When the first “bicycle mayor–a person who serves as a connecting point between city departments, nonprofits, and other bike advocates– was chosen in Amsterdam in 2016, the idea was to help an already bike-obsessed city become even more bikeable. Butt the program was never intended only to be about Amsterdam. The nonprofit behind the idea aims to bring bike mayors to 200 cities by the end of 2019. The program is already in nearly 30 cities, from São Paulo to Istanbul.
“We really want to try and take that Dutch approach and not only use the culture here as a playground for new ideas, but then take that approach and those ideas and work around the world very quickly,” says Adam Stones, strategy and communications director for Bycs, the nonprofit that created the bicycle mayors program.
The “mayors” aren’t part of local government, but volunteers who are recommended by local cycling groups, and sometimes voted on by the public in an unofficial election. “How it works in Amsterdam might be different from how it works in Beirut or Bangalore, but the idea is the same: You stand in the middle of all of the stakeholders across the city,” he says. “That’s the cyclists, the advocates, the government bodies, the political leadership. And you try to listen to all of those groups and identify what the areas are where you can really accelerate some change and make some impact by bringing all of those groups together.”
Each bicycle mayor focuses on the local issues that are most relevant. In Cape Town, South Africa, the city’s bike mayor has been helping women in townships learn how to ride a bike for the first time and connecting them with other programs that offer access to bicycles. “Suddenly, these women who can now ride a bike can for the first time access education or employment opportunities that they didn’t have a chance to before,” says Stones. In Panama City, the bicycle mayor is helping companies launch bike-to-work programs and working with the U.S. Embassy on “PanamáSinCarro,” an attempt to reduce car use in the congested city. In Beirut, the bicycle mayor is meeting with government officials to help bring cycling into national environmental and traffic plans, and teaching kids to ride bikes to help increase the number of students who bike to school.
In most cases, the bike mayors are people who have been deeply involved in bike advocacy for years. Each of the cities, of course, also has existing organizations already working on improving cycling. But the unique nature of the role and the ability to coordinate between different groups makes a difference, says Tiffany Mannion, who works in the small city of Keene, New Hampshire, and is the first bicycle mayor in the U.S. “It’s nice to have one centralized voice,” she says. “And honestly, especially in the U.S., it’s so much easier to do as a party of one than a committee meeting month to month. It’s a great way to speed things up. We have to catch up to provide alternative transportation.”
The network of mayors can also share experiences with each other. Mexico City’s bike mayor has worked with Mumbai’s bike mayor on bike-to-work programs. When Amsterdam chose a 9-year-old junior bike mayor–who has advocated for child-size bike-share bikes and a park where children can learn how to ride–other cities also became interested in finding similar young volunteers to focus on youth. Mayors can collaborate within countries; India has eight bicycle mayors so far. The nonprofit is particularly interested in increasing the number of mayors in the U.S., where Mannion is the only representative so far, though she thinks New York City might have one soon.
The nonprofit wants to use the network to aim for an ambitious goal of moving half of all local trips to bikes by 2030 as a way to address climate change, air pollution, health, and other urban challenges. “We really feel confident that some cities are going to be able to make the leap,” says Stones. “We also know that the challenge is huge. We don’t shy away from the fact that this is a big challenge in some cities that have very low adoption in cycling rate right now, that don’t have necessarily the infrastructure, or that have cultural connection to other forms of mobility. But by setting this mission, we challenge ourselves every week to find out what these challenges are, to actually meeting this ’50 by 30′ goal, and coming up with new ideas to address them.”