11.–12.06.2025 #polismobility

EN Icon Pfeil Icon Pfeil
EN Element 13300 Element 12300 DE
Minds of Transformation

How asking the right questions facilitates change

Share page
PrintPrint page Read duration ca. 0 minutes

The transport transition needs bright minds. One of them is Meredith Glaser (Urban Cycling Institute/ Ghent University). A conversation about political and bureaucratic barriers, positive trends from Amsterdam and the power of asking the right questions. On Thursday, May 23, she will be speaking at polisMOBILITY in the futureTALK about the craft of change and the contradictions in sustainability work.

Portrait Meredith Glaser portrait format. Meredith smiling on a bicycle.

©Meredith Glaser

You once stated that the mobility transition might not begin with mobility. What does it begin with instead?

As cities are complex ecosystems, any type of transition requires a systemic way of thinking. And when I state that mobility transition may not begin with mobility, it’s because mobility is connected to so many aspects of not only our built environment and our cities, but also our social environment. Being mobile means to be able to access life opportunities, to create friendships and foster social interaction. We therefore need to include all different actors involved, ranging from resident level to city councils and higher governmental institutions. In order to enable change together, they first need to listen to each other and come to an agreement on what the vision they are aiming for actually looks like.

The discussion on the transformation of urban mobility seems to be dominated by discord. Do you have any idea why this might be, when mutual understanding should be the guiding principle?

For the past hundred years, our streets have mostly been governed by the idea that they need to facilitate the movement and storing of cars. Questioning this paradigm and changing the narrative that has been ascribed to street space for such a long time, is a highly political matter. Streets can be seen as the physical manifestation of the tensions around any policy change in public space. And in cities which have to cope increasingly with urbanization, overcome housing crises and ensure accessibility for all, it is precisely this space that is valuable and disputed. Reaching a common denominator here is – by its very nature – not trivial.

Still, there are good examples all around the world. Amsterdam used to be a car-friendly city some decades ago and has since managed to transform itself to one of the most liveable European cities. What is the reason for this success?

We spoke about complexity earlier, so it is fairly apparent that there is not just one reason for this; in fact, a large range of factors has contributed to the change. For instance, there were a number of social movements at the time that were concerned about all different kinds of crises, primarily oil and housing. In the Netherlands, global activities such as these have led citizens to reflect on what the city actually means to them and who has a right to it. And as car traffic increased, taking up more and more space and causing more and more air pollution and traffic fatalities, all these questions came together and created “a perfect storm” of events. The administrative and governmental structures of the city have also allowed this power to be transformed into political action.

In many European cities, it’s easy to get the feeling that even if the will to transform urban mobility is apparent, things are going really slowly. Lay attempts to explain this include excessive bureaucracy, political paralysis in municipalities or recalcitrant citizens. What is the genuine problem, and how can it be solved?

Of course, there is bureaucracy, but I think that is a proxy for the complexities of managing urban transport systems. The problem is that these transport systems have been embedded in a car dominant framework, and the professions of transport and urban planning have been, too. So, in order to unravel this system, we have to change the way our cities make policy around land use matters. In the end, it comes down to the municipalities, their political framework, their administrations – and lots of communication. To accommodate new types of policies and governing arrangements, old institutional and organisational structures need to be reshaped and public participation needs to be facilitated. We need to address all those who are silent and build bridges between them, civic leaders and municipal administrations.

You were recently appointed Professor of Cycling by the University of Ghent, so you are in the role of those connecting academia, local authorities and civic society. How are you planning on building these bridges?

There is still a gap between knowledge and practice. My role could be described as a pilot test to explore how this gap can be closed. The goal is to create societal impact through research. One way of doing this is to enable structured interaction between government and academia, who tend to have very different views of what knowledge is. I see academics as knowledge brokers, not knowledge providers: We come in as outsiders with an honest curiosity about how things are, and instead of providing solutions, we provide questions. We ask about policy agendas, mutual influences, about the holders of power. Also, we question community dynamics: which groups are committed to the future of the city, which organisations are they affiliated with? We then hand this framework of questions over to the city. The past has shown: The bridges we build are gladly used.

Thank you for this inspiring conversation.

About Meredith

With a multi-disciplinary background in public health and urban planning, Meredith Glaser brings a holistic understanding of and passion for advancing sustainable mobility. She is one of the most sought-after educators regarding urban cycling systems, governance and knowledge transfer of cycling policies. She is CEO of the Urban Cycling Institute and serves as Professor of Cycling at Ghent University. She received a PhD in urban planning from the University of Amsterdam and Masters degrees in public health and city planning from University of California Berkeley.