Cycling can help the New Urban Agenda’s aims more than you’d think

The Habitat III strategy makes a strong connection between health, accessibility, inclusion and cycling. But it’s missing the concrete action that could make real the transformative change it seeks.

A vendor sells fruit from her bicycle in Vietnam. (Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock)

What does your mind conjure up when you see the word ‘cyclist’? The Tour de France and Lycra? Or a father cycling his children to school? A woman in a suit en route to work? A man on a cargo bike selling fruits down the street?

Visions of cycling depend significantly on time and place. In the developed world, cycling is commonly recognized as a mode of recreation and, increasingly, of transportation. Depending on the country, cyclists’ are merely tolerated, pushed to the fringes and ignored — or worse, not seen at all. In others, kings, queens and prime ministers cycle to work, and no one thinks twice about it.

[See: Health is a prerequisite for sustainable urban development]

In the developing world, cycling can be commonplace but viewed as a “poor man’s” transportation — and often made inaccessible to women. Beijing used to have one of the highest percentages of cyclists in the world, but these numbers have declined steadily since the 1980s. Cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen are now becoming known for having high cycling levels, but many cities are close behind — when the data exist, anyways.

But whether numbers are going up, down or sideways, the overall trend is toward increasing interest in cycling in all its forms and from all levels of government. In part this is because of what cycling can achieve — and already has achieved.

[See: The New Urban Agenda is not taking transport seriously enough]

For many of the same reasons, cycling is a key tool for achieving the implementation of the goals of the New Urban Agenda, the new global urbanization strategy that is set to be adopted at the Habitat III conference this month in Quito, Ecuador.

Shifting gears

The New Urban Agenda shows a clear paradigm shift, one that sees urbanization as people-centred and a transformative force.

“Through the New Urban Agenda — focused on people, sustainability, accessibility — cities become less about cars, buses and bicycles, but rather about drivers, passengers and cyclists. By placing people at the centre, policies and the urban environment would revolve around them. At least, that’s the idea.”

Previously, urbanization was seen as something to be contained or managed in a way that lessens its negative impacts, not something from which growth and innovation can occur. Over the years, this has been proven false, and the New Urban Agenda is a culmination of this shift in gears.

Today, with urban populations growing every day, urbanization is inevitable. And while several months of negotiations removed or watered down some of the more key changes in the text, overall the agenda retains a sense of harnessing the power of cities and citizens for growth, innovation, sustainability and community-building.

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

The same holds true for mobility in cities. Previous decades of urbanization made paving roads an indicator of success and development. Entire residential neighbours were knocked down for highways and parking space. Due to those previous choices, the built environment in most cities today still largely revolve around motorized vehicles — a policy decision that overlooks the actual inhabitants of the city.

Through the New Urban Agenda — focused on people, sustainability, accessibility — cities become less about cars, buses and bicycles, but rather about drivers, passengers and cyclists. By placing people at the centre, policies and the urban environment would revolve around them. At least, that’s the idea.

Recent decades have put increased pressure on anything city-related: housing, services, space and mobility. With more people needing to get from place to place, mobility becomes a defining feature of accessible and liveable cities. You can live in a great, inclusive housing complex, but if you cannot get to work or school or the store in a timely and cost-effective manner, you have a problem.

Furthermore, congestion, air quality, sedentary lifestyles are all linked to variants of our current transportation models. Car-centred cities forget the people that are supposed to live (and move) in them safely and healthfully.

[See: Habitat III can revolutionize urban thinking on health and well-being]

Cycling and active mobility therefore need to play key roles, and not just as part of the transport sector. Ultimately, a paradigm shift means rethinking mobility as shared space and connectivity — roads, sidewalks and bicycle paths are public spaces and meeting points, not just arteries for movement. The New Urban Agenda does just that.

And in this, the agenda is strikingly unique. The outcome strategies from the previous two Habitat conferences — in 1976 and 1996 — each mention cycling just a single time. This time around? Cycling is mentioned five times explicitly, and in a variety of ways.

Finally, human scale

The text of the final draft New Urban Agenda was agreed in early September, and it is  expected that the document will be adopted in Quito with few changes.

Over the course of four months of negotiations, U. N. member states ended up with a document that makes a strong connection between health and cycling. It explicitly links active mobility, preventative health care and the reduction of non-communicable diseases and injuries (Paragraph 113). Elsewhere, it states that national governments “will support the provision of well-designed networks of safe, inclusive for all inhabitants, accessible, green, and quality public spaces and streets […] promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well-being” (Paragraph 100).

