Nine Lessons from the World Bicycle Forum in Medellín, Colombia
The World's largest discursive event on bicycling mobility and urban cycling cultures took shape in Medellín Colombia from February 26th to March 1st 2015. With the theme "Cities for All" the Fourth World Bicycle Forum gathered 6495 confirmed participants from 37 countries to celebrate the bicycle as powerful tool for urban transformation. What lessons do I take home from it as one of the event's organizers?
1) A team of volunteers pulled off the World's largest event on pedal-powered mobility
The #FMB4 Citizen Team managed to bring about the world's largest event on urban cycling cultures and pedal-powered mobility. This was possible mainly due to the fact that our volunteer team consisting of 130 citizens from 9 countries donated more than 14.000 work hours to bring about the Fourth World Bicycle Forum.
The event was organized in a collaborative and independent manner inspiring participants, exhibitors and everybody else alike. The 6495 confirmed individual participants visited the event leading to a total count of more than 15000 visitors over five days.
The five-day program consisted of 45 keynote, plenary and breakout panels, 30 workshops, nightly group rides, excursions in Medellín as well as numerous artistic and urban interventions. During the Forum, 160 speakers, artists and activists, representatives of NGOs and government agencies, grassroots organizations and business leaders shared their grassroots work, research insights, policy approaches and best practices, amongst others.
2) A free and collaborative event can host a powerful discourse
All events within the #FMB4 were completely free of charge, which helped to open and diversify the audience of the forum beyond traditional bicycle mobility experts. Eliminating the financial barrier for participation has been proven the right strategy to attract a diverse audience ranging from local activists and members of a growing worldwide bicycling community to international policy makers and high-profile politicians.
Scenes from the registration desk on the last day, half an hour before closing of the last session confirmed us: people from all streaks of society showed up and signed in for the Forum, even if it was just for one afternoon. Such a crowd would never attend a lecture on bicycling mobility if you have to pay 250 USD for a single day ticket or 800 Euro for a four-day conference ticket.
The debates at the forum were designed to be non-hierarchical to share knowledge, strategies and best practises amongst citizens, across disciplines and institutional boundaries. The speakers at the forum ranged from high-profile politicians to international policy makers and planners to grassroots activists and citizens.
Judging from many very positive feedbacks and inspiring discussions the Forum succeeded in this aim to open the debate between various institutional levels and disciplines. This allowed for an open and inspiring discourse ranging from formal debate to informal exchanges that enriched the participants.
3) A global network of engaged citizens can drive urban change
The #FMB4 Citizen Team consisted of people who work towards urban change in their non-Forum lives as well. Three NGOs were instrumental with their support to organize the World Bicycle Forum; La Ciudad Verde, Bikes Not Bombs and Smarter Than Car. Their networks formed the basis for a global collective of citizens with the coherent goal to inspire each and every participant at the Forum to create the urban change that we need in various places and cultural contexts across the globe. And our group was successful with shaping discourse, urban change and new alliances that came into existence solely because the Forum took place. One example on a national Colombian level the formation of a Colombia-wide network for cycling advocacy that was launched during the event.
The World Bicycle Forum also catalysed the bicycle agenda as the mayor of Medellín, Aníbal Gaviria, announced during the #FMB4 the creation of the first municipal Cycling Secretariat in Colombia, which will be a public office tasked with articulating, coordinating, and leading action on cycling infrastructure and promotion.
An important impact will be the direct effects of the forum on the local participants the citizens and interest groups from Medellín and Colombia who attended the Forum. Over five days they were absorbing international bicycle cultures and now have the chance to demand change from their administration and create or improve the networks to work towards this urban change. It was inspiring to see that many of the important stakeholders for urban change in Medellín showed up to the Forum and were actively participating in the conference program, being it local activists or the Medellín's urban planning director.
4) Women are taking the lead in bicycle advocacy
The World Bicycle Forum showed within the organizing team and the event that women increasingly shape the world of bicycle advocacy. In Europe we are often still faced with a crowd of predominantly white middle-aged men when it comes to bicycle advocates and their representation in associations. This notion is of the past and not representative for the experiences I had during the World Bicycle Forum.
