Transforming Mobility in Our Cities

(Speech delivered by ICLEI’s Secretary General Mr. Gino Van Begin at the High Level Discussion Forum, Bogota, Colombia on August 2014)

I believe that we all here agree that the future of our planet is dependent of how our cities develop and evolve and that within that development and transformation, urban mobility plays an important role. We have come to see that our current excessive automobile dependence has various negative impacts, and the brunt of it, is borne by our cities. The symptoms are visible in the form of increasing congestion, deterioration of our air quality, and a loss of public spaces. In addition, the economic loss due to these symptoms is considerable. In Europe, European cities lose 100 billion Euros annually or 1% of EU’s GDP due to congestion. And a quarter of EU’s transport emissions arise from urban areas. In Asia, Asian Development Bank estimates that the annual congestion cost is around 2–5% of GDP. Indeed, Asian cities also suffer from the highest air pollution levels in the world and 80% of this is attributed to urban transport.

An unfortunate truth is that many of our growing cities still perceive that urban development planning must go hand in hand with prioritising automobile infrastructure, which leads to increased automobile use. The result of this can be seen through the absence of footpaths, unsafe bicycle facilities, low quality public transport, and a lack of places for people to meet. The more our cities focus on automobiles and infrastructure that encourages automobile use, the more we deviate from the main purpose of cities. Indeed, in our view, cities must be or become places for people to dwell and not for automobiles to drive. We therefore have to reverse the trend of automobile dependence and change the choices our cities make in mobility. Our ICLEI members acknowledge the fact that many of our cities are at a cross-road and the decisions that our city leaders make will define the future of our city.

As one of our overall aims, ICLEI supports the planning and implementing of socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, low carbon, and economically feasible urban mobility through our EcoMobility program thus, creating Resilient, Sustainable, Smart, Healthy and Happy Cities. Our EcoMobility program is a partnership of cities, international organizations, experts, and academia working in the area of urban mobility and the initiatives in the ICLEI EcoMobility program are led by visionary city leaders. Let me give you some examples: Currently, under our EcoMobility Program, we run two main initiatives namely, the EcoMobility Alliance and the EcoMobility World Festival.

The EcoMobility Alliance is an alliance of a growing group of visionary cities that are determined to improve their urban mobility situation. These are cities that have determined not only to rise to the top but also to take their fellow cities with them. Led by the City of Changwon under the leadership of Mayor Park and now Mayor Ahn, Sang-soo, the Alliance has grown from 6 cities in 2012 to over 12 cities in a year affecting the transport situation of 17 million of world’s population. By the end of 2014, the Alliance will grow to 20 ambitious cities, with at least 5 cities from South America and 2 from Central America. The EcoMobility Alliance encourages demonstration of dedicated leadership and shows the effect cities have when they collaborate with each other with technical assistance from various expert organisations.

City to City exchanges are a main focus of the EcoMobility Alliance. Knowledge sharing and technology transfer among the Alliance and ICLEI cities has been growing in various areas of urban mobility. For example, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system success of Bogota, also an Alliance city, has inspired many ICLEI cities like Jakarta (Indonesia), Seoul (Korea), Bangkok(Thailand), Ahmedabad (India), and Visakhapatnam (India), to implement people friendly public transport systems. Similarly, the city of Changwon, the first city in Korea to implement a bike sharing system with 3000 bikes, is receiving technical support from international examples like Münster and Freiburg to improve their public bike system and also to improve their existing walking and cycling lanes??.

This year in October 2014, Alliance cities will meet to share experiences with Sydney. Sydney is currently redesigning their city centre to make it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Thus, the wisdom of Alliance cities will benefit Sydney. The Alliance cities acknowledge that approaches like better public transport, walking, cycling are essential to break the vicious cycle of automobile dependence. We need more cities to think this way and who is better to inspire cities than other cities?

Our other prominent initiative is the EcoMobility World Festival held for the first time in the City of Suwon, an ICLEI member city in Korea. It is common for cities to have a car-free day, a car-free weekend or a car-free week but never until now has a city leader dared to close a neighbourhood for an entire month to cars. The results were astonishing; the city achieved a 98% voluntary abstinence from car use from the residents of the neighbourhood. Overnight, the car filled neighbourhood turned into a people friendly neighbourhood. During that month, more than 1 million people visited the neighbourhood and the 3-day EcoMobility Congress attracted over 600 participants and 50 city governments.

Following the success of the EcoMobility Festival, several cities including Berlin, Kaohsiung, and Johannesburg have approached ICLEI to replicate the event. Our aim with the Festival is to demonstrate that cities can say NO! to automobile dominance. To conduct an EcoMobility World Festival, the only requirement is a determined mayor, who can say: Enough of automobiles: Let’s give the street back to the people!

In addition to the EcoMobility Alliance and the Festival, my EcoMobility team works with organizations to highlight the importance of the inter-linkages of mobility with themes such as health, liveability, transport performance measurement and benchmarking in cities.

It is a fact that our cities will grow, we cannot stop it. It is also a fact that our planet is suffering, our air is getting worse, and millions are dying in road accidents and it is a fact that there are social, economic and environmental problems because of excessive automobile dependence and this we can change. We need to support our city leadership in creating a mobility system serving the majority of our population in cities and not a system that serves a minor group. The face of urban mobility can change with strong leadership in cities and ICLEI is behind city leadership to support this change.