The first thing Mogens Lykketoft asked for when he arrived at the Ministry of Finance as the new minister in January 1993 was a cycle rack for the ministerial car, so that his bike could be mounted on the back.
– I was pretty much always able to cycle to work, both as a minister and as Speaker of the Danish Parliament. It’s the fastest way of getting around, it’s bit of exercise, and my thoughts can have free rein when I’m cycling through town, says the former Finance Minister and Foreign Minister.
Mogens Lykketoft held the post of President of the UN General Assembly for a year from September 2015 onwards. And it was in September 2015 that the 193 UN member states adopted 17 vital global goals for sustainable development on the planet, the Sustainable Development Goals – known as the SDGs. Since then, the ECF, the umbrella organization for the European Cyclists’ Federation, has examined the goals and announced that the bicycle can help achieve as many as 11 of them – and that is testament to due diligence, according to Mogens Lykketoft.
– It is a terrific initiative by the European Cyclists’ Federation to focus particularly on the goals, which the bicycle can play an important part in achieving. I believe many other interest groups could do the same and identify which particular goals apply to their focus, he notes.
– It is important to understand that the global goals mean we have to follow paths different to the ones we’ve been treading until now. For many years, we have focused on poverty, hunger, the need for education and healthcare. Now, we have to act to safeguard a fairer distribution of the planet’s limited resources and forestall impending environmental disasters and climate changes.
A lever in the developing world
The bicycle can make a particular contribution to raising prosperity in developing countries, curbing pollution and congestion in cities and reducing CO2 emissions in traffic, Mogens Lykketoft believes.
After all, the bicycle is one of the first means of transport that the general population can afford in a developing country where prosperity is beginning to rise, he explains:
– Bikes can make people mobile, so that they can get to school and get an education or reach more distant markets – either goods markets where they can sell their wares, or a labour market where there may be jobs to be had. That mobility is crucial to poor countries improving growth and prosperity and thereby coming to grips with poverty and hunger, says Mogens Lykketoft.
There is, however, the challenge of bicycles being replaced with small scooters, and later on with cars, as the population becomes able to afford it.
– But I believe that modern electric bikes, charged by renewable energy of course, can delay the transition to the car. And that gives countries time to develop public transport systems as well as road networks that make cycling attractive, says the ex-Foreign Minister.
In respect of gender equality, too, it is significant that the bicycle increases mobility, giving girls and young women the opportunity to attend school, he says.
– Many women in developing countries still walk many kilometres every day to fetch water, and of course the bicycle makes that job easier. So many of the women’s tasks in the family and in the village become easier, and at the same time they gain the possibility of getting a job further from their home, says Mogens Lykketoft.
Lastly, more widespread use of bikes in developing countries will in itself lead to more economic activity through the manufacture and subsequent servicing of bicycles.
– So actually, the bicycle is also a good example of the way goods will increasingly have to be produced in the future. They are simple and durable, and they are easy and cheap to repair, Mogens Lykketoft points out.
Urgency on the climate
The ex-UN President is particularly mindful of the fact that three quarters of the world’s pollution and three quarters of world production originates in the world’s major cities.
– It is welcome that so many politicians, companies and interest groups support the UN’s 17 SDGs. But we must realize that getting a handle on climate change is urgent. Because unless we manage climate change, we will have neither the resources nor the funds to devote to all the other goal, says Mogens Lykketoft.
The Paris Climate Accord of December 2015 is a direct embodiment of number 13 of the 17 global goals. And getting to grips with this 13th goal is a matter of urgency.
– The strange ambiguity with the global goals is that we believe we can achieve them. And we believe that technological solutions to many of the challenges will be invented soon. But, without a very, very strong political prioritization of climate action, we risk being too late, warns Lykketoft.
He stresses that civil society, including environmental organizations and other NGOs, has been putting powerful pressure on politicians in recent years, and that this has been a strong contributing factor to the countries of the world now broadly agreeing on the goals.
