Planning the Cycling City, an English-language summer school for urban planning students, started last week at the University of Amsterdam, and I was invited to take part in what is billed as the “world’s first university course on cycling.” (In fact, there are others, such as these in America.)
The course lasts three weeks and was created to cater to the booming academic interest in cycling. The summer school was designed for Master’s, PhD and graduate students, and has attracted students from 16 countries. The youngest is 22, the oldest 75. Half of the students are women.
Led by "cycling professor" Marco te Brömmelstroet of the Urban Cycling Institute the summer school explores city cycling from the Dutch perspective, focussing on history, policy, infrastructure, planning, and culture. The course, staged by the Center for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam, includes seminars, guest speakers, and excursions. Guest speakers include specialist academics and professionals working in local, regional, and national organisations, as well as advocacy groups such as America's People for Bikes.
The idea for the summer school was suggested by Meredith Glaser, the Amsterdam-based officer for Denmark’s Copenhagenize cycle-infrastructure consultancy.
While engineering provisions for cycling will play a key role at the summer school, Brömmelstroet stressed that hard infrastructure should not be treated as the only measure that a cycling city requires. He told students that he wanted to dispel many of the “tropes” that have developed about the high modal share for cycling in the Netherlands. For a start, the average modal share of 25 percent – while stellar in international terms – has remained static since 1980.
He also revealed that a soon-to-be-published study shows that the fastest growing mode of transport in Amsterdam is not the bicycle but the moped.
“The build-it-and-they-will-come crowd ought to realise there is no silver bullet to increase cycling’s modal share," said Brömmelstroet. "We need to study why cycling is declining in some districts of Amsterdam, and has been declining for some time, even though the infrastructure there [for cycling] is perfect.”
Students on the course include a retired urban planning professor from Davis, California; an Australian anthropologist studying the cycling cultures of Perth; a Japanese Geographic Information Systems expert; and a Canadian doing a PhD on cycle commuting in Moscow. From the UK there’s Mark Ames of the ibikelondon blog; Zsolt Schuller, Exeter’s former cycling officer; and Paul Robison, who leads the Bikeability cycle training programme. (“I’m here to raise my eyes above the horizon,” said Robison.)
Naturally, all have been blown away by the numbers of people cycling in Amsterdam (one filmed this video of rush-hour cyclists) and they will visit Dutch cities where the modal share is above 50 percent, but the fact that even the Netherlands often struggles to grow cycling has come as a surprise to many on the course.
While sat in the rain under the awning of a street cafe, and watching hundreds of cyclists ride past in civvies I asked Schuller why he paid €2000 to be on the course.
He said: "I want to get more people riding bikes more often. That's the old slogan of Cycling England. Exeter was one of Cycling England's Cycling Demonstration Towns [between 2005 and 2011]. We were successful at raising cycling's modal share and initiatives such as the recently-opened Exe Estuary cycling trail show there's a huge untapped demand for cycling.
"But it's eye-opening to come here and see that Amsterdam doesn't have protected cycle infrastructure everywhere yet that doesn't deter people from getting on their bikes. We have a lot to learn from the Dutch but I agree there's no silver bullet. The course will lead to a deeper understanding of the many measures that are required to get more people on bikes."
Brömmelstroet hopes those attending the summer school will continue to work on cycling studies: “With more studies and more datasets we can improve things for cycling. In the Netherlands cycling isn’t seen as a subject worthy of study, it’s so normal here. But if cycling is to get into national and city plans there needs to be more academic input, and the same is true internationally.”
He added: “It is great to have so many students here, with such a diversity on all kinds of levels. Never before have I worked with a group of people that are already at such a high level [of understanding] and are so eager to soak up all the knowledge and experience that is presented to them.”
The 30 students on the over-subscribed course were cherry-picked, said Brömmelstroet.
"Knowing that there so many more great students on our waiting lists only makes you wonder how can we come up with a model to cater for all this interest. And how can the Netherlands meet its growing moral obligation to share our knowledge and expertise with the rest of the world?”
On the final day of the course students will give presentations at Bike & The City: Smart Cycling Futures to be held in Amsterdam City Hall on the evening of Friday 7th August. This will also feature presentations from Pascal Van Den Noort of Velo Mondial and cycle trainer and cargo bike specialist Anglea Van Der Kloof of Mobycon.
Planning the Cycling City can be followed on Twitter via the hashtag #pccams.