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EU Urban Mobility Observatory
News article30 August 20238 min read

Urban space and climate neutrality: Umeå's Deputy Mayor on the city's success

Demand for public space in cities stems not only from the users of different transport modes (e.g. need for dedicated cycling and bus lanes, demand for parking) but also from new developments, such as installation of charging infrastructure for e-mobility, roll out of shared mobility services and innovative air mobility, as well as the need to provide green and accessible infrastructure.

On 4 October, the Urban Mobility Days panel, “Linking Urban Mobility and Urban Space to Achieve Climate Neutrality”, will dive into this issue. With a panel of high-level speakers, including Karen Vancluysen (POLIS, Secretary General), Rosalinde Van der Vlies (Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Deputy Cities Mission Manager), Janet Ågren (City of Umeå, Deputy Mayor) and Joost Vantomme (ERTICO, CEO). The session will link these issues to the mission on climate-neutral and smart cities.

Urban Mobility Days will bring together politicians, local authorities, industry, and urban transport practitioners with the European Commission to connect, share and discuss the path forward for a sustainable, innovative, and equitable future for Europe’s urban mobility. As 2023 is the European Year of Skills, Urban Mobility Days will have a specific focus on transport skills.

Ahead of the session, Eltis spoke to Janet Ågren about how the city is radically overhauling its mobility services and addressing gender gaps in its pursuit of climate neutrality.

Umeå is one of the 100 (and a few more) European Cities which are part of the European Commission’s Climate Neutral and Smart Cities Mission. Why did you apply to this?

We applied because we wanted to be part of the network of cities trying to become climate neutral by 2030. Being part of a larger cities’ community that also works intensely with these issues is an important opportunity for us that has the potential to accelerate the transition towards sustainability for all participating parties - and society as a whole. In Umeå there is strong support for the notion that we must pursue a sustainable transition in a high pace. Through international cooperation and local action, we have better chances to succeed.

We also want to learn from others to improve our efforts, and also share the experiences and the knowledge that we’ve accumulated over the years. We are in this crisis together and we are all dependent on being able to solve it together.

What are some of the key goals and ambitions of Umeå as part of your journey to climate neutrality?

We have a local roadmap and a city contract that outlines how to tackle the transition together with other stakeholders to reduce emissions and climate mitigation. The city needs to do what it can to reduce its own emissions, but it also needs to be a platform for other stakeholders to do their part. It is a joint effort. We must also address the big areas of emissions and in Umeå’s case that is transportation, which accounts for about half of all emissions in the municipality and therefore has the largest climate impact.

Construction and infrastructure are also an important sector, as well as the production and use of electricity and district heating. The latter accounts for about one fifth of Umeå's total greenhouse gas emissions. An important part of the pursuit of climate neutrality is also our efforts to transform from a linear economy to a circular economy and to analyse our consumption patterns and take actions towards changing these.

And, not to forget, we must work persistently with climate investment plans to develop infrastructure that enables our city to accelerate the pace of the transition.

Umeå is a smaller city than many in the Mission - does this smaller size bring challenges, any opportunities it brings too?

While the goal of becoming climate neutral is the same, the complexity of the challenges in pursuing that goal can of course vary depending on, but not exclusively, population size. Being a (by European standards) smaller city does of course mean that the impact of our transition is smaller. We are also situated in a part of Europe that is less densely populated, which brings its owns challenges when it comes to infrastructure and transportation.

But I do see several opportunities. Umeå is big enough to make things happen on a scale where we can properly measure the effects, while still benefitting from being a relatively small and well-connected community where it is easy to quickly mobilise from idea to action in a united manner. The relatively shorter distance, in both a physical and psychological sense, between different stakeholders involved in our transition is also beneficial given that a successful transition cannot be carried out with only top-down policies.

Apart from the fact that local government doesn’t have control over all aspects of what needs to be done in practice, it is important that the transition has fundamental legitimacy and resonates with all stakeholders involved in shaping our city’s future. It must be a joint commitment where citizens, other parts of the public sector, businesses, academia, NGOs and other stakeholders feel that they are in this together, sharing common goals, and that we all depend on and benefit from each other’s commitment.

I think that Umeå, being big enough and relatively small at the same time, has an opportunity to be an example of how to find ways towards establishing such a context of climate transition solidarity.

What are some of the main (and most important) changes you have seen in mobility in What are Umeå over the last few years?

We have seen a small decrease when it comes to people going by car in our latest travel habit survey, but since Umeå is a growing city, we need to continuously reinforce our efforts to increase sustainable transportation. We have electrified our bus fleet and repeatedly expanded public transport, which has led to an increase in the number of public transport passengers. But that is not enough. Public transportation, as well as walking and taking the bike as a means of transportation, needs to continue becoming more attractive, available and convenient for our citizens.

We have observed a gender gap in the usage of public transportation, a gap that has been persistent over the years. Women, in general, use public transportation more frequently than men. This is an issue that must be addressed if we are to reach our sustainable travel goals for our city. We therefore develop a gender approach, knowledge and methods for transition to more sustainable modes of transport, for instance men’s travel to work in male dominated working places, such as industrial districts.

It is the European Year of Skills. In your experience, what are some of the key skills and capacities which cities will need going forward in creating more sustainable mobility?

I think it is important to understand that there is not just one solution. We need to do many different things at the same time. We must redesign how we build our cities, so it’s not only on the car’s perspective. It must be accessible from a human perspective where it is easy and safe to go by bike, walking and public transport and in all city districts.

We also need to make public transport even more attractive and find new innovative ways to do so. Of course, cars and buses must be electrified, and other green fuels put into place. Nor must we overlook the fact that there is a lot of work that needs to be done with behavioural changes and norms. So, we need to intensify the work we are already doing since much of the technology that is needed to reduce emissions is already in place but find new innovative ways of getting more people to travel sustainably.

Umeå is also now well known for its pioneering approach to gender mainstreaming urban mobility and urban space; yet, attention to gender is not always part of the conversation around climate neutrality. How do you feel this can be improved?

By understanding that gender matters also when it comes to climate-related issues. In Umeå’s case, in all the surveys we do, we try to have a gender perspective which gives us important, actionable insights. In our measurements and evaluations, we find that there are different patterns related to gender. The data shows us that women and men make different choices, for example when it comes to transportation. So, in order to have another outcome we need to try to do things differently.

We need to better understand why some people, often men, make the choices they do so that we can find incentives for change in pursuit of systemic transformation.

Nothing will be won by saying that some choices are better than others. It’s when we understand those choices - who makes them and why - that we can take action for change. A change that, apart from being key to the sustainable transition, also has the opportunity to improve gender equality and lives of both men and women.

Why do you feel such dialogue like this at Urban Mobility Days, between cities, the European Commission and transport stakeholders, is important?

I believe it is important so that different perspectives can be highlighted at the same time. The dialogue can also give an increased understanding of each other and how we together can take on this challenge – as well as it provides an opportunity to challenge possibly hindering notions that we respectively might have about what is possible and how.

From a city perspective we need the multi-level governance perspective and different stakeholders since no one can do this alone. Every level is important from the local perspective, no matter it being the local, regional, national or all the way up to the EU-level, and the different stakeholders that are needed for the societal transformation we need to do.

For more information and to register for Urban Mobility Days, see here

To view the programme, see here.




Publication date
30 August 2023
  • Mobility management
  • Europe-wide