1×10: Chris Bruntlett, Modacity; Dutch Cycling Embassy

Welcome to 1×10, where we ask 1 inspiring human 10 questions about how they are using cycling as a force for good. Read on to meet Chris Bruntlett, the co-founder of Modacity, a firm that promotes the public health, environmental, and social benefits of walking, cycling, and public transit. Currently (and for the past year) he has been the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy based in Delft, the Netherlands. He is the co-author (along with Melissa, his partner) of the book, “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” – which shines a spotlight on the incredible and often under appreciated achievements of the Netherlands as the world’s foremost cycling nation. Chris uses his knowledge and passion to share practical lesson for global cities wishing to follow in their tracks, and become better places to live, work, play, and – of course – cycle. Learn more about Chris’s favorite most epic ride, his favorite trends in cycling, and how he’s using bikes to do good, and more, in his 1×10 interview.

1. How / why did you fall in love with cycling?

For me it came later in life. It wasn’t until I started cycling between home and work in Vancouver in my late 20’s early 30’s. The bike route I took at the time was this beautiful, traffic-calmed street that was lined with old oak trees and cherry blossoms, and just a really pleasant calming experience. Up to that point I had only really “run with the bulls” on busy arterial roads.  On this route, for the first time I experienced how serene and meditative cycling could be and really learned to cherish that 30 minutes I had at the start and end of day to decompress and meditate and get into a flow before or after my stressful work day.

“On this route, for the first time I experienced how serene and meditative cycling could be and really learned to cherish that 30 minutes I had at the start and end of day to decompress and meditate and get into a flow before or after my stressful work day.”

2. What’s your favorite Bike (that you own or covet)?

I’m very much of the Dutch mindset: that the bicycle is more a tool rather than a possession. I’ve had a number of bikes over the years but they’ve just served one purpose: to get me from A to B. Asking for a favorite bike would be like asking a Dutch person if they have a favorite toothbrush or vacuum; in honesty it’s simply a utilitarian machine that I use.  In every case though, I’m certainly enamored by Dutch geometry: the step through frame, sweeping handlebars and how practical the bike can be in day to day life.

“I’m very much of the Dutch mindset: that the bicycle is more a tool rather than a possession.”

3. What’s the most memorable ride you’ve done, and what happened?

My first day in the Netherlands. Our family was visiting in 2016 and we landed in Rotterdam and after a long flight, rented bikes. That first day in Rotterdam was completely transformational: We never experienced cycling that comfortable and convenient. We were used to going to cities and struggling with a bike map and disconnected path networks and for the first time we were able to put the bike map away because on virtually every street there were these beautiful wide cycle tracks that allowed us to ride three or four abreast. That day opened all of our minds to how amazing cycling can be if your city takes it seriously. 

“…for the first time we were able to put the bike map away because on virtually every street there were these beautiful wide cycle tracks that allowed us to ride three or four abreast.”

4. Who do you admire in the cycling world?

My partner Melissa. We started this journey of bike advocacy many years ago. At the time we were off in our own separate directions but quickly found out that we were basically working towards the same thing. We started a business together (Modacity), wrote a book together (Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality).  Now we work for separate organizations in the Netherlands trying to make long-term change. We’re in the process of writing a second book together. It’s a privilege to work alongside her and she challenges me every single day of the week. 

5. Top tip for a new rider, or a cyclist about to take on a new challenge?

Keep it simple; don’t over complicate it. I think we’re still bombarded with messages that you need all kinds of equipment or special clothing and preparation to get on a bike and even special training to get on a bike and I’m here to tell you that nothing can be further from the truth. If you get the right bike, all you need is the clothes you’re wearing and a bit of asphalt and you can get out there and go cycling right away. Don’t buy into this idea that you need all sorts of special equipment just to get from A to B.

“If you get the right bike, all you need is the clothes you’re wearing and a bit of asphalt and you can get out there and go cycling right away.”

6. Favorite trend or innovation in cycling?

The advocacy world is all about getting more families and people of all abilities cycling. 10-15 years ago, bicycle advocacy was dominated by sporty white males and it has definitely taken a shift in recent years to becoming more accessible, more diverse, more equitable and that is why we’re  seeing the success we are. It’s not about making the people who are already riding slightly more safe or comfortable, it’s about welcoming new people into cycling and encouraging more people to give it a try. 

“It’s not about making the people who are already riding slightly more safe or comfortable, it’s about welcoming new people into cycling and encouraging more people to give it a try.”

7. What are you doing to use cycling as a force for good?

I’m privileged enough to live in the best place in the world to ride a bike. The Netherlands is just a remarkable place in terms of the infrastructure, the traffic calming, the bike parking; what they’ve built over the decades makes it an amazing place to get around by bicycle. I’m also lucky enough to work my dream job at an organization that’s exporting that knowledge around the world, for the Dutch cycling embassy – which is a partnership between the National government and organizations that want to help cities around world to become more bike friendly and to make their streets more inclusive and equitable and sustainable. Every day I wake up and ask myself, “how does the Netherlands help the rest of the world achieve this quality of life?” and then I get to work all day trying to make that happen. It’s incredibly rewarding and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else in my life right now. But it wasn’t always like this. Years ago, almost all cities in the Netherlands supported demolishing buildings, filling canals, etc. to make places more bike friendly; and now they are reaping the rewards of difficult decisions made years ago. 

“Every day I wake up and ask myself, “how does the Netherlands help the rest of the world achieve this quality of life?” and then I get to work all day trying to make that happen.”

7.b When you’re talking to cities, what are some easier things they can adopt that you would recommend.