The Forum featured inspiring keynote lectures such as Janette Sadik-Khan talking about urban change in New York City or the artist BLN bike showing how art can transform urban spaces. The FMB4's program was rich in contributions from female activists, planners, researchers etc. who presented their work and an entire session "Ciudades Para Todas" was dedicated to women working in cycling advocacy.
I was glad to meet many of them who are key stakeholders in Latin America and work for better conditions for bicycling (as well as urban transportation in general and many other urban issues). This empowered movement demands urban change in favour of more social equity, gender equity and urban conditions for all ages and social backgrounds. The Forum featured several sessions in which this aspect became very clear and certainly led to better networks and much inspiration amongst urban cycling advocates.
5) A multi-lingual discourse in possible
The World Bicycle Forum has received certain criticism for being a Forum held in predominantly Spanish language. There are several reasons why I do not share this criticism.
The Forum's program was divided into Spanish, English and Portuguese language with simultaneous Spanish-English translation for major program elements. In preparation of the event we have communicated in Spanish, English and Portuguese via our social networks and the website. The Call for Proposals was open in Spanish and English. So it would be fair to say that much has been done to open the discourse for a global audience.
These efforts by a volunteer team operating on a (very) limited budget should be compared to many conferences in the same field that simply use English as sole language for debate. Where is the open discourse in those cases?
Plus: The #FMB4 Citizen Team has sought contact to many prominent urban cycling organisations in Europe and the US before the event and the interest has been, mildly stated, limited. We believe that this has been a missed opportunity for these organizations as the 6500 participants present at the World Bicylce Forum could have been a valuable addition to the networks of many cycling advocacy organisations.
I believe that we will have to open the debate to a global level and also to more languages if we want to succeed in making cycling irresistible not only for people in Amsterdam or Copenhagen but also for people in Caracas or Calí.
The Forum has shown current limits in this global discourse but has also provided valuable examples of how such transfer and adaptation of knowledge and best practises can take place. The representatives of for example the Dutch Cycling Embassy or the Cycling Embassy of Denmark have been present at the Forum and done excellent work to start such bi-directional exchange of bicycle cultures.
6) Latin America is key for sustainable urbanisation
This exchange with the Latin American community working on active mobility and sustainable urbanism should not only come out of courtesy or respect for regional challenges. Latin America is simply put the key if we want to succeed in our efforts to direct urbanisation into sustainable pathways. The entire world can learn valuable lessons from Latin America as laboratory for sustainable urbanisation.
In Latin America the scale of urbanisation is very high with at least 80% of the region's population already living in cities. Many cities in the area are facing pressing urban issues such as sprawl, social divide or mobility challenges. At the same time some key cities in the region are forerunners in terms of sustainable urban development.
Medellín is such an innovative city and also proved this foresight by welcoming the World Bicycle Forum to the city and supporting it logistically as well as politically. This was definitely a clever move as the Forum benefitted the City of Medellín in multiple ways such as international visibility, direct value creation, network expansion or momentum for sustainable urbanism policies.
The forum also showed that Latin America is home to many original and creative approaches, from citizen-driven urban change to urban master planning, that show the way towards sustainable future cities. Such forward-thinking urban development comes in a context in which many countries in the region have economies and public budgets that are (still) capable to carry public investments in new infrastructure and urban development projects. This is paired with an educated, well-connected and active civil society that is demanding an instigating urban change. This mix of factors is unique to many Latin American countries and makes the engagement with this region so inspiring and fruitful.
7) Activism shows the way for urban change
Many discussions at the forum emphasized and showed the power of citizen engagement for urban change. Many activists (or ex-activists) presented their work and success stories.
The history of the creation of Ciclovía was rectified in a keynote session by Cicloviá co-founder Jaime Ortiz who showed how the Ciclovía was created in 1974 by citizens in Bogotá and later adopted by the city's administration to become an urban strategy nowadays adapted by cities in the entire world.
The superhero-activist Peatónito showed in his talk (or rather performance) and an urban intervention how performative tactical urbanism interventions can become an everyday thing in our cities and enrich discourse and imagination amongst citizens and planners alike.
