Curbing Traffic with Melissa and Chris Burntlett
Chances are that if you have ever visited Amsterdam or any other Dutch city you may have noticed a difference to most other urban areas. More bicycles, less cars and generally more space for pedestrians. At least that must have been the experience for Melissa and Chris Bruntlett when they first visited Delft in the Netherlands. In 2019 they decided to pack their bags and move from Vancouver to Delft with their family to experience the exceptionally bicycle-friendly city as residents rather than visitors.
Melissa now works with Mobycon – the bicontinental mobility consultancy supporting the promotion of Dutch Transport knowledge policy and design principles in countries across Europe and North America. Chris is a communications manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy using his knowledge and passion to share practical lessons for global cities wishing to learn from Netherlands’ success. Melissa and Chris put down their thoughts on living in Delft from their perspective as mobility experts in their new book “Curbing Traffic – the human case for fewer cars in our lives” which was recently published.
What is their own personal story of moving to the “cycling paradise” and how does it feel like to live in a human-centered city?
Chris and Melissa know for sure, cycling was their gateway into transportation and urban planning as amateur advocates in Vancouver, where they started advocating for getting involved in the city-wide discussion about cycling. However, the more they dove into this topic, the clearer it was for both: Cycling goes far beyond the usual conversations about reducing the congestions or addressing the climate change or improving public health. It affects us as a society in terms of our social equity, justice and our mental health. And this is only one of the lessons the life in the Netherlands gave them.
Having moved to the Netherlands proved: sustainable transport and inclusive city planning are all about social equity and social connectedness. The main difference between the city planning approach in Canada and in the Netherlands mostly lies in a “network approach”. Melissa explains: “What we see in Canada and in most parts of American cities is that during investing in cycling, one is looking at neighborhood by neighborhood and often starting where there is already an access to mobility choices. And what’s different in the Netherlands is a network approach. So it’s looking at the entire city and figuring out how to connect every neighborhood to the main parts of the city”. Chris is equally convinced by the necessity of creating more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods to give more people access to those types of communities and better quality of life. According to Chris, the Dutch approach has strongly focused on social equity. Now 81% of the country is within 7,5 km bike ride of the train station, which means that citizens can access housing, education, employment and everything they need in their day-to-day lives without having to spend their income on a private automobile.
But what about other countries for example in the Global South? Do they also have a chance for a shift towards human-centered city planning? Melissa and Chris are optimistic on that score. They are absolutely sure: “The 1st step is always the most difficult one!” Chris, thus, says: “We’ve been designing around the car for 50 years. Our transportation departments, our society is oriented around this single mode of transport. Any suggestion of shifting away from that immediately faces resistance. But resistance is not massively representative for all in the society.”
The 1st step on the way to sustainable, equitable and inclusive mobility is to start looking at the entire city, where everyones’ needs are met and the neighborhoods are connected, making use of the “network approach”. Melissa also adds: “But beyond that it’s about recognizing who uses these systems or who you want to use these systems.”
But what exactly has to be changed, according to Melissa and Chris, in the future human-centered cities to come? In the words of Chris, to make cities livable and human-oriented, we should “start measuring not just the trips people take, but the trips they don’t take”. For Melissa it is clear, that bringing more women, people of color and people with disabilities at the decision-making table would greatly improve city planning. And one more important thing to note: the human-oriented, livable city is the place where everyone has an equitable access to mobility and is socially connected. That is where urban design should begin with.
This article is based on a conversation with Chris and Melissa Bruntlett held as part of the TUMI podcast TTT. To listen to the full episode, click here!