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Learning by doing: a closer look at the exportation of Dutch cycling knowledge

by: Meredith Glaser

· research project,cyclewalk,PHD,Output

The City of Amsterdam estimated, conservatively, that in 2015 over 150 international delegations of varying size came to Amsterdam to, generally, learn about Dutch cycling. With nearly half of all trips made by bike (depending on neighborhood), the city and region are deemed an inspiring example for others to follow. It’s historical, geographical and social diversity in cycling makes it an ideal ‘Living Lab’ for learning. Groups of city officials and professionals swarm to Amsterdam to soak up every bit of knowledge and practice surrounding infrastructure, design, communication, transport and built environment policies that have contributed to such an inspiring “cycling city” success story. Academic institutions are equally in demand for structured learning opportunities, real-world application and skill-building for students and courses like Planning the Cycling City are a result of this demand.

My PhD research will focus on unraveling the role of learning, teaching and the built environment in the transferability of Dutch urban cycling policies and practices to contexts abroad. The research aims to add to the debates on policy transfer, -learning, -tourism, innovation diffusion using knowledge from education, anthropology, and policy mobilities. The research will gather results from the Interreg project CYCLEWALK (2017-2121) wherein five EU countries are increasing their knowledge and practice around walking and cycling policies and infrastructure, using Dutch practices as a frame of reference and inspiration. The project will kick-off in Amsterdam on April 5, 2017. The following article blueprints my preliminary research ideas.  

Policy transfer: procuring a cycling city

Good ideas are spread from one city to another. In this digital, global age, ideas spread more quickly and further than ever before. Simply put, these ideas attempt to catalyze improvement to urban living and urban environments. While leaders all over the globe are searching for solutions to congested, unsafe streets, record-breaking pollution levels and decreasing public health, the bicycle is increasingly seen as an effective – even innovative – tool to mitigate these challenges with spin-off benefits. But to achieve these goals, many city staff – urban planners, transportation engineers, policymakers, etc. – are all asking a similar question: how do we make a cycling city? 

City after city, municipalities are developing policy documents that lay out goals for becoming a world-class cycling city, or at least “car-lite”. They are tempted by short-term transformations in other cities and they want in. Targets for ridership and kilometers of bike paths are set. Successful “best practice” solutions are prescribed and to be imported from other cities (ie, bike share) then adapted to the local context. Instructed to carry out these plans, staff then seek opportunities for training but some find that standard conferences and learning networks aren’t enough to truly learn about or understand urban cycling.

Nurturing the transfer of ideas

Professionals in many disciplines (including politicians) are finding it very difficult to imagine a city where a majority of daily trips are made by using a bicycle. Let alone what its streets would look and feel like. These are people whose own lives, daily habits and rituals, routes and destinations are most likely radically different. Bicycles might be used on weekends for sport, leisure or recreation, and may be considered toys for children or for teenagers who don’t yet have a driver’s license. When their daily destinations like work, schools, and grocery stores seem far away from one another, the bicycle seems like an impractical – even impossible – way to get around.

It’s no wonder that many urban planning and transportation professionals and the political officials who represent them have a hard time fully grasping what it means to be a person who uses a bike for mundane, daily activities like going to work, a café or the grocery store. It’s no wonder they have a difficult time designing policies and streets to look like something they’ve never seen, experienced or can even imagine themselves. And it’s no wonder they are confronted with opposition from superiors, colleagues, the media and the public: because environmental changes that (might) impact our life and something as personal and embodied as our habits and routines can seem to question, even contest, our behaviors, values, and choices.

So with this background, many professionals want to see, feel and experience the real-life results of similarly implemented ideas. They want to talk to people, their equivalent peers, who have been in their shoes (albeit years ago). They want to better understand the process, designs, and implications for what seems and feels to be impossible decisions. And quite possibly, underneath it all, they might be curious about what it feels like to live a life in which the bicycle plays a mainstream role in everyday mobility.

Current practices: turning to Amsterdam

Amsterdam is considered a mature cycling city and world-class leader in urban cycling. As such, the city is undertaking the challenge, and moral obligation, to serve as an effective learning context for the hundreds of groups seeking to “learn the best practices.” While on tour, everything from the city’s history, built form, design techniques and standards, politics and governance structure are elements of study, deliberation, and question. Trends, figures, numbers and colorful, vivid images are shown to the groups, often in a lecture setting. When the group contains political officials or other VIPs then their Amsterdam equivalents might be present for an intimate Q&A session.

