Sunday

25th Feb 2024

Investigation

How EU funded bike infrastructure is used to 'greenwash' new tarmac

  • (Photo: Justinas Stonkus)
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EU funds encourage countries to invest in cycling for the sake of the environment, but some local authorities understand this as more tarmac and easy green credentials. A team of journalists scrutinised these EU-funded infrastructure projects in four countries benefiting from the cohesion policy — in all of them we found projects that go against the Commission's guidelines on cycling.

Cycling is important if Europe wants to achieve its emissions goals, says the European Commission and its leadership. "We're really going to the next level," Charlotte Nørlund-Matthiessen from Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean's team promised on a World Bicycle Day 2022 panel. But while decentralised EU funds encourage regions to invest in biking, kilometres paved and euros spent hide unusable infrastructure and threats to the environment. ]

Cars remain king

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In a cheery crowd, Priscilla and her family of four prepare to join a religious pilgrimage for cyclists in Rabat, Malta. To ease into a spacious cycle path in the area, some cyclists brought their bicycles in trailers, as few feel safe enough to bike in from other towns. "During COVID, we had nothing better to do. So we decided to buy a bike for each one of us. But lately, we're not using them," says Priscilla. "We're not sure where it's safe to go, especially with children."

The pilgrimage group, mostly men in speed suits, rushes ahead, and Priscilla's family turns back, unable to keep up. The pedestrian and cycling path is wide, but framed by road barriers, littered with rubbish thrown out of car windows, and in places clogged with parked cars. Cars are kings on this road, revamped as part of the EU-funded Central Link project.

After the project drew popular criticism over plans to remove iconic trees and tarmac over swathes of agricultural land, scarce in Malta, Infrastructure Malta, the implementing body, responded by saying that the destruction of greenery is in the name of active mobility — walking and cycling.

Infrastructure Malta also claims that when cars can drive faster, building more roads for them is essentially an environmental measure. Treating cycle paths (transport infrastructure), footpaths and landscaped areas (green barriers from road pollution) as a single category, Maltese officials explained to the press that the sacrifice of greenery is needed to make space for these environment-friendly additions. Documents obtained via an FOI request reveal that cycling does not feature in the technical questionnaire for contactors.

In a 2019 interview, Maltese cycling activist Michelle Attard Tonna said, "[authorities] first create roads for the cars to pass. And then, as an afterthought, they say, 'We need something for cyclists'. So they take up more space for a cycle lane."

Transport minister Aaron Farrugia recently accepted a cycling challenge from several men and, in discussion with them, promised millions of new investment. "My take away from the first meeting was that we need to do more in terms of cycling education, safety and promotion," he commented via his spokesperson. In the discussion, he called on cyclists to spread the news of the forthcoming investment.

But unprecedented investments into cycling were promised in 2017, and a tender for mapping a safe cycling network announced in 2018 — and subsequently cancelled due to a conflict of interest as the bidding company's director and shareholder earlier was a Transport Malta employee and consultant. According to witnesses later testifying to the Public Contracts Review Board, architect Odette Lewis, the person in question, had worked on cycling policy during her time with Transport Malta. With her company out of the race and the other bids beyond the budget, the tender fell through. Lewis, who lectures on green mobility, was contacted for comments.

No central guidance

The European Commission promotes direct, separate and functional routes. Its basic quality design guidelines point out that cycling infrastructure should avoid creating conflicts with other road users, maintain a constant cycling speed and have planned maintenance. Our analysis shows that tendering documents focus on cycling path surface, but not comfort, conflict avoidance, and connectivity.

"You need to have a well educated contracting authority to know what they're paying for," says Aleksander Buczynski of European Cyclists' Federation (ECF). The organisation calls on the European Commission to set standards and stop leaving it to the member states to define what counts as passable cycling infrastructure.

In Lithuania, the Ministry of Transport laid out a plan to fund at least one cycle path in each municipality. In 2014-2020 municipalities already got funding for 73 projects for commuter cycling paths, plus others for recreational cycling. Project selection criteria require that the infrastructure must be accessible for all. But enforcement is challenging.

In Šiauliai, a safety audit flagged that a planned cycle path was too narrow, but the municipality followed the plan anyway and explained in an email that giving more space was impossible as there are trees nearby.

Meanwhile, in Lentvaris, numerous trees were removed or damaged to build a recreational cycle path. The responsible municipality (Trakai District), known for large-scale tree-felling projects with EU funds, explained that they planted more trees than they cut — but activists and experts support the view that new saplings are a measly compensation for the loss of mature trees. "It's putting a bandaid on an amputated arm," Thomas Freisinger of the EuroNatur think tank says of investments that plant saplings while threatening nature elsewhere.

When asked about such cases, transport ministry's Nemunas Abukauskas promised more accountability, but insisted that decisions on cycling will remain local. "This is not a parent-child relationship," he said of the ministry's role.

In Brno, Czechia, two cycling tracks were built in the city's periphery. "One of these two tracks, in Chrlice, is in the middle of fields, the second one, in Kníničky, was built in a forest," says sustainable mobility expert Michal Šindelář.

"It is difficult to achieve political consensus on building roads for cyclists in the inner city when it would cut down on automobile traffic or parking spots for cars. On the other hand, it's not a big deal for them to lay concrete into wood or fields at the very end of the city," he criticises.

The Kníničky track goes through rocky rivulets. "I think even an ambulance would have problems getting there if something happened because of these fords," says Šindelář, who views the track as suitable only for highly experienced cyclists with fully sprung bicycles. But to have an environmental impact, the cycling movement needs to be far wider.

Bike lane greenwashing

In 2021, the Commission reported that it had met the target to spend one-fifth of structural and cohesion funds on climate-relevant measures, and also increased this target. The value is computed by applying weights to intervention fields by the extent to which they contribute to climate objectives.

These intervention fields are investment measures under which projects are selected — so if the measure sounds like a strong contribution to climate objectives, funding for its projects will carry that weight. As we have seen, some projects deviate from the stated objectives or go against other climate objectives, for example, by removing urban greenery.

Romania will spend €247,5 million to build a total of 3,000 km of bicycle paths and routes outside localities until 2026 as part of their Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRF). The public call for projects for the first component (3,000 km of bicycle paths outside localities) yielded great interest; plans for a whopping 7,000 km have been submitted. The RRF also includes an unspecified kilometres of bicycle tracks in localities.

However, the inclusion of bicycle infrastructure into the RRF is not a sign of commitment of the Romanian government towards sustainable transportation. In fact, the bicycle components have been included because Cristian Ghinea, the minister responsible for the RRF negotiations is personally interested in sustainable means of transportation. "There was no pressure (from the rest of the government to drop the bicycle infrastructure part), they were totally indifferent" — Ghinea commented, confirming that he personally included the bicycle infrastructure into the plan.

Similar to other countries, Romania likes to include cycling infrastructure when a street, a square or an area in a city is redeveloped using EU funds. The overall quality of such infrastructure tends to be higher than of local lanes, but the tracks usually start from nowhere and end abruptly.

"They are only adding some 'green stuff' into the project, because that looks good in statistics," comments Radu Mititean, the president of the Romanian Cyclist's Federation. "They don't consider to realise a network: they are building only bits and pieces, and nobody knows when these will be connected. This is useless," the activist said.

An architect with experience in planning bicycle tracks sees this issue in a different light. "To have a functional, well-designed bicycle infrastructure, one must rethink the entire public space in regards to all transport modes. This is the reason bicycle infrastructure is inserted when the public space undergoes a redevelopment. A network can be agreed upon, but it is very difficult to be created in a moment. It is more like a puzzle, the entire picture is formed step by step," Tiberiu Ciolacu from architecture firm Planwerk explained.

No bang for their bike

A 2020 report by the Court of Auditors found that despite millions poured in, EU countries are failing to reduce private car use, as they plan investment without a clear strategy, data, and relevant targets. But by adding an environmental dimension, countries covered by cohesion policy can continue conventional road building with EU funds and file them under measures that aim at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Klaudijus Maniokas, chairman of the board of ESTEP, a consultancy, says that municipalities, when offered EU funding, go for 'standard' investment habits. "Their imagination is limited, and circumstances lead them to copy each other," he says of municipalities' fondness of cementing and road-building. Around the world, the construction industry is known to be notoriously corrupt and polluting, but it benefits when regions tarmac new land for bicycles rather than rethink the use of space.

"The European Union is very reluctant to tell member states, and even more the local municipalities, how to build cycle infrastructure," says ECF's Buczynski. "Many of the countries don't really have this know-how; they don't don't have good technical standards, they don't have engineers that are qualified to design high quality cycling infrastructure. But it took quite a long time to get this knowledge to the European institutions and to explain that the way that the money is given out right now very often results in cycling infrastructure that is either unsafe to use or not used at all."

For the next funding period, EU decision makers have agreed to oblige countries to report on cycling infrastructure and even count its users. So while ministers like measuring achievement in euros spent and tonnes of concrete and ironwork used, EU decision-makers' patience is wearing thin.

This article is the second 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. Read the first part here.

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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