Velo-City Nantes. Les vacances de Monsieur Vélo
It took me some time to synthesize a couple of ideas about what this Velo-City edition in Nantes was all about. For those not familiar with the event, Velo-City is a series of cycle planning conferences gathering the most ambitious cycling advocates in the world.
I have already participated at two previous editions, in Copenhagen (2011) and Vienna (2013), where I also did a presentation about the (online) cycling community in Bucharest. The latest iteration in Nantes was deemed the most successful, with over 1.500 participants from 80 countries.
There were four full days of sessions, quite difficult to follow as most of them were running in parallel. But I did my best, attending and tweeting (you can find my stream with the hashtag #velocity15 here), and generally tried to get inspired by vanguard ideas without getting to much carried away by the often salesperson approach that many of the presentations transpired (a bit too much ‘successful’ consultancy being sold at this type of events). I will get to these criticisms later, for now let’s start with the good things that caught my attention at Velo-City.
‘The discussion is NOT about redistributing the space in cities, but redistributing the function of space indeed!’ – Sonia Lavadinho
1. Philippe Crist (OECD), who was one of the most inspiring speakers at this edition (albeit making some normative comments on how cycling in the third world is chaotic), related cycling with things that don’t come often enough in the minds of planners: serendipity, resilience and supernormality. I thought as well that only when we stop discussing cycling in terms of transportation, efficiency and instrumentality will we truly get somewhere (more on this shortly). This was nicely echoed by an anthropologist, Sonia Lavadinho, who insisted on building cities for people rather than cities for bikes, as most feel adequate. The focus, she says, should be on space, not infrastructure: ‘The discussion is NOT about redistributing the space in cities, but redistributing the function of space indeed!’ Couldn’t agree more! And because I have already mentioned two inspirational talkers, let’s add another one that made my day on the final plenary session of the conference: Lake Sagaris, journalist and writer. She urged people present at Velo-City to stop thinking in terms of cyclists versus others. Sustainable transport, she said, ‘means an ecology of different transportation modes, not thinking on terms of mono-modes’. This so much contrasted to another session, where too many of the representatives thought that cycling advocacy groups should be more like political parties and only represent a very minority. Really? Is this the way forward?!? All in all, I have now a top three of people who were really making a difference at various Velo-City editions: First it was the activist Vandana Shiva (Copenhagen 2011), then the sociologist Dave Horton (Vienna 2013), and now Lake Sagaris.
2. A panel on cycling and social change was equally interesting to follow. I knew about the Mexican project Mujeres en Bici, but it was nice to see how they empower women in Central America to use bikes for transportation. Sue Knaup from One Street, an organization which provides bicycle advocacy resources and consulting to nonprofits around the world, made a passionate speech about how to set up a Social Bike Business Program. Her book, ‘Defying Poverty with Bicycles‘, which I haven’t got my hands on yet, is definitely a must!
Advocates and lobbyists are too often concerned to how not to disturb the status quo, thus reproducing the existing paradigm where the car is not frontally challenged.
3. Other social projects were of interest. The Italians from Altermobility presented a very nice concept, English Kitchen, on how to teach kids English through the use of bikes. More details (in Italian) to be found here. And to end the series on activism / social change, I will mention a cycling activists’ conference this Autumn in Kiev, Veloforum, which that sounds very promising. Book tickets here. I thought that all these examples that I just gave were pretty refreshing in an otherwise often dull discussions, where a rather advocacy-based approach to cycling was all too prevalent. Unfortunately, less voice is given at these events to the more general public as well as the numerous grass-roots and activist organizations out there. This is all fine, advocacy, lobbying, but if they are the only ones represented, the risk we are running into is to end up not advancing the radical solutions cities need today in order to get rid of the car. Advocates and lobbyists are too often concerned to how not to disturb the status quo, thus reproducing the existing paradigm where the car is not frontally challenged, where the question of social inequalities is not properly addressed.
4. On a more positive note, I really enjoyed the presentations given by the representatives of great cycling nations, the Netherlands and Denmark. Their ambitions to set up cycling highways kind of sets the trend for all other nations to get on board. But I argue that it’s going to take some time to get these replicated and I wonder if those attending those slightly utopian scenarios are frustrated rather than inspired. I mean, a bike-friendly bio-mall, when will this ever be possible?
And in relation to this very optimistic lessons from the Danes and the Dutch, I would have wanted to hear more from them about failures, not just successes. I am saying this because too often less cycle-friendly countries are ready to buy into stuff that Denmark or the Netherlands do in terms of infrastructure without adapting, without understanding contexts. Both Danish and Dutch consultancy companies make loads of money by selling success stories, but I would reckon failure is equally essential if mistakes are to be avoided by future cycling nations.
Lessons about failure are essential if mistakes are to be avoided by future cycling nations.
5. Finally, Nantes. A very nice city, where I lived for half a year more than 10 years ago. It has a lot of good cycling infrastructure and plenty of cyclists, which contrasts to my memory of the city from 2003. A glimpse of the city in this video shot with a drone during the ‘Grande parade à vélo’! Awesome!
Main photo: @nantesfr