MOBILITY FOR PEOPLE
Talking to Prof. Marco te Brömmelstroet, Professor of Urban Mobility Futures at the University of Amsterdam & founding academic director of The Urban Cycling Institute
Prof. te Brömmelstroet, is Europe already in the middle of the mobility transformation or only, if at all, on the way to it?
There are a lot of promising signs. Increasingly interesting discussions and ideas on policy levels, a growing number of cities that are really following a trajectory of radical change and a mounting number of limitations posed on the way that we “used” to deal with the mobility system. However, most energy, time, and resources are still spent on supporting the existing set of rules, institutions and models. These are still following the same underlying narratives and dreams that have fueled the mobility domain for the last seven decades: decreasing the friction of individuals who want to travel as fast, cheap and comfortable as possible from A to B.
The website of The Urban Cycling Institute opens with the following quote from Jane Jacobs: “Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city.” Especially in terms of science, planning and design of urban space and infrastructure: What does this quote mean to you?
To make radical change happen, we need to question the underlying narratives. We should actively look for the limitations of our understanding of key mechanisms. The conceptual models that underly mobility engineering are strongly performative: They don’t only describe reality but also profoundly shape it. As Karl Popper postulated, this makes it crucial for academic researchers to look to falsify the core assumptions they hold. Jane Jacobs did that for the engineering approach to city planning, and she pointed to the importance of emergence: Managing aggregate patterns is only possible by a deep understanding of the individual behaviour that underlies them. This is also what makes the Dutch cyclists such an important study object. They can either be increasingly molded into the conceptual models of traffic engineering. Or they can inspire us towards a different and new understanding of what mobility can be and what new conceptual models can emerge from that.
Cycling has long had the status of a leisure activity. Academic attention for the topic of cycling as a mode of transportation with relevant impact on the shape of cities has been very limited – however, this is currently changing. What does this development entail for the field of science, urban and transport planning, and for society? The Urban Cycling Institute follows a multidisciplinary approach to cycling, how does this manifest? Can you give us an overview?
In the Dutch context, cycling is so ubiquitous that it allows us as social scientists to use it as a powerful lens to critically study a plethora of spatial and social phenomena in and around our cities. It helps us understand historical patterns, processes of gentrification, of gender and class, of interaction patterns and choreographies of public spaces and of economic functioning.
This lens creates easy bridges across disciplines in academia, but also between science and practice. Our educational, research and outreach products each aim to strengthen these bridges.
© João Marcelo Martins/Unsplash
European cities were not built for cars. But for decades, urban space was planned and rebuilt for them. The guiding principle at the time was the modern „functionally separated city“ according to the Athens Charter, so the city had to adapt to the boom in motorization. Cities are now under pressure in the face of everincreasing mobility needs and congested infrastructures, as well as increasing urbanization and the challenges posed by climate change. Cycling increasingly emerges as a simple solution to complex issues. It cannot be the only solution, though – how do you imagine the perfect intermodal system that also includes bicycle traffic?
If we look for solutions, we first need to have clarity on which problem we define. Most mobility challenges are “wicked problems” and we should avoid looking for a single solution or answer to them. With that nuance, we see in the Netherlands that it is especially a tight combination between small and flexible, human-powered modes and larger, faster and high capacity vehicles that offers synergetic characteristics able to serve a multitude of urban structures and a multitude of different societal goals. In the Netherlands this is offered by the bicycle-train combination that outperforms the car on most – if not all – relations in terms of travel time and energy use. It also strengthens the social functioning of public spaces and mobility systems.
Many planners from other countries look closely at the Netherlands. What is the role of the international transferability of Dutch urban cycling policies and practices – an area of inquiry with loads of interest but little data? How can we ensure and improve the knowledge transfer? How is it possible to more deeply understand the phenomenon of “policy transfer” or “policy learning” and its impact on both short-term project delivery and systemic change? What is needed to improve the use of knowledge in urban strategy making processes?
