Bicycle Diplomacy: Small Actions that Address Big Challenges
When is the last time you bought something that you could not carry on a bike?” Helle Søholt, CEO of Gehl Architects asked a packed Berlin audience during a Danish Embassy event exploring „Bicycling as a Locational Advantage: German and Danish Perspectives.“ She made the point that we are in fact more flexible in how we get around than we may think.
The evening was one of several activities leading up to the fourth annual Velo Berlin bicycle exposition in March 2014. In addition to Søholt’s talk and ensuing panel discussion, the Danish and Dutch Embassies hosted daytime bike rides to explore Berlin streets’ multimodalism firsthand. This level of coordinated activity prior to Velo Berlin was a first.
Denmark’s ambassador to Germany and Minister for Trade and Development Cooperation kicked off the evening that included German federal, state, and local perspectives on the roster. This is a testament to bicycling’s role in Danish culture, as a Danish export, and as an opportunity for international cooperation.
„Bicycle Diplomacy“ is probably not new, especially for the Danes, but it was the first time I encountered it in such a formal, high-level setting. I was impressed. Denmark’s top diplomat in Germany described bicycling as a proactive, low cost, and incremental way to respond to big picture challenges to health, affordability and access, climate, and economic development. In terms of international cooperation, this brand of diplomacy offers members of the public a refreshingly tangible and fun approach for preventative action in what can otherwise feel like a sea of perpetual cycles of crisis-driven hand wringing around problems too big to solve. Rather than feel paralyzed, bicycle diplomacy helps break down complicated issues into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Clearly, bike infrastructure will not deliver world peace overnight, but consider how many conflicts are related to control of land and natural resources. When anchored in a well-integrated transportation-land use system, improved walking and biking infrastructure helps move us toward greater resource conservation, energy efficiency, and energy independence. A recent example that draws this linkage into focus for me has been Europe’s response to Russia’s presence in Ukraine. Most news outlets seem to agree that Europe’s hesitation on sanctions to discourage Russian encroachment beyond Crimea is due largely to its dependence on Russian energy. If our energy mix prevents us from acting at a time when we want to act, then it is up to us to change our energy supply – and our energy demand.
Biking needs to support community goals
In her talk, Helle Søholt heralded „human-centered planning“ as the touchstone of the firm she founded with architect and urban designer Jan Gehl (author of Cities for People, Island Press) in 2000. In their work to create inviting places, Søholt and her colleagues recognize that people will only do what is meaningful to them. People do not ride bikes to save the environment; they ride bikes when it is the easiest and quickest option. She sees her firm’s job as creating spaces that expand choices and help address big picture challenges by improving peoples‘ lives in a direct way at the local level.
Communication and engagement are key for linking the two. Exporting Danish cycling culture and know-how starts with asking the question of what kind of city or town people want. Søholt stressed this point especially for places where bike culture does not already exist; bicycling infrastructure must not be a forgone conclusion. What works in one place will not translate to another without deep consideration of the local context and goals. Local officials and planners are responsible to the public they serve for establishing a dialogue about what kind of community and what kind of streets people would like to have. Søholt believes that more often than not, when asking people what kind of community they want to live in, the creation of places that are inviting, walkable, and bikable naturally flows into the conversation.
Articulating a community’s needs, identifying the right project to address a need, and building the consensus necessary to fund and maintain it must be rooted in the project‘s ability to demonstrate its long-term value. Søholt and her colleagues are embracing the art of measurement in order to develop the types of data necessary to inform this decision-making process.
European cities encounter some of the greatest skepticism over bicycle infrastructure from businesses that fear negative sales impacts from reduced parking. What no one really knows is what portion of revenue is generated by customers who walk, bike, and use public transportation to access goods and services—customers whose access would be improved through better infrastructure. Søholt and her colleagues are working to answer these questions.
These days, her firm is working with local retailers and chambers of commerce to develop data to quantify the impacts of cycling investments in money, time, and other benefits. The goal is to contribute to the mainstreaming of cycling projects by enabling them to be compared to other transportation projects in terms of benefits to, and maintenance burdens on, municipal budgets.
Looking to each other for inspiration: Bicycle tourism, pedelecs, and low emissions zones
Germany boasts a wealth of bicycling activities. The expression Stadt der kurze Wege (“a city of short distances”) describes locating desirable destinations close enough together that it is convenient to use a variety of means to reach them. This concept underpins the 2020 National Bicycle Plan, now in its second iteration. It is being implemented by states and municipalities with technical assistance from the federally supported Bicycle Academy.
During the discussion that followed Søholt’s talk, panelists praised Germany’s success strengthening local (and often more rural economies) through a growing bicycle tourism sector. At the same time, Copenhagen is reportedly nearing the implementation of a low emissions zone in its city center that is modeled after Berlin‘s.
Strategies to ensure that biking is a viable option in more rural areas in Germany hinges on integrating electric bicycles, or pedelecs. These bicycles expand the distance range that people can comfortably travel by bike. It is possible to either just pedal, or add a little boost when you need it for hills or for that extra kilometer (it should be noted that their power can cause safety problems on paths shared with pedestrians). In terms of linking cycling with public transportation, easy bike access extends transit’s reach. Possible options include: bicycle parking at transit stations, transit vehicles designed to accommodate bicycles (which also work well for wheelchairs and strollers), and innovations like folding bikes.
In a world full of cash-strapped municipalities and uncertainties around the future of federal financing for transportation infrastructure, bicycle and pedestrian paths are a relatively fast, inexpensive option that can deliver more immediate benefits. Bicycle diplomacy encourages healthy, low-cost solutions that support local communities and help advance big picture goals at the international scale.
In her talk, Søholt concluded by stressing that nothing replaces leadership by example. In Denmark, when the king can be seen visibly cycling through town, it makes an impact, she said—and so can we. As family members, friends, and colleagues, and community leaders, we are the ones best suited to be „ambassadors“ and encourage each other to enjoy time together outside on a bike. Have fun and be safe!
Faith Hall is a community planner for the Federal Transit Administration, USDOT and Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Germany this year. The views expressed here are hers and do not reflect the official position of either organization.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.