By Annette Chrysostomou
Thirty-five per cent of journeys in Copenhagen are taken on bicycles. In Nicosia such journeys account for a mere two per cent.
Needless to say, cycling is not a priority for many Nicosia residents, especially in the summer.
New efforts aim to change this. One of them is the planned expansion of the cycling road network by the government.
“Eventually, the universities in Nicosia and the city centre will be linked by a combination of lanes, paths and by providing signage where bicycles can go through traffic,” Michalis Lambrinos, senior executive engineer at the ministry of communication and works, told the Sunday Mail.
He explained that the first phase of the project was started in 2012 and then delayed due to the financial crisis. Under the provision of the mobility plan which was proposed by the ministry in 2010, the works will start again by the end of this year. Some € 5.5 million have been made available from EU structural funds.
In a parallel move, the municipalities of Nicosia are currently changing the existing bike rental system. The four-year-old scheme was scrapped last week after the municipalities finally terminated the contract with the maintenance company which had been in charge. The pricey and complicated system had not been a success, and the seven municipalities involved in the scheme are presently dismantling the 27 pick up/drop off stations and removing the bikes.
Negotiations are in progress with Nextbike, an international company that successfully runs a similar scheme in Limassol. When the new firm takes over, a period of six months is needed to upgrade the system.
But it promises to be more successful than the previous one. Before, cyclists had to go to a municipality to top up the money on their membership card, whereas users will be able to pay by credit card and via their mobiles. The initial registration can be completed online, and a long list of complicated instructions is going to be reduced to three simple steps. Maybe most importantly, Nextbike has launched its scheme in Limassol with a successful advertising campaign, something that has so far been completely absent from the Nicosia project.
Another practical problem is the lack of protection for the bikes. George Apostolou, vice president of the Cyprus Cycling Federation, explained that currently, even where there are parking spots for cycles, there are no canopies to protect the bicycles from heat or rain.
But for Apostolou the main focus of those who want to get the public on their bikes should be education.
“There are environmental benefits. For example on TV, find a well-known actor and explain to people what the benefits are. So advertising is one, then you have to clearly state the cost and find some very simple steps for people to use.”
There are also difficulties for cyclists who use their own bicycles.
People who own a bicycle, especially an expensive one, want to have visual contact as far as possible when they leave it somewhere. The Cyprus cycling federation has approached the municipality and advised them on the practical issues. Sheltered racks should be created in strategic positions, for example, outside theatres, museums, cafes, other public places and where there is nightlife. This has benefits for the public and for private entrepreneurs as well.
Apostolou pointed out that there are many solutions. One is to add more cycling lanes that are part of the existing roads and marked by painted lines. Unlike the specifically constructed paths, these are not expensive to create.
With the expansion of the network and the change in the bike rental scheme at least some of the practical problems will be alleviated.
However, the Cyprus Cycling Federation is also concerned with the cultural aspects. Apostolou notes that one of the differences between Nicosia and Limassol is that in Limassol bikes are mainly used by tourists like Europeans and Russians who have a culture of cycling.
And this leads back to Copenhagen. In both countries in the 1950s, most people used a bicycle to get to work. Now there is a massive difference.
Once a more affluent lifestyle enabled Cypriots to own cars, few looked back at the bicycle era with nostalgic affection. The deeply ingrained attitude of Cypriots is to associate cycling with something only the poor do.
In Copenhagen other factors shaped the cultural view of the bicycle. To start with, cycling was not a mere necessity, but was associated with freedom of movement and was seen as a ticket out of cramped houses of the cities into the clean air, according to the official website of Denmark. As far back as the 1930s green paths for cycling were established in Copenhagen.
With the growing amount of cars in the 1960s there was also a growing realisation that this development was not only positive. Cars brought pollution, congestion and traffic accidents. Thus, there has been a continuous use of bicycles over the years.
So, since bicycle use is associated with poverty in Cyprus, the challenge is to change the mindset of the population in addition to building a more inviting infrastructure.
This is especially necessary in Nicosia, where the hot summer months are an added impediment.
The most influential way is to start with the young, and the Cyprus Cycling Federation tries to educate them in different ways.
This NGO promotes educational lessons in public and private schools.
“We need to educate children. Cycling is not just riding a bike but children have to communicate with drivers, how to show where to turn, where to be on the road, how to move and react. If this is done in schools parents will also become convinced that it is safe for their children to cycle,” said Apostolou, adding that there is a general misconception about safety. “Bicycles are 20 per cent safer than cars in London.”
In universities there should be studies on the benefits of cycling in the Mediterranean society such as how it influences the productivity of pupils in class and promotes health.
Employers and employees should work together encouraging the employee to cycle to work. Employers need to install showers in the workplace. In return, they should get tax incentives.
Health and productivity are only two of the many benefits of cycling. Apostolou also stressed that “Cycling makes people interact and it is a great way not to discriminate when people don’t wear suits. When you cycle all that matters is how well you cycle.”
Aiming at creating a cycling community and at attracting people from all parts of society, the federation is currently planning a social cycling event with disabled cyclist Simon Richardson. Richardson, who was seriously injured in a car accident, won two gold medals at the 2008 paralympics.
Is it going to work? Culture is hard to change and it takes time, but change is already happening around the island where many successful cycling clubs are emerging. The various attempts are at least some steps towards creating a vibrant cycling community in Nicosia.