The past couple of months have seen a flurry of enthusiastic articles on the green revolution in Europe’s cities. A somewhat idealized story of a change spearheaded by civil society, demanded by the people and implemented by local authorities as part of a larger European agenda.
We have indeed witnessed pollution levels drop across the globe, Europe included, especially during the lockdown periods. People have changed the way they travel and the way they work. Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Madrid have taken measures in the past few months to become more bike and pedestrian-friendly.
Making sure these changes outlive COVID-19 is now the next battleground for them, in a search of an urban experience that is more environment and community-focused.
Do all roads lead to Western Europe?
While there is no denying that the coronavirus circumstances gave them a significant and necessary impetus, many Western European cities were already moving in this greener direction – albeit not fast enough. Anne Hidalgo’s re-election campaign, launched early February, featured a plan for Paris as a 15-minute city. The ambition was to have communities designed in such a way that grocery stores, cafes, health centers, schools, and even workplaces would be just a walk or bike-ride away from one’s home.
While Hidalgo, who has won the mayor’s race, is herself a member of the socialist party, the municipal elections this June saw a green wave swipe the country. In the Brussels region, after the elections that took place in May of last year, the Greens emerged as the second biggest political party in the regional government. The current transportation minister, a Green party politician, quickly started working on initiatives to reduce the number of cars on the streets and encourage cycling and the use of public transportation.
All this is good news. However, there is something missing from these stories: about half of Europe. While member states such as Ireland or Portugal rarely get a mention, there is an entire region that is – yet again – systematically ignored: Central and Eastern Europe. How many articles review developments in Budapest, Sofia, or Prague? How often are Eastern politicians and officials quoted on green initiatives for their cities – or on their struggles to bring this on the agenda?
One recent poll by YouGov has been cited in optimistic articles under headlines proclaiming that a quarter of Europeans are using or are planning to use an e-bike this year. And yet, among the 11 countries where the survey was conducted, there is only one east of Germany: Poland. This not only creates a false narrative around the direction in which Europe is moving but it also further alienates the very people who already often feel disconnected from Brussels and the EU.
So, how is the urban environment looking in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) these days?
Pollution: In our lungs but not in our debates?
For reasons related to the ways in which industries have developed, as well as to housing and transportation practices, air pollution in CEE has been for years – and remains – at very high levels. Coupled with differences in the capabilities of health systems, this leads to the mortality rate due to air pollution in Europe to be highest in its Eastern-most region.
In fact, there is an almost perfect separation into three groups: Western countries are the least affected, followed by the newer EU member states, while the most affected are the non-EU Eastern European countries. Nothing new here. It has, nonetheless, been brought back to our attention as scientists have found a correlation between higher fatality rates of the novel coronavirus and higher air pollution levels.
Despite the dire situation on the ground, we know that the trio environment, pollution, and climate change do not usually make it to the top of the political agenda in CEE countries. We indeed need look no further than the composition of the Greens in the European Parliament to see a clear East-West division. To make matters worse, some Central-Eastern European politicians still claim climate change is a Western problem. Similarly, if we look at the main concerns of Europeans as revealed by Eurobarometer results, climate change and the environment tend to score below the EU average in the CEE block.
That said, the general trend is upwards for virtually the entire EU, with Czechia and Poland registering some of the more visible increases since 2017. Yet there is clearly a need for CEE to start having conversations around these topics if we are to hope it is going to make more advancements – and make them faster – in terms of both public opinion and public policy. Moreover, if outlets with a European focus are willing to plunge into great detail on the particular plans and specific challenges that Paris or Berlin are facing, Warsaw and Sofia should be justified in expecting to be given the same amount of attention in analyses of European urban policies.
Initiatives in Central Eastern Europe
Most Europeans would guess that Western Europe has a much more developed cycling infrastructure. And they would be right. There is even this great illustration to help us visualize the situation better. But there are new initiatives these days – including in CEE.
The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) has created a map to showcase progress made since March 2020 in Europe. Bucharest for example got 4 out of 5 stars for its 55 new km of cycling infrastructure announced. In good Eastern European skeptical fashion, we are eagerly awaiting the implementation. Yet one of the main and most central streets in Bucharest has already been turned into a car-free zone for the weekend. A tiny step for “little Paris” but a step nonetheless. Budapest witnessed an increase in bicycle traffic and it too put in place additional (temporary) bike lanes. Krakow also plans to widen pavements and to build more cycling infrastructure. Nonetheless, the ECF map confirms that there are parts of CEE where it is business as usual, and the urban space is not being reconfigured in any way.
