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Cyprus

Trying to create a country of cyclists? Good luck with that

By Poly Pantelides

CYCLING is a happy, healthy activity that is much cheaper than driving and going to the gym while governments could even benefit financially from investing in cycling infrastructure, but it will take some convincing yet, the head of Sustainable Mobility section of the public works department Michalis Lambrinos has said.

Over the next four days, from Monday and Thursday, a workshop will take place across Nicosia and Larnaca and that will draw largely from Dutch expertise on creating a country of cyclists. The Think Bike Workshop will culminate in an evening event on Thursday when politicians will be given a presentation of the workshop’s findings.

The event is the brain child of the Dutch embassy, one of the co-organisers along with the public works’ department, the Cyprus Tourism Association and the municipalities of Larnaca and Nicosia.

The Think Bike scheme first started as a collaboration between the US based Netherlands embassy and the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a public private network facilitating global knowledge exchange and business cooperation. The events are often organised with diplomatic posts, a testament to the Netherland’s ability to yield soft power by being ambassadors for cycling.

“The Dutch are among the top bicycle users in the world but that came to be as part of targeted efforts for decades, of building the infrastructure and prioritising bikes,” Lambrinos said. On the agenda for the Think Bike workshop are discussing technical solutions for Nicosia and Larnaca, site visits and problem-solving.

Those with memories spanning decades remember in Cyprus a time when students rode their bike to school and people pedalled places as naturally as people today drive cars. A regular Sunday outing before 1974 was a cycle from Nicosia to Kyrenia.

Today, if you took all the cars in Cyprus and put couples in each car, you’d fit them all with room to spare. Cyprus’ population of roughly 840,000 in the government-controlled parts had almost 470,000 licensed cars at the end of 2011, according to country’s statistical services, Cystat.

This is because people drive places, because it’s easier, because there are many roads for drivers but few cycle paths, and because people do not feel safe cycling. Lambrinos said that Cypriots often say cycling is dangerous “because it’s partly a numbers game and the more [cyclists in the streets] the better”.  And though authorities need to convince people to use bikes more, the biggest stumbling block is the lack of infrastructure, he said. Lambrinos said that surveys of road traffic suggest bike use in Cyprus lies at 1.0 per cent.

Compare this with the Netherlands where one person in three will use a bike as a main mode of transport, according to a European Commission’s poll for Future of Transport survey in 2011. Some Cypriots do use a bike for fun, but very few use it like the Dutch to, for commuting to work, a spot of shopping, or visiting friends. Most Cypriot cyclists load their bikes on to their cars, drive to a central spot, meet up with others and ride around a certain route before returning to their cars to go home again.

But to be fair to Cypriots, transport choices are scant and ill-thought. Some 89 per cent of Cypriots told researches for the same European Commission poll they used a car as a main mode of transport. But about 84 per cent of them also said they would use other modes of transport if they could transfer from one mode to another easily.

Cities in Cyprus have typically grown to accommodate private cars. As the cities grew, authorities addressed growing traffic problems by expanding the road network. The Think Bike workshop will discuss this on a practical level, Lambrinos said. “We want to analyse our planning and discuss how we can practically implement [proposed actions],” he said.

Nicosia municipality has an Integrated Mobility Plan that includes building a public transport network that actually works. The plan actually dates back to 2010, and Lambrinos said they would be looking at how it could be improved. The public works department also wants to draw up plans for the cities of Paphos, Larnaca, and Limassol.  Right now, cycle paths in cities are not linked up.

But though the communications department has been trying to get funding for more cycle paths, the finance ministry has been blocking efforts because of the debt crisis. “Last year it was the EU presidency, this year it’s been the bailout, and next year will be tight.”

There are some studies suggesting governments save many times over what they invest in cycling via reduced public health costs for example, Lambrinos said. But the politicians are not convinced yet, he said.

However, there has been more political vocal support of cycle paths lately from some politicians, including the mayors of Nicosia and Larnaca. Communications minister Tasos Mitsopoulos said this week they were reinstating a dormant group within the ministry whose aim is to promote bicycle use. And the Nicosia Integrated Mobility Plan stands a good chance of getting 2014-2020 EU funding which has the potential of being a game changer for the city, if handled right. The Think Bike workshop is a step towards that direction: learning from the experts.

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