— Inspiration, insight and knowledge needed to support getting Ireland back cycling again.
Comment & Analysis: In the context of the Government’s commitment to spend €360 million per year on walking and cycling infrastructure, study tours are invaluable for insight into where we are going and inspiration to get us there… but it’s overdue that I outline why that’s the case.
Full disclosure from the start: I have run #IEinNL Dutch Cycling Study Tours for Irish groups since 2015 with André Pettinga, a Dutch consultant with a wealth of knowledge about not just cycling in the Netherlands but also the Irish cycling context.
There was a gap during Covid and, in line with the extra funding generally, the number of study tours has ramped up since 2021.
We say that our #IEinNL study tours are Dutch-Irish teamwork with each of us “translating” both the Dutch and the Irish to the Dutch experts involved and the Irish attendees. It can be amazing what can get not just lost in translation but differences in culture, design and the frameworks on each side.
The participants are mainly council officials and councillors but have also previously included parliamentarians, consultants, Department officials, and advocates. There are three main elements of study tours where attendees go abroad to learn from places with more advanced cycling cultures and infrastructure:
- Immersiveness of the on-the-ground experience
There’s nothing like a group cycling and focusing on cycling for 2-3 days: Seeing the infrastructure, using it, and seeing it being used by different people. On-the-ground explanations are far more beneficial than explaining something on paper or in a presentation.
- Local experts
Being able to ask questions, and get answers. Experts in cycling, such as officials or aldermen or consultants, give their experience of what works and what does not, how to get projects over the line, and how to make a city or town cycling-friendly.
Study tours include presentations as a minority element, but they cannot be fully replicated by a presentation, webinar or workshop at home. Seeing is believing.
With the #IEinNL study tours, immersiveness isn’t just a marketing slogan: The programme can include 25-35km cycling per day — although it’s worth saying that we’ve had a range of ages and abilities, electric bicycles can be provided and it’s at a relaxed pace and broken up by presentations, stops for explanations of different projects and situations.
A secondary element is learning about the above elements together, which creates ‘team building’ between officials and other officials and between officials and councillors. This can be helpful when there’s so much to be done at home to change our streets and roads to make them safer and attractive for all users.
Mike Banim, a Sustainable Transport and Mobility MSc graduate at TU Dublin, said: “In an interview carried out in my dissertation research, one senior council official argued that study trips like these were the single most cost-effective measure a local authority could use to improve cycling infrastructure delivery.”
His dissertation, ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: An Investigation into the Public Participation and Implementation Strategies Utilised on Active Travel Projects in Ireland During the Pandemic’ said: “…a senior executive argued that such study tours would be transformational and the best possible use of active travel funding.”
Most readers will know, as well as running IrishCycle.com, I’ve advertised study tours on this website before. So, the disclose above isn’t news to them.
The #IEinNL Dutch Cycling Study Tours were first run on a cost-covering basis, but after my work situation changed in 2021, much like asking readers to subscribe, it was a choice of running study tours professionally or not at all. With a ramping up in the number last year, it wouldn’t have been viable any other way anyway.
At this point, I should explain how I found myself, at first, very much so out of my comfort zone running study tours: As a journalist, I attended a 2014 study tour paid for by the Dutch Government and the cycling industry. I was a freelance journalist at the time, and I also know I was the last resort after journalists in larger media outlets said no.
I’d been writing about cycling for years at that point for Irish newspapers as well on this website, so, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about Dutch cycling from local experts.
While I had visited Amsterdam before and also visited the Danish capital of Copenhagen, the study tour to different cities around the Netherlands was an eye-opener for me. When I went back to Ireland I was more aware of groups visiting the Netherlands from all over the world — as far away from Australia and North America, and many more from the UK.
As Meredith Glaser of the Dutch Cycling Institute wrote:
“The City of Amsterdam estimated, conservatively, that in 2015 over 150 international delegations of varying size came to Amsterdam to, generally, learn about Dutch cycling”
And there were some results from these visible already, for example, the London Cycling Campaign’s ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign in 2012 had pushed London politicians towards Dutch-style infrastructure. At the time, not many Irish cycling campaigns had grasped the cycling for all ages concept. Cycling for all is widely accepted today, but, back then, vehicular cycling was still a powerful force within cycle campaigns.
And there’s academic backing to show how the outcome from study tours can be seen as professional learning and some of the best value for money spending of active travel funding.
