Canadian couple Melissa and Chris Bruntlett have carved out a unique position in the conversation around bikes and cities, with their family-friendly focus, clear language, and a clever eye for a persuasive image.
Based in Vancouver, their research consultancy Modacity – which grew out of an experiment in ditching the family car in favour of a combo of bikes, car-share, and public transport, and sharing their story with readers – is all about creating catchy and accessible and content for audiences eager to learn about how to bring bike-friendly cities to life.
They also get around: the seed of Modacity was nurtured by a 2014 visit to New Zealand; and their 2016 visit to the Netherlands has now blossomed into a beautiful new book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (Island Press). The book matches classic Dutch examples with how cities in North America (and beyond, like Auckland!) are retrofitting their car-centric cities to bring streets back to life with people on bikes.
The Bruntletts are currently touring North America with the new book – and will be back down our way in November, with a talk and book launch in Auckland on Friday November 23rd, organized by Women in Urbanism and Frocks on Bikes. The event is free, but be quick to grab tickets, as space is limited! It’s also preceded by a group ride, which everyone’s welcome to join. Stay tuned for further opportunities to meet the authors and hear their story.
We recently caught up with Melissa and Chris in Vancouver for a chat about the book, the tour, and the global whirlwind of bike-hungry cities eager for inspiration, and hit them up with five quick questions.
Q. What was the inspiration for this book?
Melissa: In 2016, we got back from a trip to the Netherlands with our children, where as a family we’d spent five weeks immersed in the Netherlands, experiencing Dutch life and cycling culture on the ground. We realised that we couldn’t fully tell the story in a few blog posts. So the book is a way to tell more of that Dutch success story. It’s also a chance to dispel a lot of the myths in terms of what is seen as possible (or impossible) outside of the Netherlands.
Chris: Full credit to our editors, who insisted we find North American examples to illustrate the kinds of things that can be done. That means the book isn’t just about how well the Dutch do things in their country; it also contains a lot of examples of things that are happening [in North America] already and can be quickly put into action. It helps address that old chestnut of ‘oh, well, our city isn’t Amsterdam…’
Q. So is there one basic blueprint for urban vitality?
Chris: No, not at all. One thing we say at the begining is it’s not a copy-paste solution – one size doesn’t necessarily fit all cities. One thing we take from the Dutch experience is every city is different, and we have a toolbox of different options to achieve the desired outcomes. Even the engineering manual used by the Dutch prescribes different solutions based on the volume and speed of cars, land use, and so on. So you have options like cycle tracks, traffic calming, counterflow lanes… and of course the end result is cities that are better for everyone, not just the people who ride bikes.
Melissa: It’s very much about looking at a whole lot of potential solutions and making sure they make sense for the city or neighbourhood where they’re being applied.
Q. How does the Dutch blueprint work in a sprawling city like, say, Vancouver… or Auckland?
Melissa: The interesting thing is that the Dutch don’t focus necessarily on long-distance trips – those 15-30km commutes to work or university that some people are willing to take. It’s more about the short trips: to the corner store for milk, kids getting to school. The idea is, how do we facilitate those trips to be safe, instead of just focusing on long-distance journeys. I think there’s so much opportunity, especially in sprawly cities, to focus on accessibility within a 5km radius – so people who would never think of going really long distances on a bike can start to think about biking as a slightly more convenient (and you could even say lazier!) form of walking.
Chris: It’s about leveraging your public transport, too. The Dutch have connected their public transport system right into the bike network and vice versa. So, people might not cycle the full 15-20 km from A to B, but they can get comfortably to the local station and then complete that journey by train. 50% of all Dutch train trips begin with a bike ride! And the effect is that when you have more people making those short connecting trips by bike, that leaves more space for the people who want to or have to drive on those local streets.
Q. Who benefits from a bikeable city?
Melissa: When people think of cycling, they think of an average middle-aged fit person, usually male. But cycling opens up opportunities for all sorts of people, especially those who can’t drive. This is so clear in terms of the numbers of younger children and teenagers who cycle in the Netherlands, for example. It’s practically unheard of to be driven to school there. Everyone bikes. And that in turn means you have less traffic around the schools.
Chris: The average Dutch teen cycles 2000 km per year – because it’s been made easy and totally normal for them to do so. [Editor’s note: that might sound like a really big number, but it pretty much adds up to a daily routine of school and shops and back, and out with friends on weekends. Very achievable!]
Melissa: That’s something countries struggle with outside the Netherlands: how do we maintain kids cycling through the teen years? The answer is in providing them with the safety, independence, and autonomy to make those trips on their own, so they don’t have to get shuttled around by mum and dad. And conversely, mum and dad don’t have to shuttle them around.
And we haven’t even talked about the benefits for elder citizens. Long story short: bike-friendly cities free up people of all ages to get where they want to go, in healthy and independent ways. And not just on bikes.
Q. What are you looking forward to seeing and doing on your NZ trip?
Melissa: We’re keen to check out your progress over the last four years since we were there! We’ll be visiting with our kids and our parents this time, and we’re really looking forward to seeing how things have changed. It’s like, we glimpsed your bike renaissance at the beginning, and now we’re going to come back and enjoy it in the middle of a whole lot of changes.
Chris: For example, Lightpath wasn’t built the last time we were in Auckland. It stars in Chapter 10 of our book and we’ve drooled over photos of it on social media for way too long, so we’re stoked to go ride it in person. Lightpath is so emblematic of how cities can change the conversation with a single piece of iconic bike infastructure. It helps people understand the big picture – that it’s not about cycling, necessarily, it’s about making the city a better place for everybody.
It’s also about branding your city as innovative. One of our Dutch friends who works in street design says he finds it way more exciting to work in an emerging cycling city than an existing one, precisely it’s not taken for granted, and there’s fresh energy. Our experience so far on this book tour has been about seeing a whole bunch of cities that are starting to fall in love with cycling. There’s so much energy and enthusiasm and excitement out there – which is great, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.