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Interview with Anna Nikolaeva, a postdoctoral researcher in the project Smart Cycling Futures at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University.

Dr. A.A. (Anna) Nikolaeva

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

GPIO : Urban Planning

Anna Nikolaeva

Tell us a bit about your research. What are you working on here in Amsterdam?

My main focus is mobility, because I think it is one of the key dimensions of human life. Everything that we do during our daily life is facilitated or made possible by mobilities. Mobility is much more than just going from A to B. We also behave and identify differently, depending on whether we drive or take the metro or walk or bike. When you cycle every day, your perception of the city, and maybe your identity in relation to the city is very different than when you drive 100 kilometres back and
forth every day. So, I’m fascinated by mobility. The current area of my research is the transition to sustainable mobility, which is one of the key challenges of society today. It’s a very complex transition for politics, science, citizens and industry. I also focus on cycling and smart innovation. Here I look at how smart innovation can make cycling more comfortable, encourage more cycling, maybe make it more inclusive. I also look at the potential side-effects of using smart technology in
mobility. So, in a sense there are two streams in my research, one is about the meaning of mobility in society. Here I primarily look at the questions that technology cannot solve – questions of meaning,
of governance, of ideology. And then there is a part of my research where I look at questions that technology may be able to solve, at least partially.


Did you choose the Netherlands for your study because of all the bicycles?

Actually no, not at all. It’s ironic because I came to the Netherlands 12 years ago and I had no idea about the bicycles. So, it came as a shock that there were so many bicycles and everybody cycled. By the second day I also cycled myself. Over the years I really learnt to appreciate this very important part of Dutch life; especially when I started to work more in the field of sustainable mobility. I think even many Dutch people do not realize how great this part of their culture is. It’s a culture that many
countries all over the world strive for. Here in the Netherlands people often focus on the negative sides. The crowded bike paths, and busy parking spots, and the problems with e-bikes. But those are, all in all, I would say, minor side effects compared to the effects on society, for sustainability, for public health, for the quality of life. So it’s not the reason why I came here but it became one of my fascinations.


So you could say we actually have a bit of a luxury problem?

Yes, you could say that.


Concerning your research, I would like to focus a bit on the political side of your findings. What can you tell us about that?

I would say the key point is that we cannot resolve the dilemma of mobility transition just with the ‘right’ technologies. Our current situation is called by some scholars a ‘lock-in’ from which we cannot escape – the dependency on high carbon mobility that shows in the way we live and work, the way our streets are designed. The main reason for this lies outside of technological innovation. Yes, the innovation is needed for facilitating some changes but the underlying basis is that in our current society, Western society, mobility is linked to the primacy of economic growth, the growth ideology. This is the key argument in the article that I wrote together with my former colleagues. It is nearly impossible to imagine that we give up on that idea. We would have to imagine that goods are delivered slower and less frequently, that we have less variety in the stores, that we consume less, and so on. We should realize that a lot of the mobility that happens every day is not really necessary. Our point is that you cannot continue with the growth ideology. The impact of high carbon mobility on the environment and on societal inclusion are dramatic. Without asking the questions “What does mobility mean to us” and “could we perhaps move less”, we cannot transition to sustainable mobility. If the value of mobility is not questioned, and if it still linked to economic growth, we would always face the questions of environmental limits, spatial limits, exclusion and so forth. So, with that, we developed the concept of mobility as a commons. The principle idea is that we should rethink mobility together as a community. We need to understand that mobility is not just something abstract that fuels economy, something that is absolutely necessary at all costs. Mobility is something we share, like air or language, and it is something that we should give meaning to together and it arrange together in accordance with that meaning or, rather, meanings. That is what I mean by ‘commoning mobility’. We should really think about: “What are the meanings of mobility for us?” How do we express those meanings through our daily practices, through regulations etc.


Can you give us an example of that?

The classic example is that when you go to a car selling point and ask people “Do you buy an electric car or are you buying a regular car?”. And people say, “Oh well, I know that the electric car is better for the environment but I’m buying the regular car”. But if you think about it, ‘the environment’ does not exist in some outer space. You are ‘the environment’. You breathe polluted air, your loved ones do, strangers do. That is what I mean by ‘commoning mobility’. We should become aware that mobility of each one of us has impact on the community, on ourselves, our neighbours. It’s something that we do to each other. So that is the first point: rethinking the meaning of mobility and what impact it has.

Another example illustrates the societal meaning of mobility. Recently there was a pilot by the city of Amsterdam when they asked people to give up their car for a month. And their experiences were actually often very positive. They were telling stories about how they discovered the joy of feeling the wind in their hair, how much more pleasant it was to actually take a little more time for oneself and to cycle through the city rather than to be stressed in the car. How children loved the fun interaction in the bakfiets [cargobike] and so forth. They really described the meaning of their mobility. So it’s not just a fancy idea, the pilot really showed that people can see mobility in a different light. That mobility can be a meaningful part of their day and their life.


Car and bikes


Can you name some ways policies and political actions can influence our behaviour regarding mobilities and transport?

