ALMATY – A couple of weeks ago, a delegation from Almaty came back from Colombia, where they had been participating in the fourth World Bicycle Forum in Medellín. The forum brought together more than 6,000 participants from five continents, and the Kazakh delegation shared the results at a meeting with the cycling community in Kazakhstan.
Despite the long flight, the delegation also made sure to visit Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, and took part in Ciclovia, an event that has been held every Sunday for more than 15 years. Ciclovia clears the streets of motorists and opens them to residents and visitors for seven hours every week.
The principle of open streets for anyone who wants to safely enjoy biking, walking, skateboarding, jogging and other active forms of recreation has reached more than 300 cities around the world and gained more than 110 million members per year. Former Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Penaloza, who legalised Ciclovia and pushed more fundamental reforms in urban mobility, accompanied the Kazakh visitors on a three-hour tour around the city. He said that bikes and bike paths, for him, have always been a sign of social equality and respect for city residents. The Kazakh delegation had a chance to explore them as they covered an amazing stretch of 392 kilometres of the bicycle paths that serve as a social bridge between rich and poor districts in the city of 9 million people.
At the forum, the UNDP-Global Environment Facility (GEF) project, City of Almaty Sustainable Transport (CAST), shared problems in promoting cycling as a form of transport and shared approaches to the design of modern bicycle paths offered to the administration of Almaty. Discussions have shown that the problems of cyclists around the world are basically the same: mass motorisation in developing countries and aggressive marketing campaigns by the automotive industry are obstacles that prevent the treatment of cyclists as equal participants in traffic and a cause of aggression in drivers.
At the city level, a network of safe bicycle paths connecting residential areas, parks and business centres reduces the number of road accidents. At the same time, an intensive cycling movement provides the daily physical activity recommended for keeping up good health. There is now an emergent trend of bicycle sharing, enhancing access to bikes for occasional trips. The CAST delegation was pleased with the growing number of state and public educational programmes for children, promoting cycling in schools around the world. Various foundations fund these social projects, allocating bikes, helmets and uniforms to schools and teenagers, and teaching them how to behave on the road and to handle bikes safely.
Zhanar Sambetova, cycling advocate from Almaty and a participant in the forum, noted, “We just have to adapt these wonderful programmes for Kazakhstan’s schoolchildren. We can include them in the school curriculum optional programme. Of course, access to financing for such programmes and active support from the formal education system, the Department of Internal Affairs and traffic police will make them sustainable and improve the overall safety of cycling in our cities.”
Another participant, cycling activist from the Velo-Almaty cycling community Timur Jurkashev, enjoyed discovering Latin America for himself as a land of active, hospitable and creative people. “I saw Colombian cities in the mountain valleys that are much bigger than Almaty, but without the smog and dirt. [There], these problems have been solved thanks to strong political will and the participation of all citizens.”
The World Bicycle Forum again drew attention to a significant global trend: the design of urban space with people in mind, which has become an integral part of the concept of a sustainable city, and the participants from Kazakhstan intend to continue to promote programmes for sustainable mobility in the cities of Kazakhstan.
CAST, which supported the participation of bicycle activists in the World Bicycle Forum, conducted a travel habitat survey in 2012, according to which the number of trips taken by bike in Almaty is less than 1 percent, despite the fact that almost every family owns a bicycle. The Almaty Sustainable Transport Strategy 2013 – 2023 sets the ambitious goal of increasing this figure to 5 percent by 2023, but it needs to invest in safe cycling infrastructure and actively promote cycling among all ages and social groups.
The author is manager of the UNDP-GEF CAST Project in Almaty.