“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” – H.G. Wells.
The Dutch citizens are the happiest, healthiest and the most active in the European region.
But Netherlands is not just about cycling; it’s about everyday freedom, inclusivity, accessibility, safety, architecture, livable neighborhoods, nature and everything else that makes an ideal country to live.
Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, the Canadian born authors and urban mobility advocates who strive to communicate the benefits of sustainable transport and inspire happier, healthier, more human-scale cities brings an inside view through a new book ‘Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives’.
In 2019, Melissa and Chris, along with their children Coralie and Etienne, relocated from Vancouver, Canada, to Delft, the Netherlands.
Melissa works with Mobycon – a Consultancy firm; while Chris is the Marketing and Communications Manager at the Dutch Cycling Embassy.
In this chat, Chris elaborates about life in Delft City, some of his families personal experiences – with regards to mobility and otherwise; and talks about his latest book.
Congratulations for becoming an author for the 2nd time. Briefly, tell us about your new book ‘Curbing Traffic’?
After the herculean effort of researching, writing, and promoting “Building the Cycling City”, we had little-to-no interest in writing a second book. But within weeks of relocating our family from Vancouver to Delft, we started noticing subtle things about our family’s improved physical and emotional well-being. These were qualitative lifestyle changes not necessarily brought on by the bicycle infrastructure, but the broader ‘low-car’ environment that saw us dealing with much less motor vehicle traffic in our day-to-day lives. So, we began documenting these phenomena into ten categories, fired off an outline to our editor at Island Press, and found ourselves with another book to write. If “Building the Cycling City” describes the how, “Curbing Traffic” outlines the why – what society has to gain by reducing the speed and volume of cars in our cities: improved equity, social cohesion, economic prosperity, resilience, and physical/mental health.
Curbing Traffic describes Delft as a ‘Therapeutic City’, how liberating it is for ‘Mental Health’ to be able to walk, bike and boat; at the same time heal with the nature?
This was something we – and probably a lot of others around the world – really gained a new appreciation for during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we were all locked down in our homes for several months. As a matter of mental health, human beings need space to practice physical and social activity and expose themselves to nature. Car-dominated and -dependent cities lack these “restorative spaces”: quiet, green areas where we can get some fresh air and move our bodies (especially after a stressful day staring at a computer screen). By resisting the urge to “modernize” itself around the automobile in the 1970s, Delft has an abundance of these types of spaces; enabling us to walk, cycle, or paddle around the city – rather than try and escape it – each day.
In the book ‘Curbing Traffic’ it is said – ‘The bicycles are simply a by-product in the larger scheme of things’, what other ingredients contribute to the livability of a city like Delft?
We spend a segment of each chapter exploring one of many policy decisions Delft made over the past five decades, starting with their Traffic Circulation Plan in 1970. By removing virtually all through car traffic from each residential neighborhood, and finally the economic center, it has greatly improved the safety and livability of the entire city. During that process, the municipality established the “woonerf” (or “living street”) as a residential street type, reclaiming space from the cars passing through to the residents living on it – transforming it into a social and welcoming space for all ages. Of course, the bike infrastructure is critical – and Delft was the first Dutch city to plan and build a complete, comfortable network – but these types of incentives can’t be implemented without a corresponding disincentive, thus making driving indirect and inconvenient.
Moving from Vancouver, to become residents of Delft city, what are the socio-psychological gains you would like to bring in spotlight?
The process of moving halfway around the world helped us to better understand that providing opportunities for active, independent mobility is a much bigger topic than just “transportation”. There are so many different demographics excluded from the current car-first approach, including children, the elderly, people living with disabilities, and low-income residents. The design of safe and inclusive streets can shape our society in very deep and meaningful ways; allowing those groups to actively participate in society. It also has the potential to address so many different crises our cities are currently facing including obesity, loneliness, social trust, mental health, and of course, climate change.
Through the case of ‘Maya’, it is very much evident that Delft is a welcoming city for people of all abilities. What are the major takeaways from the two unfortunate tripping incidents in your family?
The irony of two Bruntletts breaking limbs on bicycles within two years of moving to “fietsparadijs” (“bicycle paradise”) is not lost on us. But they reinforce the fact that all of us are on a continuum from strong to weak, from tired to energized, from depressed to exuberant, and from pain free to experiencing chronic pain. At any point we may find ourselves living with a disability, and auto-centered ideas, like thinking everyone with a disability has access to a car, are ableist ideas. In the case of Etienne’s broken arm, he ended up switching from the bicycle to the tram for two months. And Melissa’s broken ankle compelled us to borrow a cargo tricycle in which we could transport her around the city. In both cases, we used the diverse networks of infrastructure provided for residents who might not have the luxury of owning and operating automobiles.
As a parent, when you see your children enjoy the autonomy and freedom of space and movement, how do you view the situation vis-à-vis your previous experiences?
Even though it formed a significant factor in our decision to move to the Netherlands, this was probably the most dramatic and eye-opening benefit of moving to a ‘low-car’ environment. Our family’s former East Vancouver home was surrounded by four- and six-lane arterials moving upwards of 40,000 cars per day (each). Because there were few crosswalks, we felt comfortable enough to allow our children to navigate – due to fading markings or the prevalence of ‘beg buttons’ to ask permission to cross the street – they rarely walked independent of their parents. Delft’s safe and social streets allow them to travel independently with friends inside and outside the city. They get more physical activity, they have more social interaction with their peers, and they are happier, as they are no longer trapped inside their home or supervised by Mom or Dad.
