Meet Mitja Kolbl

Petra Očkerl

By Petra Očkerl, on February 28th, 2019

> Read Petra Očkerl's articles

In 20 years, we want Ljutomer (SLO) to be a city of “friendly traffic”

Mitja Kolbl has been employed at the Municipality of Ljutomer for 15 years. In addition to the regular assignments he has as transport infrastructure manager – from investments and maintenance to winter service – he participates in three European projects. He is also a member of the Prevention Committee at the Slovenian Traffic Safety Agency.

Petra Očkerl of IPoP (Institute for Spatial Policies) talks to him about the mobility breakthrough in the Municipality of Ljutomer, much to his merit. After he managed to convince the mayor about the importance of changes in mobility, things began to evolve. Enthusiastic officials like him create examples of good practice by which other cities and municipalities can be inspired!

When the Municipality of Ljutomer adopted their Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) in 2012, it was the first Slovenian city to do so in accordance with the European guidelines. It was a project supported by the Ministry of Infrastructure and they were selected by the Urban Planning Institute of the Republic of Slovenia to run a pilot SUMP. They gained significant knowledge and experience in the area of ​​sustainable mobility by participating in the URBACT Active Travel Network project between 2009 and 2012.

The Municipality of Ljutomer is active in several European projects.
Which ones are you involved in?

I participate in three projects, MOVECIT, CIVITAS Prosperity and CoolHeating.

The objective of the MOVECIT project is to change the travel habits of employees in the Municipality of Ljutomer. To this end, we built a cycling station in the backyard, so employees have the opportunity to park bicycles properly.

We also purchased three electric bicycles. We plan to put these bikes into service for employees, so that they can use them to get to work. Some of our employees only have a kilometer or so to travel and come to work by car so, we want to encourage them to change their habits.

We will also develop a mobility plan for the municipal administration so employees will be able to start using carpooling to travel together on the same route.

What is the Prosperity project about?

Prosperity, a Horizon 2020 project, deals with the preparation and implementation of transport strategies. Here, we participate as the only city in Slovenia. The project has over 30 partners from all over Europe, and we share our experience in developing strategies, we also get a lot of advice from other cities from Belgium and Scotland, on how to implement measures from transport strategies.

Tell us a bit about how you started to implement traffic changes in the city.

Our first step was to adopt the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP). To be honest, we did not know exactly what we were doing at the beginning, since this was the first document of this kind in Slovenia.

In the process of drafting this document, we saw that the actual needs can be somewhat different from the expectations at the political level. What the people perceive as a problem differs a lot from that of the mayor, the municipal council and the local administration.

One example is the train station. Many secondary school students use the train but since the River Ščavnica runs between the secondary school and the railway station, the students had to walk 700-800 meters to cross the river. Often, they used the railway bridge walking across the tracks as a shortcut so the path was only 150-200 meters long. This had a very simple solution: a pedestrian bridge which cost about 15,000 EUR. Now everyone is using this route, the elderly and the children.

You prepared the SUMP that you mentioned in 2012, but you had already renovated the main square and limited parking before?

The main square is not the way it should be. My wish is to fully dedicate this area to pedestrians and cyclists. Cars do not belong there.

Something had to be done, either to leave the road cutting through it or to abolish motorised traffic in general. We made a compromise. The big problem was that the shop owners feared that they would lose customers. But, experience from other cities shows that this is not necessarily the case. This is the main reason that the situation is as it is.

What is the current effect on these shops?

It’s hard to say… There are periods when there is more turnover, and periods when there is less. The municipality is trying to do something to make the square vibrant. In winter, for example, we have a skating rink, which is free of charge for everyone. In the course of the year, various events such as the film festival and the Prlekija fair take place. There is always something going on!

However, our wish and my desire is to spread the trend of pedestrian zones and to move the cars to the outskirts of the city – step by step.

Prior to the drafting of SUMP, you were a partner in the URBACT Active Travel Network project. Did this influence you at all?

URBACT is the main culprit! In the Active Travel Network project, we had to carry out certain activities, and we were looking for someone who would do it for us, for example the Walking Audit, and so on. This is how we came in contact with the Urban Planning Institute, who were just then looking for a smaller city for a pilot SUMP in Slovenia, so we started to collaborate. The right time and the right place, one could say!

Within the URBACT project, you had a local support group.
Does the group still exist?

The local support group continues their work in a very intense way, even though the project is completed. Now the Local Support Group for the Promotion of Sustainable Mobility – it’s still the same people, even though some new members joined.. One of their most visible activities is the European Mobility Week as they coordinate all activities that happen in Ljutomer then.

How do you motivate members of the support group to participate even after the completion of the URBACT project?

Different people are involved: representatives of schools, kindergartens, pensioners etc. Since there is interest from their side, they do not need to be motivated. They perceive it as something positive and want to be involved.

You quickly moved from drafting to the implementation – How did you do it?

We were fortunate that after the adoption of the first strategy we were invited to the Ch4llenge project, which aimed at educating municipalities on how to approach the preparation and implementation of SUMP. We got quite a lot of knowledge that we could use. We were also convinced that it would be a waste of energy and time devoted to the drafting of this document, if we do not implement it.

In addition, the aim of the municipality was to be a pioneer in this field and we saw it as an opportunity to promote the city of Ljutomer. This has been paying off, as we host visitors from a wide range of international projects, who come to observe the measures we are implementing.

