dandyREVIEW – Building the Cycling City

Review by Robert Zaichkowski. Photos provided by Modacity.

Over the past few years, members of Toronto’s cycling community have become connected with Melissa and Chris Bruntlett of the Modacity creative agency. Melissa, Chris, and their children Coralie and Etienne have been living car-free in Vancouver since the summer of 2010 and did a bike tour of the Netherlands in the summer of 2016. The five cities they visited – Rotterdam, Groningen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Eindhoven – form the basis of their book “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” which will be publicly available from Island Press on August 28, 2018.

“Building the Cycling City” starts off strong with some clear differences between the Dutch and Danish approaches to cycling. While the Danes focus most of their efforts on Copenhagen and prescribe copy-and-paste solutions, the Dutch excel in making their entire country bikeable with bicycles outnumbering motor vehicles in 202 Dutch cities and towns! The Dutch recognize one size doesn’t fit all for cycling infrastructure; a point they emphasize by using Rotterdam as the first of the cities discussed. Unlike the medieval cores of Amsterdam and Utrecht, North American cities can better relate to Rotterdam, whose city centre was destroyed during World War 2 and rebuilt with a focus on motor vehicles, wide streets, and segregated zoning bylaws. It is this abundance of space which allowed Rotterdam to more easily redesign their streets on a human scale and reinforce the chapter title about streets not set in stone.

Throughout the book, the Bruntletts not only describe their experiences in the five Dutch cities they visited, but also how North American cities are adapting Dutch best practices to their own context. In one case, New York City’s tactical urbanism under former transportation commissioner and Streetfight co-author Janette Sadik-Khan even inspired Rotterdam to install their own pop-up plazas (or “city lounges”) which were designed with extensive public feedback. A refreshing story on how cities inspiring others is indeed a two-way street.

Utrecht's Oog in Al School with their rooftop cycle path

“Building the Cycling City” brought up standout infrastructure such as the Rijnwaalpad cycle superhighway, the rooftop cycle path of Utrecht’s Oog in Al School, and Eindhoven’s “Hovenring”. However, the Bruntletts also stressed the need for a culture change from North America’s sport focus with road bikes in their bike shops and the labelling of people based on their mode of transportation. The Dutch instead cycle for transport with upright “Dutch” bikes which originated from the safety bikes of England in the late 19th century, electric assist for increased accessibility, cargo bikes for more efficient goods delivery, and integration of cycling education nationwide. The Bruntletts – like the Dutch – reject the label of “cyclist” by instead focusing on humanity’s intermodal nature; something the Dutch excel with the NS national railway service and the OV-Fiets bike share for the last mile.

Despite what North Americans may view as a cycling utopia, the Bruntletts ensured a balanced perspective by highlighting some of the challenges the Dutch faced past and present. Dutch immigrants tend to have a lower cycle mode share than the national average; partly due to a lack of access to bicycles or public transit (a.k.a. transportation poverty). Cities such as Amsterdam and Utrecht struggle to meet bicycle parking demand despite having entire parking garages dedicated to bikes. However, the Dutch experience from the 1960’s and 1970’s gives hope for North American cities struggling with road violence today with divergent movements such as Provos, Stop de Kindermoord and Fietsersbond (Dutch Cyclist Union) working towards the common goal of having a city not overwhelmed by cars.

The bicycle street (or Fietsstraat) such as this one in Gronigen makes it hard to imagine the Dutch designed their streets primarily for motor vehicles fifty years ago

Despite the lack of Toronto examples, the book’s lessons equally apply here. The tactical urbanism spirit can be found with the King Street transit pilot and pilot bike lanes on Richmond, Adelaide, and Bloor Streets; the latter of which was made permanent last November. The redesign of Queen’s Quay made Toronto’s waterfront so popular the City ended up with ten times more people riding bikes than anticipated at 6000 per day! Toronto’s integration of bicycles and transit is good with available racks on buses, stations with repair stands and bicycle friendly elevators, and the ability to bring bicycles on TTC subways and GO trains outside of peak hours; though their secure bicycle parking needs work. Finally, CultureLink’s BikeHost program helps connect newcomers to two wheeled transportation.

Overall, I would equate “Building the Cycling City” to riding a Dutch bike. You don’t want to rush through it like a road bike, but it hauls a lot of lessons from the Dutch cycling experience which are practical to North American cities and delivered in an upright, easy to read manner.

Melissa and Chris Bruntlett

Toronto residents will have opportunities to meet Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, as well as buy the book. They will be taking part in two events this Sunday which will be covered here on dandyhorse; those being The Reading Line (starts 1:00 p.m. at Bloor and Bathurst) and the sold-out Bikes and Transformation episode of BIKE MINDS (starts 6:30 p.m. at Todmorden Mills). On Saturday, September 8, Modacity and Vélo Canada Bikes will be hosting Toronto’s first ever cargo bike championship at the Bentway near Fort York.

Robert Zaichkowski is a Board Member of Cycle Toronto, an accountant, and writes the Two Wheeled Politics bike blog.

Upcoming: dandyREVIEW of Copenhagenize by Mikeal Collville-Andersen

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