In a 2021 peer-reviewed journal paper titled ‘Learning from Abroad: An interdisciplinary exploration of knowledge transfer in the transport domain‘, Meredith Glaser et al, wrote that there is “A growing body of academic interest conceptualizes study tours as a tool to accelerate policy transfer and contribute to policy learning (Gonzalez, 2011; Montero, 2017; Wood, 2014).” The authors wrote that such study tours can be viewed as training and the transfer of learning.
Some key finding resonates with my years of experience with study tours…
One thing that might surprise some readers is that study tours are not mainly for learning about the details of building cycle paths. Although I would add that such as aspect can be useful to some attendees, especially those involved directly with that detail:
“…findings showed that groups… did not, for the most part, express learning from a concrete, technical perspective. Rather, data showed a conceptual, higher-order level of learning which is more abstract and tacit in nature. In other words, learning how to build a bicycle path, for example, was generally not reported as a main outcome….”– Meredith Glaser et al, 2021
And in ‘team building’:
“…A second key finding is that the social and experiential qualities of cycling study tours appear to play a crucial role in this tacit knowledge production. In our case, the experience of cycling and of the study tour seemed to situate subsequent group processes in specific contexts. These shared memories registered frames of mutual understandings and consensus…”– Meredith Glaser et al, 2021
This is maybe the most key element — “commitment to and motivation”:
“…Finally, and third, levels of commitment to and motivation for achieving higher cycling levels (in Denver) were greatly enhanced from the study tour. For political and administrative leadership, this meant increased confidence in their own future decisions around mobility…”– Meredith Glaser et al, 2021
So, headlines such as “City councillors pack their bags for Dutch transport junket” don’t really stack up. Not even if the journalist picks out a dictionary definition that makes the word ‘junket’ seem benign — it’s not a benign phrase in the minds of the vast majority of readers.
If we’re going headlong into spending €360 million per year funding for walking and cycling infrastructure, study tours are invaluable. Trying to spend that amount without any vision, without trying to shift mindsets and show people what’s possible, seems like a far worse idea to me.
So, who benefits from study tours?
Much like anything else in life, not everybody will benefit to the same level. Broadly speaking I’d put people into three starting points:
- Cllrs/officials leaning on the fence
Study tours cannot perform miracles and are unlikely to change the minds of hard-core opponents of cycling. But can shift people’s mindsets as long as they are somewhat open to it.
- Those already on the fence
This is likely the largest group of people in the middle who are already somewhat supportive of cycling, at least in principle.
- People leaving over the fence
With councillors, this is sometimes self-described as thinking they were “already converted”, but end up learning and being inspired by a surprising amount. Sometimes this group can also pick up more details than others.
The roll-out of more effective cycling infrastructure is good for society given that what is learned helps implement policy in terms of getting people active and climate action. We also save money by trying to avoid the mistakes others have made.
IrishCycle.com really gets a broad range of readers including people who, to say the least, have a dislike of cycling. So, I know some readers might still be cynical that study tours are just my own interest — if that was the case, I wouldn’t have started running them when I did if it was purely out of my own self-interest and, over the years, I wouldn’t have to remind myself that my business sense isn’t that great.
But why focus on the Netherlands?
The YouTube channel Not Just Bikes has a great video titled “Copenhagen is Great … but it’s not Amsterdam” — it’s a good outline of why Ireland should follow the Netherlands including that Copenhagen mainly has really wide roads with wide cycle tracks on each side, an approach that cannot typically be applied to our roads. The Dutch have a system that we can adopt to use on our street and road network.
In Danish cities outside of Copenhagen, the quality of cycling infrastructure is generally viewed as lower than their capital. While, in the Netherlands, some other cities have infrastructure that is arguably better than Amsterdam. Although, it’s worth saying that not everywhere in the Netherlands has the quality of cities like Utrecht and not every smaller town is good.
The #IEinNL study tours have mainly been based in the wonderful city of Utrecht (you could say Amsterdam is Great … but it’s not Utrecht). Depending on the requirements of groups or the context of their areas, we also often include day trips by bicycle to nearby towns such as Houten and De Bilt, or by train to cities such as Den Bosch, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Nijmegen, Zwolle, Delft and the Hauge.
Utrecht has served as a good base as it has been hugely transformed in the last 10 or so years, it has made changes that are arguably some of the most inspiring examples, its size allows it to be a better demonstration area than larger Dutch cities, and it is a good location to cycle to nearby towns or get to other parts of the Netherlands by train.
Just to end: I’m hugely grateful to everybody who has helped along the way, especially those who hosted the first group in 2015 and as well as other groups after it, including Herbert Tiemens in Utrecht, André Botermans in Houten, Arnold Bongers in Den Bosch, Bas Braakman in Eindhoven, and many others over the years since then.