Friday, June 29, 2012

Is the ECF the Elite Cyclists' Federation?

Part Two of Two-Part Series on Velo-city Global in Vancouver. For Part One click here.

As ECF's annual conference event enters its last day, it seems a good time to ask how "Global" the conference is every other year (the first Velo-city Global was in Copenhagen in 2010 and the next will be Adelaide in 2014), and very much related to that, how inclusive it is.

Global Diversity - Men of European origin in front row in a secret bunker in Canada the day before Velo-city: Bernard Ensink (director of ECF, at far left); Alain Ayotte (CEO of PBSC, lead sponsor of Velo-city Global in Vancouver, second from left); Manfred Neun (President of the Board of ECF, fifth from left); Gregory Robertson (Mayor of Vancouver, sixth from left). Photo by Victoria Furuya and David Phu; Copyright European Cyclists Federation (c) 2012

I very much appreciate the work of the European Cyclists' Federation, and think it's great that they have grown by leaps and bounds in programmes and staff size in the last two to three years. I have participated in two Velo-city conferences, in 2007 (Munich) and in Copenhagen - the first as a presenter - had a paper accepted for 2011 in Seville related to this but was not able to attend, and have also co-organized a European project (albeit unfunded, just barely) that included the ECF. I have recently engaged the ECF in an article originally for the now defunct or suspended Cycling Mobility magazine -- this included some tough criticism which they responded to with action!

My biggest or most chronic criticism has been about Velo-city itself. I like the programming and side events and so on. I love to see my old mostly virtual friends there. So the main issue is the high cost of registration, which seems to be based in part on an understanding that it is urban elected officials and staff that can do the most to improve bike policy.

(Full disclosure: I have attended both events above for free as media (with press credentials), though I was otherwise self-funded and stayed in the local homes of friends).

Is the grassroots in attendance?

The main problem with a focus on city leaders is that they tend to leave office (either voted out, or with related staff changes). In the months after Velo-city 2011 in Seville, there was an election in which the people at the top who pushed the changes - the changes that resulted in part in Velo-city being held there - were voted out. Since then, I have confirmed reports that both pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and space is getting turned back into car parking, and also unconfirmed information that the bicycle share programme is not being maintained properly.

The biggest and baddest case comes from Bogota, where Enrique Penalosa famously created or built on a lot of improvements not just in cycling in the late 1990s, but - when comparing the situation to Sevilla, above, a friend - and expert - from the Colombian capital says:

"Sounds a lot like the 'post-2000 Bogotá syndrome'... We definitely need a stronger civil society to counteract these problems!"

The problem is the lack of focus on the grassroots. The support of normal citizens transcends elections, and election battles, and even multiple terms in office of even the best and most effective politicians.  I would also define civil society in the urban cycling world as not just NGOs, but also independent activists, activist bikeshops and bloggers. The grassroots in their members or supporters.

It is grassroots support that coalesced in the "Stop the Child Murder!" campaign in the 1970s that has created the highest-in-the-world bike modal share and great cycling conditions in the Netherlands, even as its national government has moved to the Right in recent years. Politicians there, from all parts of the political spectrum, implement continued improvements because they have to, because the citizenry supports these improvements.

Certainly, representatives of cycling organizations were able to attend and present. But pre-conference publicity spoke of over 1,000 expected delegates -- the reality is about 200 less, or a bit over 800.

So can these people afford going to Velo-city?

Let's consider costs for someone from St. Louis, Missouri to attend Velo-city Global in Vancouver. With an early discount good til 30 April - registration is CAD $995, or  very nearly the same in USD. Perhaps a free home stay could be arranged, but airfare was at least USD 500. Some meals and extras are not included, so let's say this thrifty person can get away with only 200  extra. In total this is 1700 USD (paying for accommodation could bring it easily to 2000)...

But this is Velo-city Global. "Global" - to me - means people mostly from e.g. Latin America (e.g. Santiago for 1600), but also Africa (Nairobi for 2600) and Asia (New Delhi for 1600). (Cheapest round-trip flights, in USD, found on

Who are these 800+ delegates?

