Member in the Spotlight: Ljubljana

With a population of just under 280,000, Ljubljana is one of the smallest capitals in Europe. But do not let its size fool you: this city is well on its way to becoming a leader in sustainable urban mobility. From its new hybrid bus fleets and bike parades to the successful ‘pedestrianisation’ of some of its main thoroughfares, Slovenia’s capital is putting its best foot forward when it comes to transport innovation.

Interview with Vita Kontić Bezjak, Public Relations and Mobility Advisor, Commercial Activities and Traffic Department, City of Ljubljana, elaborated by Quaid Cey.

Throughout the past decade, Ljubljana has gained notoriety for its ambitious approach to sustainable urbanisation. In 2016, the city was awarded the prestigious title of European Green Capital. Just two years ago, it was the host of the annual Velo-city Conference, the world’s largest cycling and active mobility event.

This year, Ljubljana is entering a new phase in its sustainable mobility trajectory, with the deadline of its Vision for 2025 approaching. Adopted in 2007, this landmark approach to ecologically conscious and socially responsible urbanism set out goals such as a tripling of the city’s bike lane network, the introduction of hydrogen-fuelled buses, traffic reductions through mixed-use planning and access restrictions, and expanded pedestrian access to the riverfront, all balanced with the continuous preservation and renewal of the city’s historical heritage.

Cycling in Ljubljana. Credit: Nino Kolarev

The 2024 Vision was followed by Ljubljana’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) – adopted in 2012 and updated in 2017 – and has been complemented by Ljubljana’s ongoing participation in European mobility projects such as SMAPE, which aims to accelerate the shift away from private car use through support for better-informed shared mobility policies.

To find out how Ljubljana has translated its goals into action, POLIS spoke to Vita Kontić Bezjak, Public Relations and Mobility Advisor for Ljubljana’s Commercial Activities and Traffic Department. She told us about the progress made toward the Vision for 2025, the roadblocks encountered along the way, and the city’s next big project: the Ljubljana 2045 Vision.

POLIS: In 2007, Ljubljana adopted its ‘Vision for 2025.’ Among other things, the city highlighted its plans to introduce more energetically efficient, mixed-used building developments, revive its green spaces, facilitate access to the city’s waterways, and make low-emission modes of travel more widespread, all of which would enhance the city’s ‘star-shaped’ urbanism model. Ahead of 2025, what progress has been made toward achieving these goals, and where are improvements still needed?

All the above-mentioned goals are still valid and followed, and many of these plans have already been realised. However, since the year 2025 is around the corner, the City of Ljubljana has begun preparing – together with various stakeholders, experts, and citizens – a new Vision for the Development for the year 2045, which will build on the existing Ljubljana 2025 Vision (adopted in 2007). At the same time, preparations are underway for the fifth amendment to the implementation procedure of the city’s Spatial Plan.

The Ljubljana 2025 Vision highlights three goals for the city’s spatial development: a sustainable city, the all-Slovenian metropolis, and an ‘ideal city.’ During preparatory workshops, participants proposed an additional set of goals to be included in Vision Ljubljana 2045, which cover the following topics: resilience to climate change, accessibility, and a high-quality urban landscape. The document describing our vision of Ljubljana for 2045 will be finalised in 2025.

In the meantime, following the Ljubljana 2025 Vision and strategic documents, such as our Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan and Sustainable Urban Development Strategy, Ljubljana has become a people-friendly, green city in every aspect, and is continuing to upgrade its practices.

POLIS: To those unfamiliar with the benefits of hydrogen-powered vehicles, can you explain why the shift to hydrogen buses was a strategic choice for Ljubljana? What role do these buses play in Ljubljana’s larger mobility plans?

The purchase of hydrogen buses is part of a broader strategy aimed at achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. All diesel-powered city buses of the Ljubljana Passenger Transport fleet will be substituted for clean, zero-emission vehicles.

