Living the Low Car Life: with Chris Bruntlett

14 min read.
Chris Bruntlett is the Communications Manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy. He is a long time cycling campaigner and promoter in Vancouver, co-founder of Modacity & co-author the book, “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality”.

How did you become involved in the promotion of active modes of transportation, and how were you influenced by the experience of going car-free?

I have always approached transportation from a user perspective, I certainly didn’t receive an education in it. My training was in the field of architecture and while I had always been interested in buildings and how the built environment shapes the people that live in it,  I started realizing when I moved to Toronto that it was actually the space between the buildings that was really important. Experiencing how hostile the city was for the people that went by foot and bike really stuck with me. 

As we migrated out west to Vancouver, we sold the family car and I started cycling to the office every day. The Vancouver bicycle network is quite pleasant, you get this very meditative experience on beautiful tree-line, traffic calmed streets. It was a very special part of my day but at the same time I was experiencing a frustration that the cycling network wasn’t taking me to bustling streets, and had many gaps. While Vancouver was putting a lot of effort into building its cycling network, I also thought they weren’t communicating the benefits of cycling enough. There was no effort to reach out to people to encourage them to try the cycling network or try biking in general. The city was so busy focusing on the brick and mortar of street changes that it completely neglected the marketing and communicating element. 

That was a gap that Melissa and I identified and we started just spending some evenings and weekends writing Modacity blog posts and making videos on no budget whatsoever. It just snowballed from there into writing for publications, bringing in a little bit of money and eventually traveling to the Netherlands, writing this book, and finally getting hired by Dutch organizations to export this culture and knowledge from here. In hindsight, it sounds like it was all planned from the beginning and that it was all part of this master vision that we had but it’s really just been about taking one opportunity after the other and being in the right place at the right time.

You wrote with your partner Melissa “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” which highlights the triumphs and challenges of the Dutch cycling story. How did this come about, and what are some key takeaways from the experience of writing this book?

We came to the Netherlands in 2016 for just 5 weeks expecting to learn a few things about  what Vancouver could do to become more cycling friendly. From the first day we spent in Rotterdam we were absolutely blown away by the scale of the cycling that was being done: the thousands of bicycles outside the Rotterdam station, the thousands of people riding around, with no special clothing and no helmets. The Dutch made it look so effortless and easy. Everywhere we traveled there was a cycle track. We didn’t have to check a bike map to see where the cycle routes were, it was just so intuitive and easy. 

We wrote a series of blog posts about the Dutch cities that we visited, but we knew that we were just scratching the surface and that there was a big story to tell to cities around the world. Every city that we visited had made mistakes. They all started down a journey towards car-dependance but at some point decided that was not the direction they wanted for their city. Utrecht for example filled in a canal in the center of the city to build a motorway, and it’s recently been restored. Similarly, the motorway that nearly divided Amsterdam by carving out it’s center was cancelled by a single vote in council in 1972. These were all lessons in effective advocacy, in historical preservation, in finding common ground with the people in your city that are all fighting for different things whether it is spaces for children to play, public health, cleaner air or noise pollution. It was a way to show how protests movements can turn into real political change and street reclamation.

When we approached Island Press about our idea of writing a book about the Netherlands they came back with a challenge: don’t just tell that story but also that of how other cities around the world can implement the concepts that you are talking about. They may be decades behind but they are just getting started and can learn from the Netherlands whether it is in regards to cycling networks, bike-train combination, political leadership, citizen activism, or the usage of cargo bikes. Cities like Vancouver, Seattle, New York or Austin, were starting to implement these ideas and pushing back against the idea that what happens in the Netherlands can’t be replicated anywhere else. There are many common excuses like the fact that the Netherlands is a flat country, but it’s really a question of political will and choices that you make for your streets. 

We found ourselves inadvertently to be ambassadors of the Netherlands. People that live in cities like Amsterdam or Utrecht totally take for granted the quality of life, the joy of having the ability to cycle everywhere. It takes a couple of outsiders to come and hold up a mirror and say that cities around the world are aspiring to that but have a long way to go to make that a reality. In a way it makes sense that they needed a couple of Canadians to show them what’s so special about their bicycle culture and to start promoting it. From there it was a perfect fit with the Dutch Cycling Embassy, who needed help with marketing and communications. Melissa herself met with the Mobycon CEO during a book launch event and suddenly the next logical step was to physically relocate here and start exporting this Dutch cycling culture more directly, actually working for dutch cycling organisations. 

