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Interview with the world’s first Bicycle Mayor

In 2016 Anna Luten was elected the world’s first Bicycle Mayor in Amsterdam. She now lives in New York City and is working to establish the Bicycle Mayor programme there, launched by the NGO ‘BYCS’. In this interview you can find out what lies behind the honorary office, what success Anna is particularly proud of and what drives her.

Anna Luten

1.  Anna, you were the world’s first bicycle mayor. How did this position come about?

A few years ago, Amsterdam had a question: how can we support, improve, and spread our cycling culture? The solution was to start a new programme: the Bicycle Mayor programme, a global initiative to accelerate the progress of cycling in cities and to help get another one billion people onto bikes. 

Amsterdam’s successful Night Mayor programme, which sought collaborative insight on boosting the night-time city economy, acted as inspiration for the first Bicycle Mayor. Making cities safe for cyclists and pedestrians will require streets that are human-centric – and a human touch to lead the change. That’s why Amsterdam decided it could try a similar formula to deal with cycling. 

 

2.  Why are you so passionate about cycling? 

As a Dutch girl, I grew up riding a bike. It was a matter of course and I didn’t give it any thought. It was actually some foreigners living in Amsterdam who opened my eyes as to how incredible and unique our cycling culture is. They showed me the beauty of urban cycling. Now that I’m not back there anymore, I realise even more than ever how special and smooth-running our system is. You just need to go with the flow. Of course, I love to ride my bike in NYC, especially because of all the space, but I do miss riding my bike around the canals in Amsterdam without worrying about getting hit by a car.

 

3.  What is the role of a bicycle mayor?

Bicycle mayors act as bridgebuilders for the city’s cycling culture. They bring together the public and private realms to uncover the massive economic, health, and environmental benefits of increased cycling capacity and promote innovations that enhance everyone’s cycling experience. Importantly, they aren’t activists but catalysts, and committed to working with all city stakeholders. 

As a bicycle mayor, you have no direct authority to order changes, but you have the ear of City Hall and the trust of the people. When I took office in June 2016, I started by listening to what the city needed. I held hackathons where we developed new ideas and then hosted meetings with larger organisations to help implement those ideas. I also incorporated my insights into the city’s official cycling plan for the next four years. 

The advantage of the bicycle mayor model is that cities can benefit no matter what stage they are at. In cities where cycling is growing but progress is slow, the human touch of a bicycle mayor has leverage with city planners and the power to engage the public. In cities where cycling infrastructure is nascent, inaugurating a bicycle mayor is a concrete and easy first step that fosters dialogue and taps into the knowledge of a global network. 


4.  You served as the bicycle mayor of Amsterdam, considered to be the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. Can you confirm that after your term in office?

In many ways, Amsterdam is the city of bikes. One reason for this is the extensive cycling infrastructure, but it’s also a product of culture. Cyclists and pedestrians are given priority in the order of the city ecosystem, and this ensures that health, happiness, and community are also Amsterdam’s priorities. 

However, Amsterdam was not always bicycle-friendly. In the 1970s, Dutch streets were largely unsafe, and there were huge protests against the traffic-congested city streets. Eventually, these protests drove a cultural shift, and Amsterdam’s streets were remodelled one bike path at a time. 

Yet, there was still work to be done. Now, Amsterdam’s existing infrastructure was getting strained by the huge numbers of cyclists. Unless the city began to make bold changes, roads would continue to get busier and safety would suffer. Clearly Amsterdam needed to innovate in some way, so they started the Bicycle Mayor programme. 

It’s important to understand that cities must never stop innovating. In order to maintain a truly friendly bicycle culture, they must keep on searching for new solutions to tackle the current issues. Amsterdam is doing a great job at this.

 
5.  You moved to New York City in 2017. What are the main differences between cycling in Amsterdam and in New York? 

I still remember the first time I mounted my bike here. It took a couple of months to get over my fear and to start riding in this megacity, which is very different from Amsterdam. Everyone knows how to ride a bicycle there, they have the right infrastructure and almost all car drivers are aware of cyclists. In NYC, this isn’t the case and you still have to be careful not to get smacked in the face by a car door, for example. Besides that, there is the lack of proper road surfacing, which can make cycling a bit dangerous in some places. 

Nevertheless, over the last 10 to 15 years, the city has changed drastically and has become more cycling-friendly than it used to be. It’s incredible to see how much effort they are putting into this and you see a lot of dedicated bike lanes nowadays. Even the number of people that are cycling is on the rise. The existence of CitiBike, the bike-sharing system, has helped to speed up that process. This is again a major difference compared to Amsterdam, where most people own their own bike.

 

6.  Was there an accomplishment during your time as a bicycle mayor that you are particularly proud of? What are your plans for the future?

I’m particularly proud of the fact that something which started as an experiment has grown into a well-established, global organisation, which is still growing. Since the start of the programme in Amsterdam in 2016, it has expanded to 25 other cities around the world, including Beirut, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Cape Town, and Istanbul. 

As more mayors become established, a global network of city catalysts is sharing ideas and co-developing new solutions. Already, over 100 delegations come to Amsterdam every year from cities that want to understand how we have become a city of bicycles. Imagine if each of them had a bicycle mayor that was constantly connected to an active global network of changemakers!

And of course, I hope for the programme to become a reality in NYC. We don’t have a bicycle mayor yet, but we’re trying our best to push the city to elect one in the near future. Hopefully, it will only be a matter of time.