A hydrogen-fuelled bus collects passengers in Ljubljana. Credit: Nik Rovan

Hydrogen fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) offer several advantages over battery electric buses (BEBs), such as significantly faster refuelling times and longer driving ranges. Additionally, hydrogen is a highly promising energy vector, capable of storing green electricity and enabling cross-sectoral coupling. However, the operation of hydrogen buses is currently much more expensive, which limits their use to the most demanding routes.

We believe that utilising both FCEBs and BEBs in a complementary manner will yield the best results.

POLIS: In addition to restricting vehicular access to the city centre, Ljubljana has achieved a resounding success with the transformation of Slovenska cesta – previously one of the main motor routes through the city – into a pedestrianised ‘urban living room.’ Will other motorways in Ljubljana undergo a similar transition? If so, what role will input from citizens, users, and stakeholders play in these changes?

The central part of Slovenska cesta has become a shared space after a seven-year-long participatory process that involved experts, stakeholders, interest groups, residents, visitors, and the general public. We temporarily changed the traffic regime in 2013 to show the possibilities for a different use of this space. Responses to the temporary arrangement were continuously monitored and based on collected opinions and the area was later permanently transformed into a quality public space that is friendlier to people, especially to those with disabilities, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users.

This area was the first shared space in Slovenia and was followed by a few other similar rearrangements of streets and public spaces. We plan to proceed with this approach, especially in the inclusive process of developing the new Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan of the City of Ljubljana, which is already in progress. The results will show the priorities and interests of participants in continuing such practices, and the city will, based on those opinions, shape plans for refurbishments.

Slovenska cesta, before and after. Credit: City of Ljubljana

POLIS: If one of the main challenges in completing the modal shift from private, motorised vehicles to active, shared, and public transport modes is making private users aware of their contribution to road traffic, what are Ljubljana’s goals in terms of awareness-raising and communication? In other words, how is the city driving the social change needed to support infrastructural changes?

Throughout the year, we invest a lot of time, energy, and resources in communication, promotion, and awareness-raising. We believe that soft measures provide crucial support to infrastructural measures. Besides ‘regular’ communication channels, such as the official websites of the City of Ljubljana and its affiliated companies and institutions, social media, newsletters, weekly press conferences, public releases, and media relations, we are deeply engaged in campaigns, such as the European Mobility Week (since  2002),  the ‘For a nicer Ljubljana’ environmental campaign, the ‘Human, take care of your city’ campaign, numerous Bike to Work campaigns, festivals, various events, demonstrations, prize games, etc. Additionally, we cooperate with and co-finance many NGOs to support much-needed awareness-raising activities.

The truth is that a city government or administration can offer a million alternatives to private cars or better solutions for getting from A to B. Still, in the end, everybody is responsible for their actions. No campaign can be successful if people are not willing to change their behaviour. Behavioural change is the hardest to accomplish, and as we all know, old habits die hard. Sometimes, all we need for a modal shift is a (societal) shift in mentality.

POLIS: By 2030, Ljubljana aims for sustainable transport (e.g., walking, cycling, public transport) to make up two-thirds of the city’s modal share. The final third is reserved for private, motorised vehicles powered by ‘green’ energy and operating at full occupancy. How will Ljubljana ensure that this last group – those who continue to use private vehicles after 2030 – do not hinder the city’s mobility transition? What is Ljubljana doing to make sure that these vehicles will be powered by green energy and operating at peak efficiency, as the city hopes?

This is a topic that falls under national jurisdiction. The city itself cannot implement measures to discipline those who do not oblige in full. That is why cooperation with state-level entities is extremely important, and we are, together, working on solutions that will tackle this issue.

Nevertheless, we are thinking about implementing a congestion charge or city tax, which would present a certain financial burden to users of diesel- or petrol-powered cars. Currently, however, it appears to be an unfair measure, especially to the socially disadvantaged. Therefore, we plan to conduct research on the matter before deciding on further steps.

One thing is certain: we will have to make life a little harder for car owners if we want to achieve our goals.

