Macon Mayor Robert Reichert saw firsthand during a recent trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, how bike lanes and urban greenspace can improve health and tolerance in his town.
Mr. Reichert traveled with a group of municipal leaders from various North American cities led by Canada-based 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit organization supported by the Knight Foundation that is dedicated to enhancing public space and mobility to improve the quality of life in urban environments.
“Bicycling has so many collateral benefits other than just transportation; it’s great for physical and mental health, but also for the social fabric of a community. Being around people of other socio-economic strata creates points of interchange, tolerance and acceptance,” Mr. Reichert told Global Atlanta in an interview at his downtown Macon office.
He added that people in Denmark also see urban greenspace as a means of enhancing mental health, as well as physical health, in otherwise “concrete jungles.”
“The lesson I brought home [from Denmark] was that we need parks and greenspace to be able to bump into all types of people,” Mr. Reichert said, adding that the city’s Ocmulgee Heritage Trail is already beginning to provide these opportunities for interaction among residents as well as visitors. “People don’t sit out on their front porches anymore and greet people walking by. We need places where they can do that.”
The mayor’s trip to Denmark was aimed at learning more about the benefits for cities of creating bike lanes, a cycling culture and more green space for outdoor activities. Macon has already been encouraging the use of bicycles in the city, including efforts to install bike lanes and promote a new bike share program that rents bikes to tourists or anyone visiting downtown Macon. Mr. Reichert said his recent trip encouraged him to continue these efforts.
“I was absolutely amazed at the number of cyclists in Copenhagen and Amsterdam,” Mr. Reichert said, referring to one Copenhagen metro stop in particular where at least 2500 bicycles were parked in the dedicated bicycle parking lot.
Denmark’s capital city of Copenhagen was named the most bicycle-friendly city in the world in 2015, having more than 390 kilometers of designated bike lanes. More than half of all Copenhagen residents use bicycles in their daily commute, and Denmark more generally has a strong biking culture. The country even has a dedicated Cycling Embassy that shares best practices worldwide via its website and free e-newsletter, said Chris Smith, honorary consul of Denmark who resides in Macon.
“Bicycling is part of the Danish culture, but with our hot weather here in Georgia, we aren’t as enthusiastic about biking to work. I think that can change, though, as Macon offers more opportunities for people to try it,” Mr. Smith told Global Atlanta. He has been promoting cycling in Macon and around Georgia with his Danish “triobike,” which is a type of cargo bike for commuting in urban areas.
In September, Macon opened “popup” bike lanes that spanned eight miles around the city, giving cyclists and motorists a taste of how permanent bike lanes would impact transit. The lanes were such as success that they stayed open for almost a week rather than the planned two days, said Mr. Reichert, who tested out the route himself.
The central Georgia city has several other bicycling initiatives, including a bike sharing system at Mercer University and a biking and walking trail along the Ocmulgee River that runs adjacent to downtown. Macon is in the process of creating a 5-mile beltline around the city that will include biking and pedestrian trails as well as greenspace.
The beltline project is helping to gentrify adjacent neighborhoods through various mitigation projects, Mr. Reichert said, noting that economic development is expected to occur in conjunction with the bike trails, bike lanes and other downtown revitalization projects underway.
Mr. Reichert said he would welcome the opportunity to visit Denmark again, as well as other cities that are implementing similar transit projects. He mentioned Bogota, Colombia, for example, where 8 80 Cities chairman Gil Penalosa’s brother is mayor. In Bogota, select city streets are closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays so people can use the streets for exercise and recreation.
The 8 80 Cities group advises municipalities on how to enact these types of “Open Streets” days that temporarily open streets to pedestrians and cyclists rather than cars. The project, which has helped at least 16 cities in North America start their own Open Streets programs, was “very well received” when it was tested on College Street in Macon one day last year, Mr. Reichert noted.
Mr. Reichert’s trip to Denmark, which also included a daytrip to Sweden, took place the first week of October. The tour hosted 28 local government officials from cities across the United States and 28 staff members from the 8 80 Cities group and the Knight Foundation.
Contact the Macon Mayor’s office for more information.
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.