If time permits, the foreign learners themselves are emboldened to hop on a bicycle and “do as the Dutch do,” engaging in a practice they might never do at home. The groups are often lead around the city by bike, stopping at certain locations chosen by the guide for an inspiring “before and after” story of transformation. The group huddles around a gray-scale but familiar image of traffic congestion from the 1980s. They listen to the guide’s story and contrast the image to what they see at that moment: a vibrant, thriving local street with people of all ages walking, bicycling, talking, performing their daily routines without a clue that they are subjects of wonder, living and playing in an environment of study.

If more time (and confidence) permits, these learners explore the city by bike on their own, hopefully finding themselves a stroopwafel and a bench for some good old-fashioned people-watching. Even without this extra adventure, Dutch culture is an inevitable conversation topic. The local residents’ habits, customs and behaviors are observed, photographed, and compared. Social services’ delivery, education and health care, are often discussed as wildly different from back home. How deep the conversation goes certainly depends on the guide, the individuals in the group, the time, and countless other factors unknown at present.

After a few days – or hours, sometimes – the groups (or individuals) travel back to their home cities. They are usually exhausted but full of inspiration, with great hopes of “translating” the lessons they learned, adapting and applying Dutch principles to their own context.

The number of delegations has been increasing over the years. City of Amsterdam staff became so inundated with questions and requests for leading delegations that they hired an outside agency to at least partly relieve them of this responsibility. Not included in the previously mentioned 150 delegations, many different companies, agencies and individuals, based in Amsterdam, in other Dutch cities, and even abroad, offer their services as guides for these groups, as well as their professional technical expertise in the future.

Knowledge gaps

Currently, very little is known about these education services, the curators or teachers, their backgrounds, the content they choose to discuss, the experiences or “lesson plans” they curate, or the ways in which they engage their learners or facilitate group learning and dynamics. Since exact and complete records of delegations are lacking, very little is known about each delegation – their motivations, backgrounds, roles and (power) relations within the groups. Very little is known about this micro-industry, its craft, leaders, economic value, the impact on participants or cities they represent.

There are plenty of stories from a variety of sources that these trips are influencing some degree of change; however, empirical evidence is lacking. Since the teaching-learning process is not linear, and in this case crucially involves a tertiary component – the urban-ecosystem of Amsterdam – the disassembling, reassembling and patterns of interaction are difficult to capture and analyse. Little is known about what these groups (individually and collectively) learn from their experiences or how group composition and dynamics influence learning, cooperation and knowledge generation. Finally, little is known about how their experience impacts later decisions or agency, innovations in project delivery, relations with others on the study tour, or personal behaviors.

Amsterdam’s opportunity

Some say that learning by doing is the best way to learn. In the case of urban cycling, it is certainly a popular way to learn. Of course other cities and their leaders want to learn from Amsterdam. And Amsterdam is ready and willing to serve. However, Amsterdam’s urban cycling story is one that has matured over the last 100 years. As any century-old relationship, Amsterdam’s history with the bicycle is one fraught with complexity and nuance. Disassembling that story into a series of readily digestible, clear-cut components for a variety of audiences must be a challenging craft. The “teacher” must make tough editing decisions for content, curation, and delivery. And on the other side, learning this story also seems to have other unique challenges, namely trying to understand how the Amsterdam story can relate to them, their family, colleagues, profession, their city, their culture.

My research aims to unpack these challenges, to use the theories set forth in education, anthropology, and policy mobilities and to unravel the implications for policy transfer and policy learning. What an opportunity Amsterdam has at its fingertips right now! It only makes sense to enhance our understanding, our awareness and to make the most of its unique position.

Meredith Glaser

Meredith Glaser is PhD Researcher within the Centre of Urban Studies and the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is embedded within the Urban Cycling Institute studying international policy transfer and learning of cycling practices from the Netherlands to other contexts. Her research is supervised by Drs. Marco te Brömmelstroet and Luca Bertolini.

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