Irish Cycling Campaign at Velo-City Ghent 2024

Irish Cycling Campaign, formerly, has been sending delegates to ECF’s Velo-city International cycling planning conference since the 1990s, and we were delighted to be represented at its latest edition held in June 2024. 

It took place in the wonderful bicycle friendly city of Ghent in Belgium and was the largest Velo-city yet held with over 1650 registered delegates from 60 different countries. In this report, Mairéad Forsythe (ICC Chairperson), Will Andrews (ICC Exec Committee member) and Damien Ó Tuama (National Cycling Coordinator with ICC & An Taisce) share some reflections on the four day event.  

Just some of the delegates’ parked bicycles at Velo-city 2024 

Opening ceremony and plenary

Henk Swarttouw, President of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), stressed the value of the European Declaration on Cycling that was adopted in April 2024 (as reported on by ECF here). This declaration will impact how global bodies such as the World Health Organisation, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund see cycling infrastructure as an essential part of transport. The declaration sees cycling as “the most sustainable, accessible and inclusive, low-cost and healthy forms of transport and recreation, and its key importance for European society and economy”. Kudos to the ECF for its incredibly valuable lobbying work on this over several years. 

Mairéad, Damien and Henk (from ECF) 

Janette Sadik-Kahn’s (former Transport Commissioner for New York City) gave an inspirational opening speech. She clarified that there’s an ongoing ‘fight’ for space on city streets – but, additionally, that New York City’s Mayor gained great popular support for the bike lane / pedestrian plaza / bike-share measures that were introduced. She shared statistics showing that in New York improved bicycle infrastructure was responsible for a 49% increase in retail sales; the corresponding figures for London and Tokyo were 30% and 20% respectively. She referenced the cities of London and Paris where, in both places, more people now make journeys by bike than by car. This certainly wasn’t the case a decade or two ago. Further (less obvious) leaders are cities such as Bogota, Bratislava, Tirana, Brussels, Arnhem and even Austin in Texas. Cities are seeing cycling as essential infrastructure. 

Janette Sadik-Kahn speaking in the main plenary session venue

Will Butler Adams, Brompton’s CEO for the last 18 years, spoke about the utter inefficiency of individuals in ever larger cars moving about (very slowly) in cities within 2.5 tonnes of enclosed metal boxes. He argued for cycling to be sold as a fun, diverse and interesting way to experience urban travel. 

There was also a lovely suggestion (by one of the plenary speakers) for engineers to use periscopes in a reverse orientation so as to be able to see the street from a child’s perspective – particularly in the context of ever larger Sports Utility Vehicles dominating many city streets.  

Ghent Deputy Mayor

Ghent’s deputy mayor Filip Watteeuw explained how the 50% of through traffic was discouraged in their 2017 circulation plan and that the city is now greener, safer and more liveable (see below). This came after decades of car dominance where only the residual space was given over to cycling. He told us how new improvements in the infrastructure had led to a significant increase in the cycling modal share (see also below). And that there is a new word in the Oxford dictionary “Ghentify” meaning to improve the quality of life through cycling infrastructure. He posed the rhetorical question: how would Ghent look if the 30%+ of trips currently made by bike were to be made by private car?

In regard to Velo-city itself, he argued that it’s about gaining strength and stubbornness for the next battles for street space! 

Ghent Circulation Plan Technical Tour by Tim from City admin

Each year at Velo-City, there are ‘technical tours’ of local places and of new infrastructural interventions of interest. One of the most popular this year focussed on Ghent’s Circulation Plan which reduced through-traffic in the city. The plan was initiated over a weekend in 2017, with 80 streets changing the direction of traffic and 2,500 signs changed within the central area bounded by the F40 peripheral road. The parallels with Dublin’s currently debated City Centre Transport Plan were striking.

The photo (below) shows Tim, the municipality employee and leader of the technical tour, with his diagram of how the city works for private motor traffic before and after the implementation of the Circulation Plan. On the diagram to the left in his hand (under his jacket sleeve), you can see that motor traffic could – beforehand – go from the outer ring towards the centre of the city and onto a central ring, which could be circled fully; Tim’s right-hand diagram – now – shows motor traffic that enters from any point in the outside peripheral road, the F40, is unable to go around the inner ring; you can only go a little way round before being diverted back out again. The city is divided into six ‘sections’ and, as a motorist, you only have access to one of these from the outer ring. But as a public transport user or cyclist or pedestrian, there entire city centre is permeable and quick to traverse.  