Within my work, cycling is just an example, albeit a fascinating one. But in general our strong body of research into policy transfer and our conceptual work on understanding the role of mobility innovations offers important lessons for planning practices around the world. If I can give one advice, it is to make clear that any mobility intervention is a manifestation of underlying values and moral judgments. We have gotten used to dealing with mobility problems and solutions as if they were value free technical questions (that we can copy as best practice across context), but since they are vital for the functioning of public spaces, every choice in them should be seen as deeply political. What city do you want to be and how do different mobility systems and solutions play a positive role in that?
Although the Netherlands and Germany are directly neighboring countries, we see two different traditions and cultures in terms of mobility behavior, especially with regard to bicycle mobility. Germany is considered a car country – not least because the automotive and automobile industry is one of the most fundamental pillars of the local economy. By 2030, however, Germany wants to become a bicycle country. To achieve this goal, we not only need more people to switch to bicycles, but also a corresponding infrastructure with well-developed bike paths and sufficient parking spaces. We are therefore talking about an immense challenge, both in terms of urban planning, urban development and people‘s usage behavior. In your view, what is elementary to trigger a change in people‘s minds?
As I said: Make it political. Most people do not want to live in a street that is dominated by cars. We suffer from a Stockholm Syndrome where we are stuck in a car dependent society where we take for granted that people don’t want change. But they do! As every largescale survey shows. Also, don’t romanticize. The Netherlands has the highest car ownership per square kilometer and the enormous fleet of cars is rapidly growing, especially outside of urban centers.
© Greg Janneau/Unsplash
For the appointment of the ministers by German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir came on his e-bike to Bellevue Palace, the seat of the Federal President. This was nothing short of a sensation. In the Netherlands, this is commonplace. How so?
He was the only one, and all his colleagues – including the Transport Minister – covered the short distance with a chauffeured car. Most likely also because the German car industry has a stronghold in terms of lobbying on that level of government. Another explanation is that historically cycling in NL is a status symbol, while in Germany it has been a working class symbol from the start.
Which images are necessary to be able to transfer the mobility transformation from the abstract to the concrete, to the individual?
I believe in the power of repetition and keep showing people the possibilities. My friend Jan Kamensky from Hamburg does this brilliantly by combining all of this into digital masterpieces of changing streetscapes.
Let’s talk about cycling behavior. Research has shown among others that, at first glance, there are no homogeneous mobility patterns among cyclists. How so? What does this mean for urban and transportation planning? What does this mean for safety aspects?
It means that we need to depart from the classical notion that we can simplify humans into one utilitarian individual (the “homo oeconomicus”). This obsolete notion from the 1970s has been guiding the way that we model and approach traffic and it goes hand in hand with technology dominated modes that are indeed also molding the human into that model (we do behave like an egoistic, rational, utility maximizing antisocial automation when we are in a car). Understanding how diverse people are can help us create public spaces that work for all instead of just a few and that support streets where humanity thrives.
What is your opinion on autonomous driving? It‘s supposed to make road traffic safer. But is it even conceivable to have autonomous vehicles and cyclists meet in a traffic system, given the difficult-to-predict behavior of cyclists?
The only way that this can help us forward is if we draw the logical conclusion that this system can only work (can: in terms of morals) on the highway system. This would make sense if we then reclaim the underlying networks as places where human mobility is the standard. The highway network can then function as a many-to-many public transport system of autonomous, clean and efficient pods which you access/egress on the on/off ramps. Like the old idea of “Aramis” (Bruno Latour), but then only on highways; giving us back the rest.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Learn more about this reasoning explained and described in the award-winning journalistic book “Movement: how to take back our streets and transform our lives” by Thalia Verkade & Marco te Brömmelstroet. For interesting insights into the Dutch cycling culture watch the documentaries “Why we cycle” and “Together we cycle”.
MARCO TE BRÖMMELSTROET
holds the position of Professor of Urban Mobility Futures at the University of Amsterdam. He is the founding academic director of the Urban Cycling Institute that is a part of the Centre for Urban Studies. The Institute leads research into the reciprocal relations between cycling, society and cities and is also actively involved in international dissemination of Dutch cycling knowledge.