Movers & Shakers: Meet the world’s first bicycle mayor

by Jen Agen


 

Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of (women’s) cycling go round.

The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Is there someone you want to hear form? We happily accept your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.

 


“It just takes some time and the right attitude to change the way we look at our infrastructure and at cycling in general. We need to start to see [biking] as something normal, which you can do on a daily basis.”

– Anna Luten, World’s First Bicycle Mayor

 

Can you envision a world in the year 2030 where 50% of all city trips are made by the bicycle?

CycleSpace can. And in pursuit of their ambitious “50by30” goal, the advocacy group uses Dutch expertise to launch innovative urban design and community engagement programs throughout the world to change the way we look at daily transportation.

One of the more public facing programs is their Bicycle Mayor & Leader Program, a global initiative to accelerate the progress of cycling in cities with the aim of getting another one billion people onto bikes. Using these well-positioned “Bicycle Mayors” as a catalyst for change, the program brings together the public and private realms to uncover the economic, health, and environmental benefits of higher bicycle mode splits.

To be clear, the position of “bicycle mayor” is not an officially recognised one, but rather a symbolic one — someone to serve as the public mediator between public officials and urban planners, businesses owners and daily commuters, tourists and those hesitant to adopt a two-wheeled lifestyle.

The first bicycle mayor was appointed in Amsterdam in 2016, when 28-year-old Anna Luten stepped up to be the face of cycling in the Dutch cultural capital.

A bicycle industry employee, lifelong commuter and bike racer, Luten was well-positioned to take the job.

Like most Dutch people, Luten grew up in the saddle. She was 3 or 4 years old when she received her first bike, a hand-me-down from her older sibling with training wheels.

“It’s the cultural norm for people to grow up riding, not only in Amsterdam, but in the entire country, it is just normal to ride your bike to school or sports and to the shops. So, you better know how to ride your bike,” Luten said about biking in The Netherlands.

A commuter lifestyle progressed into recreational and competitive cycling, as well as a job as brand and marketing manager for Giant Bicycles.

After holding the title of Bicycle Mayor of Amsterdam for a year, Luten has moved on to an even bigger challenge. Handing he mayoral title over to someone else, Luten now serves as the CycleSpace’s director of operations, paving the way in New York City, where the bicycle mode split is a mere 1% compared to nearly 40% in Amsterdam.

There’s a long ways to go still in the Big Apple, but Luten is up for the task. What’s possible in The Netherlands is also possible in the US, she says, as long as we can change our mindsets.

“[In The Netherlands, cycling] is the easiest way to get around in the city, village and town. The entire infrastructure is built around it and we simply don’t think of it anymore, it’s in our system, we see it as something normal. This is also possible in the United States,” Luten stated.

“It just takes some time and the right attitude to change the way we look at our infrastructure and at cycling in general. We need to start to see [biking] as something normal, which you can do on a daily basis.”

Since Luten first “took office”, bicycle mayors can now be found in six additional cities: Baroda (India), Sao Paolo (Brazil), Rio de Janerio (Brazil) Sydney (Australia), Mexico City (Mexico) and Keene, New Hampshire (USA).

Jen Agan sat down with Luten to talk about CycleSpace and transition from Amsterdam to New York.

Jen Agan: Tell us, how did the bicycle mayor position come about?

Anna Luten: I first heard about Cyclespace via someone I met while riding together with a group during an event I organized with a colleague at Giant. A couple of months later I saw the call for the Bicycle Mayor program. Immediately I thought this is for me, and that I should apply for it!

What was it that  intrigued you about the program?

Everything! Being the person to connect all the stakeholders, looking for new opportunities, trying to make a difference, being a change maker, getting to know and look at the city in a different way and building a global community!

CycleSpace is making the shift form car-centric to human centric cities possible through acting as a catalyst for breakthrough solutions around cycling. They create and accelerate ideas, and kick start collaborations.

We see a world where 50% of all city trips are by bicycle by 2030. We call this global vision 50by30. This ambitious goal demands the brightest ideas and the most determined action. We believe it will lead to fundamentally healthier, happier and more prosperous cities. Cycling is more than transportation. It is transformation. To realize 50by30, they work with others who share this vision.

And the Bicycle Mayor fits in how?

Bicycle Mayors are the face and voice of cycling in a city. They accelerate change by uniting the public and private realms. They identify solutions to local problems and work with others to ensure those ideas come true. They listen to the local needs. They promote the many benefits of cycling. They identify and address the barriers to more people cycling and they are continuously in touch with the innovations, organizations and entrepreneurs that can help bring about a better cycling future.

Will we see more Bicycle Mayors in the US and globally? How many?

We would love to see more cities join, because we believe it’s possible in every city, we don’t have a goal for the number of cities to join us, because in this case it’s not about the quantity but about the quality of each participating city. It’s about the right fit.

The role of each mayor varies according to the local challenges and opportunities it that city. The time required, the funding they can access, and the way the mayor works with local partners will all vary.

Mayors understand that they need to look at a city’s holistic needs to be more human-centric. Therefore, they do not act from an only cycling –centric position but listen to all city stakeholders, to ensure the city thrives.

