‘To whom belongs the street’, divergent views on mobility
“Redistribute public space” and “invest in transport on-demand” are two divergent views on mobility. The first is suggested by De Correspondent-journalist Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet, professor at Amsterdam University. The second comes from Alexander D’Hooghe, professor at MIT.
Journalist Talia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet, known as the ‘cycling professor’ and Director of the Urban Cycling Institute, wrote a book about the actual mobility problems called ‘Het recht van de snelste’ (The Right of the Fastest).
To whom belongs the street?
“Hundred years ago, the street was a meeting place, a place to play and to trade,” says Brömmelstroet. “And then came the car. Now, a century later, we have to ask ourselves again to whom belongs the street?”
“I’m definitely not a car hater,” he continues, “I’m not against speed, I’m a car lover and adore Formula 1. The car is a magnificent invention, but it’s time to rethink how to use it in the future.”
The professor hates the word ‘bicycle-highway’. “Cycling is interesting because it’s healthy, cheap, and a community act, not because it’s fast. And now we’re making small cars of it, speed pedelecs even have rearview mirrors and number plates. That’s car logic.”
Is the answer banning te car? “Not at all, it’s one of the best inventions ever, but if we all want to use it at the same time, it doesn’t work. So, in some places, he will have to play a more subordinate role.”
“Our streets are completely focused on the car and on traffic flow. Once you come out of your house, you become a traffic participant, if you want it or not. We could look at rearranging the streets, certainly in urban areas.”
Bikers are like starlings
Brömmelstroet and Verkade see the bikers as starlings. “It’s a metaphor, the spontaneous movement of bikers on the streets makes you think of starling swarms, it’s efficient by itself. It also stimulates empathic and altruistic behavior, because they all have to make a physical effort.”
Many people see the Netherlands as the leading example to promote bike use. The professor doesn’t entirely agree. “In the past, the Dutch gave the biker its place in a safer environment. The problem is that this is very difficult and costly to expand. In a country like Belgium, because there is no such separation yet, it’s much easier to claim the road for different purposes.”
The flow logic
“Our public space is all in the function of the flow logic,” says Verkade. “Roads are no meeting places anymore; they are meant to move on as quickly as possible to another place. That’s logical because the first traffic engineers (in the US) were, in fact, converted plumbing engineers. Their aim was before all ‘to keep it flowing’.
What’s wrong with not getting stuck in traffic jams and reaching your travel target as soon as possible? “The problem is that this flow logic rules our world. The right of the fastest, the fittest. But that’s not a universal law. We can choose to use our public space otherwise. It’s a moral and societal question.”
“In Europe, we ask questions about the right to have weapons in the US. But on our roads, we let people die as if it were unavoidable, nature’s law. This corona crisis can maybe change perspectives for a lot of people.”
Demand is key
The Belgian Alexander D’Hooghe is the civil engineer, architect, and urban planner who ‘rescued’ the famous Oosterweel link in Antwerp. He leads his own ‘Bureau for Permanent Modernity’ with offices in Brussels and Boston and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The only way to get out of the congestion trap is to give people more choices. In Belgium, for example, you have too many monopolies. We have to go to an expanded mobility market. The electrification of the bike plays an important role in this. It was the missing link.”
“Where we have to go to is demand-responsive transit (DRT), shared transport that is available on demand. Worldwide, there’s an explosion of small companies offering DRT. In New York, I use Via regularly, a tiny little bus that picks you up and that you share with others, in Belgium such offers are not allowed.”
The government has to allow DRT. It would be very interesting for people living in areas where transport demand is high, but mobility solutions are low or nonexistent. Those sorts of transport can then be integrated with the already known public transport and also use their street accommodation.”
Too little, too late
“Mobility in Flanders or Belgium is such a disaster that we have the opportunity to change everything. We should become the market leader in offering alternative solutions of all kinds. We could even sell it for the rest of the world.”
“But there is one major problem,” D’Hooghe concludes. “All processes that should lead to change are lasting much too long. The first thing we have to do is accelerate things, to get rid of all this bureaucracy of permits and admittances. Every governmental plan of the last decades has it as a priority; it never happens.”