A Q&A with cycling advocate Melissa Bruntlett from Modacity
A few years ago, I read a book called Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality. Written by two Canadian urban mobility advocates, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, it talked about how the cities of the Netherlands became synonymous with bike travel and cycle infrastructure. And while it largely focused on the benefits of two-wheeled transport, the book’s underlying message was broader than that. It said that for cities to become nicer and more sustainable places to live, we have to design them so that they prioritize humans over the private car.
As a first step to rectify this, I hopped on the phone with Melissa Bruntlett, who now lives in Delft with Chris and their two children. They’ve been working on a new book: Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, which will be published onJune 29th. Our conversation – an edited version of which is below – focused on the realities of “low-car” city living in the Netherlands, and what it could mean for other cities.
MORE FOR YOU
Laurie: In your work, you regularly remind readers that Dutch cities haven’t always been such big supporters of cycling – in the ’70s and ’80s, shopkeepers protested the installation of cycleways by digging them up overnight. Have positive attitudes to bikes ever threatened to reverse?
Melissa: Anywhere in the world where transitions are made, you’ll see hesitancy from people. That is totally natural. A lot of shopkeepers and others worry that removing parking spaces from outside their business will have a negative impact. But it’s been shown over and over again that such transitions come with huge benefits.
When we were researching this book, we found photos of some of the public squares here in Delft – places that today are filled with patios and street life all year round. A little as 10 or 20 years ago, those squares were parking lots. So this has been an ongoing transformation; this realization that if we limit how much access cars have to city centers, you can build up a vibrancy there instead. And it is still happening. Delft has a long-term vision to remove cars from the center completely – with the exception of people who have absolutely no choice but to use them. And you know, there are people who think this is a step too far. So while I wouldn’t say that there’s been any appetite for a wholesale return to the previous levels of car access, there is still push-back, time and again.
What is the best way to demonstrate the benefits of transitioning from a car-focused urban center to one that prioritizes foot and cycle traffic?
When we’re talking about changing the street environment, or changing the retail environment in terms of access and storage of cars, there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what that actually looks like. So, piloting and testing things out is a really good way to show people that it is possible to do things differently. That approach also allows you to actually measure the impacts that it has on things like foot traffic and cycle traffic, on economic sales, etc.
But I’m a firm believer that you can’t get to that success without talking to the people that it actually impacts. So you have to engage with those business owners and local residents, give them an opportunity to voice their concern, and then have a conversation on how those concerns are being addressed. Without that communication, you’ll breed misunderstanding, and the likely outcome is push-back. So having the people that live or work in that space be a part of the decision-making process is really valuable. That’s the best way to change mindsets, and get to a point where a change like this will be accepted and ultimately celebrated.
Why do you think we see disconnects between what people who live in an area actually need, want, and are asking for, and the actions and attitudes of decision-makers?
It’s an interesting dichotomy really, because ultimately, we hire our elected officials. But the truth is that decision-makers tend to listen to the most vocal people – those who go to all of the public meetings. Oftentimes, they actually represent a minority of the community, because so much of the public engagement process in cities happens at times that don’t suit most people.
To the decision-makers, I’d say, it comes back to talking to the people that a project will actually impact. There’s obviously a limit to how much public engagement you can do, but at the very least, if you’re trying to address someone’s particular challenge in terms of how they use the city, you need to be asking the people that actually live that way. If you’re making a guess about how someone uses the city, then you’re not doing your job properly.
We very often see this when thinking about how many women move through the city, as well as those living with different disabilities – most cities are not optimized for those groups. Is this where the idea of the feminist city comes in?
Yes, absolutely. When we plan and design our cities with just one function in mind – and historically, this has been around economic gains, and the 9 to 5 lifestyle – we forget all the other types of travel people have, and the other things that city-dwellers do in a day. So you might go to a workplace, pick up groceries, get kids to school, visit elderly family, etc. The majority of these types of trips are undertaken by women, and they’re not captured if we look solely at ‘the commute’, which means they’re often not accommodated.
It’s also important to recognize that people living with disabilities often don’t work full time jobs, so they need to have access to public transport, and a safe means of moving through the city, outside of those traditional hours. That’s true for the elderly too. The key thing is access to opportunity – providing options for everyone so that we can move through our cities on our own terms. A feminist city is a more equitable city all-round, because it’s one that focuses on the human functions of the city, not just its economic gains.
How do we ensure that our cities become more equitable, and that we don’t risk making some members of our community even more vulnerable?
Again, it’s ensuring that the right voices are in the room. I don’t have the lived experience of disability, so I can’t necessarily inform a city in terms of what kind of design is needed. There are plenty of others who can, though, and they should be involved in the decision-making from the very start.
There’s a wider idea of mobility poverty, and our access to mobility. I’d argue that balancing the playing fields is much more important than solely focusing on putting in more bike lanes, and getting people out of cars. They’re not going to get out of their cars if you don’t give them alternate means for getting around, and so that’s what we need to be doing. Bridget Burdett [a New Zealand engineer whose work focuses on inclusiveness in transport] says that, if we’re talking about creating access for people, we need to make sure that we’re creating access when and where they need it.
We also need to see better partnerships between private organizations and the city’s public representatives. If you look at e-scooters, they’re a good point-to-point transport option for people. But I know that many cities have issues with how they’re stored – or not – on the sidewalk. So the city managers need to ask ‘if we’re going to have these in our city, where do we put them when they’re not in use so that they’re not hindering people’s movement?’
Does the car still have a role to play in urban transport?
One of the reasons that Chris and I are so adamant about saying it’s about fewer cars in our lives, rather than none is because we understand that sometimes people don’t have a choice. And when we haven’t given groups a choice, the car becomes a default. But it shouldn’t be that we then shame them into getting rid of their car, especially if we haven’t provided another option to begin with.
If public transport doesn’t reach people in a convenient way, and doesn’t get them where they need to go, when they need to get there, then of course they’re going to drive. If you want to reduce the car trips people take, then we need to provide affordable access to alternatives, and not just at peak times.
If we make it easier to choose something other than a private automobile, then people will start to use it. That is exactly what has happened here in the Netherlands – by making cycling and walking and public transport easy, it’s become the prevalent way for people get around.
Here in NZ, we see a lot of conversation that attempts to pit cyclists against motorists. How can we move past that?
Yes, in the past 10 or 20 years, conversations around cycling have certainly become more heated! An eye-opening thing here in the Netherlands is that most people don’t consider themselves to be cyclists, unless they’re going out for a road bike ride on the weekend. Otherwise, they’re just someone using the easiest, cheapest tool to get to where they need to go. [LW: The Dutch even have two different terms for these different ways of using bikes: fietser (utility cyclist – an everyday bike user) and wielrenner (wheel runner – speedy, lycra-clad bike riding)]
Chris and I try to avoid using terms like cyclists, motorists and pedestrians wherever possible, because if you combine travel modes, you might be all of those things at any one time. Labeling ourselves, and putting ourselves in these boxes, has become really, really detrimental. Those sitting on opposites sides of the table need to better understand the needs of each other, rather than build hostility. At the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to get around, and we choose the best ways that are given to us to get us where we need to go. We’re a pragmatic species.