Marco te Brömmelstroet is a professor of Urban Mobility Futures at the University of Amsterdam and the Academic Director of the Urban Cycling Institute. Contributor James Lynch interviewed him for the Around Podcast. Here’s an excerpt from their discussion touching on humanizing transportation and capitalizing on the momentum of the current moment to rethink transportation permanently.
Image courtesy of Marco te Brömmelstroet
How does one go from owning a bike shop, having a love of riding a bike, to being someone whose academic focus is cycling?
I live in the Netherlands. Cycling is something completely normal here. It’s like water to a fish. I work at the University of Amsterdam and many people from abroad came to us, they asked us, “We are interested in cycling, can you show me some things?” It’s like when two fish meet and one fish goes, how’s the water? and the other fish goes, what water? That was the same with cycling. Cycling in the Netherlands wasn’t something you studied, no one was studying it, or at least nobody dedicated to cycling studies.
So when all these people kept coming to the Netherlands I wondered why is this the case? Why are so many people interested in what’s happening here? And then I basically decided to focus on that and try to understand what is so interesting about the bicycle, about cycling, about the specific Dutch way of cycling and about what kind of cities and society this leads to.
Now when you talk to these people, and they visit, what are the particular aspects of Dutch cycling that make it so individual? How do other cities go about trying to capture that?
Most of the things are not rocket science, from the internet you can get all the specifications of a bicycle path, so that’s not it. They are coming to get emerged, a body kinesthetic emergence in this context where the bicycle became the mainstream mobility mode.
At the end of these trips we ask people, “What did you learn and when did you learn it?” and people start talking about lectures they attended and talks they heard, then almost always there is a moment where they start to have recollections of that specific moment in the evening outside the program when they went to get their stroopwafel and they were on their own and they became suddenly aware, their goosebump moment, everyone around me is on a bike, that feeling that is what they take home.
One of the very specific things that I often point out that is very peculiar is that Dutch cyclists sit upright, It is not aerodynamic. You will not win the Tour de France sitting upright on the bicycle. We have been doing this for more than 100 years. If you start diving into that then for me as a social scientist it becomes especially interesting. If you sit upright you have all your senses open so it’s much easier to look around, to talk but also to exchange information with other people on the road. Basically you are still a pedestrian, you are a bit higher and a bit faster, but basically because you sit upright you can actually use your facial expression to negotiate with the people around you. The effect is also that we see human faces all day, that makes it a very different social phenomenon.
Many people think of transportation as getting from a to b as fast as you can. What priorities have superseded speed for Dutch cyclists when they choose the upright bike?
We are educated to think about mobility as something that needs to be fast, bring us where we need to be and everything in between in transportation terms is considered a disutility. A friction, something that needs to be minimized as much as possible. For the Dutch cyclist getting there fastest isn’t the biggest concern. Being underway can be a positive thing, it’s not a disutility, there are many utilities in it.
You meet the most people that are different from your own bubble; you have to negotiate with these people; you’re an active citizen. This has a ton of positive effects on societal indicators. Mutual trust goes up. The sense of place, belonging, neighboring, all these elements go up as people become more of a society. Being underway may not always be pleasant, but it makes you feel human.
When we consider things in human terms, how do we make transportation more human?
There is a book “Energy and Equity” by Ivan Illich where his premise is there an optimum speed of movement. He was coming from an energy perspective but I think you can stretch this point.
The optimal speed is 15 mph in his view. Above that, the amount of energy to do that will never outweigh the individual benefits. The cost to society will be more than all the individual benefits put together. Going faster requires energy and has negative effects on others.
If you go faster, there are traffic safety issues. It’s very hard to kill somebody at 15 mph. One million three-hundred thousand to 1.4 million people die every year in traffic, and that’s by and large because of the higher speeds we have become accustomed to. There are also environmental damages.
It feels activistic to say, but 15 mph fits really well with bicycles. You get the benefits, which will then include more local communities, without the disadvantages.
How do we change our language about cycling deaths to reflect some of these issues we aren’t talking about?
You can talk about how many people drown in the sea. It’s a very natural thing, so we train people to swim. But our thought mistake is that traffic is not a natural phenomenon. It is something we do to each other.
A lot of these deaths are reported locally. The first thing we need to do is raise awareness. It’s a systematic issue. Then we need to show how the language used to describe these things is value neutral. We need to do a much better job describing these crashes as not a glitch in the machine but as a human drama for everybody involved.
If we do that, we will see the ugliness of this. If you go out, you have to discipline your children if they have to engage with SUVs that are lethal. We discipline the victims. If we open up the debate, the only logical conclusion is that we can no longer accept how we organize public space in our societies. We can say this to each other, but this will be dramatic. It’s a huge change.
We all pray that we will not be involved in such a crash, but there is an accepted cost, not explicit but implicit. That’s why we tend to put it in statistics, it makes it easier for everybody to accept that people are dying.
Let’s have a politician say it’s perfectly okay to have 40,000 people kill each other on the streets in your country each year. That’s okay if you actively choose and argue for that. I will argue with you, but at least it is explicit.
When we think about rehumanizing streets, do we have to separate modes of transportation, or can we have a shared space?
Shared space would suggest that normally the space is not shared, but all the space out there is shared, we just apply different rules.
In our cities or large parts of our cities, 90–95 percent of city streets in principle have multiple purposes, and one is vehicular traffic, but that became the dominant one. So dominant we don’t even see it. So dominant we do not even see what we lost. We lost large swaths of our public space where children could play, we could meet our neighbors. If you have a street where a fast car comes through even once an hour, the other functions have to go. You can’t play in the street.
The metaphor I like using it is like a person throwing huge rocks at you, and we say you have to wear a helmet, high-vis [apparel] and be on your nerves all the time. As soon as you stop the person throwing rocks, it becomes a much more inclusive place again. If we bring down the speed, it is automatically shared again.
I think we can say on some streets the vehicular throughput is the most important thing, but we should have a democratic discussion on it.
We have seen some changes in different cities around the world where space is returned to slower speeds. Does that give you hope that these things will remain after the pandemic?
There is this fort I see in my metaphor, the fort is the street and traffic engineers. Now we have put our ladders up to the front, we see in the fort. But it’s still a fort. All our public money is being spent with the logic within the fort: that travel time is disutility, that traffic congestion needs to be solved, that traffic fatalities are a matter of life.
The car has left the room, but it is not gone. It is sitting idly by, and they will go again once we say the economy needs to recover. People will become frustrated. We see that it can be different, and the politicians and the fort aren’t doing it differently. That frustration can fuel a revolution and we can storm the fort.
What is politics? It is not the representative; it is the people who choose the representatives. We need to go to the basic level of politics and tell people that there is something to fight for—public space. Show people they should be concerned, not take it for granted. They should take a position. Any position.
If we train people to make that noise on a local level then political parties will start to see that there is something to position themselves on to gain votes, then the experts will be asked. We have been discussing for decades how to change streets to be more human scaled. But experts should not be the ones asking the question why do it. In a democracy, experts have to listen to the representatives of the people.
The forts of traffic engineering will roll forward. This is the moment to get as many people as possible politically activated. And that’s all we can do. When this moment is over there will be some decades to go before we have another opportunity.
To learn more:
Urban Cycling Institute on most social media platforms
Two free Coursera courses: Reclaim the Streets, Unravel the Cycling City