I’ve recently returned from a trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities in the lead up to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to Heidelberg to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action.
Over 700 people from 90 countries attended the conference. It was heartening to learn that from Kenya to Sweden, from China to California, cities are taking climate action. Cities are ready to be strong partners to provincial and federal governments and can help federal governments meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. But, in order to do so, cities need more resources and more delegated authority from national and provincial governments. This is the key message from the conference that will be forwarded to the UN Climate Action Summit in September.
Another theme from the conference is the need for creative transportation solutions to decrease emissions in cities. Mauro Petrcionne, European Director General for Climate Action, was asked to sum up what he heard at the Mayors breakfast meeting, at which I was a panelist. He said that many people see individual cars as linked to individual rights. “Will we abolish this perception,” he asked. “No, but we can adjust it. In order to do so, we need to rethink the way our cities are organized.”
Petrcionne observed that if people are asked to choose what matters most, the end of the world or the end of the month, they will choose the end of the month – their own interests and survival – believing that someone else will take care of the end of the world. The advice he gave us was to avoid putting people in the position of making that choice; create climate solutions that also benefit people’s pocketbooks and their health and well-being.
Heidelberg is one city we can learn from when it comes to matching individual interests and quality of life with addressing the climate crisis. And they’ve done this by focussing on how people move around.
Heidelberg is currently where Victoria needs to be by 2030. Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan aims, by 2030, to have 55% of trips made by walking and cycling (we are currently at 39%) and 25% of trips by transit (currently at 12%). This means that by 2030 only 20% of people will get around using a car. Sound impossible? Today in Heidelberg, only 22% of trips are made by car. Fully 38% are made on foot, 26% by bicycle and 14% by public transit.
They’ve achieved this by organizing the city around active and healthy modes of transportation. Almost every main street has as much space dedicated to transit, walking and cycling as it does to private vehicles. Walking and cycling are privileged. There are many pedestrian-only zones. And cyclists are allowed to ride both ways down one-way streets making them de facto bike streets; cars have to go slowly and yield to bikes going in both directions.
Side streets are narrow and have a maximum speed limit of 30km/h. I visited a brand new passive house neighbourhood (where all buildings are zero emissions) and the new streets there are as narrow as the streets in the 800-year-old city centre.
“Why did they make these new streets so narrow,” I asked former mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber-Schuerholz, who was kind enough to show me around. She replied, seemingly surprised by my question, “To limit cars so that children can walk safely to school of course.”
In Heidelberg it’s not bikes versus cars versus buses. It’s about the freedom for kids to get to school safely on foot, and for seniors to stay connected to their communities. The city is organized for better health outcomes, more money in people’s pockets and a stronger local economy. Heidelberg is alive, prosperous and thriving and their streets are for sharing.
Can we join them? This is the Heidelberg Challenge. Let’s step up our ambition as a community and work to overtake Heidelberg long before 2030. Will you join me? It doesn’t mean necessarily ditching your car (although car sharing is cheaper and gives more options) – it just means thinking differently about what it’s for and when you use it. And it means continuing to build a city that puts people first.
This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist here.