The way we move will write our history

This article was originally written for German newspaper Tagesspiegel.

We live in historic times. The coronavirus has shown us how vulnerable we are as human beings. And especially how vulnerable we can feel when we are out of control. But this is just a symptom of a bigger crisis. The pandemic is a result of our way of life.

It was already clear for many years that the system we built is reaching its boundaries, while it keeps on promising limitless growth. It’s not only the virus that thrives in the hyper-connected densified world that we created. So does poverty, loneliness, burnouts, depressions, and disconnection from ourselves and local communities. We can’t really be surprised we feel quite lost.

But let's not be too hard on ourselves; this is the first time in history that we live so closely together, the majority of us in cities. We are still learning how to co-exist, respecting ourselves, others and our planet.

Take for instance the world of mobility planning. For decades, our cities have been engineered by technical oriented professionals. The main goal they had in mind was to move as many cars as possible from A to B, and to do it as fast as the laws of physics allow. And the result? Unsafe urban streets, traffic accidents, lifeless suburban neighborhoods.

Why do we keep repeating the same mistakes? It’s because mobility planning is seen by many as an objective, logical practice, with its own language and laws of nature. The decisions made by planners seem gospel truths, and the negative consequences are just our destiny. But nothing could be further from the truth. The choices made in mobility departments change the lives of people. They move people, or get them stuck. They empower, or push them out. They make them happy, or stressed and ill. It is essential that we realize this, otherwise we will keep going in the wrong direction.

In our work we see the importance of mobility in the lives of people. How mobility poverty keeps people in a bad socio-economic situation. How young children are deprived of getting to know their own physical and mental power, as their parents are scared to let them explore their neighborhood alone. How public spaces are grey and boring, missing access to green and biodiversity.

Luckily, there is a different way forward. It has nothing to do with flashy technology or “smart” solutions. We can get there using the transport mode of the future which the German Baron Karl von Drais invented 200 years ago… the Bicycle. The power of the elegant bicycle is not only its efficiency and technological innovation, but also its power to change the urban planning system. To break free from the current, outdated, car-focused logic.

Laufmaschine in modern times | Source:

Good bicycle planning is about working integrally, by making connections. Instead of breaking the city into regions and silos, the Bicycle brings us together. It has so many positive sides, on a social, environmental, sustainable, health, economic, well-being level, that we must be slightly crazy - and that in times of the “smart city” - to not radically choose for active mobility first. In most places putting walking and cycling central in our mobility system it is still seen as a radical choice. A radical choice to really build cities that fosters the well-being of all its citizens.

The multidisciplinarity of the Bicycle with all its different positive effects can also be its weakness. City leaders often do not know how to handle it and only approach it as yet another travel option, like a kind of slower car. This is what many engineers know as the design approach of “vehicular cycling”. But to design the cycling city, we need diverse teams with mobility experts, sociologists, urban planners, green experts, psychoanalysts, economists, health specialists, and others. Integral and inclusive cities are made by integral and inclusive teams.

This approach works. In 2018, Rotterdam municipality called us to create the Bicycle Vision for the city. They did not want a technical story, but vision and strategy that connected the different domains, showing how the bicycle can unleash the sustainable change that different departments were already working on. The goal was to make cycling accelerate the compact, productive, circular, inclusive and healthy city. The bicycle vision is an integral, activating work, that combines spatial input and innovation with a narrative for change.

Creating long-term strategies and short term actions, we can influence change, using the right tools, designing the right processes. This method is called ‘transition management’ and was developed by our academic partner DRIFT, the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions. ‘Transitions’ are often perceived as a slow, and complex process. Transitions are indeed not just an update or an improvement of solutions that clearly do not work, but a completely new way of thinking and doing. Those processes can be quite complex, but not necessarily slow.

Part of our transition management approach is the use of tactical urbanism as an effective way to create change. We created modular neighborhood parklets, showing people how on street parking spaces can be transformed into pop-up parks. In the Happy Streets project, we temporarily closed off streets to cars and opened them to people. By temporarily experimenting, people can reimagine their streets, neighborhoods and city as places that not only move cars.

Baron Karl von Drais did not call it the ‘Laufmachine’ without a reason: cycling is just a more efficient way of walking, and walking is natural to us human beings. It’s time to stop for a second and rethink the way we shape our cities. To unplan our current way of city planning to really profit from the power of cycling. The Dutch have already used this German invention to promote the well-being of people, it’s time for Germany to follow. We live in historic times, because the decisions we make today will define the direction we will go. The way we move will write our history.


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