– Civil society will come to play an important role in holding politicians to their lofty ambitions. As well as the many organizations, nowadays the pressure is also coming from a raft of big cities and from companies – and this is where I think the European Cyclists’ Federation are doing a really good job, says Mogens Lykketoft.
Now the cities are on the move
It is no coincidence that even in New York people have now started to take an interest in making it easier to cycle in the city, according to the UN’s former president.
– The problem with the all-too-many motor vehicles in big cities, you see, is that we are being suffocated by them, because the vast majority of them run on fossil fuels. Cars are also the cause of the severe congestion that increasingly plagues large cities.
There is some way to go before New York becomes a cycling city, as Lykketoft found for himself on the odd occasions during his UN job when he braved the city’s traffic-filled streets on his bike.
– It is pretty much life threatening, he observes.
– The cycle paths are only partially separated from the motor traffic, which creates a lot of dangerous situations. Drivers are clearly not used to having bicycles being ridden all around them, and you have to be extremely careful not to have a door suddenly flung open in front of you. A lot of driver education needed.
Another big city undergoing change is Beijing. Go back 25 years, and the Chinese capital featured oceans of bicycles and very few cars. Since then, though, the Chinese have enjoyed a rise in prosperity that has been much greater in the capital than in many other places – and this has led to a sea of cars. Now, the cars are almost at a standstill, and the air is sometimes so polluted as to be life threatening. China’s politicians are going all-out to find solutions to these challenges.
– The Chinese have decided on a bikeshare system of nine million units in Beijing. So, the bicycle is on reappearing and is gaining a more prominent place in the urban landscape once more. And this is happening amid a realization that the car thing has got pretty crazy, and you can no longer get anywhere if you’re driving a car, says Lykketoft.
Combining bicycles and public transport
The vast metropolis of Beijing also wants to make it easier to combine the bicycle with the city’s public transport so that, for example, you can cycle to the station and go to work by train. A number of Danish cities are also working on the best way to mix this traffic cocktail, and the combination of the bicycle and public transport is highlighted by the European Cyclists’ Federation as one solution that can help fulfil several of the global goals at once.
– Of course, Copenhagen is a long way ahead when it comes to joining up cycling and public transport, and among other things this has led to two out of five of us now cycling to work on a daily basis, observes Mogens Lykketoft.
He points out that more and better cycle paths and ongoing action to make dangerous junctions safe have also helped get more people on their bikes in the capital.
– Back in the 90s, when I was Finance Minister, for several years the Budget included an allocation to create better traffic conditions for cyclists. Nowadays, many municipalities are continuing to create better traffic conditions for cyclists. It is no coincidence that we in Denmark have come as far as we have, says Mogens Lykketoft.
In other words, the world’s big cities have their work cut out if they want to be cycling cities. On the other hand, they can take heart from the fact that action to promote cycling often yields benefits on several fronts.
– When you make a good, safe place for everyday cyclists in city traffic planning, you also open the way to more cycle tourism, for example. And that is something the countries and cities of the world are increasingly interested in incorporating into their tourism policy, because more and more tourists are demanding more sustainable types of holiday, says Mogens Lykketoft.
– And of course, in the big picture, it all contributes to a cleaner city, and it restricts the volume of motor vehicles.
A following wind behind the bike
Seen in a Danish context, the bicycle is strongly positioned in the traffic pattern and in traffic planning. In this country, then, the main challenge as Lykketoft sees it is to maintain the cycling culture and develop the interplay between the bicycle and public transport.
– And then I think we’ll see a steadily growing spread of bike-sharing schemes so that people needn’t think of taking their own bike with them. There will just be a bike waiting when you come out of a station, he says.
In the September 1994 Danish parliamentary elections, the Independent Jacob Haugaard entered Parliament on, amongst other things, a pledge of a more favourable wind on the cycle paths. A couple of decades later, Mogens Lykketoft wisely refrains from predicting the weather on the cycle paths.
– Then again, it is quite obvious that there is significantly more of a following wind behind the bicycle itself. And in years to come, the bike can make a good contribution to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Mogens Lykketoft says.