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.
A bridge between cyclists and city hall, Amsterdam’s chief bike advocate plans to take her talents abroad in 2017.
Back in June, Anna Luten became Amsterdam’s—and the world’s—first bike mayor. As an adviser working part-time, rather than a politician, Luten’s role is to be a linchpin that links up cyclists with both the city and the non-cycling public, in order to get better infrastructure, safety and understanding between those who do and don’t travel on two wheels.
Cycle Space, the NGO that launched the bike mayor project, plans to export the concept to 25 cities around the world—a plan that Luten herself will kickstart in New York in 2017.
CityLab spoke with Luten about how the project is going in its first year, and what’s coming in the future. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Despite the grand title, the bike mayor is really an advisory role that doesn’t come with direct power. How have you been able to influence decision-making?
I’ve been talking to lots of organizations, including Amsterdam City Hall. They are currently writing a city bicycle plan to cover the next few years, looking at what the challenges could be and where funding needs to go. I was consulted on that and advised them to think more about tourists. Amsterdam was so busy with visitors this year that the tourism industry arose as a major public debate, and local Amsterdammers are always complaining about tourists standing in the middle of bike paths when they’re trying to get to work. I advised that we need to look at how visitors use bikes and how we can improve their bike path and riding skills—and I believe this became part of the plan.
I also warned them that in the future, bikes may take up much more space. Right now, deliveries by cargo bike are already becoming common in Amsterdam, and there is likely to be a real diversity of different types of bike in the future. That is something we need to make space for.
Do you have a dialogue with regular bike riders as well?
Certainly, rider behavior is something we need to work on, too. Sometimes we feel that we are kings of the road. That doesn't make sense, and isn't good for our own safety. One of the things we want to look into is the psychology of cycling. Why, for example, do people choose routes that they don’t feel completely safe with and thus know are going to stress them out?
Have you faced any resistance to your role from the city or the public?
Overall I find that people are actually coming to me directly with cycling issues now because they know I have connections and expertise. There are of course always people who complain that because I have a job in the bicycle industry [Luten also works as a brand manager for a bicycle manufacturer] that the bike mayor role is just a big marketing exercise.
Do you think the bike mayor concept is exportable to other cities?
Well, I hope so, because in February I am moving to New York to begin the process of setting up the city with a bike mayor program of its own. Working there is going to be fascinating, not least because they have a different style of cycling. I think that’s partly because, compared to Amsterdam, the distances are so vast. I found Brooklyn a more relaxed environment for cycling, perhaps sometimes even better than Amsterdam, but in Manhattan it's very different. There, cyclists often avoid major streets and find quieter back routes, trading a slower journey time for more safety and less stress. Setting up the project may be a challenge, but it's somehow perfect that the bike mayor concept is moving from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam.