Monday

30th Jan 2023

Investigation

How EU funds for bike infrastructure are being misused

  • (Photo: Justinas Stonkus)
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"In the Green Deal that we have launched we need to make sure that we help cities create the right infrastructure, so that this tremendously useful thing which is called the bicycle becomes even more accessible," European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans speaks in a video. "Bicycling is the European way."

As part of its investments in clean urban transport, EU cohesion policy contributed nearly EUR 2 billion from the EU budget 2014-2020 to new and renovated cycle paths and footpaths.

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  • (Photo: Justinas Stonkus)

But despite the investment, numerous cyclists complain about hazardous and dysfunctional infrastructure. Countries and cities continue using EU structural and cohesion funds to build narrow lanes for cyclists, e-scooters, pedestrians and mobility scooters to mix; they also place bike lanes near busy roads — sources of pollution. And while countries pour billions of euros to build roads, cyclist fatalities are not decreasing over the past decade.

Our team talked to cyclists, experts and activists in four EU countries (Czechia, Lithuania, Malta and Romania). In all countries sloppy design, such as steep slopes, conflicts with pedestrians over small space, concealed car exits and the general patchiness of cycling networks prevented the most vulnerable residents from transporting themselves by bicycle.

What's going wrong?

Research shows that separation from faster (cars) and slower (pedestrians) road users, short trip durations and good routes to schools are the best ways to promote cycling. Fear for safety, pollution and detours are deterrents.

In Czechia, we heard from around 50 cyclists about their experiences with accessibility of new cycling routes. Most showed examples of inconvenient and unsafe routes. They pointed out routes that are "nice" but lead into unclear crossroads without alternatives, cycling tracks connecting two cities but once inside cities lead into dangerous main roads shared with cars.

Women, seniors and especially families with children we spoke with felt unsafe using these routes. In all, €110 million of EU financial support was spent on building new and renovating old paths for cyclists and pedestrians in the country between 2014 and 2020, counting 357 kilometres and 294 projects.

Czech towns often build a part of the route that is on their territory without closer cooperation with surrounding municipalities, and property conflicts are often unsolved. This leaves cycling routes discontinuous.

The problem could be partly explained by the number of municipalities, which are responsible for building bike infrastructure. Czechia has almost 6,300 municipalities, almost the most in the EU. The country is mid-sized, but Czech municipalities are the smallest in OECD countries. To create a network of paths requires all these small units cooperating.

Deadly stakes

In one example, on the border of the Central Bohemian region and Prague, a church refused to allow the route funded by EU money to go through its land. The project is ostensibly well placed, connecting the capital and a nearby village, but while the capital was negotiating with the church for several years, roller-skaters were using an unclear road nearby together with cars on the section where the cycle path was interrupted. This caused serious inconveniences to both users of the path as well as car drivers and it didn't take long before a cross with a child roller-skate on it emerged.

According to experts, the example of the interrupted path due to unresolved property conflicts is not unique but quite common in Czechia, where the numerous paths are not creating a continuous network.

In Lithuania, our analysis of 15 funded projects showed that municipalities often build cycle tracks shorter than 2 kilometers. Some of them are too narrow to meet the standards, and are interrupted by bus stops, exits, or end abruptly.

Lithuania dedicated 10 million euros from the European Regional Development Fund for municipalities to build pedestrian and cycling tracks. Riding a flagship cycle track in Kaunas, Paulius Bakutis, president of the Cyclists Association, points at cars stopping on the track before merging onto the main road, multiple interruptions, and a steep ramp to access an underground pedestrian crossing. "However bad it is, this track is still the best of the bad," he says.

Šiauliai is one such municipality where a cycling path project went ahead despite safety audit warnings. Asked about cyclists' feedback during the design stage, Šiauliai city municipality claimed that the project was duly presented to the community, but it has no information whether any cyclists attended.

Just paint them

To deliver on the promise to reduce pollution in cities and help the environment, European cycling infrastructure needs to make every group of people feel comfortable. And there lies a big opportunity, because women are generally more willing to use alternative ways of transportation to cars according to several researches, according to a 2020 study of Swedens Innovation agency or 2019 Eurobarometer survey. They also cycle more than men in countries where cycling infrastructure is safer, for example, in the Netherlands or Denmark.

According to experts, making cycling routes comfortable could be achieved by building routes where cyclists are safely separated from cars. In Czech cities ruled by parties that declare themselves cycling-friendly, we witnessed hundreds of new painted lanes on main roads during the last five years.

But according to experts, painting a bike lane on an existing road is not the best solution. "There is some kind of obsession with these painted cycling lanes," says sustainable urban mobility expert Michal Šindelář from the Brno na kole (Brno on bike) expert group. "An absolutely necessary condition for getting more people on bicycles is to make it really safe, which means building separate bicycle roads. These painted lanes unfortunately do not make cycling more attractive for most people," he adds, basing his insight on a unique data-driven study for Prague municipality on this topic, published in November this year.

He found out that cycling on a painted bicycle lane makes it twice as safe as on a road without a special painted lane — but using special cycling tracks separated from cars makes biking eight to ten times safer. "To make cycling an acceptable means of transportation means that children could use bikes on their way to school or seniors on their way to postal service or pharmacy," concludes Šindelář.

Bad bike infrastructure kills

While Romania proportionately has among the lowest numbers of cyclists in the EU, this country is among the deadliest places for cyclists, with about 180 fatalities per year (in line with the overall high mortality in traffic accidents).

And safety is not improving over time. According to the 2020 factbook of the European Road Safety Observatory, the number of cyclist deaths increased by 14% between 2016 and 2018, compared to the 2009-2011 level.

Apart from the chaotic traffic, cyclists complain of insufficient quality and safety of bicycle infrastructure. In Cluj-Napoca, a major city in the Western part of the country, a number of bicycle tracks have been built using EU funds in recent years, and the number of people using bicycles as a means of commute has visibly increased. Cyclists we talked to agree that safety improved and authorities as well as drivers are more considerate when it comes to cyclists. The quality of bicycle infrastructure is slowly improving.

On the other hand, bicycle infrastructure remains fragmented, and there seems to be little concern to create a coherent and safe network that enables people to commute from the outskirts of the city to the center. The tracks that abruptly end often cause tricky situations in traffic.

Cyclists and motorists alike need to have a very good knowledge of such "hot spots" to avoid accidents. For a person less trained and proficient in riding a bicycle, some of the traffic situations they need to face might seem insurmountable.

Aleksander Buczynski of the European Cyclists' Federation says that national and local administrations often lack the capacity to plan for bicycles. "Contractors are doing what they are contracted to do. So even if you hire a Dutch design company, they and you will give them national guidelines and ask them to do things in line with the expectations of the national or regional authorities, you'll very often get very bad quality products. So you need to have a well educated contracting authority to know what they are paying for," he says.

Camille Bon and her colleagues at Project Aegle Foundation taught around 40 Maltese urban planners how to design for bikes. Ten of them took part in a cycling exercise in a busy town. "Many thought that we need lanes, but we often need minor changes in speed," Bon says, refuting the common excuse that Malta lacks cycling infrastructure because of limited space.

With plenty of resources from the EU to spend on 'green' biking infrastructure in conjunction with regular roads, regions and cities continue building without cyclists or pedestrians in mind. In order to build really usable paths for all and help the environment local authorities will need to work together in close cooperation instead of just counting kilometers built and EU funds used.

This article is part of a three part investigation into the use of EU cohesion funds in four EU countries for building — in the best case bad, and in the worst case 'greenwashed' — bike infrastructure.

Author bio

Barbora Janauerová is freelance journalist based in Czech republic, specialising in societal topics in connection with politics, human rights and environment. Daiva Repečkaitė is a Lithuanian multimedia journalist covering health, inequalities, and environmental issues. Zoltán Sipos is a Hungarian journalist living in Romania.

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu.

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