So, what did we learn? There’s so much here that can be replicated. It’s not about copy and pasting it because the Duth approach in itself is context specific. What worked in Rotterdam doesn’t work Amsterdam and so on, but there are certainly elements that you can inspire a stronger approach to make a city less reliant on cars. 

Streets as public space in Delft. Photo by Modacity.

Your forthcoming book discusses the swath of benefits that arise from reducing cars in the city, and I’d like to touch upon a few of these dimensions. Firstly, how is social tissue of a city reinforced when more priority is given to more active ways of mobility? 

Marco te Brömmelstroet has summarised this very well. Transportation planning has essentially become something engineers and economists do and we see our streets as a series of pipes through which cars are supposed to move as efficiently as possible. In many cases, we’ve lost the understanding that the street is a public space where we can gather, interact, and children can play.

Coming to Delft we really felt that. It’s one of the places where the concept of living streets was invented and perfected and that comes down to treating cars as guests. They are allowed to enter the streets but have to behave accordingly. It also means programming the kind of behaviour you want to see by providing seating, space for playing, green space, shade. We live on a very quiet street so we spend time at the front of our house, and we’ve met most of our neighbours. Far too often in cities we are very disconnected with the people we share our streets with due to their hostility to social behaviours, which worsens the problem of isolation. Another element that is really special here is the lack of traffic control at intersections. There are barely any traffic lights and stop signs in the city. Every interaction at an intersection is governed by the social code that takes place between human beings: eye contact, hand gestures, little body language cues that people give each other to say “I’m going to turn this way so you can keep going straight”.

Again, by having prioritized car traffic we lack the element of social interaction and trust in our streets. They are governed by these traffic light systems that tell us what to do and as a result when we are travelling we don’t think for ourselves or pay much attention. Here, every intersection and interaction are a moment to build trust, compassion and empathy. You become exposed to other demographics and economic groups. The streets are an equalizer where we meet people and build empathy and understanding. 

At the end of the day it’s about building human streets and human interaction. Unfortunately too many cities are designed for cars and are governed by technology. As a result we’ve lost any sense of compassion or empathy. Everybody else is an obstacle when you’re just trying to get from A to B. There’s a lot to say about how that negatively affects our psychological health.

Freedom and independence are also important benefits that arise from more cycling and walking friendly environments, especially for children, but also to the elderly. Can you explain how improving street design increases the wellbeing of these particular groups?

Something that is lost by creating multi lane arterial roads that run through our cities is the ability for the more vulnerable of our residents to get from A to B comfortably. I think we forget when talking about transportation there are huge segments of the population that don’t have access to a driver’s license and by giving very little choice in terms of mobility options we’ve forced them to rely on other people for their transportation needs. This gives rise to what Dr Lia Karsten from the University of Amsterdam calls the backseat generation: a generation of kids now that are basically escorted anywhere they need to go by their parents in the backseat of the car,  whether its school, after school activities, friends houses. It is creating a generation of kids that have no neighborhood orientation and are not getting any physical activity. They’re also losing the ability to take risks. A huge part of childhood is making mistakes and learning from them. Through the backseat generation we are raising millions of children that don’t don’t take risks until when they’re out of the house for the first time and suddenly given this freedom that they’ve never experienced before. The absence of the ability to calculate risk hinders the ability to evolve into well balanced, resilient adults because they’re used to being escorted everywhere.

On the other end of the age bracket,  people reach a point where they can no longer drive safely.  The American Automobile Association estimates that seniors in the US drive 7 – 10 years longer than they safely should. This leads to very dangerous situations, especially in the context of the baby boom generation getting older. When the elderly have to give up their driving license, usually by force, then they’re suddenly trapped in their home and no longer able to go anywhere, becoming reliant on others. The problems around lack of activity and social isolation become huge. Around us we have 3 of neighbours that are all retired and elderly. They all live alone but they are pretty good friends between each other, they support each other, they go around on foot and by bicycle. 

