Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The semi-official post is the first of its kind in the world.
This summer, Amsterdam will go one step further to cement its reputation as the most bike-friendly city on the planet, appointing the world’s first ever bicycle mayor. Due to be selected on June 24th, Amsterdam’s chief cyclist will promote and protect cycling in the city, acting as a go-between connecting city hall, cyclists, community groups, and anyone who might be affected by new measures designed to improve citizens’ cycling experience.
Creating a post in an already supremely bike-friendly city might seem like overkill from outside, but Amsterdam’s experiment is one they plan to export to many other cities where two-wheeled transit is not so obviously well provided for. The concept arose from bike advocacy organisation CycleSpace, whose co-founder Roos Stallinga outlines plans to roll out the concept internationally in a press release:
This global program launched in Amsterdam is [intended] to elect the city’s representative of cycling progress. We plan to inaugurate our first 25 cycle mayors in cities as diverse as Beijing, Sao Paulo, Chicago, Cape Town and Warsaw. It will result in a yearly conference, starting in Amsterdam in 2017.
The bike mayor will be selected via a process that combines a public vote and the deliberations of an expert jury. Candidates have to express their interest by May 1, presenting a short video explaining why they are suitable for the post. An online vote will be open to the public until June 24, but while this will influence the final choice, the guiding power in selection will be given to a jury of relevant parties, including Amsterdam’s mayor and representatives from the city’s transit authorities and cycling groups. Funding for the project, as yet to be confirmed, will likely be a combination of public subsidy with sponsorship money.
Not granting the post solely by public vote might not seem entirely democratic, but as an employee of what is essentially an independent NGO, the bike mayor won’t have direct executive power. What they will have, however, is an open ear both to the authorities and to ordinary cyclists, giving them the ability to advocate for better conditions, shape policy, and, if necessary, fight for a better deal.
For people who have been watching Amsterdam closely, this formula may sound familiar. The selection process and brief for the job is very similar to that of Amsterdam’s night mayor, who manages relations between city hall, nighttime businesses, and the general public.
The resemblance is no accident. CycleSpace cites the night mayor concept as a key influence, and the Bike Mayor project was announced Friday at the opening launch of the world’s first ever Night Mayor’s Summit. Amsterdam’s current Night Mayor Mirik Milan has proved successful in making the city’s night and day life more harmonious, simultaneously promoting 24-hour licences and helping to manage disturbances caused by late night partying in the city center. If a bike mayor were to follow this template, they could improve cycling conditions and help to smooth any rancor between conflicting parties, ideally while maintaining the respect of both sides. Extending this model from nightlife to the creation of a bike mayor thus suggests the birth of an interesting new category of city-fixer: a quasi-official who both lobbies for a particular group and manages this group’s relations with the city and public.
The bike mayor concept is certainly interesting, but cities still struggling to get just a few protected bike lanes might wonder if Amsterdam, already considered an international beacon of best practices for cycling infrastructure, needs yet another official advocate.
The pro-cycling crowd at CycleSpace says yes, suggesting that the city’s progress in bike culture and infrastructure is at risk of stalling. As CycleSpace’s co-founder Maud de Vries tells Citylab:
We are really far ahead in Amsterdam, but there is a tendency now to see bikes as a problem. People don’t see the magic of it anymore, because they’re so used to it. We see that kids are not riding in the city center anymore, because adults are afraid for them. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, there are many people who don’t have a past history of cycling who tend to drive their kids to school — and when the kids are older, they’re on scooters, not bikes. We need to keep promoting bike culture, to show that bikes are amazing.
Amsterdam’s bike-friendly character is also arguably a revolution just partly achieved. While 60 percent of journeys in inner Amsterdam take place on bikes, the lion’s share of road space is still overwhelmingly allotted to cars. Often pedestrians are as much the victims of this imbalance as cyclists. It’s not uncommon to find central Amsterdam streets where car lanes and bike paths are blissfully uncongested but where narrow sidewalks are clogged.
One solution to this could be to give some car lanes over to bikes, allowing sidewalks to expand into the space that bike paths have vacated. Such a plan would face resistance, of course, but with a bike mayor in place, the transition could probably be managed more smoothly. Having problems like these might seem luxurious in other cities, but if Amsterdam is to maintain its leading role as a center for cycling, it’s in areas like these that it needs to blaze a trail for others to follow.