Jürg Staudenmann,* UNDP in Serbia
All eyes are on Rio de Janeiro these days. But do people on the street really care about it?
My four year old daughter certainly couldn’t care less, when we got on our bikes some ten days ago for a demo fun ride through the heart of Belgrade. All she was excited about was that we just pedaled in the middle of Branko bridge together with hundreds of bicyclists, that same bridge over the Sava that we often take – by car. And, as kids in this age do, she asked the essential question:
“Why don’t the police close the bridge every day, so we can always bike over the Sava?”
I basically had to agree with her: Why not, actually? The answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem: Of course, I could have made a point about closing this bridge would lead to congestion on another one. She could have replied:
“So what? Why do people take the car when they can have more fun taking the bike anyway?”
Good point, but I could have tried to explain the necessity (or habit only?) for people to use their car to go shopping (“… but why don’t they go to the shop closer to home?”); or to go to work (“…but why don’t they take the bus like you?”); or to bring their kids to school (“… but they could also take the bike like us now!?”); or….
The essential question would still remain valid: Why don’t cities simply close roads to motorized traffic, and thus provide more space for bicyclists and pedestrians? Would it really be so impossible as we usually argue? I tend to think that a central reason why people are reluctant to use their bikes in cities more often, is precisely because the streets are dominated by (their) cars, and thus dangerous.
Can we do something about it?
I’m convinced the city actually could in this case: There are numerous European towns that do provide extra space for bikes and pedestrians. Zurich for instance has closed the “Limmatquai,” the main corridor along the city river, for motorized traffic ten years ago. The discussion before that was heated. Counter-arguments ranged from predictions about a complete traffic-collapse to the fear of shops along the route losing business. Quite the contrary happened.
Belgrade too could close the Branko Bridge and its connection on both sides, as the main transit corridor goes via the other Sava bridges anyway. Branko Bridge connects the historic city center with the banks of the Sava where tourists and citizens alike like to go lunching in one of the dozens of floating restaurants Belgrade is famous for.
Wouldn’t it be a signal for Belgrade to send to its citizens and the world as well? About caring about citizen health by decreasing air pollution along one of its main streets and providing a “free opportunity” for a work-out, caring about the economic situation by providing a safe space for low or no-cost mobility, caring about promoting new (green) jobs in and around the bicycle industry, and caring about the environment of course, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Isn’t that what we are hoping comes out of Rio+20 these days? – Some new, brave and bold steps that are so obvious “triple- (multiple-!) wins”?
Serbia, with support by UNDP and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), just finished a study on Achievements and Perspectives towards a Green Economy and Sustainable Growth – in time for the regional Rio+20 side-event organized by Serbia together with the “Adriatic-Ionian Initiative.”
The study takes stock of existing examples and achievements to date, and elaborates on potential areas for green growth in Serbia. The study looked into selected sectors with an aim “to trigger greening of central sectors of the economy and focus public and private sustainable investment on a low-carbon, resource-efficient path, increasing green employment and achieving social goals.” It identifies five strategic policy areas for Serbia to focus on:
- Harmonizing socio-economic development with the European Union’s resource-efficient and low-carbon policies
- Advancing social inclusion and poverty reduction
- Empower the environment sector
- Establish a long-term institutional and financial framework in support of sustainable development (for instance a mandatory budget line for sustainable development in every key institution).
- Promotion of sub-regional cooperation
The study helped to inform the Serbian delegation in Rio, defining possible on-the-ground action in Serbia and will lay the foundation for the Government to define plans after the meeting in Rio.
When cycling over the Sava, I didn’t hear people discussing Rio+20 or its expected outcome. What I did hear though were debates about how cycling to work would indeed not only be good for the environment and improve your health, but potentially also create new jobs and economic activity, and actually be cheaper than taking public transport, taxi or even your own car.
Without being explicitly aware of it, this group of bikers discussed the very key essence the over 150 heads of state and government should be debating about in Rio de Janeiro these days: How to seize opportunities, which generate synergies between environmental stewardship, economic growth and social inclusion, at the local level.
That’s where whatever pledges may come out of Rio+20 will need to be translated into deeds. So, people may not be aware of it, but they do care about Rio+20.
*Jürg Staudenmann is UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Serbia