IN CONVERSATION WITH MATTHEW BALDWIN

Matthew Baldwin is Deputy Director – General of DG MOVE at the European Commission and was appointed in 2018 as European Coordinator for Road Safety and Sustainable Mobility.

Professionally, he has served in various senior capacities and functions in the European Commission viz., Trade Policy, Aviation and Transport Affairs, Energy and Climate issues; and his most recent assignment was as Chief of Staff to Commissioner Hill before joining DG MOVE as Deputy Director General in 2016.

Matthew is also managing the European Commission’s network of Covid-19 transport contact points, and in this chat he outlines the current trends and developments in the cycling industry.

Several announcements are made to create pop-up cycle lanes across European region. How concrete are these measures from a long term view or do you think this is a policy fad and we are at risk of returning to the old-normal?

To put things in perspective, we need to ask ourselves how we moved around in our cities before Covid?

If you examine the external costs of transport (i.e., the cost born by society), is around €1 trillion or 6-7 % of GDP (EU data).

And when you look at the areas covered by these external costs –

  • 40% are environmental (CO2, air quality, noise, and habitat damage)
  • 30% represent the cost of road congestion
  • 30% represent the cost of road crashes

Consequently, people have been raising concerns for a long time on how can we reduce our dependence on carbon emitting privately owned cars in our cities, and boost public transport and active mobility.

Then in the crisis itself, I think you saw a lot of factors coming together – people noticed the fresher air, less noise, but also commented to me on how they saw for the first time just how much space is given to the car in cities both for driving and parking. And in those countries where people were allowed out of lockdown to exercise, there often wasn’t enough space to move around safely particularly once social distancing rules were applied.

But there were a lot of relatively empty roads so we saw a lot of local authorities then take the decision to re-allocate space with wider pedestrian pavements (e.g. to allow people to queue safely outside shops) and of course the famous pop-up bike lanes and play areas – including right here in the whole of central Brussels, with just a 20kph speed limit and priority for pedestrians and cyclists.

We welcome and support these practical and rapid actions and from what I have seen they are indeed generally well supported by the citizens.

As to whether these temporary measures become long term, that is of course for cities and their citizens to decide. But we know the problem is a long term one and that if we want to ensure that people keep walking and cycling, they need to be able to do so comfortably and safely. And we know that a prime reason why people don’t cycle right now is fear of personal safety. If we don’t make this short term changes permanent, in my view we stand a risk of returning to the old normal.

That’s exactly what happened in the US in the early 1970s. With the first oil price spike, sales of bikes rose 2-3 fold. But when oil prices dropped, people got back in the cars – and the plans to create safer bike infrastructure were shelved, and the bikes went back in the basements. (Read: Bicycling Booms During Lockdown-But There’s A Warning From History)

I don’t think it’s just a fad but there is a big risk that the old normal will re-assert itself, and particularly if people are scared in the short term to take public transport or indeed if public transport faces capacity constraints, they may just jump back into their cars.

I think that would be a great shame. There’s a fine recent study by the Italian research group Decisio, Bikeconomy Osservatorio and the Dutch Embassy in Rome which looks at the social costs and benefits of different post lockdown mobility scenarios – even just for Italy, the numbers are huge!

But they point clearly to big social costs if nothing is done, and people just get back in their cars and big social benefits if walking and cycling are encouraged.

Above all, I don’t want us all to draw back the curtains one of these days and say: we are back to cities choked with cars, how did this happen? It’s been great to see the speed with which cities acted to create temporary pop-up lanes, but the next crucial step is – as far as possible – to make them permanent.

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Matthew Baldwin, addressing the audience with delegates at ‘Road Safety Conference’ 2019, Geneva.

There is a misconception that the bicycle lobby is against auto industry, what is your response to this?

In urban mobility we see it as too often – bikes against cars, cars against pedestrians, and sometimes, yes, bikes vs pedestrians! It goes back to the point about how we share out the finite amount of space in our cities and who is allowed to do what and to go where. I can’t speak for the views of the bicycle lobby or the auto industry, but my own views are that we need to put a lot more priority inside the city onto public transport and active mobility, and discouraging in particular unnecessary short trips by car.