Curbing Traffic highlights the problem of ‘children getting confined to indoors, tech addicts and becoming car dependent’ – is a serious issue most cities outside of Netherlands are facing. Do you suggest urban planners to take a more holistic approach for a car-lite future?
In the Netherlands, two thirds of school children walk or cycle to school and 75 percent for high school students. This dates to policies established decades ago mandating the safer design of streets. In Delft, the Traffic Circulation Plan specifically addressed the mounting safety crisis due to the speed and volume of cars on their streets. The fundamental idea was that every child should be able to walk safely to school, a friend’s house, the shops and everywhere in between without having to cross a major arterial. Preventing cars from using neighborhood streets as thoroughfares created an environment where even decades later, young children can safely travel within their community. Only through policies like this do we design children into the city, so officials would be wise to consider their viewpoint and involve them in the consultation process.
“When an approaching cyclist stops moving their feet, they are preparing to turn by applying their pedal-brake”, Coralie observed. How Child-Friendly cities enable children to become, alert, conscious, smart and independent and the kind of future we want to build for them?
By raising entire generations of children indoors and in the backseat of a car, we have done untold damage to their ability to develop into intelligent and resilient young adults. They no longer know their neighbors and their neighborhood. They are unable to navigate their own streets or exist outside their parents’ supervision. They fail to assess and task risks, sometimes make a mistake, and learn to bounce back from it. All these failings became abundantly clear when this “bubble wrap generation” starts to attend university and apply for jobs, having never been offered that degree of independence or personal responsibility for their entire lives. It is not by chance that Dutch children are amongst the happiest and healthiest in the world, and our family’s decision to relocate here was largely motivated by the desire to offer our kids this supportive environment.
It’s normal for Dutch women to cycle and her trips are seamless. But the scenario is completely opposite for women in other parts of the world. How can cities scale-up ‘Her’ representation?
Representation matters: Just 22% of EU, 20% of Asian, and 14% of US transport sector workers are female. To address the implicit bias in our streets and mobility networks, we must ensure the people designing cities (and involved in the engagement process) represent those that inhabit them. Safety is often cited as the sole reason Dutch women cycle more than men, but it’s not that simple. The fact is their fine-grained cycling networks support a wide variety of distances and destinations, accommodating complex, multi-purpose travel patterns outside of the “normal” (i.e. mostly done by men) 9-to-5 commute. When life’s daily trips – getting children (or oneself) to school, doing groceries, going to work, getting to the doctor’s office, meeting with friends – are made simpler by cycling, it becomes the natural choice, especially for women.
Despite having established a people-friendly infrastructure, the Dutch citizens are modest about their accomplishments. But you have taken an aggressive approach on how the Dutch Cycling Culture is marketed on digital media?
This is very true and speaks to two interesting things we’ve observed over the years. Firstly, the Dutch are not the type of culture to boast about anything (except maybe their football team), and even though they might be the best in the world at something, are very hesitant to “pat themselves on the back” and declare it so. Secondly, most Dutch people who grew up immersed in this incredible cycling culture are completely blind to its uniqueness, and the networks of infrastructure that make it possible. This probably explains why two Canadians became international ambassadors for Dutch cycling. We feel compelled and privileged to celebrate these inspiring successes and remind locals why they attract such attention and envy from around the world.
The twitter timeline of ‘modacitylife’ is always explosive, how do you manage such cutting-edge content?
We simply document our family’s daily lives in and around Delft, and what we see on its streets on our regular travels by foot, bicycle, and public transport. At the same time, we’re watching urbanists around the world struggle with decades of institutionalized car-centric thinking, and then composing posts in reaction to the mental barriers they’re trying to break down. The people of the Netherlands are already doing many of the things outsiders assume “can’t be done” in a ‘low-car’ city, so we shouldn’t let their lack of imagination result in a lack of action.
Finally, how come everything looks perfect in your photographs? If you would like to make a disclosure about the equipments you carry in your bag?
We’re of the mindset that the best camera is whichever one you’re carrying with you, so many of the shots we share on social media are taken with an iPhone (11). In some instances, we’ll bring along our Nikon D3200 dSLR (with a telephoto lens) for that extra quality, particularly when we want to capture action shots of ordinary Dutch cyclists doing extraordinary things. In both instances, the Photoshop Express app adds a bit of post-production magic, and the content is often shared within minutes of its creation. We do enjoy the privilege of living in an incredibly photogenic city, which is obviously in part due its medieval canals, but also because its streets aren’t drowning in motor vehicles. In a very short period, have fallen head-over-heels in love with Delft, and hope we manage to communicate that affection through the photos and videos we share.
The book ‘Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives’ will be available online for purchase from 29th June, 2021 onwards on the Island Press.
I am one of the privileged persons to get a preview of this book provided by the authors.
I take this opportunity to thank Melissa and Chris for the outstanding work they are doing in ‘Sustainability Space’; and much obliged for your valuable time in responding to my questions.
Photo credits: modacitylife
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Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai