30th May 2023


Cycling's legislative chaos: do they know what they're building?

  • (Photo: Justinas Stonkus)
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While cycling is seen at an EU level as a key to sustainable urban mobility, and financing for cycling projects is readily available, some EU countries lack clear and binding legislation regarding cycling infrastructure standards. There is little political will to introduce them, as this would stand in the way of real estate developers' interests or inconvenience car drivers.

"Europe's green and digital transition will bring big changes to the ways we move around. Today's proposals set European mobility on track for a sustainable future: faster European rail connections with easy-to-find tickets and improved passenger rights support for cities to increase and improve public transport and infrastructure for walking and cycling, and making the best possible use of solutions for smart and efficient driving." — said ​​Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans.

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Not only infrastructure for cycling, but also the national legislative background and standards need improvement, if the European Commission wants the average person to ditch their car and embrace cycling as a means of transportation. Our crossborder team found that unclear, contradictory or missing national legislation is one of the reasons cycling infrastructure in the countries we researched remains patchy at best.

What is the EU doing?

Why does the EU lack any real power regarding this issue? "The problem is that the principle of subsidiarity flows through a lot of our work," explains green MEP and cyclist Ciarán Cuffe. "The European Union only takes control of an issue if a compelling case can be made that the member states cannot undertake this work themselves."

Cuffe sees one inroad though — road safety. "I think that's something where the Commission could act, because we know where the speed limits are 30 kilometres an hour or under, it's generally safe for the cyclist. But once you go over 30, we need safe cycling infrastructure, which means segregated cycle lanes. They're not cheap. To do them well requires real money."

Road safety laws could save taxpayer money. When the Commission proposed a directive which "should ensure that Union funds are not used to build unsafe roads", a number of MEPs suggested adding a provision that "the Commission sets quality standards for cycling infrastructure". At the end of the legislative process, the idea did not make it to the directive.

Romania, one of the largest beneficiaries of EU spending on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, at this time has no legally binding standards for the design of such. There is a very brief reference to bicycle tracks in some road building standards dating back to the '90s, and more recently, in March 2022, a ministerial decree was issued. Radu Mititean, the president of Romanian Cyclists Federation, said this decree has many mistakes, loopholes and until this moment no implementing rules have been published. These provide little help to authorities, engineers and urban planners working to build specific infrastructure.

Architects we spoke to, working for Planwerk, an architecture company with experience in redevelopment of public spaces and building bicycle infrastructure, said they are using a draft written in 2017 that was never adopted, but that acts as an informal guide for urban planners and authorities alike.

Cycling safety is key

Surveys show that safety is decisive when people consider whether or not to cycle. The lack of specific legislation regarding bicycle infrastructure is made worse by restrictive provisions in other laws. For example, the traffic safety law in Romania forbids children under 14 to ride a bicycle on public roads altogether, which is clearly a very strong deterrent for children and also their parents.

There have been a number of attempts to introduce specific legislation, with no success. According to an NGO lobbying for the promotion of bicycle usage, the Interior Ministry is usually blocking the initiatives. "They have this old, communist attitude. They see cyclists as a road safety hazard, and they think the number of bicycle accidents can be reduced if bicycle usage is reduced. If cyclists disappear, the accidents will also disappear," explained Radu Mititean, the president of the Romanian Cyclist's Federation.

As there are no legally binding standards in Romania, a recent call of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests for building bicycle infrastructure contained details regarding how the bicycle infrastructure should be built. But this is not a solution.

"Setting standards regarding bicycle infrastructure, essentially saying that 'we expect you to build this way if you want to take the money' is clearly not the job of the authority that issues the public call for projects. (If everybody did this) we could end up having different standards for every financing authority", Mititean warns.

Sometimes the way rules are set complicates building cycling tracks. In the South Moravian village of Rebešovice, Czechia, a farmer who owns land nearby objected to a cycling path because he was told at a gathering about public health and farming that pesticides should not be used 20 metres from cycling paths.

"This happened several times, I heard from farmers that this is a problem, that there is this rule," says Jaroslav Keprt, responsible for coordinating cycling paths in the South Moravian region, the most agricultural region in Czechia. The final decision was pending at the time of publication.

Since the beginning of 2022, another Czech law requires drivers to pass cyclists with a gap of 1.5 metres. Though the law was designed with safety of the cyclists in mind, it resulted in a situation where municipalities and owners of local paths smaller than 3 metres did not want cyclists there at all. According to the experts, the law is flawed because it should have been applied only for wider roads.

