Leuven is a mission-driven city that excels through inspiring governance models and the systems put in place for the public to innovate and to get involved in critical decision-making processes. David Dessers and Tim Asperges bring insight in the sustainable and impressively inclusive mobility perspective the city has in a conversation with Karen Vancluysen

© Karl Bruninx, Toerisme Leuven Flickr

1. Leuven was the 2020 European Capital of Innovation, and therefore an excellent ambassador of the POLIS SMC Platform that advocates cities that do not have to be big to be bold and innovative. What mobility innovations contributed to Leuven being awarded with this prestigious prize?

David Dessers (DD): Of course, the 2020 European Capital of Innovation Award was an important sign of recognition for our city. A lot of it stemmed from technological innovation: we are blessed with a university, the Catholic University of Leuven – KU Leuven , that contributes to our projects from a research and technical point of view. Next to technological innovation, however, there are also positive environmental, social, and democratic trends we are fostering. For example, Leuven aims to become climate-neutral by 2050: to reach this goal, we built a multi-stakeholder model – a democratic experiment called Leuven 2030 that involves citizens, social movements, companies, the university, and the city. We did so because, as local authority, we have realised that we cannot reach climate neutrality on our own or using a top-down approach. As mobility is responsible for 25% of the CO2 emissions in the city, it is our priority to use our model for our mobility plans, too – e.g., the one we are developing for the district of Kessel-Lo (30,000 inhabitants).

David Dessers, Alderman for Mobility for the city of Leuven

Sustainable city logistics in Leuven

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a spectacular rise in the number of parcels delivered – the trend is expected to continue, proving as a challenge for local shopkeepers and as a bad precedent for urban traffic and emissions. The city of Leuven, together with six neighbouring municipalities, is launching 'Wij.Leveren', a digital distribution platform for parcels that will be rolled out in 2022. 'Wij.Leveren' unburdens local shop keepers in bundling deliveries both from local webshops as well as real live shopping (handsfree shopping service). The idea is to also make e-commerce sustainable by upscaling and bundling volumes of parcel deliveries and by deploying electric vans and cargo bikes, rather than more traditional modes.

Tim Asperges, Expert Advisor for the city of Leuven

Tim Asperges (TA): Leuven promotes itself as a living lab, which adds to the innovation and multi-stakeholders’ components – the WeCount project is a great example of this approach: there is active participation from the citizens, as well as real data collection to support the development of Leuven’s mobility plan. In addition, the “living lab” label is also fulfilled through the cooperation with different companies that would like to test technologies in a concrete urban setting. For instance, we are now doing some trials to use blockchain technology in giving dynamic access control to the city and last-mile city logistics – all in the frame of the TOKEN project, featuring the imec research institute.

2. Is it possible to reconcile innovation with inclusion?

DD: Absolutely! That is the only way forward. In terms of mobility, our e-hubs – or mobility points, are a perfect example of this reconciliation. The concept behind them is simple: we have clustered the offer of shared mobility modes, such as e-cargo bikes, e-bikes, bikes, shared cars, and public transport, in different locations; to make them work in an inclusive way, we are trying to integrate a third-party payment system that will make these hubs and their modes affordable for those who have a particularly low income. Even when it comes to circulation plans, we have inclusion in mind: the pedestrian zone in Leuven’s city centre is accessible also to those who cannot cycle or walk – we provide alternatives, such us electric mini-buses without fixed stops or adapted taxis for people with reduced mobility. We also give different discounts to use public transport for specific target groups: children up to 12 years old get free tickets, and both high school and university students benefit from very cheap season tickets.

The pedestrian zone in Leuven’s city centre is also to those who cannot cycle or walk © Kris Jacobs, Toerisme Leuven Flickr

3. Do you believe in a key role for new mobility services and MaaS in making mobility more sustainable?

TA: Of course! And not only for interconnecting the urban public transport, but also to offer a valid alternative for a first or a second car. Leuven is paving the way in this sense: four out of 100 inhabitants are currently sharing cars, and the new offer of e-cargo bikes is really successful, too.