A balance of investments in the different modes of mobility appears in the SUMP as an important guideline. How do you tackle this?

We adjusted the budget to the SUMP, not SUMP to the budget. SUMP sets out measures with financial implications, and these measures are simply transferred to the next year’s budget.

In the SUMP you mention some unusual innovative measures in Slovenia, such as on-call public transport. Have you already implemented this measure or have you tested it?

Not yet. We plan to purchase an electric mini bus, which would provide rides for those not reached by public transport or where it is not economical for bus companies.

In the countryside, we have a lot of elderly people who no longer own a car and now use a taxi because they have no other options. This electric mini bus would provide a solution for those people. 

One of your well-known measures is an area of “​​friendly traffic” in the neighbourhood of Juršovka. Are you already rolling it out to other areas?

Yes, we are. This year another 500 metres in another neighbourhood will be arranged according to the same principle as Juršovka. We plan to take such measures in the city centre too. The plan is to arrange traffic in the whole city in this way.

We are trying to introduce measures from other European cities that are not yet used in Slovenia. We are often walking on the line – but so far we managed to implement everything we planned.

When you decided to introduce new measures to this neighbourhood, you organised workshops with residents, to inform them and include them in the design.
How did you do it?

We wanted to test an innovative approach, so we carried out the same process as with the drafting of SUMP. We invited people to a workshop on site. We put wooden pallets and balloons into the existing crossroads to simulate the roundabout, and that encouraged them to participate. We showed them pictures of modern neighbourhoods in Denmark and the Netherlands, and asked them what they think about it – is it beautiful? Smart? etc. – and they were mostly impressed. Except those who only wanted a wider road!

Then we did a survey where we asked people where they see problems in their neighbourhood. The results were interesting. The main problem, of course, was the state of the asphalt. They also complained that there are no sidewalks and, that the speed of vehicles is too high. One of the problems was also that the residents did not have much personal contact. Therefore, it seemed ideal to combine these problems into the solution that we later implemented.

With various measures we slowed down the traffic, pedestrians can walk safely, children can even play on the road. Thus, the street is attractive for people to use. They can sit on benches and socialize and get to know each other.

So, you were inspired by other European cities through the projects you are involved in?

Yes, we get a lot from these projects. Everything we did in this neighbourhood, has been already implemented somewhere else. We just transferred examples of good practice into our environment. My opinion is that anyone working in such a field should be involved in at least one European project to see what other cities are doing.

My experience of cooperation with our neighbouring municipalities here in Slovenia shows that some still only see motor vehicles in the area of ​​transport. It is difficult to convince them to change their mindset. This is a completely new approach that must first be adopted by the municipal administration to convince elected politicians. The easiest way to do it is by showing in practice how things work in other places.

But it’s not just about knowing good examples, is it? This has to be appropriately transferred into practice, and here we probably also lack knowledge.

We have made another important step forward by involving architects and landscape architects in planning. In the past, the roads were designed by civil engineers who only see the flow of traffic. However, I think that it is important that architects are involved as well, as they give the place some kind of character, especially in designing residential neighbourhoods.

How do you indirectly signal drivers to pay attention to other road users?

As well as footpaths crossing over the roads, we also made playgrounds in the Juršovka neighbourhood. It’s hard to make sense of that for certain people. But the Slovenian legislation does determine traffic calming zones. This is a zone that allows children to play on the road. And we used this in this neighbourhood.

To what extent have you already managed to change travel habits of the citizens or to at least raise awareness?

We notice that they are becoming more and more aware. There are more and more cyclists and more people walking in the city. But this is a long-term process. If all the planned measures were to be implemented in the next ten years, we estimate that in approximately twenty years the whole city of Ljutomer could become an area of “friendly traffic”, and could become an example for others.

But, of course this cannot be done from one day to another. People also need to start thinking differently. People will also have to start using public transport. And, the municipal administration will have to introduce certain measures, especially related to parking, so that parking will no longer be free.

We will try to get cars out of the city as elegantly as possible.

By making people familiar with certain measures, do they also begin to understand the positive effects?

Yes, we had an interesting case in the Juršovka neighbourhood. By chance, it is also where the mayor lives so when we introduced the new arrangement, people from other parts of the city were appalled saying that this was completely dysfunctional and that money was wasted meaninglessly. A year and a half later, when they see that it works perfectly, they complain, asking, why these changes were undertaken where the mayor lives and not in their neighbourhood! So, people have started to recognize the benefits and want to have such arrangements elsewhere.

How do you assess your cooperation with the ministries in this field?

The Ministry of Infrastructure has put a lot of effort into sustainable mobility and we got a lot of support, however, the general problem is financing SUMP measures. We financed Juršovka neighbourhood from the municipal budget, and we did not get a single euro from the national budget.

I think that more funds should be allocated to finance such measures. There are some funds, which we will use for the cycling routes, but this is not enough.

What would your message be to other municipalities who want to follow your footsteps?

The first step is for employees working in this field to start thinking in the right direction and see this as an opportunity and then begin to influence elected politicians. They should have a look at examples of good practices, also abroad, and follow other municipalities’ examples, where this works well. It is true, however, that participation in European projects is often an additional burden for public officials.

You have to have the will to do this and the desire to make a change.

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