The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

EcoMobility World Festival: Demonstrating the car-free lifestyle, in numbers and on the ground

If we can't build a truly ecomobile city, why not assemble a temporary one for a month? This is what the city of Suwon has done under the creative direction of Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, who explains the challenges of putting together this inspiring mise-en-scène in the large Korean city.

Konrad Otto-Zimmerman

Konrad Otto-Zimmerman

Cities: Suwon

Topics: Roads and traffic, Transport, Walking and cycling, Special events, Private sector governance, Participatory governance, Sustainability, Community organisation

We are facing a one-to-one-hundred challenge. Over the next 40 years we need to build once more the same urban capacity — houses, streets, schools, kindergartens, shops, cinemas, theatres, sports grounds, etc. — that we have built over the past 4,000 years. We do not know if we can achieve this. We may neither have the energy nor the natural and financial resources available. However, we can safely say that building a resource-efficient urban transport system will always be right, and never be wrong.

But what is efficient urban transport? Is the car an efficient means of transport? Not at all. Think of a mid-class car. It weighs 20 times more than the passenger it carries. In order to transport a person weighing 50 to 60 kg, we move one to 1.5 tonnes of steel, aluminium and plastic. A bicycle weighs one-fifth of the person it carries — that's efficient. A seated person requires 0.5 sq metres of space, yet we move them through our cities in vehicles occupying five to 10 sq metres, while a bicycle occupies only one sq metre. The Austrian thinker Ivan Illich wrote in Energy and Equity in 1974: "Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles."

Similarly with energy use. While the usual car with combustion engine burns five to 12 litres of gasoline per 100 km, the bicycle is propelled by the rider's energy, and the energy input per person-kilometre is actually lower when riding a bike than when walking. And is the car faster? Illich calculated that the actual average speed of a car is 6 km/h when we consider the time we work to earn the money to pay for the car and its use. While the motor car is of utmost inefficiency, the bicycle has surpassed human evolution and is a truly ingenious invention.

Bringing ecomobility to life

Urban decisionmakers often do not have the imagination to envisage a city that can be a pedestrian's paradise, an El Dorado for cyclists, an inviting place for users of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, push- and pull-carts, that give space to light electric vehicles, offer car-sharing services and a convenient public transport system. And all of these connected to form an environmentally friendly integrated alternative to the car-based city.

Proponents of ecomobility cannot point to any city in the world that is ecomobile throughout. There are excellent examples of large pedestrian zones, car-restricted zones, traffic calming, bicycle streets, bicycle streets, bicycle parking facilities, car-sharing services, bus rapid transport systems, park-and-ride stations, bike/bus/rail transfer stations, etc., prevalent in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, the US, and also in Korea, Japan and China. Usually, experts speaking at conferences present a potpourri of solutions from various cities around the world. Such pictures can at best form a collage of the elements that make up an ecomobile city.

How can we get to a real-life example of an ecomobile city, which is not simply a narrative, not fictive, and not a collage?

One way would be to create a model city. However, those who have ever worked on "model city" projects know that it will take five to 15 years to change the built infrastructure, including planning, citizen participation, obtaining approval, securing finance, and construction.

The other way is to stage a temporary mise-en-scène in a real city, with real people, in real time. Instead of an entire city, a neighbourhood could be chosen as the object of a transformation. Instead of extensive reconstruction, street spaces could be redecorated. Instead of buying a fleet of buses, environmentally friendly buses can be borrowed from other cities. Instead of abandoning their car forever, residents would temporarily move their cars out of the neighbourhood. And instead of the city having to buy ecomobility vehicles for residents, companies would be asked to provide vehicles. As a result, the neighbourhood would present a real-life image of an ecomobile city for the duration of the event. Residents can enjoy the unique experience of urban life without dependence on the private car.

This is the approach of the EcoMobility World Festival, a mise-en-scène project conceived by this author. The project is framed as a festival to make it a positive, friendly, attractive event that will be fun to experience for all: residents of the neighbourhood, citizens of the whole city, and visitors from all over the world. It focuses on just one neighbourhood of 4,000 to 8,000 inhabitants, since organising an entire car-free city of one million people would be a fairly unrealistic endeavour.

Staging an ecomobile neighbourhood in practice

Of course, such a mise-en-scène could not be organised without intensive citizens' and businesspeople's participation. Three key conditions have to be given when staging an ecomobile neighbourhood for one month: courageous city leadership, adventurous residents, and cooperative local businesses.

In 2011 Mayor Yoem Tae-young of Suwon, a South Korean city of 1.3 million located 35 km south of Seoul, decided to go for it. He sees ecomobility as a cornerstone of sustainable urban development. He gained support from the city council, organised a competitive process among eligible districts to select a neighbourhood and, once Haenggung-dong (a neighbourhood in the city centre surrounded by the historic Hwaseong fortress) was chosen, initiated a comprehensive process of citizens' participation.

Suwon City held meetings with residents of the neighbourhood to explain and discuss the plans. A survey among residents was undertaken and every household visited to enquire about mobility patterns and opinions. Residents' groups and shop owners organised Saturday street parties and the City supported NGOs in organising car-free Sundays as precursor events. We talked to businesspeople who were opposed and gained their support and cooperation. A team of youth reporters talked to residents and experts and reported in a neighbourhood magazine about various aspects of the festival.

While the traditional neighbourhood association was very supportive and a residents' group in support of the festival project was formed, a few small groups of fairly vocal residents opposed the project — interestingly not because of the festival idea as such but because of latent conflicts with the city related to the closure of an elementary school, real estate policies or the fear of inconveniences during street reconstruction works. A greater hindrance was the opposition of shop owners along a busy four-lane street bordering the neighbourhood who feared financial losses in case of closure of their street to private cars. One can speculate whether early conversations with each business could have helped resolve their complaints and ensured a cooperative attitude. But as a compromise, this street will be converted into an ecomobility street (with sidewalks and lanes for non-motorised and light electric vehicles as well as buses and taxis) for just eight days while the neighbourhood proper goes car-free for the full month.

The City, considering what incentive it could provide to residents so that they would willingly relinquish their cars for a month, decided unilaterally to permanently improve the residential environment with a makeover of two streets to achieve traffic calming and let power and telephone cables disappear underground. Ironically this led to renewed protest because residents opposed the plan to have only one lane for one-way traffic, and some did not want to accept the inconvenience of the street construction works. It was difficult for us to accept this proposal since it went against the mise-en-scène concept, under which it should be up to residents to call for permanent improvements only after they have decided for themselves that they like the conveniences of ecomobility. The temporary redecoration of the street could have been a test period after which residents and the City could have agreed on the final street design.

Nevertheless, come September there will be hundreds of ecomobility vehicles in the streets of Haenggung neighbourhood. Velotaxis (cycle rickshaws) will be operating while visitors can rent various types of vehicles for their tours of the festival site. Suwon CIty and its community organisations will provide a truly festive character. It is anticipated that the first EcoMobility Festival of this kind will attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and will be great fun for both residents and visitors.

Konrad Otto-Zimmerman is Chairman, Urban Agendas at ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, Principal of The Urban Idea GmbH, and Creative Director of the EcoMobility World Festival 2013.

The EcoMobility World Festival 2013 in Suwon, South Korea will run from 1 to 30 September 2013.