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Livable cities story: Industry meets science

Industry meets science

 

Towards a relaxed,
thriving city


A meeting of two worlds. The scientific urban planner who researches the relationships between mobility, the city and society, in dialogue with the business leader who keeps one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in Europe on track. Two analyses, each of which follows its own course. But both are in surprising agreement on the final destination. Ton Anbeek (CEO Accell Group) in conversation with Professor Marco te Brömmelstroet (University of Amsterdam) on livable cities.

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Ton Anbeek and Marco te Brömmelstroet held their conversation at the end of 2021 in De Fietser, Accell Group’s Experience Center in Ede. While at the time the silence of the lockdown dominated, the location is a place where bike-lovers, like kids in a candy store, can test out shiny new two-wheelers and accessories. 

Marco: “This place really strikes the chord of what cycling is in my mind: a warm, sympathetic feeling of being ‘on the road’ together and sustainably.”

Ton: “That matches nicely with Accell’s purpose: we see cycling as the most sustainable form of transport, which among other things contributes to the creation of livable cities. With fewer traffic jams, less noise and reduced air pollution.”

Marco: “I think livable cities are no less than a basic requirement. We need to raise the bar and preferably talk about a relaxed, flourishing environment. The bicycle can create a major role for itself in the creation of such a modern, open city where residents live together freely, safely and in good health. Bicycle manufacturers can contribute to that, for example, by ensuring that bicycles win back terrain on the streets from cars.”

 

 

Ton: “We think it’s important, and it’s in our interest, that officials in European cities and rural areas build infrastructure where cyclists can move freely and safely. But our power to overcome the obstacles to providing more room for cyclists is limited, we aren’t a political organization. Meanwhile Accell does take action where it can: we work together with national and European cycling associations and other interest groups in order to persuade the authorities to adopt this agenda into their policies. If and how they implement this is neither our role nor our expertise.” 

Marco: “I understand. But I think the sector can indeed demand a bigger role for itself. Let me put that in a Dutch historical context. From the beginning of the 1930s, due to the invention of the automobile, planners saw the world from a traffic engineering point of view, and that was particularly the case regarding cities. Up until that point, public space belonged to everyone. With the increase in motorized traffic a new language creeped into urban planning, where the car became written in capital letters. As the years went on, that language began to solidify, with frames such as: “we want to get as fast as possible from A to B,” and that must be “safe and comfortable” and that “driving a car is a privilege which stands for individual freedom.

 

In the early 1970s, the bicycle began to gain a foothold in this frame of mind with a different narrative. That of the anti-authoritarian counterculture: the ability to move around freely with a friend riding on the luggage rack. Travelling through the city smoothly, upright relaxed and “dancing” with each other across marketplaces and through neighbourhoods. The bicycle became the symbol for the valuable moments in life, with “on the road” being the means and the end. Sociologists endorse this and they emphazise that cycling connects society. It stimulates diversity and citizenship and it is a metaphor for connection, a sense of neighbourhood and mutual trust.

The strong historical-cultural position which the bicycle has, has brought a lot of good to the Netherlands, such as the intricate network of cycle paths. However, that development has stagnated, the narrative is showing a bit of wear. Over the past 20 years, 27% of all transport movements in the country took place on the bike, so 73% didn’t. And that ratio remains constant. The bicycle is not winning further ground. This means that relaxed, free cities do not evolve, even though research tells us that people want them. They value the bicycle, but the story does not penetrate sufficiently, even in a traditional cycling country such as the Netherlands. Cyclists should demand their space in the streets more emphatically in relation to the car. Society would improve if they did.”

 

 

Ton: “You paint a nice picture, which partially connects to our own message. At Accell over 3,500 people work to make cycling pleasant, comfortable and safe. We invest in innovations which connect with consumers’ and society’s needs. Take for example the e-bike and the e-cargo bike: All those bikes would thrive even more if European countries, and cities in particular, would improve their infrastructure in order to match the needs of various groups of cyclists, of all ages and with different wishes. 
We do see some positive developments: cycling-only streets in Amsterdam, cyclist-friendly traffic rules in Paris, and car-free neighbourhoods in Barcelona. In the Dutch countryside, local authorities build kilometres of new high-speed cycle paths every year. But indeed, there are very few neighbourhoods where people can let their kids play outside worry-free, like used to be the case." 

Marco: “Let us as a society, and I also mean bicycle manufacturers here, say more often that our streets are places where children, adults, the elderly and all other road users shouldn’t be afraid. Where young children can cycle and walk to school on their own, carefree. In my residential area here in Ede there are 1,300 families and there is literally nowhere where kids can play on the street or cycle carefree.

It is simply not safe. We have to get out of that false frame that cycling is dangerous. Cyclists are in danger, and that is something quite different. Let’s separate cause and effect and tackle the problem at the source.”

Ton: “I totally agree with you on this. In a city like Groningen, by the way, we see that they do have some great plans for more cyclist-friendly infrastructure. It will take some time, but let’s hope that with more such examples, we will all soon enjoy chilling out on our bikes in flourishing cycling-friendly cities all over the world."

 

‘LET US AS A SOCIETY SAY MORE OFTEN THAT OUR STREETS ARE PLACES WHERE CHILDREN AND ALL OTHER ROAD USERS SHOULDN’T BE AFRAID’


Marco te Brömmelstroet