Continuing our line of interviews with institutional representatives linked to mobility, we didn’t want to pass up the chance to talk with Esther Díez Valero, Councilor for Sustainable Development and Urban Mobility at the Elche City Council, a city that is committed to making cycling increasingly attractive to its citizens. In this extensive interview, Esther Díez Valero discusses the different actions that have been implemented and the future vision of Elche in its commitment to more sustainable mobility.
Question: One of your commitments is to expand the municipal bicycle service BiciElx. What is your goal for the bicycle in the coming years?
Answer: Our main goal is to implement new stops in urban areas with less coverage, as well as to increase the number of junctions in those stops with higher demand.
Eleven new stops are being installed this year, raising up the total number of stops to 56. In addition, for the NextGeneration funds, a line has been applied for to finance 55 new BiciElx stations, raising the network to 111 points. We have also extended the schedule to 24 hours.
The main purpose of all these actions is to make cycling so accessible that other more polluting options become less attractive.
We currently have about 130 points with 3 or 4 inverted U’s each on public roads throughout the municipality, both in the outskirts and in the city.
P: One of the aspects that bicycle users usually require is the possibility of safe parking facilities. What importance do you think institutions should give to this aspect?
Answer: All the aspects of sustainable mobility, from the most complex road infrastructures to the smallest facilities that make sustainable transport more accessible, are important. Regarding secure covered bike parking facilities, this year we want to introduce the first one at the bus station, as an action to promote safe bicycle parking and intermodality. For the Next Generation Funds, we have created a “Safe Bike” line budgeted at €460,000, which will help us finance a minimum of 9 protected car parks. If we get this grant, we will be able to introduce a first network of these infrastructures in the main areas of our municipality.
Furthermore, it has been years since the Department of Sustainable Mobility has fully committed to inverted-U parking facilities, those uncovered parking facilities that offer the best guarantees. We are expanding the network year after year, and we currently have about 130 points with 3 or 4 inverted U’s each on public roads throughout the municipality, both in the countryside and in the city.
P: What can institutions do to reduce the current gender gap in cycling?
R: Urban cycling training courses can be run for new users and from women’s associations to show comfortable and safe routes. Media campaigning focused on women, for example, by using leading female media personalities and who are shown cycling in the urban environment. Along these lines, the ability to promote key figures in the local environment (politicians, businesswomen, prestigious professionals, artists…) to promote the use of bicycles in their daily lives is equally important.
P: Do you think cities are doing enough in their commitment to more sustainable mobility?
R: Much more can be done. It is important to be aware of the magnitude of the challenge of the Climate Emergency paradigm in which we are. The main challenge is to take away space from the most polluting mobility, the individual vehicle, whose role had been oversized in recent decades. And this is done with a firm commitment to reducing its space in favor of pedestrians, bicycles, public transport, green spaces and quality socialization.
Citizens need spaces for socialising and quality leisure activities. Once created, people respond.
P: In a recent article in eldiario.es, I mentioned the discussion produced around the pedestrianisation of the Corredera. Is there a lot of pressure when making such decisions?
Fear of change is natural and produces a lot of pressure when major transformations are to be made. However, the responsibility of the public servant with the commitments made must be, although flexible and based on dialogue, safe and reasoned.
As far as the Corridor, all the similar cases in other cities showed us that this type of transition not only meant a substantial improvement in air quality and the citizens’ health, but also an unprecedented economic reactivation. So it has been; I have already lost count of the new commercial premises that have been opened in the last few months in the Corredora area and the social response, with the street packed from the first month, has exceeded all our expectations. Citizens need spaces for socialising and quality leisure activities. Once created, people respond.
P: How large is the support that is usually found between citizens and companies when dealing with actions focused on improving the sustainability of mobility?
R: Further to the previous question, the natural fear of change often causes some reluctance at the beginning. In addition, some measures may involve transitory abnormalities in traffic in the first weeks of their implementation. However, afterward everything is rebalanced and the benefits of inhabiting streets with less pollution, less noise and more space for citizens of all ages and conditions to move around in peace and quiet, and make new businesses visible.