It starts with pilot projects, Demonstration projects, tactical pop up bike lanes, just showing what’s possible in small test cases. And then hopefully once get enough people experiencing what’s possible then you get them on your side to expand that pilot and make it permanent. In these coronavirus times cities are putting up bollards, traffics cones, and other really light quick cheap materials down on the ground and carving out that space for cycling just to show what’s possible but also to show drivers that it’s not a zero-sum game; that the world won’t end with that reallocation of space and that actually getting more people on bikes can benefit the people still driving by reducing the number of cars on short trips.  There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt that arises when you talk about changing streetscapes and reallocating space and the only thing you can do is rip off the bandaid and just do it because you can sit around and argue about it for years and years. 

“There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt that arises when you talk about changing streetscapes and reallocating space and the only thing you can do is rip off the bandaid and just do it because you can sit around and argue about it for years and years.”

8. Thinking about the work you’re doing, what do you see as the potential change for people or the planet? If you are successful, what impact will you have?

It starts with getting people to rethink those short—trips they make everyday that aren’t necessarily the trip to work. We’re talking about trips to the grocery store, the corner store, restaurant, the cafe, a friend’s house; all those shorter and more plentiful trips that can be converted to the bicycle. Obviously there are things that need to be done at the governmental level to make that trip more pleasant but once those conditions are in place people will see how easy it can be and start integrating it more and more into their lives. I’ve really focused on systemic change to the street rather than individual behavior because people will make a choice only if it’s practical and it’s comfortable and attractive. And if you have to go across six lanes of traffic or rub shoulders with buses and trucks and cars no one can blame you for not doing that and getting in a car like everyone else. So we focus on helping governments, elected officials, planners, and engineers to make those changes to their streets and hopefully the behavior will follow from that. We’re not going to be able to shame people out of their cars; we need to give them an enticing alternative. 

“We’re not going to be able to shame people out of their cars; we need to give them an enticing alternative.”

8. b How has COVID-19 influenced your work and what you’re trying to accomplish? Do you see opportunity out of this crisis?

If anything, the coronavirus crisis has forced cities to rethink how space is allocated on streets. And quite frankly the private single occupant automobile is the least efficient use of space that there is – whether parked or moving. And with the expected reduction in capacity of transit – buses, trams trains – they kind of have no choice but to intervene and give people that are getting out of public transport other alternatives to do those medium and short length trips i.e anything up to 10-15kms. Otherwise all of those people who are no longer using public transit will go in a car which will result in ‘Traffic Armageddon’. One of our partner organizations that the Dutch Cycling Embassy works with, Decisio, actually calculated this impact for Italy, working with the Italian government. With the expected reduction in public transport capacity, they priced out two scenarios – 1. everyone gets in car or 2. everyone gets on a bike where possible. In the former, where government does nothing, the cost to society was 20 billion euros per year in terms of congestion, air pollution, noise pollution, and other externalities. Inversely, if all those people used active means of travel, such as bikes, Italy was looking at a societal cost benefit of 20 billion euros that would be savings to society in terms of lower health costs, etc. Most cities are facing this scenario between traffic armageddon or a spike in active travel and fortunately most are choosing the latter and accelerating their plans to build out their walking/bicycling networks to give people attractive alternatives to the private automobile.  When you look at the cost to intervene, the return on investment is something like 100 to 1!    

“Inversely, if all those people used active means of travel, such as bikes, Italy was looking at a societal cost benefit of 20 billion euros that would be savings to society in terms of lower health costs, etc.”

9. What’s your biggest challenge/obstacle to success?

Up to now it’s been inertia, cities have been hesitant to push against the status quo and have the difficult conversations needed about the allocation of space on their streets for fear of angering the motorists. And they know what they need to do but I think they’re afraid to do that in too accelerated of a timeline.  As I was saying; one thing coronavirus has done is created an opportunity to carve out that space for action without the controversy and with relatively little short term pain. It’s not a question of engineering; we know how to do it, we know what a bike lane looks like whether on a narrow street or wide street. All the technical questions we have answered.  It’s just a matter of political will and cultural will. And nowadays those are finally starting to fall in place and cities are starting to change their streets for the better.

“…one thing coronavirus has done is created an opportunity to carve out that space for action without the controversy…”

10. How can people help? Where can they learn more about your work?

Always encourage people to push for the change they want to see in their cities. Get active on social media. Try to  connect with like-minded people in your cities and other cities and compare notes. Organize yourselves. Connect with organizations, nonprofits,  and lobbying groups in your neighborhoods, city, and region that are pushing for these changes. Above all, do what you can to support the politicians that are putting their necks out and making these difficult decisions because they need to know that this matters and this is important. They need to know that the controversy will be long forgotten and the legacy they leave will be really great streets that children and the elderly can cycle on. But they need reassurance that it’s going to turn out OK and need support from members of the community and voices out there to say this is what we want and this is what families and businesses want. That this is the vision we have for our city in 10,15 our 20 years and it will be a better place for everyone whether they get on a bike or not.  Hopefully you find the right people in the right chambers of power and decision making to make these changes happen. 

“Above all, do what you can to support the politicians that are putting their necks out and making these difficult decisions because they need to know that this matters and this is important.”

Chris Bruntlett is the co-founder of Modacity, a firm that promotes the public health, environmental, and social benefits of walking, cycling, and public transit. Currently (and for the past year) he has been the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy based in Delft, the Netherlands. He is living (and working the dream)!

Edited by John Kim. When he’s not out for a ride, John uses his expertise in Corporate Social Responsibility to help companies do well by doing good. Find him at virtcyc@gmail.com or VirtCyc on twitter or instagram.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s