AMSTERDAM USED TO BE LIKE ISTANBUL
Carlo van de Weijer likes to talk straight when it comes to the sustainable transition of the transport sector. Cars are here to stay, bricks-and-mortar retailers are going to suffer and our cities are not seizing the current opportunities.
Interview with Carlo van de Weijer, Eindhoven University of Technology
Carlo van de Weijer, everything points to a major transformation in mobility. However, you have a different take on this. How do you see things?
Carlo van de Weijer: Many people say that the future is all about autonomous mobility, that all automobiles will be connected, that sharing will dominate the market and that we won’t own our own cars. Watch any TED talk about the future of mobility and this is what it nearly always comes down to. I see things very differently. I worked at TomTom for a long time and know my way around autonomous mobility from the inside. In my opinion, self-driving cars are a complicated solution in search of a problem. This is why I see bikes as such an important element for the future of mobility. We are not going to be able to do without cars, they are just too important. But bikes could do so much more.
How do people in Holland see this topic? I mean you are the number one bike nation.
Carlo van de Weijer: Yes, we are. But this wasn’t the case 40 years ago. Back then, our cities were full of cars. The same as in Istanbul, Athens or Cairo. There were cars parked everywhere too. Something happened to make things develop differently. Of course, we have a very flat country and we’re not known for having the hottest weather in the world. These are two factors that make bikes popular.
How did Holland do it? It was done with the help of restrictions, by making it harder to drive?
Carlo van de Weijer: It’s hard to say what was most important. It started with the hippies. And the fact that a lot of children had died in traffic accidents. There was even one group who called themselves: “Stop child murder”. The name made them sound more like anti-abortionists. They asked provocatively how we had got used to so many children dying.
At that time, there were also plans to build a motorway right through the middle of Amsterdam. This did a lot to change public opinion. It was a time when many major cities were doing more for local transport. In Holland, we decided to do more for bikes. And it obviously worked.
The pandemic has now led to the situation changing quickly in other countries. Corona will ultimately be a temporary phenomenon. It’s not going to change everything, but we won’t be going back to where we left off. Some of the trends we are seeing were already there, they’ve just been accelerated by the pandemic. And one of these trends is that we are making more room for people instead of traffic.
Cars are here to stay, bricks-and-mortar retailers are going to suffer and our cities are not seizing the current opportunities
Is this because lots of people have discovered bikes as a leisure time activity during corona? Will this become part of their everyday lives?
Carlo van de Weijer: Exactly. This is a really important aspect. We’ve actually now got the problem of too many bikes. Bikes are sold out. Especially racing bikes. Our problem is in effect an embarrassment of riches. Bikes are the new toilet paper.
I see two or three factors coming together at this time. Local transport is not particularly comfortable, and in times of corona it’s not safe. This makes individual alternatives more popular. In addition, people are recognising that since prehistoric times, we have been programmed to move, for at least an hour a day. This is the optimal solution from an evolutionary point of view.
At the moment, more people are working from home and they have the urge to move for this one hour every day. However, they often have no concrete goal or destination. Mobility itself is the goal. Moreover, because there were virtually no cars in the towns, riding a bike has become more pleasant.
This is a big step forwards, as people are discovering how mobile they can be. I don’t think we are ever going to go back from this.
Classic arguments against such a transformation of the transport sector say for example, that small shops will close if people stop driving their cars into town.
Carlo van de Weijer: People who say this are not completely wrong. In small towns and villages in particular, we have often seen that they become empty when there are no cars. Doing away with cars completely would be dangerous.
But what people want is to shift the focus from cars. We need to find a way to do this. Many people say that we won’t need anywhere to park cars in future, because autonomous self-driving cars don’t need to park. This is not going to happen.
For many people, cars are an important part of their household. This is something that should not be underestimated. And it still applies.
However, it has been proven that when we start to tackle cars, we open up new possibilities. Quality of life improves in our cities. Especially in restaurants and cafés. When it comes to retail, it’s true to say that cars need to be nearby so that people can use them. You can’t ignore this. This is also why park-and-ride schemes often don’t work. Breaking up a modality always means a loss of comfort. I know of only a small handful of very successful park-and-ride schemes.
Instead, you could let the cars drive to within 200 or 300 metres and then let people walk. Only this could be done so much better than it is generally done at the moment.
We have to find a way to get the car out of sight
So, the idea is an inner ring of multi-storey car parks, which are virtually invisible. And a core zone free of cars. And no more searching for a parking spot?
Carlo van de Weijer: Moving from on-street to off-street parking. This is an important issue, which now you often see at an international level. And it’s not a step backwards.
Then we need more local transport. Yet cars and local transport don’t correlate together well. If you invest more in local transport, then it makes little difference to the number of people driving cars. Bikes and local transport have this correlation – and so do bikes and cars. If more is invested in cycling infrastructure, then car use reduces. Individuality plays an important role here. This is one of the big things about bikes. They are attractive to both sides.
It’s also a good thing for local authorities, as local transport is expensive. It costs 20 to 60 cents per passenger per kilometre. This always requires state subsidies. Cars are relatively cost-neutral, as far as the whole country is concerned. But the costs for infrastructure and damage to society still end up having to be paid for by the tax payer. In contrast, bikes create money. They mean stay people healthier which is a bonus for society as a whole.
But cyclists don’t have to pay taxes to ride a bike, surely this is not good for the government?
