Elfwegentocht

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Travelling fossil-free in Friesland

Encouraging innovation and creativity in clean transport

In 2018, the Frisian city of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands was the European Capital of Culture and, as part of the celebrations, citizens embarked on an ambitious new project – to travel fossil-free for 2 weeks. During this period, the inhabitants of the province would use only clean forms of transport – bikes, electric cars, boats, Segways, or simply walk, run and swim. The initiative was a huge success with more than 100,000 people taking part. It has helped encourage inhabitants to use alternative forms of transport on a daily basis.

Building momentum for clean energy use

To mark the city’s role as capital of culture, Bouwe de Boer, Friesland’s Energy Commissioner wanted to organise an event like no other that would have a long-term impact. He challenged the students at Leeuwarden’s high schools to come up with an environmentally friendly project that would draw together the entire Dutch province. They called their idea the Eleven roads’ tour, or Elfwegentocht in Dutch. This name was based on a historic ice-skating event through Friesland’s 11 cities, which had not taken place in recent decades because of climate change and warmer winters.

For De Boer it was vital to include students’ viewpoints because they are the ones whom climate change will affect the most. “We do it for them. It is their future, and they have a real drive in their hearts. They know that we are spoiling this world and they want to be part of solutions,” he said.

The event seemed ambitious even for Friesland, which has hundreds of energy initiatives and has long embraced various forms of clean energy. The organisers started the preparations 1 year in advance by raising awareness and reaching out to all of Friesland, from small to big companies, NGOs, schools, and local communities. They also contacted supermarkets, getting them to commit to run their trucks on renewable fuels. The local military base even agreed to use renewables for some of its activities.

The interest and engagement in the project grew quickly, spurred on by key moments such as the event being endorsed by the Dutch royal family. Many local organisations and private companies were happy to participate – in total, more than 130 companies along with schools and NGOs.

Making a habit of fossil-free travel

During the Elfwegentocht people shared electric cars and some even bought electric bicycles. The most enterprising participants rode horses or even swam to get to where they needed to be, posting photos and videos of their exploits on social media. This further raised the project’s visibility and created a sense of momentum. “It was so popular that it was not easy not to be part of the project,” De Boer said. “We never thought we would reach so many people and this gave us the energy to do it again.”

But perhaps its greatest impact was in changing attitudes and habits long term. Many of those who took part in the 2018 edition continued to cycle, use the electric bikes or walk more. According to De Boer, the event spurred fresh thinking across the region about public transport and encouraging people to find fossil-free ways to move around.

Seeking a broader impact

Building on the project’s success, a next edition is planned June 2020. It’s likely to be bigger than before as the neighbouring provinces of Groningen and Drenthe have asked to participate. The event will also widen its scope. After De Boer consulted the youth on the focus of the next Elfwegentocht, the latter proposed that the region should not only aim to be fossil-free but plastics-free as well.

As preparations are underway, De Boer hopes that the event will inspire similar efforts in other European cities, bringing people together to come up with new solutions for the clean energy transition. “The Elfwegentocht has started a new discussion among politicians and people living in villages and cities. It has brought new ideas,” he said.