Into the fish bowl of Amsterdam
The summer school Planning the Cycling City that I have just attended in Amsterdam was fabulous. Three weeks of complete immersion into the Dutch fietsen culture surrounded by 29 of the most promising bike mavericks!
It is almost impossible to summarize the three weeks I spent in Amsterdam with this summer school. I started the journey being rather skeptical of what an encounter with planners, engineers and other hard scientists will turn to be. It proved the most engaging cycling experience so far for me as the struggle to speak a common ‘bike language’ was eventually successful. I am both grateful and honoured to have met all these people.
I have already published an article for London Cycling Campaign website, summarizing the main interesting lessons I learnt in Amsterdam. Below you can read an extended interview I have done with Marco te Brömmelstroet and Meredith Glaser, the organizers of the summer school. Finally, there’s the tipping point of the programme, a presentation that my team (Brian Almdale, Mark Ames, Sheila McGraw, Lisa Ratner, Julie Schack and myself) prepared for the ‘grand finale’ at the very City Hall in Amsterdam, where we draw some conclusions of our experience of cycling in Amsterdam.
How did this idea come to fruition?
Meredith: Such a complex question! Actually, it had been brewing in my mind for quite some time and I knew that there was a summer course called ‘Metropolitan Transportation Studies’ or something like this, but there was only a part of it which focused on bicycles. At the time I was also working with People for Bikes and they had this dinner. Marco was at this dinner, I had never met him before, and I sat across from him. So, you could say that it was like being at the right place at the right time. I introduced myself, he said ‘I’m Marco te Brömmelstroet’ and I said ‘What? I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you!’
So I just befriended him that night, we talked, and the next night he was giving a presentation on cyclists and their swarm behaviour. Afterwards, we had beers and chatted more. And it was then when I asked him ‘Hey, is there a summer school on cycling?’ he said no, but promised to go the week after at the organizers of summers school at the University of Amsterdam and ask them about this. A week later he emailed me and said ‘It’s on! We’re going to do it!’ That’s how it started.
Amsterdam is continuously being asked to be a learning context for mobility, and bicycle transportation, and urban cycling.
I think the idea became more successful because we were in Amsterdam. I am a believer that University of Amsterdam has to be the centre of this. Because it can’t be in Groeningen, it can’t be in Hague, it can’t be in Rotterdam or Eindhoven, it has to be in Amsterdam. And Amsterdam is continuously being asked to be a learning context for mobility, and bicycle transportation, and urban cycling. There is no other option, it has to be here. This idea of embedded learning in an embedded course, it can’t just be in any city, it has to be in a city like Amsterdam, which has access to other cycling contexts in the Netherlands.
Marco: If I have to be honest, it is about different things that have to come together for such an idea to materialise. You need a crystalliser, you need points in time and space where things can crystallise around. I was also starting the ‘Urban Cycling Institute‘, which had the goal to put cycling in the academic agenda, both through research and teaching. Until that point I didn’t really have something to focus on. At the same time this idea of an institute was also not created in my head in a vacuum. It’s also because I talk to people who are not only foreigners, but people who go abroad many times and see what the value of cycling is. You have to go out of the fish bowl to understand a fish bowl. So, when Meredith came with this idea of a summer school, I thought is a good way to fill in the first steps of putting cycling in the academic agenda and teaching. I basically offered the academic connections.
What kind of reactions did you receive from those around? Did people think it was the right time for this?
Meredith: I think it is definitely the right time. The topic of urban cycling in Amsterdam is only growing. We can see this from our own experience. Marco and I are both getting requests for either some sort of study tour or lecture or help with a study abroad programme. I started my consulting company in January, thinking that I would do this summer course and work for People for Bikes, but now it has spun into 15 other jobs, which is insane. It’s really an exponential growth at this point and it seems to be no slowing down, for sure. So, in terms of momentum, it’s really great.
We chose 13 topics and each of these could be a three weeks summer session in itself.
And when we started putting this course together, it’s always a matter of what stories do you tell, and there are so many to tell. We chose 13 topics and each of these could be a three weeks summer session in itself. Just that makes it difficult to squeeze in two lectures and discussion into a two and a half hour time frame. It’s really tough. And to choose these topics accordingly. But the guests who delivered the key notes have been nothing but excited, everybody wants to be a part of it.
We see excitement from the key note speakers, but we also see a different reaction which was, for example, from the marketing people at I amsterdam who didn’t see at the beginning the connection between marketing and cycling, but eventually realized that this is a topic that is really making headlines. So, you also see this ‘Dutch paradigm’, where people think that cycling is boring, that everybody cycles, so why talk about it.
At this point in Netherlands there already exists this Dutch Cycling Embassy, an umbrella which sells cycling expertise to the world. Now it is the academics who are the newcomers to this scene. Who else do you think it is missing from the mix? The government, for example?
Marco: We are now designing the Dutch cycling academy as a sister or brother of the Dutch Cycling Embassy, where we say ‘Can we do the same thing as them?’, promoting ourselves, making ourselves visible. I started this summer school with saying that cycling is under researched, but, in fact, it is not that it is under researched, because there are so many people, especially recently, from all kind of multi disciplinary angles, going to cycling. We want to bring them together with this online platform. The main two reasons are to make us more visible as an academic community, to get research funding, but also to push things. Because what you say is correct, especially on the policy level, these are the lagers. On the Dutch governmental national level we now have finally exploring their role in cycling, but until recently they said they didn’t have a role, they only had one person sitting there, doing something on cycling. But also on regional level, on city level, there are some cities now going from reactive policy making into proactive policy making. But this is a very recent movement. So, the Dutch Cycling Embassy, the Dutch Cycling Academy, and the AMS=Cycling, which is the project of the City of Amsterdam aiming to create a platform for cities in The Netherlands, they all ride on this wave of more proactive attention for cycling. The Dutch Cycling Academy aims to frame the debate.
I think all this academic knowledge deserves a master programme of two years itself. You come here at the University of Amsterdam and you learn research skills and you get a multi disciplinary master where you learn to do sociology studies, engineering studies in Delft, historical analysis, transition studies, maybe cost-benefit analysis. So we all have our strengths.
I think all this academic knowledge deserves a master programme of two years itself.
What else is to expect next after this summer school?
Marco: The next step is to see if we can keep this summer school running, so next year is important for that. And after that we need to develop a model to expand, that will probably be digital, a MOOC kind of thing. I think a group of 30 students for a summer school is already big, and we need to think how to cater for the other hundreds of people who also want to join next years. If that is in place, the next thing would be, in the next 5 years, to have a master degree.
What would you improve for the next year?
Marco: I already have an existential crisis after these weeks of the summer school. This has to do with the fact that it is an academic summer school and at the same time that it is a topic that has a high social relevance as well. But it is actually quite strange because you have a summer school on a topic and everybody in the room has a t-shirt with the topic. So, it is a good thing, but somehow it is strange that the topic generates only attention for people that are interested in cycling. I am not really sure how to cope with that. We need to acknowledge that this is academic, but that it is really applied as well.
Below, and a better visualisation of the slides that Mark used for the audience at the City Hall.
Main photo: Me cycling hand in hand with Zsolt Schuller, British fellow with Hungarian descent. Hungaro-Romanian relationships have never been more fruitful! Thanks, Ingvild, for the magnificent shot!