Carlo van de Weijer: That’s the short-term way of looking at it. For the economy as a whole, it’s better if we stay healthier. And this is naturally good for the tax system too. Every kilometre travelled per person by bike brings between 5 and 15 cents, because you stay healthier, have to use health services less and are off work due to illness less. In addition, bike traffic has infrastructure costs of just 3 to 5 cents per kilometre.
The problem though is that the costs of bike transport have to be carried by local authorities, while savings in the health system go to benefit the government.
The second argument against banning cars from inner cities is the social aspect. People living outside cities in rural areas have no choice but to drive. They’re being pushed out.
Carlo van de Weijer: I live in a village and life would just not possible without a car. But, this is not a big problem. There are many people who cannot afford not to have a car because of where they live . And their cars are getting less and less expensive, especially electric cars. Private leasing is currently so subsidised that it costs just 100 euros a month. Without subsidies, it would be 200. And this is quickly going to get even cheaper in future.
Why? Producing batteries requires large amounts of scarce raw materials.
Carlo van de Weijer: Lithium is not scarce. There’s no shortage and the producing countries are relatively stable. In addition, it recycles well. Cobalt is a problem, but batteries that don’t require cobalt are in development. And the problems with mines that we have with cobalt is much smaller than the problems that we have with producing oil. There’s just been another serious oil-related accident off the coast of Mauritius. And the whole supply chain is supposedly fully optimised there. Batteries are not at this stage yet. Classic scaling down of prices will come in. Once twice as many batteries are produced, prices will drop by some 20 per cent.
In 2013, we still paid 1000 dollars per kilowatt hour. Today, we pay 150. And this is going to fall further to 70 dollars.
Back to bikes. The current e-bike boom is really causing a problem. The different speeds of bikes don’t fit together. What should be done about this?
Carlo van de Weijer: That is the million-dollar question. Some people say that this just an embarrassment of choice, but the problem is a real one. We nearly have more casualties in Holland with bikes than with cars.
It’s often said that this is due to older people riding bikes that go too fast and that they can’t control them. This might be true to a certain extent, but people are also riding much more than they used to, because of e-bikes. They are experiencing a whole new quality of life. Should this really be regulated? If helmets were made compulsory, the number of cyclists would fall immediately.
And cycling makes older people healthier. They almost reach the one hour of mobility a day that I mentioned earlier. This makes them happier and healthier. Do we want to give up on this? And by the way, calculated per kilometre, riding a bike has got safer. It’s just that we are riding much more now.
What we need are more cycle lanes and wider cycle lanes. Ultimately, it’s much easier to stimulate cycling than it is local transport. By the way, local transport is not that safe either. Per passenger per kilometre, there are as many accidents in Holland as there are with cars.
Pedelecs and e-bikes do create greater risks. However, they mean that there are more bikes on the roads as range increases by the power of two compared to classic bikes
At the end of the day, mobility is going to be a fight for traffic space. How many people can move per square metre? Cars lose hands down in this respect. They are just so inefficient, regardless of whether they might be autonomous, electric or whatever. Bikes can move more people than an underground transport system. Up to 15,000 people per hour on cycle lanes.
Every kilometre travelled per person by bike brings between 5 and 15 cents, because you stay healthier, have to use health services less and are off work due to illness less
Was bike sharing not intended to make cycling more accessible to people who don’t ride bikes much? This hasn’t really worked.
Carlo van de Weijer: There are two types of bike sharing schemes: those with fixed locations and those without. Bike sharing with fixed locations is simply too expensive. There is the balance problem. The bikes have to be constantly redistributed. Related expenses can run to 700 to 800 dollars per bike per year.
Meanwhile the version without a fixed location has a big problem when it comes to people’s self-discipline. Because it’s not their own bike, they don’t always look for a suitable parking spot and don’t look after the bikes. In addition, the quality of many sharing bikes was so poor that they were broke down after several months. It just doesn’t work.
E-scooters have the same issue. They make hardly any money. They have three main problems: On average, they break down after four to five months. If you consider their manufacturing CO2 footprint, it would better to drive a BMW X5.
And you need to have a big enough fleet of them so that they get used on average 1.4 times a day. When you add it all up, they’re just not worth it. They might disappear within two years.
There’s no reason for authorities to support them. Some 50 per cent of their journeys replace walking, 30 per cent replace local public transport and only a tiny percentage replace car travel. This is pointless.
E-scooters that you can sit down on, such as mopeds, are different. That could work. I had one myself for two months. And used it for short journeys, such as to do the shopping. I wouldn’t have done this with my bike. We are seeing positive results with these e-vespas in towns and cities. It’s a proven business case.
People should be stimulated to buy their own bikes. That way people look after them much better. There would be the same parking issues that we have in Holland, but that is the least of the problems. You could almost be proud of it.
If you consider their manufacturing CO2 footprint, it would better to drive a BMW X5
If you could have one wish for more sustainable mobility in Holland. What would it be?
Carlo van de Weijer: I think we could make bikes much safer. For example, we could make pedal-assist bikes safer and more intelligent. We’re working on it. There are many factors to consider, such as the local area, the traffic situation, other traffic users, traffic lights, etc.
It might not sound that futuristic, but creating an implicitly safer infrastructure would be a good idea. Roads with a 30 kilometre/hour speed limit are fine as they are. But faster roads would need a separate cycle lane. This would cost something like 10 to 15 billion in Holland. That's the same as we spend on subsidising local public transport in two years.
For me, combining an implicitly safer infrastructure system with more intelligent bikes would be the best and safest way to go.
Carlo van de Weijer, thank you for this interview