By Fabian Küster, Director of Advocacy and EU Affairs at the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF)
How much attention does cycling get at the highest levels of government in Europe? What are countries doing to promote cycling? And what role can national cycling strategies play to help the continent quickly transition to greener, healthier and more sustainable mobility?
Policies relating to cycling come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, making comparison between countries a complex endeavour. They also vary in their relation to different parts of the cycling ecosystem, but all must be taken into account. For an everyday cyclist, a municipal decision to install secure bike racks or introduce local bike-sharing can be just as important as a well-funded national subsidy scheme for buying bicycles.
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One good way of gauging countries’ political will to promote cycling is by looking into their national cycling strategies – and whether they even have one.
A national cycling strategy is a multi-year plan for coordinating policies, objectives and actions for cycling. This unique document consolidates all cycling-related policies at the national level, sending a political signal that cycling matters and should be supported systematically by public authorities, businesses, academia and civil society organisations. Pioneered by the Netherlands in 1990 and followed by Germany in 2004, the national cycling strategy approach outlines clear interventions, instruments and goals for the development of cycling at the national level.
The political importance of having a national cycling strategy has never been bigger. Developed under the umbrella of WHO/Europe and the UN Economic Commission for Europe, the Pan-European Master Plan for Cycling Promotion was signed in Vienna in May 2021, and commits 54 countries to devise and implement a national cycling strategy by 2030.
This master plan’s key objective is to greatly increase cycling in every signatory country, with an overall target of doubling cycling in the pan-European region by 2030.
In other words, all 54 countries must adopt a national cycling strategy within the next eight years. And as a new ECF analysis shows, most still have a long way to go.
To track progress towards the 2030 target, ECF has analysed the state of national cycling strategies in 47 European countries, not only by examining whether a country currently has – or has ever had – a formal national cycling strategy, but also by identifying the specific initiatives, plans and goals therein.
This first-of-its-kind report, “The state of national cycling strategies in Europe (2021),” published in January 2022, provides a comprehensive overview that will be a benchmark for future reports and enable us to track progress on the development, implementation and effectiveness of national cycling strategies in Europe over the coming years.
The report finds that 23 of the 47 countries observed have at least at some point had a national cycling strategy. But a cycling strategy is currently in force in only 13 countries, while it has expired and therefore needs updating in ten countries, including the cycling nation of Denmark. Only five countries are currently formulating a national cycling strategy for the first time: Greece, Italy, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine.
Cycling strategies vary greatly in duration. While most align with the term of the government that adopted them, some are seven-year, ten-year or even 25-year strategies – as in Northern Ireland – while those of the Czech Republic and Hungary were aligned with the EU’s 2014-2020 budget cycle.
With these being relatively novel policy instruments, European countries are progressing at different speeds. Twelve countries have to date had one national strategy in place, while seven countries have had two. Only Austria, Germany, Sweden and Scotland have so far had three iterations of a national cycling strategy.
Setting budgets and targets for more and better cycling
While a budget is needed to realise the ambitions of a cycling strategy, only eight countries have one, with Germany dedicating the highest amount: an annual €365 million over four years.
Two welcome features in some national cycling strategies are the inclusion of concrete targets for increased modal share and decreased road deaths. Eleven strategies set targets for cycling’s modal share, with Austria admirably aiming for no less than 13% by 2025, while seven strategies aim at reducing road fatalities by 40% or 50%, another crucial indicator for achieving more and better cycling.
Other important policies pursued in many strategies include the promotion of intermodality (eg combined bicycle and train travel), changes to highway codes, and the development of a national cycling route network.
Empowering cycling in the pan-European region
While a country’s cycling ambitions can be reflected in other legislation or programmes, the importance of national cycling strategies for the empowerment of cycling cannot be overstated.
This type of stand-alone, thematic, dedicated document conveys not only the political significance given to cycling, it is also an overview of current progress on cycling promotion. Cycling strategies are the ideal way governments and legislatures can eliminate redundant, overlapping and often conflicting regulations, while introducing ambitious targets on a variety of societal issues that go beyond cycling.
From fighting climate change to improving public health, air quality and biodiversity, cycling strategies can help governments to reach other national targets. And as a holistic inventory of all things bicycle, they can be used for reaping the economic benefits of cycling innovation, production, distribution, retail and, increasingly, tourism.
With the stage set for a concerted pan-European cycling boost by 2030, ECF urges countries to quickly devise and adopt comprehensive national cycling strategies that set ambitious targets, not least on modal share and road fatalities, and to back them up with solid, long-term budgets, for the benefit of a greener, healthier and more sustainable continent.