The Healthy Cities Network aims to deepen the relationship between health and the urban environment, following a holistic approach by focusing on three overarching topics: greening and landscaping, mobility and connectivity, and lifestyle and sports.
To gather expert advice for urban planners on improving health outcomes in cities, we are creating a series of three interviews based on our focus topics. This second installment spotlights mobility and connectivity.
We are delighted to be joined by Melissa & Chris Bruntlett, authors and urban mobility advocates who strive to communicate the benefits of sustainable transport and inspire happier, healthier, more human-scale cities.
Could you please share a bit of background about yourselves, how you became interested in cycling and active mobility, and how this interest led you to take your car-free leap back in 2010?
Melissa first got involved in promoting active mobility, especially cycling, by traveling around the city of Vancouver, Canada, with their two small children. Experiencing the city through cycling, not just as a woman but also as a parent, brought in many questions about how she made it work. This interest led to the launch of her blog in the hopes of inspiring others to give it a try.
Chris and Melissa stress that the decision to take their car-free leap in 2010 was a very practical one. Having always preferred to experience cities at a human-scale, they opted to live near city centres. In Vancouver, this meant a walkable neighborhood with car share, great public transport connections, and a very basic bike network, so their own car started collecting dust in the garage. Living in an expensive city drove them to make the pragmatic decision to free up some money in their monthly budget by selling their car.
After taking the leap, they were surprised by how easy it was, but also by how many simple barriers still existed in the way the city was designed for mobility networks, particularly through the eyes of their children. These challenges motivated them to shine a light on the issue and advocate for change, which snowballed into the articles, the lobbying, the social media accounts, and the books that they’ve written.
On your experience researching cycling culture in the Netherlands during your five-week tour that ultimately led to publishing Building the Cycling City - why did you choose to look at lesser-known cities as opposed to the most famous cities? And how can the lessons applied in these cities be scaled out to smaller or larger cities?
When talking about the Netherlands, most people only think of the largest cities like Amsterdam, but unlike other countries, the Netherlands has made cycling work in so many different contexts. In their research, Chris and Melissa found 202 municipalities in the Netherlands where the cycling mode share exceeds the car mode share. They decided to write this book about the nationwide model that is replicable in other countries and other city regions to show that this can work anywhere, not just in big cities. However, it has to be context specific. Transferability is not just copy-paste. You have to examine the local conditions and then make recommendations based on what that city wants to achieve and what they're able to achieve.
When we're looking at improving cycling and cities, so much focus is given to big cities. Yet oftentimes, it's the smaller cities that can make the greatest gains in the least amount of time. Usually, their staff are a little more nimble as they're not stuck behind bureaucracy or election cycles to the extent that big cities are. They can try things out, making small changes that don't disrupt the entire transport network in the same way that putting a cycling plan in the heart of a big capital is going to change things drastically overnight. The stakes are a little bit lower and there is less pressure on elected officials and municipal policymakers. Smaller cities have a bit more freedom to try, and, sometimes, to fail. As a result of this capacity to experiment, smaller cities can help define best practices and share these with other cities, acting as incubators for new ideas.
What are some of your takeaways on the role of collaboration between different departments - urban planning, transportation, education, public health, etc. - and what are some of the best practices to facilitate this teamwork for a healthier community?
The first step is to start breaking down silos. People from different departments often have a hard time seeing the parallels in their work. For those new to the topic, it’s difficult to see how putting in better sidewalks or bike lanes by a school or community centre not only benefits kids by getting them to walk and cycle, but also benefits the public health, social connectivity, or even historical preservation of that neighborhood.
As an advocate or as someone working in consultancy, if you can come into a municipality and invite these people to start conversations you can help them uncover the common links. Finding those connections can spark collaboration and get teams of all backgrounds working together towards a greater goal - the health and wellbeing of their citizens. This is imperative for a lot of cities, and is a key step to remove some of the barriers that exist to implementing change.
Furthermore, multi-modality is key, and combining modes of transport is something the Netherlands does really well. When cycle planners and public transport planners sit at the same table, they can find ways to make the networks of cycling infrastructure feed into the public transport system. They provide bike parking at train stations so that people can combine their cycle ride with their train journey and with a walk on the other end. This idea of door-to-door connectivity with multiple modes of transport has risen from the Dutch model where all departments speak to one another. It starts with a conversation, but it ends with some innovative solutions that take into consideration all stakeholders and potential users.
There are different perspectives that someone who works in public transport planning will bring to the table than someone who works in cycle planning or someone who works in public health. By having those conversations, you can find that common ground much more easily, and find new ways of thinking that you maybe didn't consider before. In the Netherlands, the train companies invest in cycling infrastructure and cycling parking because it brings them more revenue. These win-win scenarios are everywhere, and these various agencies shouldn't be seeing each other as competitors, but rather as allies.
Could you tell us a bit more about your experience since moving to Delft and starting work with Mobycon and the Dutch Cycling embassy?
Melissa works as a communications and mobility engagement specialist with Mobycon, a mobility consultancy aiming to improve Dutch systems and share their knowledge internationally. Her focus is on communicating best practices from the Netherlands, working with other cities to promote the benefits of cycling and to engage citizens in these benefits. In turn, she takes feedback from stakeholders and the public back to the organisation to better inform their activities and, hopefully, to achieve the highest success.
Chris is the marketing and communication manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, an organisation founded by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure as an intermediary between the demand for Dutch knowledge and expertise and the actual knowledge and expertise that exists. They connect the cities that are looking to become more bicycle friendly with the cities that have been doing it for 50 years, helping them start moving towards these long-term visions of getting more people cycling, but also making their city more livable, sustainable, and equitable.