POLIS: One of Ljubljana’s goals is to seamlessly integrate its historic buildings, streets, and parks into a changing urban environment, where climate change mitigation and adaptation measures are becoming more and more imperative. How can the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ elements of the city work together to promote sustainable urbanism? Which value does each lend to the other?

We are striving for improvement, resilience, and sustainability. If that means changing our old ways, infrastructure, buildings, public space, or viewpoints, so be it. However, we must not forget about our history and heritage when introducing novelties.

The Tromostovje ('Three Bridges'), before and after. Credit: City of Ljubljana

In the City of Ljubljana, we pay special attention to the protection and preservation of our rich cultural heritage dating back to prehistoric times, as well as our natural heritage. Interventions in public spaces and buildings in the city centre or other protected areas must be performed by special permits issued by the respective public institutes for heritage protection.

By considering the spatial totalities and values of the cultural and natural environment, modern heritage protection brings together the expertise of various fundamental disciplines and the specialist knowledge and theoretical approaches of conservation, restoration, and prevention. The old and new must work hand in hand if we want to move forward and make progress.

POLIS: Beyond its work at the local level, Ljubljana has played a role in European efforts to foster sustainable mobility, such as by hosting the 2022 Velo-city Conference and joining the POLIS network in the same year. Concretely, how does Ljubljana benefit from its cooperation with other European cities and regions? How do these partnerships inform Ljubljana’s mobility plans?

We are proud of our ‘domestic’ expertise and have an excellent ‘large city family’ team, which has implemented over 2,500 projects since 2007. We do agree, however, that knowledge has to be upgraded according to modern development and innovation and can be replenished through the exchange of experience with other cities and actors. Many developed and progressive cities can be our role models and vice versa.

There are many examples of good practices to learn from, so we are connecting with other cities, exchanging knowledge and experiences, and sharing the lessons we have learned through international networks and organisations or at international conferences, events, and study visits. I get a lot of new ideas at each conference I attend, which I usually present to my colleagues upon my return, and we try to incorporate them into our (mobility) plans. Meeting experts, practitioners, officials, decision-makers, and politicians from other cities and countries often results in project partnerships and collaboration on similar issues.

Still, it is important to consider the fact that every city is specific and has its own characteristics and peculiarities that need to be taken into consideration. For this reason, a project can be successful in one city and not in the other.

POLIS: Moving forward, Ljubljana aims to become a ‘Little Metropolis’ – a vibrant, welcoming city where people of all backgrounds can access high-quality services and work opportunities without abandoning the comforts of small-town living. How will the city’s mobility plans contribute to the realisation of the ‘Little Metropolis’, and what changes will need to be made to Ljubljana’s mobility system to achieve this vision?

The ‘metropolis’ described in the Ljubljana 2025 Vision exemplifies accessibility, efficient land management, safety, respect and support for diversity, and a continually better quality of life.

In the process of co-designing the Ljubljana 2045 Vision, the participants of the workshops re-defined the term ‘metropolis’, emphasising the ‘city of good accessibility’ principle – ie a city that is accessible, efficient, mobile, and regionally connected. They pointed out goals like building a 15-minute city, developing diverse and reliable public passenger transport, reducing motorised traffic, and connecting the city and its surroundings through an efficient transport system.

A bird's eye view of the Slovenian capital. Credit: Mostphotos

Moreover, it is evident that (sustainable) mobility plays an important role in becoming a little metropolis. We will have to put all our efforts into minimising the influx of daily trips by cars and changing the travel habits of the more than 120,000 car drivers who come to Ljubljana each working day of the work week.

If we focus on mobility, we can achieve these goals by providing efficient public transport in the entire country – especially in the Ljubljana urban region – developing quality cycling infrastructure, ensuring faster development of sharing systems, etc. Some other thematic fields and factors influence travel habits and mobility development, such as the situation in the real estate market, urbanism, population, restraints related to working from home instead of coming to the office every day, education programmes… But those are topics for another day.

An overview of Ljubljana's current sustainable mobility measures. Design by Quaid Cey.