Of course there are other demographic groups that don’t have a driver’s license but these are the two ends of our lives where we are unable to drive a car. We still however have designed our transportation system as this monopolistic entity where you can’t be a functional member of society without a driver’s license and a machine that costs us $12,000 – 14,000 a year. It’s really quite insane, inequitable and problematic for so many reasons. The simple solution is giving people options and making our streets safer and more pleasant to travel on beyond the car.

Independence for the youngest & eldest in society. Photo by Modacity.

There are growing discussions about transportation equity. When you have a ubiquitous network of bike lanes that connect with public transit it enables more population demographics to have access to jobs, housing, which essentially reduces that gap between rich and poor in the urban environment.  Can you talk a bit about how this manifests in your city but also more generally in the city that cater less to vehicular traffic?

The statistic that we read that sparked this chapter of the book was that around 81% of the dutch population lives within 7.5 km of a train station. There’s a station in every single municipality in this country and the bike-train combination, the bike-bus combination is quite powerful in terms of expanding the reach of the public transportation reach, providing more affordable transportation options, as well as access to jobs, affordable housing, and education.

The post-war expansion of Delft to the south of the city is one of the densest neighbourhoods in the country and with the highest concentration of social housing yet its well served by cycle tracks, trams, and close to the central train station. Access to a private car is not necessary to participate in the labor force. People that live there have access to The Hague, Rotterdam and many other employment centers across the Netherlands. We need to understand that one of the key barriers to economic prosperity and escaping poverty is better transportation.

Transportation planners have tremendous power to increase economic power and prosperity through the network’s design and this really starts at what your transportation planners look like. Are all them white men or they are as diverse as your actual population? For example, a problem that a lot of cities have is that they’re still designing the 9-5 work commute completely forgetting that there is this huge part of the population that is part-time, or takes shorter trips throughout the day. We build our transportation system to just fit rush hours and it completely drops out on the weekends or evenings. Those workers with less economic means are completely neglected and it just pushes them back into this car dependency because the bus on their street only comes every 60 minutes and if you miss that bus you’re late for your shift. We have a lot of improvement to do and it’s not to say that the Netherlands is perfect but I think in a lot of ways they take a lot of those trips into consideration.

The Dutch Cycling Embassy must be very busy working with governments around the world that are now embracing the bicycle as a sustainable, resilient, mode of transportation. What do you think needs to be done for this recent jump in cycling to be sustained over time to ensure we don’t fall back into private ridership after lockdowns ease? 

There’s no doubt that COVID-10 has changed a lot in a very short period of time. Street space reallocation experiments and the rise of pop-up, temporary infrastructure have been amazing to watch. I would however point out that a lot of this “success” and modal shift has come at the expense of public transportation. People don’t feel safe using the bus or train and so they are jumping on their bikes using it as an alternative. We have to be careful that this doesn’t completely undermine public transportation systems in our cities and between our cities because as revenues drop there is a real danger that these services can be reduced. There’s no doubt bicycles play a crucial role in our cities but it still has its limits.  As we often say in the Netherlands, it is the combination of active mobility with public transportation that replaces the car trips, not necessarily one or the other, but the synergy between the two.

There is also a danger that cars become the new personal protective equipment and everyone sees driving everywhere as the only way to stay physically distant from everyone. We’ve seen the resurgence of drive-in festivals over the summer for example. This shows a real risk that we can double down on car culture, first in reaction to the coronavirus but also just continuing if we don’t invest in public transport and active transportation. 

Having said all that, it’s great that there are more people out there cycling. Cities have a unique opportunity to try new things and see what they can do in terms of re-allocating street space. It’s a difficult process, and some of these temporary initiatives have been abandoned by politicians after only a few days because they were not done properly. The Dutch Cycling Embassy has indeed gotten a lot of interest, and not just from the usual suspects but also countries in Asia like the Philippines and South Korea. The coronavirus has shown everyone that cycling is not just a nice option that can be added if there is enough budget but that it is a necessity for cities to thrive.

Combining Active Mobility with Public Transportation. Photo by Modacity.