In Lithuania, a bill has been proposed to exempt cycling tracks from deliberating whether they need an environmental impact assessment procedure, including a public consultation. Currently it is not required for road projects under 2 km. Our analysis of 15 cycle path projects found many examples where cycling infrastructure is built in short patches under 2 km. In total, Lithuania spent over 10 million euros from the European Regional Development Fund on a measure for building and renovating pedestrian and cycling paths.

Just SUMP it

In an effort to introduce more binding quality standards, the Commission proposes a requirement to adopt sustainable urban mobility plans (SUMPs) for cities situated along key transport corridors. As the revision is being deliberated, 10 MEPs want to include standards for safety of cycling infrastructure. Green MEP Jakop G. Dalunde has additionally proposed that the Commission sets deadlines for countries to comply with their SUMPs.

The Commission has been promoting SUMPs since 2013, calling them the "cornerstone of EU urban mobility" and offering guidance and incentives to develop them, taking into account the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. The Commission lists seven financial instruments to support EU countries' urban sustainability goals.

Eurocities, a cities' lobby, warns that SUMPs may become a mere formality. "More EU technical and financial support will be needed," it states. In Malta, a SUMP for the region around the capital Valletta received such support. For a cost comparable to a small apartment outside the central area, a Luxembourgish contractor started developing it as part of the Civitas Destinations, a Horizon 2020 project. In the aforementioned proposal to reform the TEN-T, a strategic transport network, the Commission wants to "further develop" such multinational projects, where cities can learn from each other and from researchers.

In Malta's case, progress towards the SUMP was enthusiastically promoted by DTV Consultants, a Dutch company, noting the involvement of its sister company, LuxMobility. LuxMobility is the company that won a Maltese government's tender to design the SUMP. DTV Consultants also praised the process on the website of an EU-funded urban mobility observatory, DTV Consultants did not respond to EUobserver's request for comment.

Yet all this time the SUMP was not publicly available. Meanwhile, Malta listed the SUMP among the reforms under Malta's Recovery & Resilience Plan. The Recovery and Resilience Facility, dubbed the "European bazooka", is a rapid injection of investment for post-COVID recovery. The SUMP is one of the milestones upon which Malta would receive the second instalment of the facility's funds dedicated to the country.

"Meanwhile, after all the praise about how well the SUMP was brewing, the government published a plan that, after six years since its inception, came out in November 2022 without timeframes, milestones or distribution of responsibilities — mostly a wishlist of measures to "explore" or "evaluate"

This does not correspond to the Commission's SUMP concept, which states, "The [SUMP's] delivery plan should include a timetable for implementation as well as a budget plan. Sources for the requisite funding should be identified. [...] A Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan should provide a clear allocation of the responsibilities."

"The SUMP overview alludes to legal frameworks and targets to encourage cycling, yet fails to state what these might be," comments cycle commuter and urbanist Jim Wightman. He saw it after the deadline for residents to react to the document. Residents were given just over two weeks to file any objections. Still, the plan is out — achievement unlocked.

According to a commission official, the two-week public consultation on the Valletta SUMP is supported by the commission's Technical Support Instrument (TSI). Transport Malta' Risk Management, Policy and EU Affairs director Laura Sue Mallia said that this particular funding will also be used to update the six-years-old SUMP and draft similar documents in other regions. "The SUMP for the Valletta Region needed to be updated so as to be able to be integrated into a then holistic framework for both islands and therefore constitutes a very small part of the entire TSI," she wrote in an email.

"As a cyclo-commuter [I cycle] because my route is relatively safe, if I change jobs most likely I have to go back to the car because routes are not practical or unsafe," Oliver Schembri wrote in his response to the public consultation, which he showed to this investigation's team.

"I would like to see narrower lanes and sharp corners to slow down vehicles," he added. Schembri is a member of Rota, a cyclists' NGO, which has been proposing sustainability measures for years. But all the SUMP can offer to cyclists like Schembri is a brief mention of "traffic calming measures in local roads to enable a shared route that can be more safely accessible for vulnerable road users" — it is not specified how this would be achieved.

Aleksander Buczynski of the European Cyclists' Federation says there is little political will to give the Commission more competences to enforce rules on cycling. "There was a reluctance on the regional level to mess with the municipal competence inside doing the same on the national and even more so on the European level," he says. The Council agrees to require accessibility and continuity of cycle paths when building new TEN-T infrastructure, but wants to downgrade binding requirements on SUMPs. Negotiations are expected next year.

This article is the last 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 and second instalments 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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