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Urban Cycling: Political will is necessary to succeed

Interview with Chris Bruntlett, Marketing & Communications Manager of the Dutch Cycling Embassy

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European Business: The streets of many European cities are currently being flooded with e-scooters: The Netherlands’ urban centers seem to be the exception to this trend. Why are the Dutch missing out on a game changer of urban traffic?

Chris Bruntlett: I believe these scooters are an intermediary step towards a more active mode of transportation. They could be a gateway vehicle for people who may feel intimidated by the idea of getting on a bicycle, who may think they need special safety equipment and clothing and for whom the scooter could thus be a more approachable vehicle, because you basically just stand on it and push the throttle. I certainly see e-scooters as a good trend to get more people to stir up the demand for safer streets. At the end of the day, though, users of e-scooters are still missing out on the activity which is involved in cycling and e-cycling.

European Business: I imagine that the macro-solutions you propose tend to require significant financial resources and a lot of time to implement. Doesn’t that give your partners in municipal and local governments pause? And how do you persuade them to go ahead with the project?

Chris Bruntlett: The biggest impediment to building cycling infrastructure and enticing regular people to cycle is indeed not a technological or engineering one, but the political will that is necessary to pursue it. A politician who proposes the removal of parking spaces or a lane for car traffic will often be met with backlash. I witnessed this myself when I was living in Vancouver a few years ago, when the media, the business community and a certain angry segment of the population who considered cars the lifeblood of the city latched onto such a political proposal and cried out against it in somewhat misguided anger.

Chris Bruntlett
The biggest impediment to building cycling infrastructure and enticing regular people to cycle is indeed not a technological or engineering one, but the political will that is necessary to pursue it. Chris Bruntlett

The cities where we see the biggest progress and the most striking results tend to be the ones run by politicians who are willing to push through that controversy originating from a loud minority and who have understood that there is a quiet majority of the population that would love to be able to cycle to the corner store to get a carton of milk without having to burn a gallon of gasoline or to see their kids comfortably cycle to school every morning. So it really takes political foresight and political bravery. Here in the Netherlands, society went through similar controversies and outrage, when shopkeepers protested cycle tracks in the 1970’s, but they pushed through that as a society, and nowadays you can’t get elected here if you’re anti-bike, because the vast majority of the population rides their bicycles at least a couple of times a week.

European Business: Let’s get back to a bird’s eye perspective for my final question: What do you think will be the biggest change in urban traffic we will witness over the next decades?

Chris Bruntlett: We’re definitely shifting towards the concept of mobility as a service rather than a product. More and more people would rather pay a monthly subscription for access to a variety of mobility options instead of owning one or two of them. One really interesting bicycle-specific model which has garnered a lot of traction here in the Netherlands is a company called Swapfiets, a bicycle subscription service which provides its customers with access to an always operational bicycle for a monthly fee. If you have a flat tire or break a chain, they will swap your bike for a new one, and if your bike gets stolen, it will be replaced for a small deductible. This is just one example of this trend which is particularly popular among young people, who would rather pay for access to a vehicle than own it. They don’t even seem to mind that the premium they’re paying over a few years adds up to more than the cost of purchasing a bike themselves. It’s worth it to them, because they don’t have to worry about maintenance or theft or any of the other responsibilities involved with owning a vehicle – even if it’s only a bicycle.

Interview: Julian Miller | Pictures: Dutch Cycling Embassy; Active Towns