books transport

Book review: Curbing Traffic, by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett

I post one book review a week and had this one scheduled for later. But it’s transport day at COP26 today, and I decided I’d bring it forwards.

Certainly in British government circles, the most prominent sustainable transport ‘solution’ is electric cars. And while I am all in favour and drive one myself, electric cars are not where you start. You start with active transport (walking and cycling) and public transport. This book will tell you why.

Curbing Traffic: The human case for fewer cars in our lives is a distinctive book. It is the product of a family’s experience, and of a specific place. Melissa and Chris Bruntlett are both urban mobility experts from Canada. They travelled to the Netherlands to study its active transport culture, and were so impressed that they decided to re-locate there. With their two children, they moved from Vancouver to Delft. The book is based in their own experiences of discovering a car-free way of life, and what it looks like and feels like to live in a place designed around people.

Delft provides a perfect case study to explore a wider national approach, with explanations of how residential streets are created to minimise car traffic, or how junctions prioritise active transport. It’s a celebration of the possibilities of walking and cycling – something that is the most natural thing in the world to the citizens of Delft.

To give just one example – I live in Luton, which is twice the size of Delft. Like Delft, many people commute by train to a larger city nearby for work. Luton’s station has a vast multi-storey car park, and another car park across the street. There is bike parking for about forty bikes, most of it unused. By contrast, Delft station has secure bike parking for 10,800 bikes.

Or to provide a national comparison, in the Netherlands a third of trips are by car, a third by public transport and a third by active transport. In the United States, 90% of journeys are by private car, with 5% each for public and active transport.

A common response to this kind of thing is that the Netherlands has a cycling culture and we don’t, and therefore such things are impossible here – wherever here might be for you. But as the book explains, Dutch transport culture was created. It wasn’t there already. From the 1970s on, car culture was incrementally and deliberately restrained. Streets were redesigned. Planning codes were adapted. Urban space was reclaimed from cars. People defend the status quo with “the familiar refrain of ‘we’re not the Netherlands'” the authors observe, “but as Delft proves, neither was the Netherlands.”

Rather than technical detail about how to copy it (see their other book for that), this book explains why you’d want to. Each chapter looks at a human dimension of low-car urban living. There’s a chapter on the ‘child-friendly city’, and how Dutch children enjoy far greater freedom than in other places, because the streets are so much safer and they can transport themselves. Closely connected to that, low car environments allow people to mix and meet outside more often, which builds trust. People don’t experience the space outside their homes as a hostile and noisy place, so they spend more time there and it’s easier to build community.

The book explores feminist perspectives on planning, and how low-car cities serve elderly or disable residents differently. It looks at how active transport infrastructure can reduce inequality and support employment, and how car-free public spaces can encourage local spending and boost the economy. It made me long for a re-negotiation with the car here in Luton, a town with above average car dependency and very little sense that it could be different. And yet Delft is only 217 miles from Luton. How have we managed to learn so little from our neighbours?

Cars will continue to have their place, just as they do in the Netherlands. But they should not have all the space. Today, as world leaders look at transport and its role in climate change, Curbing Traffic has an important message: low-car living is not a sacrifice for the sake of the environment. It is a better way of life.

  • Curbing Traffic is published by Island Press and is available from Earthbound Books UK or US.
  • Chris Bruntlett also works for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which you should look up if you haven’t come across it before.

2 comments

  1. I like how you point out that bike-culture was created. I moved the other way: from the Netherlands to the UK. I came here with my bike and bike-culture engrained, but there’s just nowhere safe to cycle. It quickly stopped me from using my bike.
    But I really miss the freedom it gave me. Another positive of bike-culture that’s easily overlooked is how it encourages local shops. On a bike you’re more likely to shop locally as opposed driving to the out of town shopping parks.

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