Marco Te Brömmelstroet, a self-dubbed “cycling professor”, addressed Sydney-siders passionate about the cycling infrastructure and development in a public talk hosted by the Committee for Sydney and AITPM at the Customs House in Circular Quay on Thursday.
The University of Amsterdam-based urban planning researcher launched straight into a discussion first about language.
Our streets are defined by the language we use
To start the keynote presentation, Brömmelstroet delved into the philosophy behind languages and explained that all people use language constantly but
“Language is not a mirror of reality”. We try to simplify it so we can share ideas.
Streets should be treated with the same distinction, he said.
“Only 100 years ago, most of our streets were defined as the remaining spaces between buildings and didn’t belong to anybody, and it just grew over time as cities grew or buildings were added, but streets are complex ecosystems that serve many different goals.
“In 1920, streets were used for mobility, but also for trade, people buying and selling stuff, but also the street is a place for play – it’s a public living room where you meet family and friends but also other people – it’s a place of connection, but that’s not how it looks today.”
And then it changed
The critical change to streets, Brömmelstroet explained, was the innovation of mobility, which resulted in mass-produced motorised vehicles.
While cars already existed, a sudden increase in part production at lower prices caused cars to “literally collide with streets”, and large numbers of children were killed by cars.
The language of justice came into play
“It was seen as completely unjust as children could not be blamed for this.
It took just 10 years for society to completely reinvent the language, he said”
“If we want to talk about the streets and we want to talk about radical change, we first need to understand what has been solidified – the language choices that made us end up with these kinds of streets.”
He explains that many city metaphors originate from biology and understanding the human body’s functions. An example is the “heart of the city”, where traffic is arteries that flow directionally into the city centre.
“When we look at economic thinking, we borrow beautiful metaphors that simplify it for all of you.”
“You are all egoists,” he said to his audience. “You are all egoistic calculators, cold, isolated individuals, and the only thing that matters for you is optimising your own utility.
“Economics has moved away from that, but that is still alive and kicking in transportation planning.” And if we are all egoists, we need to negotiate what we all want.
Everyone cannot negotiate the right of way because they all want the right of way – which is why we must have systems that resolve these conflicts to create “conflict-free intersections”.
“All political parties take for granted that this is the holy grail in all of our cost-benefit analysis – optimising our streets and moving from primeval forest to production forest by choosing to optimise the forest for good production – and we failed.
The streets were supposed to deliver more efficient outputs and savings in travel time, but they didn’t.
Today we no longer see children playing on the street, nor people trading or connecting on the street.
Without new so-called time-saving travel solutions of self-driving and automated vehicles, Netflix and other modern concepts, people were not meeting “those other pesky egoists outside your own bubble”.
But cycling isn’t the same
And then there’s cycling.
“Cycling is a magical thing,” Brömmelstroet said. “It doesn’t fit the logic of going fast from A to B and a machine that needs to be optimised, so I present to you – the future of the Dutch car and bicycle industry.”
He explains that the Dutch bicycle industry aimed for a small innovation that would become the mobility fix to solve congestion.
“If you look carefully, people can also have Zoom meetings on bicycles now, optimised through outputs of super-cycle super-highways.”
Brömmelstroet then picks up his Ukelele and breaks into a hypothetical “John Lennon” song.
Despite enormous effects over 70 years to fund travel time savings, Dutch empirical evidence shows we have achieved zero seconds of travel time savings.
People are travelling for the same amount of time as they did 70 years ago – it’s just that they’re covering a distance that’s grown 700 per cent.
“Instead of travelling seven kilometres per day in the 1950s, they now travel more than 40 kilometres daily and have become dependent on it. The system doesn’t bring the things we were after but made the problem worse.”
We are on the verge of collapse
Brömmelstroetcalled on the changemakers in the audience to rethink how we think about cycling infrastructure.
“If we are not challenging this system, it will collapse because it cannot sustain itself – we can either wait for the collapse, or we can look and use the momentum of the bicycle to rethink it.
“If you are not questioning your daily work, the underlying rationality that created streets as we know them today, you are not working on radical change. You are just optimising the same system in a slightly different way.
“It’s fine to do that but be aware that this is what you are doing, and if you think radical change is required, you need to question the underlying narrative.”
“Language is a simplification of reality that gives you a certain perspective, and that means you should be able to change that perspective all the time – that’s the agility that we need to challenge the underlying rationality.
“You should never accept that anything is given in the language you use to think and talk to decide for streets that something is a given. Stop optimising the machine and marginalising humans and instead start minimising the device and working on a thriving society.
“Let’s not put cycling within the language of traffic engineering that we are using to think about our streets and try cycling to escape it and find new narratives that will unlock different conversations.”
So, what’s holding us back?
Brömmelstroet answered, “Nobody is holding us back. There is a system that makes us do these things that we know are stupid and should change, but it’s up to you. Language makes us see certain things, hide other things, and shape society in a certain way.
“The radical mobility system is not somewhere in the future,” he concluded.
“It’s now. You can see our streets as places where machines need to be minimised and society should thrive, or you can see streets where we want to maximise and optimise the machine output and efficiency. Those are choices we have to make, and this something that we have to do.”