Both Chris and Melissa feel they are essentially doing what they were doing in Canada, but at a much larger scale and for a much larger audience. Their work allows them to try to build better places for healthy living not just in their own city, but in multiple cities around the world.
What some of the biggest impacts you've seen come out of your book and your activism and also your work with Mobycon and the Dutch Cycling Embassy? And how do you measure these impacts?
Chris and Melissa see measuring impact as one of the hardest parts of the job. Throughout their work, they’ve caught glimpses into changes or actions taken as a result of the messages they share.
The most flattering measure they’ve seen is advocates in various cities around the world hosting crowdfunding campaigns to buy 15-20 copies of their book and send them to their transportation department, their city council, and their mayor. They’ve also seen some decision makers and politicians enthusiastically posting what they’ve learned from the book and how it will influence them moving forward.
However, it's very difficult to draw direct lines between what they do and actual, physical changes to infrastructure projects. For example, Chris and Melissa write about traffic playgrounds in the last chapter of the book - this idea that the Dutch implemented in which spaces are created for children to learn how to cycle and interact safely in traffic in a closed environment. Someone in Seattle has harnessed this concept and it’s now spreading across the United States. Though you can’t draw a direct line from this to their work, Chris and Melissa are happy to see concepts they’ve advocated for spreading to new places.
More recently, they’ve seen some promising impacts from their work to shine a light on people living with disabilities and their experience of the city. Speaking with people who use mobility devices to get around has sparked further conversations, inviting relatively able-bodied people to continue sharing messages about the importance of inclusivity in urban planning. These kinds of conversations make Chris and Melissa very hopeful. Particularly with their second book they are trying to change the narrative from focusing on the tool (such as the bike or cycle route) to how design and policy decisions around the tool influences quality of life. What they'd like to see is less of a focus on what we need to be building, and more of a focus on why we need to be building it in the first place.
Have you had any big breakthrough moments? - either moments where your perspective changed drastically or you had a game-changing achievement?
When they first visited the Netherlands in 2016, Melissa was quite surprised by the number of young people, specifically young women, that she saw cycling around. That lasting impression came back with her to Vancouver, where she wanted to build a similar environment. She wanted their teenage daughter and their friends to be able to cycle around comfortably and feel confident getting around.
Moving to the Netherlands, she expected this kind of environment. Yet, she still felt taken aback by how incredibly normal it was for women of all ages to be cycling around. This is a large part of what she is trying to communicate externally now - the importance of creating that balance, not just in terms of creating gender equity in our transport systems, but what that means for women, when they're not alone in their transport networks anymore. For Melissa, the biggest surprise is that it was a surprise. Moving to the Netherlands, she knew what she was walking into, but she didn't quite know what it would feel like to be a part of that, or how that would embolden her even more to get the message out.
Chris highlights that it’s safe to say that the first nine months or so was just “aha!” moment after moment, which really motivated them to sit down and write their new book. Initially, they had no intention of committing to writing a book while working full-time, trying to raise a family, and adjust to a new lifestyle. However, living in the Netherlands there were so many unexpected moments that made the case they’d been trying to make for over 12 years, but in a real, practical way.
These experiences pushed all the theory aside and made it very visceral and personal for the duo because suddenly, while their kids were being free and independent, this was no longer an idea or concept. This was their lives. Being a part of it made them feel responsible to share that improved cycling and walking infrastructure, and fewer cars zooming through the streets, makes everyone's lives better.
Imagine in 10-15 years from now the problem is solved, the world’s cities are as healthy as they could be – what did it take to get there? What does your city look like?
A key message Chris and Melissa try to communicate is that Dutch cities are constantly changing. There's an awareness - not just in Dutch cities, but in European cities - of how important public spaces truly are to influencing quality of life. Shared space isn’t just for retail or restaurants, but for the community to spend time together outdoors at all times of year. This perspective, and the constant work to improve public spaces, is a key part of this healthy future.
Dutch cities now are at a point where they're ready to take the leap to the next level. There are very real conversations happening right now about ideas such as a blanket 30 km/hour speed limit or almost completely car-free city centres where most of the services, from deliveries to garbage pickup, would be done by cargo bikes, electric bikes, and maybe light electric vehicles. This is all building on the decades of success that's come before.
Hopefully, in 10 years, the same conversations can be happening in other cities around the world, taking streets and policies to the next level and becoming more human focused and friendly. 10 years from now, Chris and Melissa want to be able to travel to any city in Europe and North America and enjoy some of the same things they enjoy in the Netherlands, elsewhere.
Do you have any last thoughts or messages that you want to share?
A key message Chris and Melissa constantly reiterate is one of transferability. People often hear them speak of the Netherlands and feel overwhelmed, looking at the result of roughly 50 years of work and wondering how long it will take to reach a similar point. However, many cities around the world are moving at an accelerated pace because these lessons and policies already exist and can be adapted to new contexts.
It’s very important not to feel lost or hopeless if your city has work still to do. A lot of work is already underway and many ambitious people are actively trying to change things for the better. When looking at the Netherlands, it's a place to draw inspiration from in order to find the right recipe for other cities. With these lessons, other cities can hopefully move a little faster, or avoid a lot of the mistakes that were made in the Netherlands in the seventies, the eighties, and even the nineties. The Netherlands already went through the trial-and-error process, so other cities can avoid the error portion of the equation and skip ahead to actions that will secure healthy environments for their citizens.
Sharing these messages is at the core of their roles in mobile cycling embassies, helping cities understand how and why they should adapt these lessons. If you’re interested to learn more, get in touch! Chris and Melissa are here to help answer questions through workshops, webinars, study tours, and all kinds of resources that are available to help cities move forward.