The world’s first ‘bike mayor’ is taking her groundbreaking program from Amsterdam to New York – and wants to rebuild Manhattan around cycling.
Anna Luten has learned her craft in a city which has around a million bicycles for 1.1million inhabitants, and where two thirds of journeys are made by bike.
“Manhattan traffic is still based around cars”
‘New York is such a different city,’ she told Apolitical. ‘In Amsterdam, everyone already knows how to cycle, a lot of people use the bicycle to go to their work, and it’s just a really easy way to get around the city. But it’s also because the whole infrastructure is based around cyclists. In New York, it isn’t. The traffic is still based around cars.’
The bike mayor, created in analogy with Amsterdam’s successful ‘night mayor’, who looks after and promotes the city’s nightlife, acts as a broker between City Hall and the cyclists on the streets.
Two thirds of Amsterdammers use their bicycles every day, while only around one in eight New Yorkers use a bicycle more than once a month. Nevertheless, New York has been becoming more cycle-friendly, laying out more bike lanes and starting a bike share scheme in 2013.
Although New York’s bike share scheme is less than half the size of schemes in European cities like London or Paris, it is still the largest in the US, where some 86% of people travel to work by car. Amsterdam doesn’t have a bike share scheme of that type, because almost everyone already has their own bike. It did, however, have the world’s first bike share, in 1968, when activists painted bicycles white and left them around the city for anyone to use.
‘In Manhattan, I actually don’t want to cycle yet,’ said Luten. ‘There aren’t enough proper bicycle lanes and the people in the cars aren’t used to cyclists. Here in the Netherlands, all the people in the cars are cyclists, so they know how to move and how to get around the cyclists, but there they aren’t. I also don’t know if the people in the cars are really happy with the cyclists, so they can be a bit aggressive or they don’t see you and it’s not as safe as in Amsterdam.’
Aggression does seem to be a problem associated with cyclists in New York. Not just from drivers towards them, but also from them towards everyone else. The headlines tell the story: ‘How to solve NYC’s rude cyclist problem’ (New York Magazine); ‘A green light for bicycle aggression’ (New York Post); ‘New York City’s bicycle wars’ (Time) and on the other side ‘Cyclists need protection from reckless driving’ (NYC StreetsBlog).
That is a problem Luten aims to tackle with the expertise she has developed in Amsterdam as the world’s first bike mayor. Hers is an elected but voluntary position, keeping her independent of the municipality, while including her in the discussions with officials about what the city’s two-wheeled future will look like.
For example, one big problem is that there are so many cyclists they create traffic jams just of bicycles. While they account for 68% of journeys, bicycles are allocated just 11% of infrastructure space (while cars are on 44%). Luten said, ‘Cycling here is almost too successful. People are getting stressed on the bicycles and sometimes not behaving in a proper way. I told the city, you need to do research and get money to focus on that point. Please pay attention to this.’
Luten also ran a hackathon that came up with the idea of turning roads on and off. Certain streets would be shut to vehicles during the morning and even rush hours, letting far more cyclists into the city.
“City Hall are really open and willing to try things out”
Other suggestions from the hackathon include encouraging children to cycle to school by turning it into a game and displaying messages or prizes on the electronic billboards at bus stops as the children pass them; using a similar gameification to tempt people onto quieter streets and off the thronged main roads; and building bicycles with immigrant children who don’t have the same cycling tradition and getting them into it.
Another big problem is that tourists in Amsterdam want to cycle but don’t know the rules and so annoy everyone else by getting things wrong. This is an issue Anna has championed, including a suggestion to track tourists’ bike journeys via GPS (with their permission). That might allow the city to better understand their behaviour, as well as to direct them to places they aren’t going at the moment.
‘You can’t change things immediately. There are lots of rules and it’s sometimes annoying. But if you come to City Hall with a positive mind and good suggestions, they’re really open and willing to try things out. I see progress.’
The program has been successful enough to attract interest from some 30 other cities, such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Montevideo, Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona and Mexico City. Luten hopes to establish a global network of bike mayors who can learn from each other, and set up a foundation to bind them all together.
The decision to go to New York actually came about because her husband got a job there. She plans to move in March and use her experience and connections in the cycling community to replicate the bike mayor program there.
‘I see a lot of opportunities and I think America is typically the country where it won’t be easy, but if you have dreams, they may come true over there,’ said Luten. ‘I don’t know how long I will live there, maybe five years, maybe ten years, maybe I won’t leave again, I don’t know. But in a few years’ time, I just hope I can go easily around Manhattan on my bike.’
(Images via Fietsburgemeester Amsterdam; NYC Department of Transportation; Flickr user Amsterdamize)