Curbing Traffic: the Human Case for fewer cars in our lives – Melissa and Chris Bruntlett

Mobility experts, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, moved with their family to Delft just three years ago from Vancouver, Canada. A life-long love of cycling and bike culture inspired a trip to Rotterdam in 2016 and they never looked back. I spoke with Melissa in Delft about their second recently published book on the topic of urban mobility and designing cities for people rather than cars.

Curbing Traffic: the Human Case for fewer cars in our lives, focuses specifically on the notion of the low-car city. It explains why fewer cars in cities are a good thing, for everyone, even the motorists and uses the authors’ experiences in the Netherlands as inspiration for how this might be achieved. The Dutch’s love affair with the bicycle means that many Dutch cities have managed to avoid the worst ravages of the automobile pandemic that has raged across industrialised countries for decades. Nevertheless, the rights of the Dutch cyclist were hard won and the book briefly traces the history of urban planning in Delft as it came under increasing pressure to make space for the automobile and replace parts of the old town with through roads for cars.

Interesting, the book points out that it is not the bicycle itself that is the focus of a low-car city. The reality, Melissa explains to me, is that the bicycle is simply a tool, one of many ways in which a low-car city can be achieved. The book’s broader focus is the re-conceptualization of urban space: for whom is it designed and how does this impact quality of life for many of us city dwellers? Public space in cities is precious and living in an urban hub means learning how to share it. Yet with the rise of the private automobile, much of this space was given over to roads and parking spaces. People, including children and the elderly, became marginalised in their own cities.

Curbing the Traffic, provides a fascinating overview of how city space can be re-imagined from the perspectives of those who live there. It explores concepts like the feminist city which focuses on the idea that cities have traditionally been designed by men, for men. They are places where economic activity and the breadwinner’s commute have been prioritised in the design of transport systems and mobility networks. The shorter, more frequent ‘care trips’, still done mostly by women, have traditionally received little attention from urban planners. Feminist cities take into account the needs of a wider variety of city dwellers including children, the elderly and the disabled.  Their shared spaces are safe, inclusive and therapeutic. They are also more resilient as they cater for a wider range of the city’s inhabitants.

The book makes frequent comparisons with the North American experience, particularly  Vancouver, Canada. These references remind one that each city is unique. Geographical and psychological spaces are different and so a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to succeed. However, there are many things that can be adapted from one context to another. Perhaps most importantly, the goal of safer, greener, more inclusive city spaces in which all can thrive is widely shared. This shared vision is the first step in rethinking how and for whom our cities are created and sustained.     Souwie Buis   7th September 2021