Insights from Europe: Models for Urban Mobility

By: Zach Henkin, Program Director

(October 25, 2016) – Portland has developed a culture that is oriented towards sustainability, with a particular focus on fostering sustainable transportation options and smart urban development. As a result, the city is known for its bike friendly infrastructure, urban green spaces, and smart land use policies. These traits are just some of what continue to attract businesses, families, students, and many others to experience the city. As our population continues to grow, it is worthwhile to look at how other cities are addressing the main transportation challenges of urbanization, traffic congestion and air pollution, by encouraging active transportation, car sharing, and electric mobility.

I recently traveled to Barcelona to attend the Light Electric Vehicle Summit and share the key takeaways of Drive Oregon’s recent electric bike (e-bike) promotion work. While in Europe, I also had the opportunity to meet with several others working to advance the use of zero emission transportation. Oregon is not alone in its efforts to “green” commutes and freight movement; many other regions and cities throughout the world are also engaged in this effort and several of them have innovative approaches that can serve as models.

One of the easiest connections to make when traveling to Europe is via Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. My extended layover of 31 hours was just enough time to bike across the city and meet a few colleagues at the University of Amsterdam. Even during my brief visit, it was obvious to see the differences in the city’s culture and approach to transportation compared to American cities. A whopping 63% of Amsterdamers use their bike on a daily basis, and mostly without a helmet. Bike lanes, trails, and signage are throughout the city and rentals are available from shops, hotels and other convenient locations. To say that bicycles are everywhere is not an overstatement. Amsterdam is a bike city.

In regards to Amsterdam’s extensive network of public bike paths, it’s worth noting that low-speed scooters and e-bikes share these lanes of traffic. Scooters in the U.S. have a speed limit of 30 MPH and, in many jurisdictions, it is unclear where they fit in the transportation system. In the Netherlands, an electric scooter’s small footprint allows it to fit seamlessly in with the bicyclists, sharing parking, lanes of traffic, and otherwise moving people around the city efficiently. Car share options, like in Portland, are ubiquitous; Car2Go and other rental options are plentiful throughout the city. One in four taxis operating in Amsterdam is fully electric, with Tesla Model S’s seeming to be the norm. These all-electric taxis get preferred service at hotels and the airport, and regulation could soon dictate that one in three taxis operating in the city be an electric vehicle.

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A path in downtown Barcelona dedicated to bikes and pedestrians. (Credit: Zach Henkin)

Barcelona has taken a different approach to street and urban design. There, scooters and motorcycles dominate the streetscape. According to a presentation at the Light Electric Vehicle Summit, 70% of all trips in Barcelona are made by either a motorcycle or scooter. In comparison, only 0.12% of motorcyclists ride to work regularly in the U.S. Barcelona’s residents have access to several electric scooter sharing services within the city, but fewer options for car sharing. Motorcycles and scooters pack the lanes at traffic lights, fill the alleys and sidewalks while parked, and, together, move people and goods more efficiently than roads full of single-occupancy, sedan-size vehicles. Barcelona’s urban street design also shows a commitment to bicycle and pedestrian travel, as it provides protected paths for walkers and bikers (see photo above). While cars continue to exist in the city, it is much easier to commute by bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, or foot.

As electric assist bicycles gain popularity, Portland is the ideal city for this technology, with its already bike friendly culture and support of sustainable transportation. While our claim to best bike city extends only to the U.S., we have chance to learn from European cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona, to see how they have managed to reduce traffic and air pollution while fostering business, recreation, and tourism.

zachZach Henkin, Program Director

Zach oversees Drive Oregon’s activities advancing workplace charging, electric vehicle deployment, and the adoption of electric vehicles by municipalities and businesses. An automotive and multi-modal transportation enthusiast, Zach came to Drive Oregon after spending time growing his energy aptitude while working in the solar energy industry building relationships and leading several Solarize programs in Clackamas and Multnomah County. Zach earned his MBA with a focus on Sustainable Business in 2013 from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon and lives with his family in Oregon City. Follow him on Twitter: @zachenkin