Meet our speaker: Lake Sagaris

Lake Sagaris is an internationally recognized expert on cycle-inclusive urban planning, civil society development, and participatory planning theory and practice. She currently works as associate adjunct professor of transport engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, affiliated with the Centre of Excellence in BRT and the Sustainable Urban Development Centre (CEDEUS). She directs the Laboratory for Social Change, a community-university participatory action research initiative and teaches several innovative planning courses, including one of the first university-level courses on cycle-inclusion, civil society and governance. Read the full biography of Lake Sagaris on her speaker page.

We had an interview with Ms. Sagaris on her upcoming visit to Velo-city 2017.

You will be speaking in the sessions 'Wise and Smart Cities' and 'Cycling and Gender - Stories of Empowerment’. What do you want to present at these sessions?

The potential for cycling to resolve many sustainable transport and social challenges in the 21st century has been under explored. Nonetheless, I think it is a kind of "missing link" if we are to achieve sustainability in our cities, from the environmental and economic perspective, but also from the perspective of social sustainability, particularly inclusion and social justice. Private bicycles and tricycles, cycle taxis and public bikeshare, and bike-on-bus/tram/train combinations offer healthy, clean, low-energy solutions to diverse user needs: women with children and people with mental or physical disabilities can get around easily and cheaply using cycle taxis for distances from 2-10 km. In hilly areas, these can include electro-assistance, to provide even better service while still creating decent jobs for many vulnerable people. Cycling is key to social inclusion, then, in any sustainable transport system.

You are professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Sustainable Urban Development Centre (CEDEUS) and research director with the Laboratorio for Social Change, a community-university participatory action research initiative. To what extent is scientific research important for cycling and urban planning?

I began life in urban issues as a community leader, fighting a highway project. Several excellent university researchers supported us, teaching us about transport, sustainability and social equity issues, and several of our staff and leaders went on to do post-graduate work on related subjects. So I think you can guess that we see university-civil society alliances as central to any strategy to achieve greater sustainability through democratic means. When we began, in the 1990s, cycle planning and design was very much an improvisation, often with unfortunate results. In the past 30 years, however, thanks to many fine studies, it has become a well founded interdisciplinary science with important contributions from the social sciences, engineering, architecture and other fields. Many questions still remain, so this is a wonderful field to be working in at the moment. Starting to teach university-level courses on this subject matter will also influence professionals just beginning their working lives, so the link is extremely valuable. The only unfortunate aspect is that some times researchers see practitioners as untrained and largely incompetent, rather than recognizing the enormous amount of innovation that stems from their creative grappling with real world issues.

What lessons on cycling and urban planning will you bring to the Netherlands?

We went from "smart growth" to "smart cities" and there is a risk that too much will get lost in the translation, as high tech companies look for new places to sell their wares. Big data can be tremendously valuable, but it can also be problematic in complex settings such as cities. Often it does not distinguish between men and women or users of diverse ages, capabilities or other characteristics, generating tons of figures unable to contribute to any gender or other important analyses. Moreover, in our work with vulnerable communities we find that many fake e-literacy, and most do not use their electronic devices in the kind of comprehensive manner taken for granted by elite, educated planning professionals. Moreover, there are many strengths in developing countries -- the incredible richness of paratransit modes and high walking, cycling and public transit modal shares are seldom taken into consideration when comparing across cities and countries.

What does The Freedom of Cycling mean to you?

At a very personal level, I feel so connected with my grandmothers and the women that came before them when I cycle in different cities around the world. They were all smart, talented, capable folk, but their times severely limited their options to travel -- around the world or even in their own towns and cities. Never mind work or participate fully in civic action. Last year at CicloCidades in Sao Paulo I joined the evening cycle ride, revisiting many places I had seen in previous trips. To ride through neighbourhoods rich and poor, well appointed or crumpled and complex, to see street kids join our caravan, to celebrate an impromptu circus in a square -- was so deeply moving. I thought of my grandmothers and deep inside wanted to feel their voices echo, to have them know that thanks to them and many women like them, I am now free in such an essential way, working and travelling and living as I do. And feel part of an action chain, working every day so others can live this freedom too.  

Are you looking forward to Velo-city 2017 and what is on your Velo-city to-do list?

Enormously. I have been coming to Velo-city for many years and had the honour of being a plenary speaker on several occasions. In four brief days you can learn a years' worth of lessons -- it is great for new people to train and for veterans to remain up to date. As I travel to conferences in other transport related areas I particularly appreciate how lively and innovative the formats remain -- lots of fresh ideas and ways to share them -- and always bringing us into contact with new places, rather than shutting us up in horrible dark rooms to talk and talk. Above all, the way it mixes practitioners, researchers and social activists -- for me, this is one reason why cycling is thriving around the world, despite enormous odds and tiny budgets. And contrasts with other interesting social-technical innovations, such as Bus Rapid Transit, which continue to suffer from inadequate implementation, lack of public participation and virtually no citizen advocacy on their behalf. Above all, Velo-city is so FRIENDLY, although there are plenty of hot debates.

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