The first ever Velo-city global conference ran from June 22nd through 25th in Copenhagen, Denmark and we were fortunate enough to have a friend of Cima Coppi in attendance and reporting daily on the event’s happenings. Hyuma Frankowski, sustainability consultant, designer and co-author of Building and International Cycling Community was able to give us an insiders scoop, and use his expertise to inform us of what strategies may be initiated from this type of conference, and what that means for us – the day-to-day cycling commuter, racer, tourist or advocate.
Velo-City 2010 Copenhagen, Day 1 – Hyuma Frankowski
I must apologize for the 4 day lag in posting these. I have been trying to pack as much experience into my time in Copenhagen as possible, and as a result have had to leave my writing to times spent in between destinations on the train. So without further delay, here is my account of Velo-City 2012, Copenhagen.
”It’s amazing that a machine invented over century ago has enough of a draw to attract this many people
from all over the world, and can generate enough subject matter to fill a four day conference.”
– Lake Segaris, Velo-City 2010
As we crossed the street my friend and host, Skibber, suddenly exclaimed ”oh, well that’s new” as a group of bike-police rolled by on their shiny new mountain bikes. Apparently there are a few things that Copenhagen is still learning from other cities about how to integrate bicycles into their urban environment. Of course, I need not bore you with the statistics, suffice it to say that this city boasts some of the world’s most impressive cycling rates in the western world, making it the perfect venue for the first Velo-City Global Conference.
The conference opened with a captivating and stirring talk by ”multinational corporate director” and self-professed ”cycling convert”, Anders Hedin. He held the crowd in thrall with his moving account of memories of growing up on a bicycle in the countryside of Sweden, his abandonment of the bike for his father’s old Saab, and his eventual re-discovery of his love for cycling during a visit to the middle east. Absolutely brilliant. What a perfect choice to open the conference with. He seemed too good to be true, which ,of course, he was. At the conclusion of the first plenary session, due to concerns of undermining the credibility of the other speakers, master of ceremonies, Andy Clarke of the American League of Cyclists, revealed that the charismatic Anders Hedin was in fact a Danish actor delivering a performance through a carefully constructed character. The justification given for this theatrical slight of hand was that it was too difficult to find the right mix of perspectives in a real person, and so to deliver the desired message, conference organizers decided to engage a performer. Ethical questions aside, it was an extremely effective and bold, albeit risky, stunt that clearly impressed upon audience members the need to re-integrate cycling into our psyches and identities to make lasting change.
It is not sufficient to present the environmental, health or social cases for cycling; that is not what will motivate the majority of the world’s population to get on bikes. In ”Hedin’s” opinion, it was necessary to have people want to cycle because it was the cool, sexy and downright convenient thing to do. Actor or not, his message rang true in a crowd that has accepted this as the new paradigm in cycling advocacy. Perhaps more transparency would have prevented some of the controversy, but in the end there seems to have been no harm done. Of course, now throngs of cycling enthusiasts are googling ”Anders Hedin” only to find he was a 19th century explorer with knack for discovering the sources of major rivers in the Orient. But I’m sure they’ll figure it out soon enough.
The opening day of Velo-City 2010 presented attendees with a broad range of perspectives delivered by representatives from leading cities like Copenhagen, up-and-comers New York and perhaps most crucially, a Chinese take on things by Dr. Pan HaiXiao of Tonji University, Shanghai. This spread of perspectives covered the extremes of the urban cycling spectrum, from a city with a high and steady modal split, Copenhagen, to New York which, though still lagging far behind Copenhagen, is catching up in leaps and bounds thanks to their action-oriented Transportation Commissioner Jannette Sadik-Kahn. However, it was HaiXiao’s delightfully straightforward message that easily transcended the language barrier and made an impression on the crowd. Like so many things related to progress in China, any small change in percentages when translated to absolute numbers, becomes a mind-bogglingly large figure and the same goes for changes in modal split rates. It is not just China that cannot afford to lose cyclists to car ownership, it is indeed the entire world, and the battle to keep cyclists on the road and out of new cars is currently being lost. HaiXiao summed it up with a slide caption reading: “Bike share still quite high but it is possible to disappear with the experiences in Shanghai to become the kingdom’s memory in urban planning museum”. Quaint you might think, but the implications are enormous.
The day ended with John Witlegg’s witty and informative account of his experience presenting the co-benefits of cycling. He spoke about the need for a multi-prong approach to cycling advocacy that was often repeated throughout the conference. He argues that presenting the broad range of cycling benefits from a systems-thinking and true-cost-accounting perspective, it can be possible to convince almost any decision maker to recognize that cycling should be made a top priority. With a mix of hard numbers gleaned from partnerships with health organizations and the insurance sector coupled with savvy public marketing and relations campaigns, cycling advocates can build the financial, social and health cases for cycling to achieve their goals. Whitlegg’s talk was a fitting end to a day that showcased a range of experiences in cycling planning and advocacy. No matter what situation whether in Copenhagen’s well established cycling system or Shanghai’s free-fall in cyclist numbers, Whitlegg’s versatile and multi-disciplinary approach presented a feasible to make lasting advances in urban cycling.