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POLIS Annual Conference spotlights the importance of active mobility & shared urban space

11 December 2023

At the annual POLIS Conference hundreds of stakeholders gathered to discuss mobility solutions and initiatives with “active mobility for all” and the “reallocation of urban space” emerging as two key topics.

At the conference, which took place from 29 – 30 November in Leuven (Belgium), the need for a holistic approach to sustainable urban mobility was underlined. A presentation from Mobiel 21 highlighted active mobility’s key role in making mobility more inclusive: in the Flemish region of Belgium (Flanders), a network of “fiets scholen” or “bicycle schools” was created to offer people the opportunity to learn how to ride, repair, buy or rent a bike. Flanders is largely flat and quite densely populated, so cycling is often an inexpensive and effective solution to get from A to B. Not only is the bicycle an affordable solution for many, but by teaching people how to cycle safely the “fiets scholen” are able to include groups that might normally not feel comfortable cycling. In fact, of the over 1,000 people that the bike schools have taught to cycle, 90% of the participants were women and of these participants two-thirds belonged to lower income groups.

Cycling is a powerful tool to improve social inclusivity, especially among groups that have historically been sidelined in urban planning. The new EU Cycling Declaration highlights this point and lays out clear principles to make cycling infrastructure more inclusive and safer for everyone, including women, children and people with reduced mobility. The MOBILITYACTION Bicycle Heroes - Youth Voices for Active Mobility is another great example of active mobility offering a new perspective to urban mobility solutions. The initiative works with kids between the ages of 10 – 14 in Rome (Italy) to solve urban mobility challenges related to cycling. The action identifies barriers for cycling and smart design solutions to overcome these obstacles, which are then shared with the public.

Meanwhile, the reallocation of urban space surfaced as another important topic at the POLIS conference. Whether space is transferred from motor vehicles to cyclists through the creation of new bike paths or by increasing the pavement area, or the number of parking spaces are reduced to leave way for more greenery – every change has a direct impact on the mobility mix in towns and cities. A presentation from the German region of Baden-Württemberg proposed a new framework for inner cities with twenty towns and cities chosen as pilots. The participating cities were provided with a dedicated budget and expertise to support them in co-creating measures to restructure their centres. The reallocation of space in the centres was done using temporary street furniture and featured people-focused planning. Several of these plans are set to be permanently implemented in the near future.

Many cities and towns are taking the leap to reallocate urban space in favour of pedestrian use, road safety and ample greenery, including the prototype rearrangement of traffic at Miarki Street in Bytom (Poland), a recently registered MOBILITYACTION. The Polish city enhanced the space for pedestrians and cyclists while reducing the average speed of motor vehicles.

As 2023 comes to a close, the POLIS Conference spotlighted some of the most important mobility topics for 2024, including active mobility and shared urban space, among others. For more information on the conference click here.

For more information on MOBILITYACTIONS click here.

Improving quality of life through sustainable mobility: an interview with Mayor Ricardo Rio of Braga, winner of the EUROPEAN MOBILITY WEEK Award

6 December 2023

The Mayor of Braga (Portugal) Ricardo Rio understands that transforming shared urban space can elicit strong reactions. However, Braga’s longstanding commitment to advancing sustainable mobility is rooted in its desire to improve residents’ quality of life. As the most recent winner of the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK Award, this Portuguese city is reducing pollution, improving quality of life, and increasing efficiency by expanding cycling infrastructure, opening streets for pedestrians, collaborating with local businesses, and engaging with community members to achieve these goals. We sat down with Mayor Rio to learn more about Braga’s sustainable mobility work.

Braga has been working to reduce surface parking (there are many underground parking lots) and the number of cars in the city centre to provide more space for cycling and pedestrian use. How did the public receive news of these plans at first? And how are they receiving it now that you have successfully implemented some changes?

Mayor Rio: It's challenging because obviously we are entering what we call the “comfort zone” of citizens. We are reducing the amount of parking spots. We are narrowing some streets and providing space for bike lanes or for buses. And the initial reaction is never good. There's an expression in Portugal that first you feel [something new] is strange and then you integrate it more in your current routines and you adapt, and that's what has been happening. Usually [at first], people complain if you go to neighbourhoods and you are trying to improve, for instance, the public space, which is a major advantage for the citizens that live there because they will have more security for their kids to play, for them to walk around, to promenade. But, at the same time, we are reducing the parking slots and they always complain. It’s a common reaction that we are seeing worldwide and I have been discussing this with a lot of Mayors in Europe actually. It’s quite curious because I've seen a couple of cities in which they had very aggressive mobility policies and they lost elections. So, we need to also be balanced in the way that we do this strategy. We can’t make a revolution from one day to the other, and we have to create this awareness that we are really improving the quality of life. Because when we are reducing pollution, when we are creating more sustainable means of transport, we are providing better quality of life, better public health for our citizens and I think that it's a work in progress. People adapt and people get more conscious. The youngsters obviously become more conscious and that's why we work a lot with kids, with schools, and with universities.