As part of the Circulation Plan, the existing pedestrian area of 25 hectares, created in 1997, was doubled in size. Additionally, months before the plan’s introduction, in 2017, a 30km/h limit was introduced in the wider city area. The Circulation Plan itself saw the approximately 50% of motor traffic, that was just passing through the centre, stopped. Cameras log the registration plates of cars and fine those not permitted (loading, taxis etc. are exempted) €58. This is a traffic fine, rather than a congestion fee. The photo here shows one of the cameras complete with a warning sign.

Tim told us that in the years since the plan was introduced, car sharing schemes have been ‘booming’, and car ownership levels consistently dropping. Priority has been retained for bicycles, leading to a 50% increase in cyclists in the central, F40-bound area.

Traffic, tram and bus monitoring was carried out 6 months before and 6 months after implementation, and is repeated every 3 years accompanied by transport surveys and user diaries. Tim told us that users still report some delays and slowness for trams + buses. On some narrow streets, cycling is limited to before 11am and after 6pm. The photo here shows the signs mandating this.

After the implementation of the plan, there was 96% drop in motor traffic levels at one particular junction, and 92% at another. We visited these places, and the quietness and peace was remarkable; it must be lovely for the residents overlooking these pleasant streets.

Furthermore, there has been a 50% increase in cyclists in the central, F40-bound area. Collisions and injuries also both decreased. Finally, since the zone is also a low-emission zone, enforced by camera, air quality – measured at several stations throughout the zone –  has improved by 32%. 

It’s the biggest car-free area in Belgium, and benefits from very proactive parking management. Ghentians are naturally very proud of their circulation plan.

You can read more about the Ghent Circulation Plan on its official website here 

And this is all very relevant for Dublin, of course, where a much more modest traffic circulation plan has been agreed by Dublin City Council but is now under threat from vested interests (mainly in the form of car park owners). For more on the relevance of the Belgian example for Dublin, see this article on the Dublin Cycling Campaign website

A photo taken on technical tour showing the covered-over / infilled canal that was contrasted with the current situation with the canal exposed / in place again – and with the old office building now being converted into social housing. 

Leading Cycling Campaigning Organisations

For Damien, one of the most inspiring talks was given by Roxanne de Beaux, the CEO of Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Roxanne (pictured below) is one of eight employees in the organisation and they are soon to grow to (at least) 10 staff members. The organisation has around 1700 paid members, but with a very effective fundraising committee that has allowed the organisation to grow its paid professional staff complement over the years. Their mission is to build influence and authority with expert knowledge. She described the organisation as being “relentless” in delivering high quality submissions on all of the relevant consultations in Cambridge, and in developers being extremely keen to talk to them before submitting planning applications so that the active travel elements have been thought through carefully before proposals are finalised and sent to the local authorities. 

Plenary session on communcations and messaging 

There was an interesting concluding discussion about how we communicate and think about promoting cycling. Brian Bell from Strava, Grant Ennis (author of ‘Dark PR – How Corporate Disinformation Harms our Health and the Environment – and you might like to check out this web discussion entitled Dark PR: how the road lobby has framed death as normal), public engagement specialist Jamie Clark and Sarah Mitchell, CEO of Cycling UK, had varying views on what messages to emphasise. 

All agreed that fighting mis- and dis-information needs our focus and ongoing learning. While it’s impossible to predict which myths and stories will ‘catch fire’, we can be vigilant in counteracting myths with evidence and clear communications.

We need to investigate the stereotypes. To include non-traditional cycle users and those outside our usual culture is critical, while understanding the cultural conversations going on: Culture leads while politics and policies follow (although we note that all four panellists were from the English-speaking world!). Advocating without understanding the audience is futile, so listening is just as important as putting out our messages.

Grant concluded by reminding us we need to keep publicising and communicating our specific demands, seeking real political change, keeping going, and repeating as long as necessary.

Giant Bicycle Parade

An annual feature of Velo-City is a huge parade made up of the delegates and local people.

This year the Parade had 3,000 participants with much enthusiastic participation by local cycling groups and engagement along the route including dancing, a brass band, and even a mock ‘anti-cycling’ protest reminiscent of those against immigration. You can get a sense of the event from the Street Films produced short film here: 

And with some further images here:

Mairéad getting ready to be chauffeured around at the parade!

