What can Europe learn from Portland about bikes? A conversation about E.U. transport policy

Mult. Co. Bike Fair - MCBF '09-52

Portland’s bike culture inspires
the world. The Sprockettes perform at
the Multnomah County Bike Fair
(Photo © J. Maus)

I rode out in the rain last night to grab a beer with Mattia Pellegrini, a member of the cabinet of the Vice President / Commissioner for Transportation of the European Union.

Pellegrini, whose background is in environmental policy, is one of seven cabinet members focused on transportation. He is in charge of sustainable transport policy, from green cars to bicycling. He is visiting Portland as part of a three week tour of six U.S. cities through the state department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which is designed to groom future foreign leaders (several current and recent heads of state are alumni). He is meeting with key players across the broad spectrum of transportation in each city, with the aim of bringing back ideas and lessons to implement in the E.U.

We met up to talk about his impressions of Portland, transportation policy in the E.U., and beer around the world.

He’ll be here through Wednesday, meeting with bike movers and shakers around town, as well as TriMet and the Port of Portland. So far, he has participated in last weekend’s annual Night Ride and a Sunday trip through the Columbia River Gorge. “Portland is a city where I could live,” he said. He was particularly impressed by our bikeway network and our bike culture.

Mattia Pellegrini

“People in Europe know about Portland,” he told me — our bike culture, infrastructure, and mode share has earned us a strong reputation, as evidenced by our coveted invitation to this year’s Velo City conference in Brussels, and star reception there.

I told him that we look to cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen as nearly unreachable models, and he pointed out that Europe is also home to cities like Warsaw and Rome, not great bicycling cities by any measure. The goal is to bring up all European cities to high levels of cycling.

His goal here is to learn how our attitudinal shift in favor of bicycling has played out. Portland has a plethora of education and encouragement programs that create behavioral changes — “How have you managed to convince people that biking is fun?” On that note, he says would like to work with the European Cycling Federation to host events like the Night Ride (the naked unicycling contingent made an impression), and other fun events to complement all the policy.

Pellegrini’s tour is intended as fuel for the European Union’s sustainable transportation renaissance — and is moving fast to make sweeping changes. Investment in transportation infrastructure, particularly rail and “green cars” are a major part of the E.U.’s economic recovery plan, as well as its urgent ambition to address climate change. Cities are particularly targeted in this plan, as they are the major sources of climate-changing pollution.

Currently his office is creating an action plan on transportation in European cities. Slated for release in September or October of this year, the plan will contain a chapter on walking and biking. The European Cycling Federation has submitted three main requests for this plan:

– That a senior “bicycle officer” position be created in the European Commission administration’s department of transportation, to be a point of reference for European cities (this has already been publicly confirmed to be part of the final plan)
– That the European Parliament create a subcommittee on bicycling policy
– That European Cities seek a 15% bicycle mode share by 2015.

Bicycling is only one small part of the across the board initiatives being recommended, and already implemented, for sustainable transportation in European cities. Much of the work to be done involves improving integration between modes of transportation, such as rail and air, and transit and bicycle.

Information technology is another key aspect of transportation systems, and on this trip Pellegrini was excited to discover a group of researchers at the University of Maryland who are working on extremely innovative GIS-based tracking systems for crashes among other information.

new bike corral - SE 28th and Pine-3

Portland innovates with
on-street bike parking
(Photo © J. Maus)

“Green cars” comprise one of his office’s largest initiatives. Zero emissions cars and buses are the goal, and he doesn’t care how it’s done — BMW is working with hydrogen, while Fiat aims to make electric vehicles. But cars are not going anywhere, he says — even in Europe, long distance travel networks are not completely covered by rail and bus — and it’s very important from a climate perspective to get people to transition from the current high-polluting private vehicles.

Also in the works is the use of a pot of money set aside by wealthier E.U. nations for investment in less well-off ones to create long-distance bicycle corridors to link cities in Eastern and Western Europe.

Another long term goal of the EU is to turn the 50% of car trips in European cities that are under 5km (about 3 miles) into bicycle trips.

An issue in Europe that is not even on the radar in the U.S. is car hood design issues. There are a number of innovative ways car companies are working to redesign the shape of the front hood of cars to increase a someone’s ability to survive being hit by a car while crossing the street. One problem, though, is that designs that increase survival rates of people on foot are more dangerous for people who are hit while on a bike, and vice versa. “So we are basically being forced to choose between pedestrians and bicyclists.”

We talked quite a bit about bike sharing systems, to which Pellegrini credits surges in cycling in many European cities not formerly noted for their bike friendliness. While bike sharing’s success in Europe has been fantastic, he says, the next challenges are to improve the bike infrastructure, and to address the safety hazards that come from installing all the bike parking on high traffic intersections where the advertisers who fund the systems can attract the most attention.

We talked about Brussels, the E.U. capital, which is a great place to get a beer (Belgium hosts the largest number of breweries per capita of any country in the world, though Portland beats Brussels for that title among cities), but until recently has not been such a pleasant place to ride a bike. They have recently made great strides, increasing their bike mode share from 1% to 6% in five years, for which the city was rewarded by being made host of this year’s Velo City conference.

Smartbikes, DC

Washington, DC hosts our country’s
only bike sharing systems
(Photo © Elly Blue)

Another factor in Brussels’ bike renaissance is the European Commission, which has 30,000 employees in the city, and which has been working internally to encourage employees to commute by bike — 18% do, including Pellegrini — and has a bicycle fleet so that staff can ride between meetings. This has also helped changed the attitude of the government of Brussels.

The city still has many problems such as ubiquitous rail tracks for the city’s tramway system (Pellegrini was surprised to learn of the same conflict in Portland), but new innovations are happening all he time — by the end of the year hilly Brussels will become home to the world’s second “bicycle lift” (the first, and only one currently operates in Trondheim, Norway).

Times are changing quickly, and the world’s cities are watching and learning from each other. It will be interesting to see how Portland evolves along with these major changes elsewhere that we have helped inspire.

Photo of author

Elly Blue (Columnist)

Elly Blue has been writing about bicycling and carfree issues for BikePortland.org since 2006. Find her at http://takingthelane.com

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14 years ago

Can you imagine the U.S. government having a bicycle ambassador, a committee on bicycle policy, and a push to have every major city up to 15% bicycle mode share?

Even better, can you imagine different states giving money from their budget to help other states create bicycle networks (or the U.S. giving money to Canada or Mexico, for instance)?

We really do have a LONG way to go with regard to all kinds of social issues.

Austin Ramsland
14 years ago

I am so glad that naked unicycling made it’s way into this report. GO PORTLAND!

14 years ago

I think it is important for every transportation dignitary visiting Portland to see naked bicyclists.