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?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Velo-city: ECF Sells Out to Big Helmet?!?

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

Fear comes for Free! Sean van Waes, the Flemish "Head Helmeteer" at Velo-city sponsor Lazer Helmets (of Belgium), used his evil lazer rays to fry the analytical parts of people's brains at ECF (and perhaps the Velo-city organizing committee). 

This just in: Norco Bicycles plans to "outfit every registered delegate [at Velo-city Global in Vancouver] with a new Lazer cycling helmet". Norco and Lazer are "Gold Sponsors" of the conference, which starts in two weeks. Vancouver is in British Columbia, which has an all-ages mandatory helmet law.

From the helmets page of the European Cyclists' Federation (ECF): "ECF are [sic] not against individuals choosing to wear helmets, however we are against mandatory helmet laws and shock-horror helmet promotions. We do this via support to our members, and also by becoming active members in a wide range of trans-national forums."

ECF is pro-choice on helmets, but promotes the idea - which I agree with - that helmets make cycling look more dangerous than it is, and that pushing helmets is a distraction from much more effective methods for making cycling safe. However, there is nothing in the hosting agreement for Velo-city in Vancouver - and presumably in the agreement for the next Velo-city events in Vienna (2013) and Adelaide (2014) -  to prevent helmet companies from sponsoring the event.

The Board of ECF. I have questions for them.

So let's consider "shock-horror helmet promotions"...

From the press release above: "In the spirit of the Velo-city 2012 program theme, 'Essential Elements - Increasing Cycling and Safety,' Norco's contribution will allow delegates to rest assured while exploring Vancouver on their complimentary conference bicycles. Norco and Lazer have delegates covered - literally."

"Essential"? "Rest assured"? "Covered"? Hmm... strong and manipulative but not quite "horror". But consider some examples from Lazer's testimonials page: 

"I am confident the helmet saved my life, or at least saved me from having extreme brain damage."

"I was hit by a car going 55 mph while I was riding my bicycle. story made short I went to the hospital and suffered a concussion and severe lacerations and road burn. I was wearing a Lazer 02 helmet at the time, and it saved my life."

"You saved my brother's life."

Yes, Lazer put a helmet on Vincent van Gogh. He is from Zundert, about 35km from Mr. van Waes's hometown of Antwerp, Belgium. But Zundert is in the Netherlands. Lazer put a helmet on a Dutchman. In an advertisement. No Dutch artist wearing normal clothes on a city bike has ever worn a helmet.

Are we at the level of "shock-horror" yet? Well, let's see some of the other Velo-city sponsors:
  • Momentum magazine, one of the two "Media Sponsors", has in its June 2012  digital edition, adverts from three of the major helmet manufacturers (including Lazer), and in another in a seemingly endless series of helmet-buying guides, the introduction says a "helmets [...] can be invaluable additions to your everyday repertoire." The Lazer stuff is much worse, but still,  this is not language that the ECF should be associated with.  The magazine has dozens of helmeted and an equal number of unhelmeted heads, so the imagery is not that big a problem (though they've done worse in the past).
  • "Contributing Sponsor" The Canadian Automobile Association, or CAA, has a bike safety page on its national website. This includes an explanation of "Why it is Important" (to wear a helmet), but this uses the repeatedly discredited and unproven magic 85% figure about helmet efficacy. They also imply that cycling is as dangerous as lacrosse or hockey, and not just that...

Do we have aggregate "shock-horror" yet? Maybe not, but please consider the following...

A few weeks ago I learnt that Velo-city organizers were trying to find a pro-helmet person for a debate planned for the conference. As far as I know they did not find anyone. None of the politicians in the all-ages mandatory helmet British Columbia, none of the sponsors... apparently not even the helmet company is willing to defend their product.

But they are distributing at least 1,000 free helmets (this is the figure repeatedly mentioned as the number of delegates for the conference). What is the purpose of this? Nearly everyone who is attending this conference has a helmet if they want one (i.e. it is not an issue of financing as many will be spending upwards of 2,000 CAD for registration, accommodation and transport.). Should people have extra helmets? Should they give a helmet to a friend (are they sure they will get the right size?). I am not sure of the financial arrangements (it sort of sounds like Norco is buying these helmets from Lazer at cost, so perhaps at least 25,000 to 35,000 CAD for this.)

Lazer and Norco are probably thinking that some people will not bring their own helmets (and of course many delegates do not own helmets). They know that there is that mandatory helmet law, and probably many are wondering if it will be enforced. (I started a Facebook Page in order to promote a protest...).

I won't be going, and I also wonder what will happen. Will many simply decline the free helmet? Is that enough of a statement? (What is the ignition temperature of a helmet?) I don't think so, and to get back to my main point, I think that ECF as the owner of the Velo-city Series has been painfully sloppy about this whole issue, and I do think that all the examples I give do add up to "shock-horror". 

On the other hand, via email some time back I mentioned to a current ECF board member that it was clear to me that part of the reason Vancouver was selected was due to a desire to disrupt the helmet law in B.C.. He did not deny this... he did not say anything. I would like to be optimistic but given the way everything has been handled I am not sure I should be.

The operator and supplier of the new bike share system in Vancouver was just announcedVancouver won’t pursue a helmet law exemption. As nearly everyone reading this knows, the bike share system in Melbourne, Australia - run by Alta Bike Share - has been a disaster due to mandatory helmet laws there.



For previous entries on the topic of helmets, see here.