What was the motivation behind Mairita Luse travelling the 1575 km from Murcia in Southern Spain to Ipswich?
Apart from being a keen cyclist and one of the people involved with Critical Mass in Murcia, she is the project coordinator for the Erasmus+ project called “I want to ride my bicycle”.
So first of all, what is Erasmus? And what is Erasmus+?
The Erasmus Programme was launched in 1987 to encourage and enable students and academics studying in other EU countries, and has seen not only a constant increase in the number of students taking part, but also in the quality and diversity of the activities proposed. Erasmus mobility, with its core focus on skills development, is a central element of the European Commission’s strategy to combat youth unemployment, featuring prominently in the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.
During the 2012-13 academic year the 3 millionth student went abroad and the number of mobile academic and support staff broke the 350,000 barrier. In that year, 14,572 students from the UK went abroad on the Erasmus programme, with the most popular destinations being France (4,458), Spain (3,435) and Germany (2,112). UK students went to every one of the 27 EU member countries plus Croatia, Iceland,, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey. (The tiny principality of Liechtenstein was also involved but had no UK students hosted there.)
Erasmus+ has brought together a wide range of European support for education, training, youth and sports under one single programme. The new programme builds on the legacy of Erasmus by offering opportunities for a further 4 million students, apprentices, volunteers, teachers, education and training staff and youth workers to develop their competences. More than 2 million higher education students will be able to study or gain work experience abroad, both within and beyond Europe.
Additionally, Erasmus+ supports projects for inclusion and diversity, as well as promoting cultural, transport and infrastructural change in order to support increased recreation, environmental sustainability and health – which is where Mairita’s project comes in. How can people be persuaded to change to sustainable travel – walking, cycling and using public transport – and what are the barriers to them doing so, and the changes necessary to facilitate this change.
One of the early stages of the project involved hosting people from 12 different countries, in the EU and the Middle East, in Murcia in October 2014 to share best practice and learn from each other as to what different countries are doing and establish the problems they face. Two people from Suffolk attended: one from Public Health Suffolk and the other from Suffolk County Council.
This week Mairita is in Suffolk to see for herself the situation here and has been out on bike rides in the area, including involvement with a “WOW” project – Women on Wheels, designed to lessen the gender gap, as more men cycle than women here in the UK: while 43% of the population own bikes according to the National Travel Survey, 35% cycle – but 41% of men cycle compared with just 26% of women.
“You have weird bike lanes” was Mairita’s conclusion, “I have never seen so many ‘End of bike lane’ signs! Sometimes, bike lanes are only 10m long! And some of them are so narrow that a bus passes within centimetres of my bike’s handle bars.”
I am sure that there will be some who would criticise the cost of two officers going to Spain for this project, but I’m not one of them. It’s surely only if we learn what others are doing that we can see what could and should be done – especially when the discussion with Mairita indicated that our problems are identical to those of other countries, with congestion, obesity, and people who are short of cash, spending money that is hard to come by, on fuel and other car related expenses, when such a massive proportion of journeys are within easy cycling distance. According to Mairita, EU statistics show that Spain is the worst for people getting the car out to go to a shop for just a few items when the distance is less than 2 km, though I imagine that we here in the UK are not far behind. Planning “yardsticks” for district shopping centres include the catchment area being 800m, which is only a 12 minute walk at a gentle 4km/hour pace and less than 5 minutes at a sedate 10 km/hour on a bike.
Today Mairita is off to Cambridge, which is the UK’s city with the highest proportion of cycling, so there are perhaps some things which are good in the UK which she can take back to Spain with her.
Mairita doesn’t expect to find one or more silver bullets, the magical answers to instant change. But she will be writing a report at the end of her project and SpyCycle looks forward to receiving a copy and publishing the conclusions here.