Although the title of this absolutely fantastic talk by Marco te Brömmelstroet is “Rethinking the mobility paradigm,” it can actually be watched as a short but fun class on the power of language, on simplification, forest engineering, road engineering, Homo economicus, efficiency, optimizing for the wrong thing, and the incorrect balance between machines and humans, which we are currently living under. I also encourage you to listen and possibly research further some of the writers and books he mentions, as the lessons about thinking in systems and “seeing like a state,” among others, can be applied to a variety of fields and cases, not just cycling infrastructure.
Brömmelstroet talks about the primeval forest and the optimized forest conceived around the idea of a “normal tree,” to make an analogy with the primeval street. Pre-car, the primeval street was the space between buildings, it was a public living room, a place to play, to walk. When cars were added, at scale, the street became optimized for the machine, marginalizing the human. A logic which started to solidify around institutions, laws, behaviours, and even the solid physical infrastructure.
We moved from the primeval street to the production street where everything else had to go. [I]t solidified our imagination, the solidification is now complete, our imagination about the future of mobility is always about how to make it faster easier more comfortable cheaper and of course sustainable livable and safe.
Let’s not compress the whole talk in this post, you should take the 32 minutes to watch it, but I’ll finish with this quote below. While showing a video of a busy intersection in Amsterdam, Brömmelstroet asks us to see it not as a road engineer would, but as a sociologist, who would see people interacting in various ways, signalling to each other, negotiating, cohabitating. This sociologist would see many different people of many walks of life that are meeting each other in public space, being exposed to diversity, engaging with people outside of their bubble. And then:
[D]iversity brings this new lens to think about our streets and if you go into the literature there’s a huge list of potential effects: a higher sense of membership, a higher sense of influence, a higher sense of integration, the fulfillment of needs, shared emotional connections, a higher sense of being neighbours, if people are more exposed to each other collective efficacy goes up, citizen participation goes up, higher sense of community, higher sense of belonging, higher sense of place. But maybe the most important one, higher levels of trust.
That’s a lot of varied benefits just by considering actual cohabitation in the streets, human to human. He proposes a new language around cycling and mobility, focusing on different metrics, considering different outputs, and to “minimize the machine and let humanity thrive.”