The Bicycle Mayor program is essentially volunteer base, how does that work?

Yes, practically it is. Those that apply have to believe, support and be passionate about our goal. We all share the same understanding and we help each other to grow further. Together we will make this happen!

Bicycle Mayors are a voluntary role. They benefit personally and professionally from the association with the program, but any financial remuneration during their mayoralty is likely to be limited to covering operating costs or basic expenses.

The Mayor, together with support from local champions and Cyclespace, will identify and seek local funding support or sponsorship for this. Cyclespace will provide advice for how to approach this.

Mayors will also seek local funding support to make their ideas a reality. Therefore, financial support available will vary from city to city. In Amsterdam, for example, funding was secured from the city council to support the Mayor’s operating costs.

It is likely that funding could come from four main areas – city branding and marketing budgets, infrastructure / planning budgets within the city, a private company or from crowd funding.

And how does one become a Bicycle Mayor?

There are a number of ways that Mayors can be elected. A city may decide to host an open public competition (as was undertaken in Amsterdam) or it may be more practical for a panel of local experts to choose to nominate a Mayor initially, and make a recommendation – based on their local knowledge – to Cyclespace.

Individuals can also apply directly to Cyclespace to become a Mayor and will then be invited to find a broad panel of relevant, authoritative supporters to endorse their submission.

Once a Mayor is elected, any organization that – on learning about the program – feels they would have liked to have been part of the election / nominate themselves will be asked to play an active role in the next election. In the meantime, we encourage everyone to engage with and support the current Mayor.

Mayors will typically be elected for a period of two years, but this can be extended.

An individual person, group, or government in a city can appoint someone or can start a competition for people to apply for. It’s simple.

Tell us about your transition from Amsterdam to New York. How has the riding been?

I noticed that in the beginning I created a barrier for myself to ride my bike here. Because traffic is just really different here I was a bit afraid. I simply didn’t know how to ride my bike here, since I’ve never done it before. It took me two months to settle in here, waiting for spring to arrive before I went on my bike for the first time.

The moment I didn’t I realized what I was missing and I just started laughing. I really enjoyed it! I could see more of the city and travel further without getting tired of walking. Of course, it’s different but soon as you know how to deal with the infrastructure and other traffic it more fun and convenient. It’s the same as leaning a new language. First you start to know a couple of words, after this some sentences and after a while you get fluent.

What do you like about riding in New York City, anything you did not expect?

That it’s fun! It’s easy to get around. Meeting people and having fun conversations while waiting for traffic light. The small distances, the space! And of course the weather. Most of the time super nice and sunny.

What’s the top item you’d like to see improve in New York City’s infrastructure?

Better pavement. They need to start doing something to reduce the number of potholes in the streets. Also, the speed limit restrictions of car drivers needs to change in order to ride safe.

What city in the U.S. could/should be next in the program?

Great question! Perhaps Seattle? Washington DC? Boston could be as well or Austin. Or San Francisco or Portland.

What 2018 goals are you working on?
Next step of professionalization of the Bicycle Mayor Program in order to manage this we need to raise some major funds. Furthermore, to grow the network of BMs worldwide. To close some new partnerships and to visualize the impact of our BM’s.

Where is your favourite spot to ride in New York?

Not one in particular. Riding the bridges, riding to NJ over the Washington Bridge, the greenway, but actually also being in the center of the concrete jungle of yellow cabs at Times Square.

What message do you want to send out to people who did not grow up riding a bike the way you did? What do you want them to know?

Try it out and the more you repeat yourself the more it will become a habit. Start to look at it as something normal, something you can do on a daily basis.

For me cycling is just something normal and I use the bike as a tool to get around, for me it’s actually the easiest way to get around. Try to make it a habit and part of daily life. Start to look at it as something convenient and normal to do. I’m not talking about recreational cycling which I do on my road bike, I’m talking about using my urban bike to go to work, to do grocery shopping, to go out for dinner or to go to meetings, or to parties.

What does success mean to you? 

In order to be successful you need to chase your dreams, work hard to get there, think with the end in mind, have some luck and most important don’t take things too seriously. Just enjoy it.

Do you have a cyclist you admire?

Jane Jacobs —right now we can still see the impact she has made in the city and cities all over. She looks as a powerful woman who stood up for something she believed in.

Also, my mother, who took me on my first road cycling trip. I always love to go riding with her and I miss doing this.

And of course, I admire most of the professional riders, just because I know how much effort they are putting in.

What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in your career thus far?

Quitting my paid job to start working as a volunteer building something new: the Bicycle Mayor Program. (Right now, for the biggest part the program is run by volunteers). This is also the biggest adventure and challenging thing I’ve done.

What does the world need more of and less of?

More empathy and people who think of their environment and the impact they have on it instead of only thinking of their selves. We need to stay connected to each other.

 

Who would you like to learn about next? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author: Jen Agan is a Chicago native and a long-time member of the cycling industry, most recently as an events coordinator. Her true passion is story telling, and she’s always in search of roads to ride, communities to be discovered and people to meet.

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