The World Bicycle Forum has brought together many voices that have been instrumental in shaping tactical urbanism and urban interventions as strategies to instigate urban change.
Matthew Passmore, co-founder of Park(ing) Day and principal of Morelab, inspired the crowd with a brief history of Park(ing) day and an outlook on a current project "Bicycle Infrastructure 2.0". Mike Lydon, principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, presented a talk about tactical urbanism as bridging discipline between politics, administration and civil society.
The discussion amongst administrators, planners and citizens showed that activists can be found in many positions, in citizen collectives and urban administration alike. Important is that we share the same goals and understanding of the city that we want to create for the future.
Latin America as urban laboratory is providing many examples for how citizens demand urban change and are bringing it about by engaging with their urban environment. This direct approach to our cities is infecting the rest of the world and will lead to more citizens becoming stewards for change in their cities.
8) There is limited future for one-size-fits-all solutions
The World Bicycle Forum was an important global voice presenting the work of bicycle advocates, urbanists, researchers and policy makers coming from Latin America. This was an extremely refreshing debate in a world where many still believe that the success for bicycling can exclusively be found on a Copenhagen-style, separated bicycle-lane.
Examples such as the Cicloviá movement, citizen actions or the power of Latin American women engaged with changing their cities show that there is not one "leading" place in the world to answer the question how to promote urban cycling in the best possible way.
The future of cycling promotion and infrastructure solutions will be global, diverse and rooted in local bicycle cultures. What we have seen over the last decade in urban cycling is marvellous. There is a globalized scene using approaches inspired by forerunner cities adapting them to their local contexts and enriching the palette with more innovative strategies. It is now time that cities and advocates in the Northern Hemisphere open their eyes and get inspired by a growing bicycle cultural in Latin America. The World Bicycle Forum has been such a venue for bi-directional exchange of urban cycling cultures.
9) Cycling as active transport should be included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Many international organisations such as UNEP, UNDP, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, ITDP or EMBARQ but also politicians and administrators of Latin American megacities like Bogotá, Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires have been present at the FMB4. Together with local citizens, advocates and activists they discussed the bicycle as catalyst for creating more sustainable cities.
The transformative power of the bicycle for creating equitable, healthy and clean cities is well known by many advocates, activists and policy makers alike. We now need to work together globally to scale up the bicycle's transformative power to encounter the worldwide mobility and liveability challenge in a rapidly urbanizing world.
Yet, active transport is missing in the current proposal for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted in September this year. The SDGs will be more spot-on if they stated clearly in the Goal 11.2 what "sustainable transport systems" refer to the three forms of environmentally friendly transport: public transport, walking and cycling as options for future transport systems. A petition has been launched during the World Bicycle Forum to lobby demanding such a specification.
The World Bicycle Forum has shown that thousands of global citizens, advocates, researchers, planners, politicians, artists, policy makers, etc. are ready to build an urban future including a serious paradigm shift towards bicycling mobility. Will the international policy makers be wise enough to include cycling as powerful tool for urban transformation into the formulation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?
The work on the World Bicycle Forum has been enriching and rewarding. At this point I want to thank all members of the #FMB4 Citizen Team for their work, all supporters of the Forum for their trust in us and all #FMB4 participants for showing up and being patient with the organizing team.
History of the World Bicycle Forum
Originally conceived as the "Foro Mundial Da Bicicleta," the previous three World Bicycle Forums were held in Brazil. The first two forums took place in Porto Alegre in response to an internationally infamous incident where a man drove at high speed through a peaceful Critical Mass demonstration in 2011. The third Forum took place in Curitiba, drawing over 1,300 participants.
The next World Bicycle Forum in 2016
At the final assembly of the Forum, participants voted on the next host city for the World Bicycle Forum 2016. Six cities announced their candidacy: Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Moscow, Santiago de Chile, São Paulo and Quito. Santiago de Chile narrowly won the vote over Mexico City to be the host of the 5th World Bike Forum.
For more information and documentation visit: www.FMB4.org