DD: Leuven is a fast-growing city: in the last 20 years, there has been an increase in population of 15,000 people – a figure that does not account for our university students, which number more than 55,000. To make living and moving in the city bearable, we need a sustainable modal shift where walking and cycling, as well as public transport and shared mobility services and hubs, play vital roles. In particular, the e-hubs are essential: our public space is limited, so we need to have an organised approach to the way we deploy sustainable options – which means that sharing and clustering are key.

eHUBS in Leuven

In Leuven, the e-hubs are clustering the shared mobility services on strategic locations connected to other modes (e.g., public transport), but also smaller e-hubs in living areas (on neighbourhood level). At a neighbourhood level, the end users’ (inhabitants, students, and visitors) requests and ideas are integrated with a bottom-up approach. As of now, 41 e-hubs have been realised – featuring neighbourhood parcel lockers, too. As pilot and prototype of the eHUBS project, Leuven has not only become a regional, but also a transnational example for the growth and extension of a larger e-hubs network.

4. The challenges ahead of us when it comes to tackling the adverse impacts of transport are big. Leuven has clear climate ambitions. What are the core ingredients for decarbonising transport in Leuven?

TA: For Leuven, becoming a climate-neutral city requires doubling the number of bicycle and public transport trips. If we re to asucceed in doing so by 2050, it will also translate into a 20% decrease in car trips. To further support our ambitions, we are also developing our Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan: its goal is to have a 40-30-30 modal split between cars, bicycles, and public transport by 2035. Then, of course, there is a whole other chapter dedicated to zero emissions, for which we are rolling out a network of EV-charging points and we are planning on supporting a transition that will involve taxi and delivery truck drivers, as well as private ones.

DD: Decarbonising transport calls for a sustainable modal shift: taking people out of their car, putting them on sustainable transportation modes – that is the way. I mean, that, and the harmonisation with and electrification of our public transport, which, in the case of Leuven, is a strong asset – there are about 40,000 people taking our buses on a daily basis. As of today, there are about 70 hybrid buses already driving in our city. With only six electric buses, we need to step up our e-game, even if this shift does not only depend on us, but also on the company providing the buses and the Flemish government.

Leuven has six fully electric buses deployed on line 2 (Heverlee - Kessel-Lo) © Leuven 2030

5. How do you make sure that a transition to climate neutrality leaves no-one behind and also that the major transport transformation we need will not negatively impact already vulnerable groups in society?

TA: Well, I can maybe use the example of Kessel-Lo I have mentioned before to answer to this question. As I said, it is a big district, which can create issues when it comes to “leaving no one behind” – however, we were smart about it, and we found a way to make the local mobility plan as inclusive as possible. We kicked things off with an online questionnaire to which 10% of the inhabitants responded, which, truth be told, represents a big win for us – then we created a citizen panel that would reflect the population of the district in terms of age, gender, geographical spread, level of income and education, and favoured transport mode. In brief, to make sure that a transition to climate neutrality would leave no-one behind, we offered a spot at the decision-making table to our citizens – we asked them questions and we required further feedback.

DD: On top of that, we are also making sure that we combine spatial planning and mobility services to reach that 10-minute or 15-minute city we all talk about. Of course, Leuven is already a 15-minute city, but its districts could and should potentially be covered in a similar way with more services in their proximity.

Leuven, girls on kickbike near water Vaart © Toerisme Leuven Flickr

6. Leuven is now also applying for the European Access City Award 2022. Why would Leuven be a well-deserved winner?

DD: I think our collaborative model is pioneering a new approach that effectively leaves no-one behind. We are not only trying to build partnerships between stakeholders and citizens, but we are also creating boards that widen our urban perspective: for example, we have our Accessibility Advisory Board, which champions, informs and provides feedback to our municipality and staff on a range of initiatives, programs, and services through an accessibility lens. Indeed, the Board allows us to identify the barriers of our city through the eyes of those who experience accessibility challenges first-hand; sometimes, this results into infrastructural adaptations, and other times, it results into making more inclusive planning choices ahead. Either way, it is great to see that by adding this fresh perspective there is an upgrade to an already good and successful urban plan – it makes us more ambitious; it makes us ask “What can we do more?” to the right people – our citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones.

David Dessers and Tim Asperges are, respectively, Alderman for Mobility and Expert Advisor for the city of Leuven.

Karen Vancluysen is Secretary General of POLIS Network.

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