Velo-City 2003: Simon’s story

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 51.

I went to the Velo-City 2003 conference in Paris in September, to give a poster presentation about promoting cycling in Cambridge. This week-long event had 782 delegates from 44 countries.

The previous Velo-City was in Glasgow, and Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, opened the conference at a long session where lots of good speeches covered how the bicycle can revitalise city life and the difficulty the cycle has in being taken seriously as a solution by governments. Steven Norris described charismatically how in the UK the white line is blessed with magical powers and how the cyclists dismount signs are examples of failure. Patrick Kayemba explained a problem for cycling in Africa: Africans can’t afford one (only 4% own a bicycle) and most Africans walk. But they still have car centric policies!


I finally lost my Segway® virginity in the exhibition area. Lean forward or backward or twist a grip to turn – the bloody thing works really really well – until you need to lift (37 kg) or park it. An American bloke apparently sells four-hour tours of Paris on these things at �70 a throw.

We were all lent MONOPRIX advertising bikes for the conference. After the group photo of all the delegates we cycled to the H�tel de Ville (city hall). A presentation was held in a long chandeliered banqueting hall. Bad acoustics meant the speeches were talked over but then began a video of 20 or so examples of the use of the bicycle in advertising.

Some were quite funny – like the South African FIAT punto ad about the driver who is cross that the cycle courier leans on his bonnet at the lights. As they move off the driver schemes how to get his own back and it looks like he’s going to knock him off. But at the next lights just as the courier puts his hand out to rest on the bonnet the Fiat reverses violently and the cyclist falls to the ground. Needless to say it didn’t win – but a wonderfully photographed advert for Orange mobile phones came third. Shot in Asia in a sea of cyclists, a single cyclist cuts his way effortlessly against the flow. First and second prize winners weren’t as interesting.


Next day I caught the end of Dr Harry Rutter’s talk. He has done new work to update (and, as it turns out, verify) Mayer Hillman’s finding that you are about 20 times more likely to lengthen your life by regular cycling than not. Hence: health authorities should promote it! (Late evening we ended up dining with a French medical doctor. His wife guided us several kilometres to a fabulous restaurant, almost entirely the wrong way along one-way streets!)


Jan Cook from Babtie explained why only one of over 200 local authorities use cycle audit and proposed that a new ‘Vulnerable Road User Audit’ might catch on as it encompasses a wider range of people and complements the statutory Safety Audit. Oxfordshire County Council will adopt it and make the Audit Process publicly available – but of course Babtie will be uniquely placed to help other authorities implement it.

BYPAD is Europe-wide ‘benchmarking’ and a talk described involvement of user groups in assessing the cycling status of towns. CTC’s Tony Russell described the expansion to regional level of the benchmarking project he’s led.

Integration with public transport

In one of the more difficult sessions of the conference heads of RATP (Paris underground), SNCF (French railways), UITP (EU version of Integrated Transport) and Fietsersbond (Dutch CTC) took part in a panel debate.

Conference: Why can’t we take bikes on the metro?

RATP: Because the system is 100 years old.

Conference: Why can’t we take the bikes on the TGV to Marseilles or on Eurostar?

SNCF: Well I can’t give that excuse.

UITP rep, Heather Allen said that good cycle facilities made bus and train ten times more attractive to potential users.

Three cities

Another session compared Berlin, Paris and London. Berlin it seems is way ahead of both, but London has the congestion charge. The discussion ranged over cycle parking – and Rose Ades, a veteran campaigner who now works for Transport for London, described the process of trying to put stands in residential areas as a ‘ghastly edifice.’

Champs Elysées

Along the Champs Elysées: four of the eight traffic lanes were full of cyclists.
Image as described adjacent

After egg and mushroom cr�pe I joined the masses assembling for the ride. Astonishing numbers of cyclists. We spent about 90 minutes cycling up George V Street and along the Champs Elysées, my first time on this road and in the setting sun it was stunning. The Arc de Triomphe silhouetted dramatically against softening light behind us and the golden glint of the Cleopatra’s needle a long way ahead. In between, four of the eight traffic lanes were full of cyclists – like a scene from films of China. When we arrive at Hotel de Ville on schedule at 21:30 we’re told that there were a jaw dropping, bell-ringing total of 8,000 cyclists on the ride.

The Hotel de Ville.
Image as described adjacent

Next day we took a shuttle bus that was to take us to another party, this time offered by the RATP (Paris Mass Transport System). The overcrowded bus eventually set off and almost got to the destination, but then stopped for ten minutes while the driver worked out where to go. Half an hour later we drove past where we had started and by now the whole bus had lost faith and were singing the Marseillaise! The conference organiser (who had a seat near me and was supposed to give a speech with a minister) remained astonishingly calm. Eventually we got to the site – an engineering works where a new generation of trams were being prepared for roll out. An excellent party of food and entertainment all helped to strengthen international relations.

On the last day, I learnt a little from Greece. Fast traffic and motorbikes make Athens a depressing place from a cycling point of view. While they don’t seem to have abandoned railways to convert into cycleways, they do have (rather worryingly) a dried up river bed! The Olympics might mean they can cobble together some sort of cycling and walking routes by mid 2004.

Detecting Cyclists

I went to a couple of sessions on automatic cycle counters. In one system a specially designed induction loop is placed in the road and a standard traffic counter is used. The counter has been customised so that it only picks out cycles and doesn’t confuse them with motorbikes and cars. Another system used a radar suspended over the cycle path. Both were susceptible to errors, but at least the radar could tell which way the cyclist was going. The error was about 10% in both systems and the latter cost �3,000 to install. At these levels of accuracy I suggested that it was better to use human traffic counters. The power of the results is in their use as evidence to prove to politicians that cyclists are commuters.

Cycling Scotland

Hosting Velo-City 2001 has had a tremendous impact on cycling in Scotland and led to the formation of a new organisation to carry on promoting cycling. Already this organisation has done a TV advert to promote cycling. The warmth and good will built up during the conference were evident during the closing speeches. After tearful farewells this year, all will be reunited at the next Velo-City in Dublin in June 2005. Cape Town will host Velo Mondiale in March 2006.

My Conclusions

Having been involved with promoting cycling for eight years now, I, like many of the other delegates, already know the strong arguments for encouraging more cycling. Apart from all the good things like health, efficiency and practicality, more cycling and other green transport can make cities more liveable. The power of this conference is that, in the host city at least, it forces many of the people who would not normally attend such events to have to think seriously about these issues. There is evidence, in Paris at least, that the current administration is tackling that problem – but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Cyclists have been leaders in bringing the arguments forward, but if we all want to go further we have to take more people with us. Perhaps the future is to create transport corridors that cater for slower moving, quiet, environmentally friendly transport options to grow into the space currently occupied by fast, lethal and polluting roads. This conference educated us about initiatives around the world that are embracing these challenges.

Simon Nuttall