Walk Tall!

Interview with Stefan Bakker

Stefan Bakker is a transportation and climate change specialist working in South East Asia. As the team leader for energy efficiency and climate change mitigation in the land transport sector of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) region for GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation), Mr Bakker is well versed with the transportation problems facing the highly populated and congested cities of Asia. Though based in Thailand’s capital of Bangkok, he travels extensively in the region as well as around the world looking for ways to make urban life better. Mr Bakker talked to NMT Times on wide-ranging issues that have direct reference to India

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An avid cyclist Stefan Bakker feels NMT is not only convenient but also effective for short distances

1. What is a sustainable transport model for Asian countries and what is the role of non-motorised transport (NMT) in the model?

For me a sustainable transport model lies in planning road and public space and resources for people rather than cars. The question is whether sustainable transport can be achieved without a large role for NMT. NMT or active transport, is fast and convenient for trips up to at least 5 km, which means for many or even most trips. It also provides a sense of community, different experience and view of your environment than other modes and it’s very flexible as you stop anywhere for buying fruit or a coffee. For longer trips, NMT provides access (and last-mile) to public transport. High quality (fast, comfortable and reliable) public transport, both rail and road-based, is the second pillar. Thirdly, in proportion to the users and the benefits it provides the society, convenient facilities for private vehicles, especially in the less-central parts of the urban environment. (Semi) car-free zones can provide a more livable environment.

2. Can such a transport model be ever implemented considering the chaotic conditions on the roads of the cities in these countries with huge populations and heavy volumes of motorised vehicles?

Hong Kong and Singapore have high quality public transport and also relatively good walking conditions, and are investing in cycling infrastructure. Other cities may take examples from this, and improve transport planning to slow down the growth in traffic by facilitating NMT and public transport. High population density can be an advantage for the viability of public transport.

3. What is the role of the government in supporting sustainable transport?

The government has a key role to play by improving the urban planning and public space, investing in infrastructure that facilitates NMT and public transport, giving incentives to such modes and disincentives to private modes, and improve safety and convenience for NMT.

4. What about the role of the people, because we have seen in ASEAN countries in the past two decades how economic growth and development have led to skewed transport models where people have bought millions of motorcycles and cars in place of their bicycles?

I believe in giving choices to people, nobody should be forced to use any mode, as they all have their pros and cons. So I feel people simply need to start riding rather than talking, and experience, especially in the cooler months, how convenient and fast it is. For me as a Dutch native, where everybody including the Prime Minister cycles simply because it’s a smart way to get around, I only realise now that cycling is the epitome of freedom on the road, and would encourage anyone to just giving it a shot for a few months, first in smaller streets and for visiting close-by friends or small errands, to gain first-hand experience.

5. Do we need more anti-motor and NMT and mass transit champions in Asian countries or more sensible transport policies and implementation principles?

It looks like we may require visionary champions to implement these principles.

6. Would you give us a few good transport solutions you have discovered in ASEAN countries?

In Bangkok, the skytrain and metro are convenient and reliable, and also the water-based transport works quite well. In Vientiane, the capital of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, it is possible to walk and cycle (and drive) along the Mekong river, something that I wish every city with a river had.

7. What do you think about the relevance of celebrating sustainable transport like organising car-free days, etc? Do such events dilute the significance of tough targets instead of spreading awareness about sustainable transport?

Such events are just a small, but perhaps essential, piece of an over-all package of raising awareness and creating a platform for all pro-NMT movement to come together, and perhaps in other cases for the general audience to celebrate the availability of public space otherwise taken up by traffic. It should, however, not remain symbolic and strong action by government and people are needed. In Bangkok currently it looks like cycling is very fashionable among the middle class for fun and sports

8. You have travelled across India several times during your many visits. What are your views on improving non-motorised transport in India and thus the air quality?

Good air quality helps NMT and NMT helps to improve air quality (together with public transport and cleaner vehicles). NMT is essential for making urban transport sustainable, but also for rural areas it can provide cheap and fast accessibility. If NMT suffers from a bad image, I hope something can be done to remove such an image, by involving especially the young people.

9. What are the best NMT practices you have seen around the world?

Without aiming to be chauvinistic, the Dutch infrastructure and traffic rules are the most conducive to cycling as far as I know. When I now visit the Netherlands, I can really appreciate that you can absolutely go anywhere on a bike without any hassle, both in urban and rural contexts. When it comes to walking there are many European cities that are very pleasant, especially in the low-car zones often in historical centres. Some Latin American cities also have these features. Seoul has good facilities along the Han River, and I experienced in India also the pleasant riverbanks with ghats, such as in Haridwar, which provide for good walking environments

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