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Book review: Movement, by Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brommelströet

Book review: Movement, by Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brommelströet

By Jeremy Williams

Among the various things that I feel I lost to the pandemic is my subscription to The Correspondent. Well established in the Netherlands, its English-language edition launched at the worst possible time and did not survive. But I appreciated its community journalism ethic and its ability to get behind the news, and that same philosophy is present in Movement, by The Correspondent’s Thalia Verkade and sustainable transport expert Marco te Brömmelstroet (aka the Cycling Professor on Twitter).

Movement investigates public space and the politics of urban geography. At its heart is one basic question that I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone ask before: why do we consider streets as thoroughfares to travel through rather than places to live? This matters because when we prioritise movement, we tend to see success in terms of speed. How fast can people get from A to B? We aim to reduce congestion and keep things flowing. But when we do this, we sacrifice the opportunity to use that space for living in – for socialising, for children to play in, for green space, for community.

Worse than that – we accept that the street outside will be dangerous and must be treated as such. We have to teach children to navigate it safely because traffic is deadly. If the car was being invented now, it’s unlikely that we’d ever be willing to make this compromise, but it’s normal and so we don’t question it. “It’s insane that it’s so easy to die in the streets around your own home,” say the authors – one of whom, it emerges over the course of the book, has a visceral childhood experience of that risk.

There’s an unusual structure to the book, in which Verkade describes her ongoing investigation of traffic and cycling. She meets te Brömmelstroet and her investigation crosses over with his work and activism, with the book including exchanges of messages between them. Verkade mentions articles she has written and the response they get. People get in touch with questions or solutions, one conversation leads to another, and as readers, we tag along for the ride as the authors meet various activists, traffic engineers, legislators, accident victims, etc.

From here in the UK, the Netherlands can seem like a sustainable transport utopia, with its cycling infrastructure and integrated transport. It’s interesting to see a more grounded perspective. There were huge gains from the 1970s onwards, and the book tells the story. But the organisations that drove those improvements were subsumed into government, and the issue of transport lost its activist edge and also its momentum. At this point the title of the book takes on something of a double meaning. Where is the social movement now to reclaim the streets, put cars in their rightful place, and deliver on the promise of safe and sustainable neighbourhoods?

I really like Movement. It’s full of countercultural observations about cars, traffic and public space. It insists that things can be different and that our use of urban space is “a social, political and moral issue: a question of who has the most rights.” At a time when 15-minute cities, low-traffic neighbourhoods and school streets are contentious, we really need accessible explanations of where we are, a clear sight of where we’re going, and a vision of what things might be. “Build a city around the car and you’ll get motorists,” say Verkade and te Brömmelstroet. “Build a city around people and you’ll get pedestrians, cyclists, and children in the streets.”

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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