Comment: Victoria mayor throws down the Heidelberg Challenge

I have recently returned from Heidelberg, Germany where I attended the International Conference on Climate Action 2019.

More than 700 people from 90 countries attended.

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The conference focused on the role of cities in the leadup to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ Climate Action New York Summit in September.

It was heartening to learn that, from Kenya to Sweden and China to California, cities are taking climate action.

Cities are ready to be strong partners to provincial and federal governments and can help federal governments meet their nationally determined contributions under the ParisAgreement.

But, in order to do so, cities need more resources and delegated authority from national and provincial governments.

This is the key message from the conference to be forwarded to the UN Climate Action Summit.

Another theme from the conference is the need for creative transportation solutions to decrease emissions in cities.

Mauro Petrcionne, European director general for Climate Action, was asked to sum up what he heard at the mayors’ breakfast meeting, at which I was a panellist. He said many people see individual cars as linked to individual rights.

“Will we abolish this perception?” he asked. “No, but we can adjust it. In order to do so, we need to rethink the way our cities are organized.”

Petrcionne said if people are asked to choose what matters most, the end of the world or the end of the month, they will choose the end of the month — their own interests and survival — believing that someone else will take care of the end of the world.

The advice he gave was to avoid putting people in the position of making that choice, to create climate solutions that also benefit people’s pocketbooks and their health and well-being.

We can learn from Heidelberg when it comes to matching individual interests and quality of life with addressing the climate crisis. They’ve done this by focusing on how people move around.

Heidelberg is now where Victoria needs to be by 2030.

Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan aims, by 2030, to have 55 per cent of trips made by walking and cycling (we are now at 39 per cent) and 25 per cent of trips by transit (now at 12 per cent). This means by 2030, only 20 per cent of people will get around using a car.

Does it sound impossible? In Heidelberg, only 22 per cent of trips are made by car. Otherwise, 38 per cent are made on foot, 26 per cent by bicycle and 14 per cent by public transit.

They’ve achieved this by organizing the city around active and healthy modes of transportation. Almost every main street has as much space dedicated to transit, walking and cycling as to private vehicles. Walking and cycling are privileged.

There are many pedestrian-only zones. Cyclists are allowed to ride both ways down one-way streets making them de facto bike streets.

Cars have to go slowly and yield to bikes going in both directions.

Side streets are narrow and have a maximum speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour.

I visited a passive-house neighbourhood, where all buildings have zero emissions and the new streets are as narrow as those in the 800-year-old city centre.

“Why did they make these new streets so narrow?” I asked former mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber-Schuerholz. She replied, seemingly surprised by my question: “To limit cars so that children can walk safely to school, of course.” In Heidelberg, it’s not bikes versus cars versus buses.

It’s about the freedom for kids to get to school safely on foot, and for seniors to stay connected to their communities.

The city is organized for better health outcomes, more money in people’s pockets and a stronger local economy.

Heidelberg is alive, prosperous and thriving and its streets are for sharing.

Can we join them?

This is the Heidelberg Challenge. Let’s step up our ambition as a community and work to overtake Heidelberg long before 2030.

Will you join me?

It doesn’t mean necessarily ditching your car (although car sharing is cheaper and gives more options) — it just means thinking differently about what it’s for and when you use it.

And it also means continuing to build a city that puts people first.

Lisa Helps is mayor of Victoria.

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