Cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, New York and Vancouver have different approaches to bicycle infrastructure. Differences in width, signage, colors, materials, and traffic signals change the needs for, and approaches to, bicycle infrastructure. Citizens, too, behave differently from one city to another. They will use the space and the facilities in their own way. It is therefore appropriate to talk about cultural differences in cycling projects.
In my opinion, the copy/paste approach from one country to another is not appropriate. For example, separating pedestrians and cyclists on a sidewalk with a shade of color and discreet pictograms works very well in Gothenburg, Sweden, but is a failure on De Maisonneuve Boulevard, near the Maison symphonique, in Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, the best practices exist, but there are nuances in their execution depending on the culture.
I first heard about Stein van Oosteren from Suzanne Lareau when she was writing the preface to his book Pourquoi pas le vélo? to be published by Éditions Écosociété. Stein is a Dutch citizen who has been living in Paris for a few decades. “Curious,” I thought, “how come I’ve never heard of him?”. When his book came out, I discovered a pragmatic author with an enlightened vision of the different aspects of cycling. His humorous book offers a privileged access to the whole of cycling: planning, economy, barriers to the practice, safety, but also pleasure and freedom.
I had the chance to meet Stein in September 2021. I was struck by his energy and passion. His generosity and curiosity are limitless, and his great empathy makes each of these meetings unique. For more than three hours, we talked endlessly about his work and the reasons that led him to write a book to document his experiences. Through his volunteer involvement with the Collectif Vélo Île-de-France, he discovered the power of collective intelligence and working in groups.
His bi-national perspective allows him to approach issues with depth and perspective, to name the different hurdles to cycling and to present real solutions. This is what he did in France, and what can serve as an example for Quebec. Arriving in Paris with a typically Dutch vision of the bicycle’s place in society, he quickly fought to integrate it into the French capital and its suburbs. Starting with a modest goal, he seemed almost surprised to be taken seriously and listened to by the governmental authorities of the region.
In just a few years, thanks to the work of people like Stein and Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris has been completely transformed. Car traffic is still pretty brutal in the Parisian arrondissements, but bike lanes have sprung up all over the city. Rue de Rivoli has become a symbol of Parisian cycling success. The drop in traffic caused by the pandemic has certainly helped these projects’ quick turnaround, but the bottom line is evident: it is by thinking big, with ambitious projects, that we change the commuting habits of the residents of a city, and of a country.
This is why, as was the case for Paris, we must not be afraid of big changes rather than simply adding bicycle paths here and there. We need to rethink our urban spaces, reimagine them with active transportation as a central point. It is thanks to this desire that Amsterdam went from a city full of cars to the cycling paradise we know today. It’s how Paris took an impressive turn in terms of cycling infrastructure in just a few years. This is how Montreal, and the rest of Quebec, must think about the continuous integration of cycling in its road spaces.
Stein Van Oosteren is a diplomat at UNESCO for the Netherlands and has a talent for thoughtful communication; this energetic and passionate man leaves no one indifferent. On June 2, Vélo Québec will host him at the Go Bike Montréal Festival for a unique conference. This event, offered free of charge in person or online, will be a great opportunity to hear about the Dutch approach to cycling in French. His experience in Paris also allows him to understand the cultural differences in terms of planning. This is a conference not to be missed!