Velo-city global 2010 – Copenhagen Update

Velo-city global 2010 updates – Hyuma Frankowski

Day 2 – The Chinese perspective and the Culture of Violence of the Car

Velo City 2010 was touted as the first truly global Velo City. It was encouraging to see that the global spirit of the conference reflected in the plenary speaker lineup. Mixed into the familiar stars of cycling-advocacy like Janette Sadik-Kahn, Jan Gehl, and Gil Penalosa, were some unexpected gems, namely Dr. Pan Haixiao, Director and Professor of Land Use and Transport studies at Tonji University, and the venerable Dr. Vandana Shiva, Indian activist and philosopher. Haixiao and Shiva are polar opposites in terms of presentation style, the former preferring to present clear facts, statistics and images on-screen, the latter veritably painting a vivid, emotional picture by through visceral and unflinching storytelling. Varied as their approaches may have been, the messages were the same. The planet cannot afford to let rapidly developing economies and transportation repeat the same mistakes made in the western hemisphere fifty years ago. Whether it be a matter of systemic social or environmental injustice , the sheer magnitude of the problem is unimaginable to those who have not seen the vast populations of India and China on the move first hand. A modal split change of only a few percent in China or India, when translated into absolute numbers, would be oders of magnitude greater than the same change in almost any major Western country. As HaiXiao put it quite simply ”[to keep the bike is to keep the biosphere intact]”. Do the math, ride a bike.

My only critques of of the presentations would be that both speakers focused on the sense of urgency behind ensuring that their respective countries protect the often high rates of bicycle use in the face of increasing car ownership. Nothing was mentioned in the way of effecting perceptual shifts in making cycling more appealing than high-speed personal motorized transport. Now if Anders Hedin were a real person, he might have a conversation with HaiXiao and Shiva on how to take this sense of urgency and direct their energies to promoting cycling as a means of urban transport in a positive and encouraging light, rather than the guilt-based approach that seems to have reached its long ago.

Day3 – Bedazzled

Day 3 began with a misfire that turned into a bang. Though former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa was meant to make his appearance in the morning plenary, visa issues had him turned back at the border to everyone’s dismay. Not to worry; his brother Gil Penalosa, originally slated to speak on the final day, stepped up to the plate and delivered what was surely the most motivational talk of the entire conference. His experience, sheer energy and enthusiasm made for an extremely engaging presentation about his work to date, including his work as executive director of Canadian non-profit 8-80 Cities.

Conference organizers went all out this year in giving attendees a diverse range of experiences, and today represented the peak of that diversity. With a program featuring the already varied palette of choices from talks, intimate round-table discussions, energetic and productive question workshops, the next set of formats faithfully followed the theme of diversity. The afternoon started with the fast-paced and festive ”Meet the Danes” event which was described as being based on a speed-dating format where participants were given a choice of no less than sixty-nine speed-talks, each lasting only eight minutes each. Oh the tyranny of choice! Participants were only able to select six talks, and so the atmosphere was highly energized and frenetic as people dodged each other between stations marked by over-sized helium filled balloons. The speakers stations were grouped into five categories: Cycling Cities & Organizations, Studies and Research, Communication & Campaigns, Hardware & Infrastructure, and Bicycles & Accessories. The event gave participants the opportunity to talk directly to those involved in contributing to Denmark’s cycling success and was very effective in disseminating a huge range of information very quickly and in a targeted fashion.

Meet the Danes was quickly followed by an entertaining Pecha Kucha on the theme of ”Creative Cycling Innovations”. Pecha Kucha is a presentation format in which the presenter can display only twenty slides, for twenty seconds each, for a total presentation of 6.40 minutes. The Pecha Kucha format followed the rapid-fire diversity delivery theme of the day and was a perfect way to get the crowd energized for the next event, the much-anticipated bike parade through the streets of Copenhagen.

Day 3 – A Bike Parade along the Advocacy Spectrum

Thursday saw a critical-mass type ride the likes of which Copenhagen hasn’t seen for quite some time, if ever. The ride was scads of fun, the mood, helped along by various musical acts including a full rickshaw-train brass-band, was jovial. One thing was clear though: this type of (typically) self-organized ride was somewhat outside the realm of expertise of the Danes. A Polish conference participant and veteran of the Warsaw critical mass rides remarked that ”the Danes need help self-organizing, it seems”. With only two police officers on motorbikes holding up the rear, and an often glaring lack of corkers, pushy car-drivers often made it into the middle of the parade and made their way, albeit slowly and carefully for the most part, through the sea of cyclists. Thankfully it never came to any major clashes with motorists, and all other things considered the whole parade was very well managed apart from some lengthy waits. The whole episode does bring to the forefront the fact that because Copenhageners enjoy such a high-level of official support for cycling, the need to engage in controversial cycling activisim like critical mass rides does not exist. It was tried before, but the critical mass movement was short-lived here, because really, everyday is critical mass in Copenhagen. The bicycle advocacy movement in this city has long since moved along the spectrum from antagonistic protesting and demonstration to a more collaborative model. Collaboration with government and the private sector is how meaningful and transformative change came about, and it is this, and not just the separated bike lanes that the world is quickly recognizing as the real lesson to learn from the Danes.