P: What role should the car play in cities?
R: It depends on the type of city, especially on the size and structure of the nearby peri-urban and rural environment. In medium-large cities like Elx, where the center can be reached on foot, by public transport or cycling in no more than 15 minutes from most urban areas, the role of the private car should be minimal. It should be limited to peri-urban and supra-local transport only in those contexts where there is no accessible alternative public transport or at very specific times (removals, transport of people in situations of dependency or reduced mobility, etc.).
P: Elche’s vehicle fleet exceeds 150,000 vehicles, making the municipality one of those with the highest density of vehicles per inhabitant. Should reducing the density of vehicles per inhabitant be a priority in cities?
R: Elx is the third city in Spain in number of cars per inhabitant. In recent history, our city has become one of the main industrial centers of the peninsular Mediterranean arch, which has attracted many workers from other places. In this context, the car has functioned as one of the most accessible status elements, acquiring a symbolic meaning that it has not had elsewhere, which in turn has led to an extreme urban protagonism. All mobility studies that have recently been carried out in our municipality conclude that mobility by private vehicle is still too easy in Elx. Our responsibility is to reverse this polluting and unnecessary dynamic of occupation of public space.
P: What are the difficulties you face in implementing ambitious sustainable mobility policies in Elx?
R: There are all kinds, but one of the main ones that usually goes unnoticed is the chronic shortage of staff in the local public administration, which has not yet recovered from the austerity measures introduced a decade ago. Public procedures are increasingly guaranteeing, more reports and evaluations must be carried out and, in addition, It is necessary to respond to a huge number of subsidies that are launched from all administrations to promote sustainable mobility. It is very difficult to achieve all this from a public administration with human resources always at the limit.
Wide, well segregated lanes are the best safe infrastructure for bicycle and PMV traffic, especially on roads with the highest vehicle capacity.
P: The increase in the use of PMVs seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. What challenges does this boom imply when it comes to structuring the future of mobility in the city?
R: PMVs are allies in sustainable mobility. However, because of their speed, acceleration and safety characteristics, the spaces and conditions in which they can travel should be regulated in great detail. However, its rise is an opportunity and one more reason to continue expanding a network of cycle lanes that will now also be supplied by these new users. Wide, well segregated lanes are the best safe infrastructure for bicycle and PMV traffic, especially on roads with the highest vehicle capacity.
P: What role can private companies play in promoting sustainable mobility?
R: The public administration can promote, create infrastructures, raise awareness, etc., but without the final action of civil society, none of this makes sense. In this sense, companies, especially those of higher volume that are usually located in suburban environments further away from the workers’ homes, play a key role. Currently, there are countless companies and platforms that provide sustainable mobility solutions for large companies to bring workers closer to their workplaces. Public administration can increase the provision of public transport to industrial estates and business parks, but we will never be able to meet in such an individualized way a demand that arises from the diverse agendas of companies, in the same way as they do.
P: What is the inspiration for mobility policies in Elx, what value do you place on sharing experiences with other local governments
R: Currently, we have many nearby references, such as Valencia or Barcelona, from which we draw ideas, sharing experiences. We have also studied other pioneering references in the peninsular area, such as Pontevedra or Vitoria, which have helped us to better understand the social and economic benefits of sustainable mobility policies in the medium and long term, and have helped us to base actions such as the Elx Corridor. This opportunity to share experiences that have worked in other municipalities helps us to be more confident in implementing our policies, allowing us to help other municipalities with our experience. Cooperating, we all win.
P: You recently attended CICLOBCN ’21. What ideas did you take home to apply in Elx?
R: Sharing forums with other cities working on sustainable mobility strengthens the view that steps to promote sustainable mobility should be decisive, because the climate crisis urges it. It also allows us to focus on this problem from the many aspects it requires: infrastructure, regulation, education … One of the most interesting things about the Congress were the success stories in each of these areas to be able to apply those ideas in Elx.