European transport’s Cinderella
“Bicycling is the European way,” European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans proclaimed in a video. And when the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution calling for a European cycling strategy, Green parliamentarian Karima Delli, who spearheaded the document’s development and adoption, remarked, “The European Parliament is taking a historic first step in unlocking cycling’s potential in Europe with benefits for health, climate and jobs.”
But the 2022 report by the EP’s transport committee, part of a draft resolution on the new EU urban mobility framework adopted in March 2023, focuses on convenience for vehicles. It mentions cycling only once – in contrast to three mentions of artificial intelligence (AI). This is typical: Instead of reigning in speeding cars, policymakers want cyclists to be saved by some magical innovation.
“I do not support restrictions or bans on certain transport modes, but rather different measures to ensure their efficiency, such as AI and digital solutions, recommendations on urban road safety, harmonised technical standards for micro-mobility and educational campaigns,” said conservative Bulgarian MEP Andrey Novakov after the report he led was adopted in March 2023 by the EP’s Committee on Transport and Tourism.
For those of us who have slammed the brakes on flaky Florentine bike lanes trying to dodge an absent-minded pedestrian with earbuds or a carelessly dumped rental e-scooter, AI does not hold much promise. We need slow and spacious streets. When motorised wheelchairs become more widespread, their users, too, will be forced to mix with commuter and cargo bikes, e-scooters, parents with pushchairs, and everyone else who is not in a car. Pushchairs, e-bikes, motorised wheelchairs and pedestrians move at starkly different speeds. By failing to consider this, cities are designing not for health, climate and jobs, but for conflict, injury and chaos.
Funding and guidance on these issues are available, but local authorities are using public money to tarmac over more greenery, to push cyclists into conflict with pedestrians, and to inaugurate pretty but unusable cycling paths.
As part of a collaborative project, my colleagues and I interviewed local, national and EU officials, and numerous cyclists and experts for a journalistic investigation into cycling infrastructure in Czechia, Lithuania, Malta, and Romania. We spent months combing through urban planning documents, crowdsourcing information from cyclists, and cycling along some of the EU-funded infrastructure in our countries.
What we discovered convinced us that our project’s title, Cinderella cyclists, was accurate. In the fairytale, Cinderella is allowed, even invited, to attend the ball with her pampered stepsisters. But, when the stepsisters steal her possessions with the entitlement of car drivers who casually park on a bike lane, the effective remedy in the fairytale requires nothing short of magic. At the core of urban planning is convenience – not, unfortunately, for cyclists, but for administrators.
When investment makes it worse
Europe has no time to wait for a fairy godmother‘s intervention. By 2030, emissions must drop more than by half (with 1990 as a baseline) and 100 cities must go climate neutral. In its guidelines for planners, the European Commission promotes direct, separate and functional routes. When we analysed tendering documents, we rarely saw considerations for convenience or spatial connection.
Surveys show that safety is decisive when people consider whether or not to cycle. Research also suggests that separation from faster (cars) and slower (pedestrians) road users, short trip duration, and good routes to schools are the best ways to promote cycling. Still, countries and cities continue using EU structural and cohesion funds to build narrow lanes for cyclists, e-scooters, pedestrians and mobility scooters to share. They also place bike lanes near busy roads, which are sources of pollution. In one Lithuanian city the planners commissioned a safety audit – and then disregarded it.
While spending billions of euros on road construction, governments fail to decrease cyclist fatalities. “You need to have a well educated contracting authority to know what they’re paying for,” says Aleksander Buczynski of European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), an umbrella NGO.
Take Malta, where the government has been replacing existing slow-by design, winding country lanes with wider, straighter roads. ECF lists two EU-funded road projects as bad practice. Traffic accidents are soaring. But when it comes to the glass slipper competition, the Maltese government, like others, is still pushing the same disjointed tarmacking practices for funding and expects to get away with it.
A 2020 report by the Court of Auditors found that despite millions spent, EU countries are failing to reduce private car use. They plan investment without a clear strategy, data, and relevant targets. When the Commission proposed a directive to “ensure that Union funds are not used to build unsafe roads”, a number of MEPs suggested adding a provision, “the Commission sets quality standards for cycling infrastructure”. But at the end of the legislative process, the idea did not make it into the directive.
Nemunas Abukauskas, advisor at the Lithuanian transport ministry’s ambitiously titled Future Mobility Policy Group, said in an interview that in the future planners will not get away with trying to, once again, sideline cyclists’ needs.
“Not the number of cyclists, but the number of the kilometres they cycled – that’s the best for evaluating the progress and change,” he says, adding that project managers will be asked to provide accident rates, usage data, and – where the accident rates are high – report inspection rates as well. In the interview he mentioned convening groups of cyclists to test publicly financed infrastructure. Abukauskas believes that creating safe, attractive urban spaces, not just absorbing funds, is something towns would want, especially to attract youth.
The industrial town of Jonava in Central Lithuania is an example of such thinking. Responding to my query, the municipality said they plan cycle paths realistically, depending on where people need to go, such as schools and workplaces. Lately, the town is also investing into bicycle garages. “We as the city government want people to use two-wheeled vehicles not just for fun [but for] transportation from home to school, hospital, or library,” Mayor Mindaugas Sinkevičius says in the municipality’s video, where he promotes the use of new bike parking shelters. He was recently re-elected in the first round.
As for cities that treat cyclists as an afterthought, cycling NGOs call for embedding stricter standards in the existing financial incentives, such as EU structural and cohesion funds. More demanding reporting expectations have also made their way into the EP’s recent resolution: Countries must seek to double kilometres cycled, not kilometres paved. For the 2021–2027 financial period, EU decision makers have agreed to oblige countries to report on cycling infrastructure in a granular way.
But to make the promise of a breakthrough more than a fairytale, cycling policy will require accountability in every step. Unless someone bothers to measure if the glass slipper really fits the long-suffering Cinderella, planners in numerous cities will keep trying to get away with business as usual.