Romania, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, and Croatia are the 5 EU member states with the highest death rates for cyclists proportional to their population. This makes it clear that more and better infrastructure is needed, yet that is not the only missing link between CE Europeans and more enthusiasm for cycling.
The legal framework is at times also outdated. To take the example of Romania again, the impetus created by the pandemic has not been enough for the country to revisit its traffic legislation – a change that civil society has been requesting for at least the past 4 years. The proposal includes creating consultative bodies at the local level to deal with cycling-related issues, lowering the age at which children are allowed to bike on public roads (currently at 14), and introducing fiscal facilities to encourage biking to work and using the bike as your work vehicle. Western Europe offers a few examples of fairly successful bike to work initiatives – some of which could serve as inspiration for Romania and other CEECs.
For the post-pandemic world, it is important to think of integrating cycling into a sustainable, efficient, and safe transportation ecosystem. Cycling is related to climate change and health as a green mode of transportation, but it is also part of a larger conversation around the way we relate to our shared spaces. After the fall of communism, having been deprived of a truly private life for so long, CEE countries saw a decline in public life. This, in turn, led to Southern and Eastern Europeans having the lowest levels of satisfaction with public spaces in the EU – while for most other indicators (satisfaction with safety, retail shops, housing) there are no clearly discernable trends.
It is, therefore, time to have national and local conversations about rethinking our shared spaces in a healthier but also more equitable way. To the extent that this debate has penetrated into the public sphere, it remains the privilege of the socio-economic elite. We must democratize urban planning to avoid reinforcing fault lines in our societies. Building more bike lanes and creating car-free zones are only part of the progress that needs to be made in CEE – together with a shift in legislation, public debates, and attitudes.
What place for the EU?
The EU can and does fund initiatives that encourage cycling. The European Commission has had cycling on its agenda since at least the end of the last century and has developed projects focused specifically on encouraging it in CEECs. Many policy actors have seized the current health crisis as a strange opportunity to fundamentally shift the political agenda, to go past bureaucratic inertia, and to bypass big business in order to reshape our cities in a more bike and pedestrian-friendly fashion. Just last week, the Benelux governments made a joint political declaration calling for the Commission to include and prioritize cycling policies and infrastructure in a number of initiatives such as the new EU Urban Mobility Strategy, the European Green Deal, or the Trans-European Transport Network regulation. But that doesn’t mean all governments are equally enthusiastic about urban transformations.
Meanwhile, cities themselves have become global actors, forming coalitions and at times acting contrary to national governments. The mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, whose countries work together in the Visegrad Group, have come together and advocated for EU funds to be channeled directly to cities – showing that they are willing to assert their increasing power. These initiatives may indeed be worth paying more attention to, especially when we have progressive local actors clashing with illiberal national governments.
If instead, we continue down this path, even with the best of intentions, we are only reinforcing existing tendencies – and, as we’ve seen, that is not good enough. The East-West dividing lines would not disappear. Sweeping problems under the rug and hoping that Central and Eastern Europe will eventually “catch up” will not do. The idea of a uniform and irreversible European progress has been turned on its head by democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary. There too, the EU ignored developments that did not confirm its own narrative and is now paying the price.
While the formal multispeed Europe idea has fallen out of fashion, our discourses may – unwillingly – reinforce it. The European narrative on urban transformation needs to change, to become more inclusive. It also needs to acknowledge the particular challenges of CEECs. Growing up in Romania, one of the oldest and perennial campaign promises I heard was “we will build new highways”. In 2019, Bucharest was the fourth most congested European city, and the most congested in the EU. So shifting focus – or at least dividing it – to pedestrian and bike transportation is going to take some effort. It does not come intuitively to most of us that what we need is not more but less space for cars.
The EU projects itself as a normative power to the outside world – including in terms of the green transition. It may be time it did the same internally – to its own citizens. While we rightfully argue that “Europe cannot do it alone” when it comes to tackling climate change, it is also important that we do not forget no country can – and that’s partly the beauty of the European project.