A press release I received after the first day said they came from over 40 countries on six continents. In 2010 a similar line was put forth about delegates at the first Velo-city Global, but a fairly accurate count I did myself based on the list handed out to delegates showed that about only 15% of the delegates came from countries outside the EU and richer countries of the Global North.

Starting Monday of this week I repeatedly asked both the Velo-city publicist Mark Mauchline, the ECF communications manager Julian Ferguson and a member of the Board for an electronic version of the hand out, at least showing how many people came from each of those 40 countries. Well, now it is early Friday morning, and my emails, Tweets and text messages have not been returned. I expect to the get the truth eventually - e.g. when a friend who attended has a chance to scan or fax their delegate list to me - but for now I suspect that the organizers are hiding something... namely that most of the delegates are from rich countries.

What are the organizers doing to ensure diversity?

On the ECF Forum, in early December 2011, I asked a few questions about these issues in a message  entitled "Registration Costs and Related". Richard Campbell, who took over as head of the conference in the interim, promised to respond but never did.

Related to that, I heard of no programmes which would help locals attend -- just people connected or not with local cycling groups who are not able to afford the high registration cost. 

Within the main conference programme itself there were two more issues, both related to technology:

First of all, free WiFi is only available inside the venue to guests of the Sheraton, which is on the same site as the conference. The Sheraton is one of the most expensive hotels recommended for Velo-city delegates.

The other issue extends beyond the hotel, or, rather, does not. There is no livestream of any sort. A live webcast allows participation of some sort by people not only who cannot afford to attend, but simply do not have the time to do so. While a good livestream set-up is expensive, I am afraid to say that I think the organizers of the Velo-city series.think that it will affect the number of delegates who pay .

After conference activities...

"Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen! This is Julie, your cruise director. First of all, an extra special welcome to our guests who have been at Velo-city Global in Vancouver this week!..."

YES, there is a post-conference cruise! This is a week long and costs at least 1000 extra plus possibly an extra night of accommodation. When you get to this elite level in the cycling world how relevant are discussions? Traditionally, on the weekend after the conference there are one-day trips and longer bike tours, perhaps assisted by regional trains.

If you are interested in the "green" benefits of cycling, consider that a cruise adds a significant environmental burden to the overall trip: 

“Conference participants from Canada or the US would more than double (if not quadruple) their total carbon footprint for this conference trip when joining the Alaska cruise post-conference programme, regardless of whether they would be flying or using other modes. However, even for participants from Europe, the cruise share of their total carbon footprint would be considerable (around 40%) and, in view of this being (only) a post-programme event, quite doubtful from an environment point-of-view. Particularly where stakeholders in cycling often (and justifiably) boast about the good environmental and emission record of their industry.” - Eke Eijgelaar, Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Transport, NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences.

click to enlarge

Eijgelaar, E., Thaper, C., & Peeters, P. (2010). Antarctic cruise tourism: the paradoxes of ambassadorship, “last chance tourism” and GHG emissions. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18(3), 337–354.


In conclusion:

The "Global" in Velo-city Global is somewhat of an exaggeration. At least for now. This is important to consider as ECF director Bernard Ensink has alluded to making the ECF a global organization.

This means that Brussels is not necessarily the most logical spot for an HQ (could be Geneva, NYC - main office of UNEP and UNDP, respectively - or even Beijing for that matter. Or what about South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa?).

ECF's board is from the EU10 countries (aside from two members) -- and this reminds me that the various committees for Vancouver had no representation from the Global South.

Add to that the lack of intent for electronic distribution and an unwillingness of staff to respond to difficult issues, and I think we have an organization that is simply not mature enough to expand beyond the EU. If there are big changes in how the Velo-city Global is organized in Adelaide it will make a big difference (I am thinking of very concrete representation and participation from East Asia).

It is also not clear if a global organization for (mostly) urban cycling is really needed. Participation in such an entity requires financial resources that are simply beyond the reach of normal people who ride bikes... and their leaders. ECF seems to want to play with the big boys and girls, but that runs  contrary to the philosophy of many people who are interested in a more modest lifestyle than leaders in other industries (for example the automobile industry). There is really no reason to hold the conference in a five-star venue, or to cater with excess.

