I wrote a post a few weeks ago about how the book Curbing Traffic by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett enabled me to understand how targeting cycling infrastructure for 8 to 80 year olds can create a usable network for everyone including commuters. It was their insights about aspects like traffic separation and intersection approaches that convinced me how it could work. The book was great, but I would really like to experience this type of infrastructure firsthand. This is the purpose of study tours. To give people like elected officials, engineers, and urban planners firsthand experience of the possibilities. See it for yourself somewhere else and it makes it easier to see the vision in your own city.
Glaser and colleagues (2021) used surveys and interviews to examine how and what learning occurred among study tour participants. The participants attended study tours focused on cycling infrastructure, most commonly in the Netherlands. What they found is interesting because the major take homes aren’t about the specifics like the engineering. The bigger takeaway is about hope and possibility. Seeing what is possible inspires more confidence in the decision the study tour participants had in their decisions back home. They were no longer targeting an abstract concept that they thought might have positive benefits, they had experienced the benefits they were aiming for.
Creating community was also a feature of the study tours. Anyone who has experienced being the only person in a room arguing for a different approach has faced how difficult that role can be. But the shared experience of the study tour created a community with a shared vision of what is possible. In this way, it built both empathy and trust among participants, even when the participants attended different tours. This created a team that could push for change together.
I wonder if there are other options beyond study tours that could be used. You see, a challenge I see is that decisions like changing the infrastructure approach to prioritize cycling ends up being a political platform. As my city has recently approved additional funding to develop bike infrastructure resulting in a fair amount of resistance from the community the need for citizen support is an important factor to achieving the possibilities. How can we create shared experiences for key community members to help encourage support for administrative and political decisions?
For example, Osborne and Grant-Smith (2017) found that municipal policy documents about cycling tend to focus on middle aged white men to the exclusion of other types of cyclists. This can lead to cycling being perceived as a privileged activity (which happens to be the focus of a recent letter to the editor regarding the cycling investment in my city).
Slaev and colleagues (2019) found that a major source of frustration for citizens when planning cycling infrastructure is when the plans are primarily coming from the centre, ie the government, rather than through meaningful consultation with citizens. Having participated in consultations on cycling infrastructure I can echo these frustrations. Why bother sharing my perspective if I don’t feel it will be listened to?
But this is why we need to create something along the study tour lines for citizens and not just people like me who are already interested. We need people who can’t see themselves or their friends or family to get a vision of what is possible. I don’t have a solution but this is necessary if we are going to change how we get around our cities.