There are many policies and actions that could bring improvements, I’ll just name a few. First of all, an important step would be calculating the environmental costs into the price of movement. The classic example is airplane tickets. It costs way too much to the environment, so it shouldn’t be very cheap, it shouldn’t be subsidized. One may argue that this may lead to exclusion, but there are ways to even out the impact of such measures.

Looking more into ideas about the future. The PBL came up with four exploratory scenarios for 2049. In one of the scenario’s they introduced the idea of a peculiar currency – ‘planet points’. Everyone gets the same ‘budget’ for unsustainable choices. Basically, all your non environmentally friendly choices will cost you lots of points – flying, not separating your waste etc. You’ll have to consider the costs of each choice. We can maybe also think about ‘mobility points’. I am not saying this is the solution but it’s a way to think about it. We could have mobility points as an individual, as a university, as a country. As a university, we could decide we don’t want to produce x amount of emissions.

In general, it comes down to awareness of your impact. Political incentives can help create awareness of the environmental and societal impact of your daily choices.

However, I’d like to emphasize again that mobility is a part of societal order, so changes in other spheres can lead to changes in mobility patterns. Think about universal basic income. If you have a basic income, how likely it is that you decide to take the job for which you have to drive to another part of the country every day and wait in the traffic jam? We don’t know for sure, but we can at least wonder: If people have more security and do not have to worry about their income too much, would they really be doing an everyday commute that is exhausting, environmentally unfriendly and costs a lot of time, when they could spend that time for something else? The measures that have an impact on mobility do not necessarily have to come from the mobility sector. Basically, mobility is just part of how we live. So you can start solving mobility problems outside of the transportation sector.


What did you think of the public transport (OV) strike on Tuesday, May 28th?

First of all, strictly speaking, the strike doesn’t have much to do with mobility directly. It is about the demand for particular rights. But you can also look at it as an experiment and how it unfolded. Everybody had to rethink their travel. A lot of people used car sharing or ride sharing. A lot of people actually could cycle when they would otherwise use public transport. And also, a lot of people stayed at home. And that’s something that we as a society often don’t think about enough. We have this idea that you absolutely have to be somewhere to do your work. However, how much would have actually changed if we weren’t at work in person every day? That does not apply to all jobs but does to many. Another example was a big storm in Amsterdam about 1,5 year ago. Again, a lot of people were stuck in different places. And again, was there really a reason to be on the road then? Not all of us are cardiac surgeons. Actually, to be honest, most of us are not. I think we should ask ourselves every day how much and how far we need to move, at least more often.  Also, we could organize mobility a little more collectively. Obviously, public transport is the collective way to move par excellence. It can be affordable, convenient, inclusive. The OV strike highlighted the importance of public transport. Especially for people who don’t have alternative solutions. However, to a lot of people it showed that they do actually do have a variety of options which means that we can organise mobility better. Some infrastructures, like the Ijtunnel, were reassigned to cyclists for a day. People and companies organised car-sharing and car-pooling. You could say that commoning mobility is also about commoning infrastructure.  The OV strike pushed us to ask how can we organise mobility differently, besides public transport? Also, do we really have to be elsewhere? The value of travel became more clear. For one day. So it was a really interesting experiment.


Could you illustrate what the future of mobility could look like in the Netherlands?

I don’t know how will look like. However, from the research we know that a few questions are important to take into consideration. One thing is that technology is definitely not the only solution. While it is interesting to look into the possibilities of that, the governance and individual behaviour play a major role in how the new technologies will be used and what kind of effects they will have. The Netherlands has a very strong start when it comes to sustainable mobility because of the biking and the combination between biking and train. It is a combination of passive and active mobility that could be the backbone of the future system. And it is available to most of the population. Another point is that people talk a lot about self-driving vehicles and the ‘smart city’ concept. Here there are a lot of questions to be asked. Does it indeed solve the current issues? For one, driverless vehicles definitely do not help to promote active mobility. Whether they can contribute to addressing the environment issue, the congestion issue, the inclusion issue – that is hard to say; for that the system would have to be designed in a very particular way that would help pursue these goals and discourage specific choices. What impact will it have on other mobilities? If you have self-driving cars in a city with bikes and pedestrians, who will be prioritized? Should the car be prioritized? Even if your car is electric you will already disadvantage the most environmentally friendly, healthy, inclusive forms of mobility which are cycling and walking.

Another concept that is important here is techno-solutionism. This is when we a priori see technology as the solution to a problem that isn’t even well defined. The promises of the technology capture the imagination and we try to ‘match’ some problem with it. But the problem should be very well considered first. Techno-solutionism focuses on technology and tries to make it fit into this world. I think in the Netherlands we are already quite critical. Some people in policy are already aware of techno-solutionism and of the potential side-effects, for example of self-driving vehicles and other technologies that force themselves on the world.

The bottom line is, when we talk about the ‘smart city’, we should avoid focussing on technology and ask questions about underlying ideology. Do we really want to spend our day in a self-driving car? We should ask ourselves what we want. Affordable, efficient transport? Less congestion? Less stress? Wind in our hair? The central argument is that when we imagine mobility in the future we should first imagine the world in which we want to live.