This does not mean that expenses should be reduced, only that money is spent more logically. I would bet that many would be happy in a less fancy location if it could mean that there would be high-quality livestream, or just lower prices in general. Many, smaller regional events are in order -- this was suggested by the expert from Colombia.

Separate from the ECF Forum discussion, I wrote to both ECF and Velo-city Vancouver management and suggested some kind of sliding scale based on GDP of origin country, organizational budget and travel expense. Let's hope that idea sinks in, and see what comes out of it.

Hope to see you in Vienna for Velo-city in 2012.


Some more highlights of Velo-city Global in Vancouver:

In a simulation for "Operation Dutch Columbia", cycle-mounted soldiers from the Netherlands attack Vancouver from three directions.

Dutch soldiers and "prisoner" relax prior to wargames. ECF President Neun plays himself as German mercenary with helmet. From this source.


One last comment on helmets (please see my last blog entry):

Velo-city delegates who received a bicycle for use during the week had to sign a form which read:

'I hereby agree that cycling is inherently a highly dangerous activity, (...) potentially leading to heavy injury or even death'

This can be easily dismissed as a symptom of Canada/USA excessive lawyering, but the lawyers themselves feed into and thrive on the cult of cycling fear in these countries. This keeps modal share low, and helmets popular.

It is easy for me to say it now (not in Vancouver, and after the fact) but would have not accepted the bike if I had to sign a statement like that. Hopefully in the future - e.g. if the helmet law is not overturned in Adelaide by the time of Velo-city Global, though this in part a separate issue  - delegates make the same choice if confronted with this situation.

The Free Design - a song by Stereolab
...when the higher spheres
tell us to and not to
everyone agrees
demanding more veto
our earthly design
can we be so detached
what crushes our desire
not to be trapped?


Alexa Velasco said...

great article, Todd! just the same I was saying here to the cycling community in Ecuador: going to ECF is like going to the G7 + 20, where a few with money, power and resources, decide what to do with the rest 100 countries of the world. The same for cycling: an imperialism coming up. Who decides the themes are talked in the conferences? for whom and for what? is there any change? any evaluation of this big conference? what is the real impact and incidence of Velocity? or just as we said in Ecuador: un saludo a la bandera?

best wishes

Alexa Velasco
Ciclistas urbanos de Quito

Slow Factory said...

Well, a lot goes on - and they had various committees composed mostly of locals - but there is not much decision-making or real action-taking beyond what affects the organization, plus the symbolic "Charter..." they do each year. So that makes it different than the G7, G20, COP etc.

The problem is that they are not helping themselves - or at least urban cycling in the long-term - by making the event so expensive and otherwise difficult to access -- yes, that is like those other events in one sense. So far without the security checks.

Mobiped said...

Hi Todd,

Thanks for sharing your point of view on Vélocity Global conference. As part of the Nantes application to welcome Vélocity Europe in 2015, I was in Vancouver.

Your statement is an input for our application. Indeed, the point you have stressed is now one of the ECF bid request "It should be an aim of the conference organisers to attract delegates from both developed and developing countries".

By coming to Vancouver, I was expecting more people from China. I guess there were just two Chinesse. Beyong entrance fees, there are two other challenges:
- How to talk to them?
- How to make the conference more attractive?

You could find more on the Nantes application for Vélocity 2015 on :

Benoit Beroud
Mobility consultant - Mobiped

Slow Factory said...

Thanks, Benoit. Yes, among other issues it is pretty pathetic that only two people from China were there (how do you know this? I just found out that list of delegates were actually not handed out.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Todd,

I am not from Africa or South-Eastern Asia, but when I applied for Seville, my Account Division refused, so I even did not attempted to go to Vancouver.

And it will happen even if the Euro Football Chimps would not take place in Poland, consuming gazillions of $$$/euro/local currency.

I am a bit afraid that VC is turning slowly toward, as in U$ used to say, "Cadillac Communism", or in German (if I remember) -- "Sofa Socialism".