Europe’s bike and transit systems are a marvel, but only for some – StreetsblogMASS

Editor’s note: Lisa Jacobson is a member of the Board of Directors of StreetsblogMASS and the Barr Foundation is one of the major funders of StreetsblogMASS.

During a recent six-day study trip with a group of funders and climate advocates in Amsterdam and London, I marveled at the frequent and fully functioning rail, in contrast to my frustration with the T. vast connected networks of protected bike paths, navigable without fear of Boston drivers or cavernous potholes.

I dreamed of what it would be like to have more enjoyable travel, how much safer and happier our communities could be, and how we could rid our skies of so much climate pollution.

The study trip was also an opportunity to meet people working and living in London and Amsterdam, who explained some of the many ways they are leading the world in effective and net zero planning. Some of their successes include ambitious modal split targets (which they are in the process of realizing); dedicated revenue streams; electrified freight; and coordinated transport and land use planning.

And yet, throughout the journey, I began to notice gaps in the way transport solutions were planned. One of the main takeaways for me was that their approaches were not enough for the future of cities in the United States – and that we need to expand and improve them.

Planning for people means asking who is being served and who is being left behind

On the Barr Climate team, we have an explicit value in centering racial equity in our work. So naturally, thinking about who we’re planning for – and who continues to be left out – was a priority for me and our study group.

But, we found that constantly asking “for whom” was missing from much of the context and information given to us. We pressed our hosts with questions about who they prioritize in their planning and why, and the answer was often, “well, everyone.”

This is problematic because it continues to exclude people who have already been excluded several times.

The bus electrification underway in Amsterdam, for example, was proceeding at the discretion of the system operator, with no analysis of which neighborhoods bore the burden of pollution health impacts. “The driver shouldn’t notice a difference,” the transit experts told us. This contrasts with transit planning in the United States where equity analyzes are required, riders and neighbors can participate in a process, and transit agencies are called in if they don’t (rightly title) priority to communities most affected by air pollution and poor public transit service.

A cyclist and a GVB tram pass each other on a street in Amsterdam.  GVB, Gemeente Vervoerbedrijf, is Amsterdam's municipal public transport operator that runs metro, tram, bus and ferry services.
A cyclist and a GVB tram pass each other on a street in Amsterdam. GVB, Gemeente Vervoerbedrijf, is Amsterdam’s municipal public transport operator that runs metro, tram, bus and ferry services. Photo by Lisa Jacobson.

In London, public transit affordability didn’t seem like a conversation, and planners and advocates focused more on increasing revenue from fares (which account for over 70% of system revenue). Some would argue that public transit affordability isn’t as big of an issue since England has more extensive social safety nets than the United States, and yet people are still being left behind because nearly 30% of Londoners live in poverty.

And in Amsterdam, cycling is so ingrained in Dutch culture that more than two-thirds of residents commute by bike. If you were born and raised in Holland, you ride a bike. If you’re an immigrant or a child who resists cultural norms, you might not make it and you’re left out, especially if you’re riding a moped or walking.

“Pedestrians in Amsterdam don’t exist,” said one of our speakers.

Although Europe is making much more progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the United States, we cannot follow their lead in how they have achieved this. From what I have observed, people of color, immigrants, and low-income people are not prioritized in decision-making in these two cities. The climate, the impeccable design and the engineering are.

These cities have built exceptional infrastructure for the mainstream culture, and this is largely what American tourists experience when visiting.

Rows of bicycle parking lots next to a bus stop and elevated railway track near a meeting center in Amsterdam.  Photo by Lisa Jacobson.
Rows of bicycle parking lots next to a bus stop and elevated railway track near a meeting center in Amsterdam. Photo by Lisa Jacobson.

Throughout the study trip, we heard phrases like “I don’t see color” and “we take care of these people so their voices aren’t needed at the table”. These “colorblind” approaches continue to exclude people and will not resolve the serious racial inequalities in our society.

When it comes to measuring “success” in public transit reliability, miles of separate bike lanes, or air quality, the United States lags far behind our European counterparts. I suspect some in the United States are poised to do better – centering those most affected in our planning.

Many city planners, advocates and funders here recognize that we have done wrong to listen to and provide for the needs of large segments of our communities – and they know that change is long overdue. Many of my fellow study travelers who have founded, led, and worked for community organizations that focus on environmental justice have been doing this work for a long time.

This experience has underscored for me how critical it is to consider climate justice organizers and the communities they serve. In the long term, we will be much more successful if we continue to shift the balance of power and truly consider who is and who is not well served by our transportation systems. None of this is easy, but we must correct our past and create a future of just transportation.

Mary I. Bruner