Comment & Analysis: Writing about or advocating for sustainable transport and planning can bring you down spirals of despair. It often makes many people wonder if they should pack up their bags and move to somewhere like the Netherlands.
That’s kind of what Jason Slaughter, creator of Not Just Bikes, did. After living in various countries, he and his family moved back to Canada but it wasn’t as walkable or liveable compared to where he had lived. So, they moved to the Netherlands. He’s told this story a few times, including to Joshua Spodek’s This Sustainable Life podcast in 2022.
He has said he created Not Just Bikes to explain to friends back home and Dutch people why they moved from Canada to the Netherlands.
Slaughter told Spodek that he is “here to reach the people that have that nagging feeling” in their minds that the way most places plan and design their towns and cities is not right. His target isn’t the “dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites” who often get annoyed with him. He even said that his videos are for people who don’t have the privilege to travel around the world.
I’m a big fan of Not Just Bikes — Slaughter’s videos have been hugely impactful in explaining issues and solutions to viewers. On a personal level, I’d also share most of his views on transport and planning.
That’s why his posts this week on social media were all the more surprising and disappointing.
“People should give up on North America though. You should not have to spend your life groveling for basic things like safe streets. Your advocacy and energy would go much farther in a better city, too. That’s not doomerism, that’s reality,” Slaughter said on Bluesky (currently invite/waiting list-only), according to a screenshot posted on Twitter.
This is quite a lot to take in.
Sure, nobody should have to grovel for safe streets but the reality is that the Dutch had to fight to get where they are today. And statements like “People should give up on” an entire continent should be a dictionary as a definition of ‘doomerism’.
In follow-up posts on Bluesky, Slaughter doubled down and said: “I’m really sorry, but if you’re trying to fix the US, you’re watching the wrong channel. That’s why I’ve been sending Americans to Strong Towns or other US creators like CityNerd or Alan Fisher. I know full well that most people can’t move but my channel is to those who can. It always has been.”
He added: “America today is nothing like the Netherlands of the 1970s. It’s nowhere close. That was fixable within a generation. The US isn’t. It can get better but it cannot be fixed within your children’s lifetimes. Canada might be. Americans are going to have to come to terms with that reality.”
But this isn’t something that has come out of nowhere, Slaughter seems to have struggled with this for a while.
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“One of the things that have troubled me,” he said when talking to Spodek last year, “I’m bringing up a lot of problems and pointing to the Netherlands as a solution to a lot of these problems, but my ultimate solution to North American cities being terrible was to leave, and that’s a bit of a concern because I’ve shown this information to millions of people multiple times a day that they ‘cannot look at the world the same way again and I don’t know what to do about it’.”
He continued: “I don’t have a good answer for them as I was in advocacy in North America and I got incredibly frustrated — I saw that change was extremely slow and it was not always in the positive direction and I realise that nothing substantial was going to change in my lifetime and that’s why we decided to leave.”
He added that he’s aware that he’s in an incredibly privileged position that he could move.
Slaughter said to Spodek then also that he was redirecting people to Strong Towns, but he also said that he wanted to focus more on how to solve the issues in North America. As others have said, it doesn’t ring true that Not Just Bikes wasn’t at least part aimed at North Americans.
As you might have guessed, there has been some considerable backlash to Slaughter’s comments. Some are from detractors, but mostly from fans of Not Just Bikes. A number said they started campaigning for better streets and planning because they watched Slaughter’s videos.
Charles Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns, went on to defend him. He said: “My friend Jason is taking some heat for this, but he’s not wrong.” But the problem is that he is wrong. You cannot give up on an entire continent or country and claim that that isn’t a form of doomism. It clearly is for the hundreds of millions who live there. They cannot all move to the Netherlands or elsewhere.
I feel doomism every now and again, most people do. Sometimes while covering the issues all over Ireland, it can feel like there is little hope. But as with climate change generally, where doomism is being identified as a huge issue which is even being pushed by bad actors, doomism isn’t helpful in making progress on transport and planning.
Effective climate action means we are out of time for the long-term changes that the Dutch made or small-scale step-by-step incrementalism. The Netherlands can still serve as inspiration, but faster action is needed all around the world. So, the faster changes in Paris, London, New York, Ghent, even Dublin and elsewhere also can play a part. Sometimes it takes outsiders to see Dutch cities can learn more from each other too.
Dutch people had to fight hard for their change. More and more people are already pushing for change around the world. They need hope and support. With a bit of realism, but not doom.
So, it’s worth posting a reply from Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms: “All I can say is NYC hasn’t given up (see below). Was just in San Francisco & Denver & Pittsburgh and Montreal. They haven’t given up. I have been doing films for over 20 years. I see these people – frustrated at times. But good things are happening.”