Cycling Cities: An Interview with Ruth Oldenziel

Cycling Cities: The European Experience was recently published by the Foundation for the History of Technology and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. Edited by Ruth Oldenziel, Martin Emanuel, Adri Albert de la Bruhèze, and Frank Veraart, the book explores 100 years of urban cycling policy, use, and practice in 14 European cities. We sat down with visiting scholar and former Carson fellow Ruth Oldenziel (RO), to discuss this wonderful addition to the cycling discourse.

SR: You recently published Cycling Cities. What prompted the idea for the book?

RO: I was invited for the 400th anniversary between Amsterdam and New York, and there was a bike slam. This was at a time in 2009 when Mayor Bloomberg was establishing a cycling policy as part of economic growth and a livable city. And the people at the bike slam were asking the Dutch, “How do you do it?” and the advisors and consultants really couldn’t explain. They sort of said “Well, we just do it.” I had colleagues at the time who had published what was, up until that time during the 90s, the comparative study—historical study—on cycling in these different cities, but it was in Dutch. And there was one graph which was floating around the internet, and people were quoting it without having read the report. So that’s how it started out; I just wanted to be a facilitator of making this accessible to an English-speaking world… I got so fascinated with the topic. Initially, we were translating it but it became a much bigger project, with more cities and more people coming in. An international team. Attractive pictures and captions, so yeah, that’s how it started.

The famous floating graph. Image: Cycling Cities, p200.

SR: And part of the research for this project was carried out at the RCC. Can you tell us a little bit about how your work developed here?

RO: One of the missions of the RCC is basically to give an alternative to the big data in the debate on sustainable development. So what was important to me here at the RCC was to develop a narrative as an alternative to figures. As I just told you, the graph, which is totally data driven, has become a kind of object, an artefact, floating in space without the story being told. So I wanted to tell both stories. Because I’m teaching at a technical university, people (guys mostly) are immediately  drawn to data. And so I see it as my own mission in my work to bring the two together: the data and the narrative. And so the images are a kind of visual essay, if you will, that stands together [with the hard facts] in the book, as the big data story— the visual narrative and the historical narrative.

“I think that the dilemma as a policy maker is that you want to embrace cycling culture, but at the same time, it’s about social justice and about accessibility for all of mobility. So how do you do that?”

SR: As part of that narrative, your book looks at early decision-making and infrastructure for cycling—how has that narrative developed, and what is the present-day impact on modern cities?

RO: The decisions made in the 1920s were a vision about the future, and that future was not there, namely, one governed by automobility. The people made decisions—engineers, policy makers—in the 1920s, that we are still dealing with today. And so long-term development and historical development is really important; and that’s an important message today for policy makers—that you can only imagine the future when you understand the past. So a lot of what we’re doing today is unmaking the past, if you will, but also at the same time envisioning a new future.

Utrecht p29
Men gathered outside Utrecht’s social services office. Image: courtesy of the Utrecht City Archive (HUA).

“What we need is traffic calming where you make living streets, where cars are only guests and where pedestrians and cyclists are sharing. And public transit is also a big issue. Are you putting it on the ground, giving it space again, or are tram tracks being shared with cars only, taxis only, and the rest being given back to pedestrians and to cyclists? I think that that’s sort of the challenge, and traffic calming is to me more important than bicycle lanes. There’s ample opportunity but it takes a little courage.”

SR: As sustainability becomes more important in cities, what are the challenges that policy makers face and how best can we address these concerns?

RO: Well, one issue that we were faced with over and over again in making the book is that we have basically no data about non-motorized mobility, or traffic modelling and the decisions that are made in terms of the allocation of funds . . . which are based on a car-governed traffic model. And so the challenge is to undo those models to bring in non-motorized mobility: not only cycling, but also pedestrian. I think that’s where the future needs to be. And then we need to rethink everything we know about traffic and mobility; another issue that is not really addressed is, if you cycle in a city but you then go by plane to faraway places, how sustainable is your mobility, right? So we really need to go back to the drawing board. But the first thing, that’s what the book is really about, is to recapture some of the things that are really going on in the streets, rather than what traffic engineers and mobility policy makers and politicians imagine are going on in the streets.

“I quite frankly don’t believe that cars belong in a city. There might be uses outside the city, even that we can debate. Within cities they have no place. Literally.”

SR: Yes, I’m sure the boardroom decisions don’t always reflect the lived experiences of individuals.

RO: Totally. Yes, I think we are really, really imprisoned by projections about the future, instead of looking at and examining what’s happening. A kind of ethnographic understanding of what goes on in the streets and how people experience mobility.

Citizens and cycling: recent immigrants to Belgium learn to ride in Antwerp. The city established the Antwerp Cycling School in 2011. Image: courtesy of the Antwerp State Archive.

SR: And are there any model cities that you’ve come across, in Europe or elsewhere, where individuals are influencing the decisions rather than policy makers dictating what infrastructure should look like?

RO: Well, from the book I guess the two cities where there is a kind of fusion between visionary policy makers and a bottom up social movement are Amsterdam and Malmö—one in the Netherlands and the other in Sweden. Both were depressed textile towns in the 1970s that faced urban blight and were really up against huge problems. And then there were visionary policy makers with a social movement that said, OK let’s make our downtown, our inner city, livable again—and so they took another route. And today for example Pittsburgh, one of the most depressed steel towns of the United States, is doing sort of the same thing. And that’s encouraging: that from the direst circumstances something new can blossom.

HW: As someone from the UK where, in rural and urban areas outside the major cities like London, it’s basically too dangerous to cycle because of car traffic and lack of infrastructure, I find examples like Pittsburgh quite inspirational—where cycling can become something iconic, representing progress or development.

“Right now, in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam, you see people experience the freedom of cycling and how wonderful a city can be. You can see when they start they’re all insecure; in the end they’re confident. You hope they can bring that experience back home: how they see the future, the possible future of their own city.”

More information on Cycling Cities can be found on its website. Or, why not take a look at one of its book reviews, or find out why it has been praised as the “best summer read” in this recent interview.

One Comment on “Cycling Cities: An Interview with Ruth Oldenziel

  1. Hi Ruth,

    I ran across this article after seeing you quoted in the NY Times travel article on Amsterdam and wondered if you were on Facebook. Here’s to memories of your time in DC and the trip to Maryland with Sven and Alexander. Best to you all. PS, Felicia is a realtor now and I am in the farm safety field.


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