Thursday could be summed up as the day of innovation and risk-taking. With a massive amount of information presented in all sorts of formats, it is a good example of the creativity and style with which the Danes have been able to create conditions that foster cycling. If nothing else, a conference goer could not help but have impressed upon them the efficacy of approaching things from multiple perspectives and with different methods.

On a side note, this is the day on which I learned that Velo-City 2012 is slated to take place in Vancouver BC!! You heard it here on Cima Coppi. If you’d like more information, please do not hesitate join the Velo-City 2012 Vancouver Community facebook group:”Velo-City Global 2012 Vancouver”.

Day 4 – Tears of a Giant

The final day of Velo-City was unexpectedly short for the official program, especially after the previous day’s variety of workshops, lectures, roundtable discussions, ”meet the Danes” speed-dating type mini-talks and the always entertaining Pecha Kucha. However, keeping inline with the innovative nature of the conference, the morning started with four large-scale workshops focused around fostering collaboration between NGO’s, Researchers, Developing Countries and Cities respectively. Each workshop group was facilitated to allow for the maximum number of connections to be made between participants and judging from the one I attended, was an extremely fruitful exercise and a fitting way to begin the final day of the conference.

The final plenary speaker was Jan Gehl of the world-renowned Gehl Architects. I had the good fortune of interviewing him after the rest of the press was done putting him through the wringer. But good-natured and approachable as he was, he most willingly obliged to the press’s wishes, even going so far as to ask all the members of a press to form a circle with him with their chairs during the press-conference ”so that we might all have a better, more intimate conversation”. My request to him in a one on one interview after all the hubbub had subsided was to describe his earliest memory of being on a bicycle. His immediate response was to give me a side-long glance and after a beat say ”that’s a very special memory, you know…” I thought for a second he wasn’t going to share it but then proceeded to deliver a moving and somewhat tearful account of his escape from the invading German army with his father on their bicycles in WorldWar II during which he was forced as a six year old to ride over 100 kilometers in a day. This interview and others will be available for viewing on yellow and blue.ca, a blog about collecting memorable cycling stories that bridge the gap between cyclists, non-cyclists and decision-makers.

After the hand over to Seville and quick few words of farewell from the MC, Velo-City 2010 effectively came to an end. Three main groups split off from the crowd milling around the conference venue to join optional excursions, and soon after, everyone dispersed and another successful Velo-City was concluded.

Once again, the biggest effect this of conference has, is in connecting people with each other. Plenary speeches and slideshows serve to form the basis of conversation between participants and it is in these on one one conversation that, to indulge in a bit of literary triteness, the cross-pollination happens and the seeds of real change are planted. Many conferences fall victim to the ”preaching to the choir” effect, Velo-City 2010 was not one of these cases. Organizers were extremely effective in giving the choir the chance to create new songs. The conference’s many informal interaction opportunities was strongly complemented by the well-organized program of structured, facilitated workshops and alternative interaction formats.

The take away messages from this year’s conference were that of urgency in promoting the philosophy of cycling over the culture of the car in a positive light, the power of convincing decision makers through community involvement combined with presenting the co-benefits of cycling. What came out above all was the necessity and transformative power of collaboration between all actors in the cycling sphere. Speaker after speaker seemed to stress the ability of partnerships that are based on dialogue and mutual benefit to effect lasting change, even between unlikely allies was a theme that clearly emerged during the four day event. A good example of this was the ”Scientists for Cycling” network launched on June 22nd. Endorsed by the WHO, this network is to form the basis for a global collaboration and research platform to advance cycling, and, despite its name, is open to anyone interested in joining.

As far as the first global Velo-City goes, it was a resounding success. Perhaps it could have benefited from more high-profile representation from nations in the eastern hemisphere, but perhaps those speakers do not exist as of yet. Hopefully, this year’s conference will tease some of the more exotic speakers out of the wood for next time. And it is certainly this bloggers hope that the next Velo-City Global 2012 in Vancouver will carry on the tradition of innovation established here in Copenhagen, and imbue it with a distinctive West-Coast flavour.

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