The Freedom of Cycling

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The BicikeLJ network features thirty stations with smart terminals and 300 available bikes. The stations in central Ljubljana should not be more than 400 metres apart. Since the purpose of this system is to offer bikes for a single ride between stations, the first hour of bike use is free of charge.

The bikes are designed exclusively for this purpose: robust, with solid puncture-resistant tires, which should handle any weather conditions, as well as vandalism.

The project was created as a public-private partnership with the ad-space provider Europlakat. Ljubljana is already crowded with advertising space and this partnership takes advantage of a law requiring any extension of ad space to be accompanied by an extension of urban infrastructure.


Changing habits

The introduction of free bikes is one element of the long-term traffic policy plan, which the municipality is planning to adopt. However, the plan does not merely involve planning and laying out new traffic routes– it is a thorough process, going so far as to affect the mentality of the people of Ljubljana.

Ljubljana’s vice-mayor and expert in urban architecture, Prof. Janez Koželj, explains: “Changing the traffic order interferes with individual freedoms, one of which is freely choosing the means of transportation. This freedom is connected with our beliefs of what is common and private, what is a luxury and what is economical, and what is healthy and unhealthy. It’s a matter of values and lifestyle. However, the state can do much to influence this free choice.”

An enthusiastic bicycle user himself, Koželj views Slovenia as a country that has not yet overcome its obsession with automobiles. This is in contrast to “more culturally advanced European states, which make a great effort to promote using other transport than cars.”

In Ljubljana, the conditions worked more or less in favour of cars from1993 to 2003. The end of 20th century saw increasingly fewer people combining walking and using public transport. While this way of moving around Ljubljana went down by more than 10%in ten years, car traffic has increased by 20%. The number of cyclists remained at around 10% of inhabitants.

“What we should be aiming at is to turn that pyramid upside down. It is a huge project. It is difficult to establish consent. Some consider driving the most economical way. Moreover, the ability for everyone to own a car is considered to be a significant value. Therefore, it seems too radical to exchange this perceived achievement for walking. It requires too much of a re-evaluation of our consumer society. Bicycling is an acceptable alternative.”

The question is whether the users will be able to recognize the extensive list of benefits here, which, according to Prof Koželj, stem from the fact that Ljubljana a flat city with manageable distance works, i.e. very cyclist-friendly.

“Cycling retains much of walking’s characteristics: it is healthy and flexible. It is also the quickest option as we can use shortcuts, aren’t stuck in traffic jams, and we don’t need parking spots. This all saves energy and preserves nature. There’s no CO2, no noise… Cycling in combination with walking and public transport leads to a brighter traffic future for the city.”

Ljubljana’s vision is to allocate transport by thirds: one third bicycles and walking, another third with public transport and the rest with cars. This goal is set for 2020.

Traffic is indeed a complex system. The city is already reducing motorized vehicles, pushing them to the outskirts and there by liberating space for pedestrians and cyclists.

We are already experiencing the benefits of expanded car-free zones in the city centre. The city has gained a new dimension of increased freedom of movement and new event venues. Another important element to this is the city bike – BicikeLJ. The concept originates in Paris with its Vélib’ (veló liberté) and has quickly become an example for other European capitals.

“Ljubljana takes the example of Barcelona for innovation, Copenhagen for the world’s best organized place in the terms of traffic and Vienna, which offers the best quality of life. All these cities have had city bikes for a while,” says Koželj.