that used to be conventional fixtures to LED coating - all public lighting. There are still municipalities that are in this process, we have already surpassed it, and we have also reduced this footprint a lot. Everything we have been doing is clearly aimed at decarbonising and helping to have a better future.

Learn more about Valongo, here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.