Just how sustainable your city is begins at your own doorstep. As a citizen, you play your role directly through your own lifestyle, but you also need to hold you representatives to account.
It was clear during the first quarter of the year that bicycles were not a priority for the city administration in Medellín, Colombia. There were no hints from city officials responsible for the 4-year city development plan, that the bike would even be considered as part of an integrated transport system for the metropolitan region.
However, in late May 2012, during the final debate for the development plan in the city council, an engaged group of citizens managed – against all odds – to ensure the final text included pro-bicycle policies.
Yet beyond the shameful stance towards pedestrians and cyclists from the city Departments of Transport and Public Works, what really troubled me was the general reticence of fellow citizens.
No city in the world should allow people to continuously criticize public decisions – unless these criticisms are accompanied by organized citizen-led proposals; a crucial phenomenon in kickstarting democracy. This apathy is a clear sign of what political scientist Federico Hoyos calls ‘appeased democracy’.
It’s easy to curse the poor sustainability of our cities, yet very difficult to contribute with evidence-based proposals to create better societies, and even harder to lead by example.
Have you gone to the trouble of visiting your local councillor’s office, to share your views on mobility or pollution problems? Have you read the development plan of your city or region, and banded together with friends to communicate en masse with the pertinent officials? Of course many will say ‘they are not going to listen’. But that’s the oldest and laziest excuse in the book.
With a strategy of citizen mobilization (in person and via social networks) we managed to revive bicycles in Medellín for this 4-year term. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about a full-scale cycling revolution Bogotá-style, but it does set a crucial precedent for citizen participation in public decision-making.
Moreover, in promoting better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, it’s clear that we not only have a long road ahead, but that clearing this requires active civic participation.
Thanks to support from the teams of councillors Bernardo Alejandro Guerra, Yefferson Miranda and Miguel Quintero, a paragraph was included in the final version of the development plan which outlines specific strategies for the promotion of bicycles as a sustainble mode of urban transport.
These strategies include the construction of appropriate parking, the development of pro-biking campaigns, the extension of the EnCicla pilot programme (public bicycle sharing), and the building of more bike paths in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area and the Metro.
We also received an official statement from the Department of Public Works, commiting itself to the construction of missing sections in the city’s existing bicycle route (around 1.7 km).
Citizens: it’s up to you to keep an eye on these projects and to push – with concrete arguments – for better policies on sustainability, now!
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 4 June 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Large Minority