The German Chancellor Fellowship: A Fellow rides across Europe on a bicycle
João Paulo Amaral loves his home city of São Paulo. And he loves his bicycle. But how do city life and cycling fit together? Thanks to a German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the environmental activist and cycling campaigner had the chance to find out what makes Europe so cycle-friendly.
He can vividly remember the incident that set him on his journey to Germany. He was pedalling along one of São Paulo’s congested streets when a motorist suddenly had an attack of road rage. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing, riding a bike round here? This isn’t Europe, you know!” João Paulo Amaral, a cycling campaigner with a degree in environmental management, took him at his word: “OK, then I’ll go to Europe and find out about cycling there!”
No sooner said than done. João Paulo Amaral – JP to his friends – spent a year pedalling around Europe, taking in 46 cities in 15 countries from Portugal to Poland and testing their cycle-friendliness. He made sure to include major urban centres like Hamburg and Munich, bike-friendly Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Münster, and cities that were designed for motorists, such as Bochum.
João Paulo Amaral studied environmental management at the University of São Paulo and now works as an urban development and sustainability consultant and project coordinator. He held a German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2015-2016. The funding enabled João Paulo and his host, Dr Christian Ernst at Zeitpfeil, a Berlin-based NGO working in the field of civic and (inter)cultural education, to collaborate on a research project entitled “Brazil and Germany Cycling Together: Bicycle as a Tool for Social Change in Cities”.
He talked to local politicians, met up with cycling groups and explored each city on his bike, keen to find answers to his questions. Is enough information available for cyclists? What kind of infrastructure is in place? Where can I park my bike? And how safe does it feel to share the road with cars?
He was also interested in finding out how cycling is integrated into European urban design. In Europe – in stark contrast to Latin America – transport planning is a matter for government and administration, but in his home country, it is civil society that makes demands and proposes possible solutions.
The German Chancellor Fellowship: an opportunity
His two-wheeled tour of discovery around Europe was made possible by a German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The programme gives young graduates from Brazil, China, India, Russia and the USA an opportunity to develop their own project idea and implement it with the support of a host of their choice in Germany.
JP jumped at the chance. He had already been spent eight years working on ways of making Brazilian cities more cycle-friendly, so the German Chancellor Fellowship gave him the perfect opportunity to learn how European cities deal with this challenge. Dr Christian Ernst at Zeitpfeil, a Berlin-based NGO working in the field of civic and (inter)cultural education, agreed to host JP and his research project, entitled “Brazil and Germany Cycling Together: Bicycle as a Tool for Social Change in Cities”.
Bike Anjo – the Bike Angel from Brazil
JP had already gained some useful experience that he could draw on for his project. A committed cycling campaigner, he works for Bike Anjo – the name means “Bike Angel” – a network of cyclists who are passionate about helping others, in very practical ways, to use their bikes in the city.
The new experiences and contacts that he gained in Germany will benefit Bike Anjo as well. The most important “takeaway” from his year in Germany is that it is essential to work for change towards a culture of cycling and sustainable urban development. But it’s not only about practical support. Fundamental change needs a change of attitude at government level as well.
Bike Anjo is an internet platform which connects people interested in cycling with a “bike angel” to help them learn to ride a bike, commute to work and generally find their way around the urban jungle on two wheels. Bike Anjo has now expanded into 28 countries around the world and has more than 6,000 volunteers offering help in more than 600 towns and cities.
Cycle-friendly cities: “We’re transforming society”
But what is a cycle-friendly city? For JP, the answer is clear: a sustainable, future-proof city is a place where local residents have quality of life and feel at home, a place which people don’t just want to commute to or pass through but where they enjoy spending time. And above all, a cycle-friendly city is a safe city – one that makes it easy and enjoyable to ride a bike.
Now back in Brazil, JP has a wealth of experiences and lessons to reflect on. But it was meeting people that he found the most rewarding aspect of his journey around Europe. “The Fellowship gave me access to a vast network of people, with plenty of opportunities to learn, share ideas and make connections.”
One of his new projects is “Bicycles in the Plans”, a manual to help local citizens, campaign groups, municipal officials and politicians integrate cycling and cyclists into urban planning and take account of their needs.
For JP, though, making cities cycle-friendly is not just about changing direction in transport policy: there’s much more to it than that. It is about taking a step towards social justice, for cities are not just an assemblage of buildings – they can also be a launchpad for sustainable development: “We’re not just creating a cycling culture – we’re transforming society.”
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship
Young graduates with some leadership experience, trendsetters and multipliers from the USA, Russia, China, Brazil and India are invited to spend a year in Germany to meet other leaders of tomorrow and identify innovative solutions to the key challenges of our time. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship Programme gives up to 50 young people the opportunity to work on their project at a host institution of their choice in Germany. The deadline for applications is 15 September in any given year.