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Furthermore, cycling and active mobility are explicitly promoted and implicitly encouraged through an overall emphasis on human-scale and people-centred planning. The text views sidewalks and cycle lanes as public spaces and as a means for social inclusion:

“We commit to promote safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces, including streets, sidewalks, and cycling lanes, squares, waterfront areas, gardens, and parks that are multi-functional areas for social interaction and inclusion, human health and well-being, economic exchange, and cultural expression and dialogue among a wide diversity of people and cultures, and which are designed and managed to ensure human development, to build peaceful, inclusive, and participatory societies, as well as to promote living together, connectivity, and social inclusion” (Paragraph 37).

This is clear evidence of a shifting view of mobility. Usually referred to as part of infrastructure and transport, cycling and walking are seen in the new strategy as more than just mobility but also part of the public realm and a method for inclusion.

Furthermore, the text specifically prioritizes cycling and walking over motorized vehicles: “a significant increase in accessible safe, efficient, affordable, and sustainable infrastructure for public transport as well as non-motorized options such as walking and cycling, prioritizing them over private motorized transportation;” (Paragraph 114).

[See: On the U. S.-Mexico border, Matamoros and Brownsville plan a binational bike trail]

Road safety also is present, with particular attention given to vulnerable road users. “We will work to adopt, implement, and enforce policies and measures to actively protect and promote pedestrian safety and cycling mobility” (Paragraph 113). And sustainable mobility is linked to safety, inclusiveness, affordability and accessibility, while there also is mention of financial instruments to improve sustainable mobility infrastructure.

Remaining gaps

This is important and useful content. Still, a few key things are needed to make the most of cycling as a city changer.

First, currently missing from the New Urban Agenda is explicit mention of data collection for sustainable mobility, which is key for promoting cycling at the policy level. Cycling and active mobility often are not included in census and data collection, meaning the key figures and benchmarks are missing for politicians and policymakers to understand and assess their decisions.

Second, clearer emphasis needs to be placed on fiscal and financial tools and equitable financial investment in sustainable modes of transport, including disincentives for motorized and non-sustainable transport. For example, congestion charges provide a disincentive for motorized vehicles in city centres, and the funds collected from these charges can then be invested in active mobility. Other implementation plans can include distance reimbursements and tax-free company bicycles, as opposed to tax-free company cars.

[See: Copenhagen bicycle “super highways” push regional cooperation to a new level]

Third, stronger links need to be made for sustainable freight (as opposed to passenger) transport and the role of cycling in providing a solution for goods deliveries in city centres. This can be linked to connecting the peri-urban and rural peripheries of a city, and would help increase local consumption and production patterns. It also is good for business!

Fourth, more emphasis should be placed on road safety and reducing traffic fatalities, especially to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, through reduced speeds and well-planned infrastructure. Doing so helps to create human-scale and liveable cities.

Finally, the text could better highlight the need for reduced travel demand by including a clear emphasis on interconnectedness between sectors to avoid action plans that do not speak to each other. Ultimately, this means reducing the actual need to go from point to point: If your work, school, food and recreation are all within walking or cycling distance, the pressure on transportation is lessened. It is when all sectors work together that we get the cities we need.

Cities acting

As it stands, the text of the New Urban Agenda is missing the concrete action needed to make the transformative change it seeks a reality. But it has come a long way and, more importantly, some cities already are making the shift, even as more and more citizens are demanding change.

Best practices from around the world show us the importance of including and promoting cycling for reasons of health, economics, inclusion, accessibility and congestion. Businesses are realizing that it makes more sense to deliver by cargo bike in city centres in Europe; in other parts of the world, such methods are the only way to do so, and should be supported and promoted.

Cities are realizing that air pollution and congestion are costing too much and opting for car-free and “active” city centres. By giving citizens the choice to move freely, safely and sustainably through their city — whether by bicycle, walking, public transportation or a combination of all three — we can create the inclusive, healthy and accessible cities we are dreaming of.

[See: After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues]

The New Urban Agenda is just one step in our work: Whether cycling is mentioned four times or 400, the next mission is implementation and action. This comes in the form of understanding local realities, sharing best practices, gathering experts and stakeholders and devising plans for infrastructure, behaviour change, incentives and goals.

It also means setting clear targets for cycling – how many trips are citizens making by bicycle? How does that compare to trips by car, bus, on foot? These targets can in turn influence the share of transportation budgets between the modes of travel. And a more holistic view of cycling can unlock funds from different sectors and different budgets. In this, the New Urban Agenda can become a tool for advocacy.

Advocating at the local, national and international levels can create and enforce cycling plans. Europe has already created an E. U. Cycling Strategy; worldwide, supporters are campaigning to get the United Nations to designate a World Bicycle Day. Our own organization continues to grow through a global network of cycling associations — the World Cycling Alliance. Through these actions we can see the future of the cities we need. There are a lot of bicycles.

Note: This story has been updated.

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Zoé Kruchten

Zoé Kruchten is global policies coordinator with the European Cyclists’ Federation.