Cars will continue to have a part to play in our mobility for the foreseeable future, especially outside cities, and given that, we need to work on innovations such as park and ride schemes on the outskirts of cities, so people coming in from outside don’t have to drive all the way into town, and I am a big fan of road pricing so that car drivers pay the true cost of their trips.

For me, it’s not about being anti-car, or pro-car, but ensuring that the different elements of the system cover their true costs. Nor is it about being “anti-car driver”: it’s not their fault if we have collectively set up a system which makes using a car often the only viable or comfortable alternative. People react to the costs / incentives that they are faced with. It’s up to policy makers, and of course citizens, to … design things better!

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Speaking on Road Safety at ‘Car Industry Today’ meet-up in Germany, 2019.

The city of London is planning a permanent closure to cars on certain routes as well as increasing congestion charge on motorists, and public transport capacity is restricted? A section of society is furious with these measures, what can be done to maintain parity?

Again, I can’t speak for London or any other city, but it is evident that the debate on all the issues surrounding urban mobility is a highly passionate one. Particularly people living outside cities may feel that they can’t get to work without their car and worry about losing their jobs. These times are really hard. All I can say is that we don’t help any of these guys if we say: keep on driving your car in without paying the true costs – if the result is congested roads that prevent everyone else moving around, and we go back to terrible air quality and higher CO2 emissions. I know that not everyone can afford to live in the centre of towns, but also let’s remember that not everyone can afford a car or even has access to a car either.

What strategy you suggest to build on the momentum of active travel? How can the trends be sustained for a longer period of time?

Apart from the things I have already talked about, I would highlight 4 things in particular:

Infrastructure is absolutely crucial and making that permanent, and all levels of government need to figure out how we can help cities and regions roll out that infrastructure. It helps that it is very cost efficient and also pretty labour intensive to build, meaning new jobs as well. It’s my personal hope that we will see support for active mobility and sustainable urban mobility generally as an important theme in the new EU financial framework for the coming years, but that’s down to cities and regions to prioritise sustainable urban mobility, to push for it, as much as it is to the European Commission.

Developing the idea of Multimodal Travel – whether it is park and ride schemes at the edge of cities or better bike park facilities at train stations or developing the concept of Mobility as a Service with exciting new apps to enable multimodality to flourish.

Simply taking Biking and Walking more seriously as particularly urban transport modes would also help! We need to do much more to gather statistics about active travel – ultimately if you don’t measure it, you can’t advocate for it.

We must share Best Practices and provide more guidance to cities who want to pursue active mobility. In the EU we are going to be revising our guidance on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP) in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, and there’s a stack of good advice already available on the ELTIS Urban Mobility Observatory. And later this year we are going to be reviewing our overall Urban Mobility Strategy which dates back to 2013 so in my view it is long overdue for an overhaul.

Although the world cities are undergoing transportation transformation, accessibility still remains a big problem for the disabled. What needs to be done to make our societies inclusive?

I have talked quite a bit to the visually impaired community for example – sometimes, all the work done to create bike lanes and the famous woonerfs (fluid areas of shared space with reduced speeds) can make it difficult for blind people to navigate safely. That’s why it’s important that not just our societies but our policy discussions are really open and inclusive to make sure there are no unintended consequences of policy actions. There’s a lot more we can, and should do to help mobility / accessibility for the disabled whether in relation to the sharing of space in our cities or public transport, etc, and the European Commission is right behind these efforts.

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How will EU Commission celebrate World Bicycle Day in 2020? How can people get involved?

I hope as many people as possible in the European Commission and elsewhere in the world will be able to celebrate World Bicycle Day by … going for a bike ride with family or friends and celebrating this unique form of mobility! That’s what I’ll be doing anyway. Here in the EU, we also celebrate it every year with our European Mobility Week festivities, and the Brussels Car Free Day, both in September. So it’s like the Queen’s birthday in the UK – we get to celebrate more than once a year.

The bicycle industry brings in more than €200 billion a year to the European economy (ECF data) so why not make every day World Bicycle Day? it would be good for our health and our economy.

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Bicycling with a friend in Stockholm.

Connect with Matthew Baldwin on twitter @BaldwinMatthew_

Image credits: Matthew Baldwin

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