We are not sure what the correct technical name is for this semi-reversed tandem recumbent that seems uniquely designed to make for easy chats between the riders – but lovely to see such a diversity of cycles and cyclists on the parade! 

It was also lovely to see this piano and pianist bearing quadricycle on the parade

Further sessions

Other sessions covered bike theft (and bike registration), funding for cycling, health benefits of cycling, including a Dutch group who believe and work to achieve “safe cycling until you’re 100”. There were lots of mentions of cities who had introduced 30 km/h speed limits to make their streets safer. There was an interesting talk from Belgium where the Cycling Policy provides for every Minister to promote cycling, with 52 cross-Departmental actions to improve cycling (including getting more bikes on trains). 

Our National Cycling Coordinator Damien contributed to an interesting discussion touching on politics and cycling (pictured). Eline Oftedal, CEO of Norwegian Cyclists’ Association, told us to reach out to those with more right-wing beliefs, emphasising the individuality of cycling, and keeping doors open for discussion and debate. Emil Christensen of Denmark agreed that both left and right wings of politics support cycling as a policy, though it can compete with other priorities. There was agreement that we must live with the current political reality. Meanwhile Duncan Dollimore, Head of Campaigns with Cycling UK, stressed the need to emphasise the wider benefits that cycling friendly places give rise to — such as improved public health for all and lower health care costs for society, reduced congestion that everyone benefits from and more liveable towns and cities – rather than talking so much about cycling per se.

Panellists at the session on ‘Making the benefits of cycling an election issue’, moderated by Froso Christofides, ECF’s Director for Members & Networks (on the left)

We were intrigued to hear hand-cycle user Isabelle Clement of Wheels for Wellbeing whose disability doesn’t keep her from advocating for active transport. She claimed that the world of disabled people has been told that the car is the ‘only way to travel’ and further said this was a form of ‘brainwashing’ and that, in the UK, anti-LTN (Low Traffic Neighbourhood) groups had ‘used and abused’ the disabled community in their efforts to maintain car use. Interesting to hear. Isabelle called on us to listen to the most excluded when planning or advocating on transport measures.

The best aspect of Velo-city was the opportunity to network and meet people from around the world, both cycling advocates and officials from local and national governments. We also met old friends and made new friends among the strong delegations of officials from the National Transport Authority, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Fingal, Dublin City and Cork County Councils (amongst other delegates from Ireland). Michelle Murphy of Dublin City Council set out the vision here of 95% of the population living within 400m of high-quality cycle network. Bring it on, we say!

The central reception area had stands representing everything from the Dutch Cycling Embassy, to ECF, commercial commodities and e-bikes, e-bikes, and more e-bikes. The future seems to be in e-bikes, with more e-bikes than acoustic bikes sold in Europe in the last few years. 

That said, one of the main themes of the conference was around the challenges of accommodating different types of cycles and cyclists on our infrastructure. There is is a fast-growing cohort of quick-moving e-bikes and other forms of mobility, but we must not forget the value of slow-moving, non-powered cycles. A related overarching theme of the event was inclusivity – we must strengthen efforts to include those who are less able, whether through different ages, income levels, physical or mental ability, ethnicity or choice of cycle.

Final Comments

Our Irish Cycling Campaign team from Velo-city is still digesting the mountains of knowledge and ideas garnered at this year’s conference. After further reflections, this will feed into additional articles to be posted here over the coming weeks and months, including perhaps some observations from the rail and sail and Eurostar Brompton journeys of Damien and Will to travel to and from Ghent. We might also convey the Velo-city 2024 ideas via a special online webinar where we will invite more of the Irish delegates attending the conference. 

In the meantime, you can find more information on the Velo City website which lists speakers, session themes etc. And you can read the daily reports from the four days of Velo-city here:

Velo-city 2024 Ghent: Tuesday Daily Report 
Velo-city 2024 Ghent: Wednesday Daily Report 
Velo-city 2024 Ghent: Thursday Daily Report
Velo-city 2024 Ghent: Friday Daily Report  

The next edition of Velo-city will take place in Gdansk in Poland in 2025 and we hope to be able to send an Irish Cycling Campaign delegation there. More again about this. 

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