Raising awareness is a big part of change. Speaking of which, last year Braga won the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK award for its sustainable mobility awareness-raising efforts during the main event week (16 - 22 September). What did you learn from the activities organised last year and what did you focus on in 2023?

Mayor Rio: Well, we have been building on the past initiatives that granted us this very important prize. I think that this type of prize is also very important because it shows people that we are aligned. It's not a crazy mayor or counsellor who decides to make this type of revolution. We have a global trend that is being implemented. We have the recognition for the quality of the work that we are doing, and that's also important to create momentum and to strengthen further initiatives that we can develop. And so, this year's programme was mostly aligned with last year. We always bring innovative actions, but the major focus of the Mobility Week here in Braga was always the engagement of the community and to bring all the people, the citizens, and the institutions together, sometimes experimenting with new ways.

For instance, we decided to start creating - and that's an initiative that we have been repeating every single year - a night ride of bikes in the centre of the city. It's a leisure activity, of course, but it's also a way to show that we have the opportunity to do that on a regular basis. When we create, for example, opportunities for the use of public transportat people usually only have this opportunity during big events in the city, like park and ride solutions to leave the cars outside [the city] and then come to the centre by bus. But they don't do it on a regular basis, so it's obviously important to create some habits and to show that it’s a great solution.

During last year’s EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK you also launched a bike sharing scheme and now the European Union has released its own Cycling Declaration. Do you have plans to further expand Braga’s cycling infrastructure?

Mayor Rio: Yes. We are investing a lot in cycling infrastructure. We have the aim of having around 70 kilometres of bike lanes, either dedicated lanes or coexisting lanes in the city. All the new interventions that we made recently...include the creation of bike lanes. For instance, we are now having a huge intervention in the centre of the city, which is creating a lot of traffic constraints right now, but one of the solutions that we are implementing is the creation of a bike lane that will connect to other already existing bike lanes and more leisure bike lanes by the river and then in other zones. We want to create a network of bike lanes in the city that allows anyone to use the bike as a solution for their mobility in the territory.

And one thing that I didn't mention yet, which is really very important and very connected with all the things that we have been doing, is one of the new events that we had in this year's Mobility Week: the creation of what we called the Business Sustainable Mobility Pact, which is an informal network of institutions of business and public institutions that have become supporters of more sustainable mobility. We have worked with the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which is a national institution, and each of the organisations has an inventory of compromises that they can make which are connected to improved sustainable mobility; some cycle to their offices or offer parking lots for bikes, others provide access to public transport. Meanwhile, others create bike-sharing or car-sharing systems for their workers. This is something that is very interesting because we have over 14 institutions right now that are committed and that belong to this Pact, and we are talking about the biggest employers in the city. We are talking about the university, the hospital, et cetera. Altogether we have around twenty-five thousand people who are already covered by this initiative.

One of the reasons Braga’s work on sustainable mobility stands out is because of its successful cooperation with actors from different sectors. Did you feel that the businesses and institutions you approached were receptive to improving sustainable mobility?

Mayor Rio: Yes, definitely. Actually, for many reasons. The way that the city was structured, it's not only a matter of pollution, it's also a matter of efficiency. It's a matter of quality of life. If you are, for instance, the owner of a company and you listen to your workers complaining about the time they spend in traffic, you obviously want to contribute to a better solution and to create these types of initiatives that we provide through the Pact. It's a way for them to help overall. It's like we are not changing the world, but we are changing our own world and we are contributing to a global change, and that's what's happening here. I think that we had very good reception, for instance, when the public transport company developed a lot of initiatives with the local companies and with the main institutions. It's very common to see [the public transport company] in a branch of the hospital trying to convince new people to subscribe to the public transport passes. It's something that we do on a regular basis and that we try to strengthen a little bit throughout the [Mobility] week.

For more information on Braga's award-winning actions, take a look at this short video.
For more information on EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK 2023, check out our participation page.