Episode 33 - Chris & Melissa Bruntlett

January 16, 2019 19 min read

Episode 33 - Chris & Melissa Bruntlett

  

  

In this episode, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, co-founders of Modacity and authors of “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality,” join us to talk about promoting multi-modal transportation. They aim to promote the health, environmental and social benefits of cycling, walking and public transit.

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In this episode we cover: 

  • Chris and Melissa’s background, what led them to what they are doing now and how they came to write about the Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality book.
  • They discuss how Vancouver serves as a good model and example for taking cycling transportation seriously in the city and other cities that are making the same effort.
  • The effect that cycling has made in their everyday family life and activities.
  • The things that stood out to them in their travels in terms of infrastructure for cycling and walking and the common problems they see.
  • Discussing challenges and strategies such as role citizen activism or running for office can play in breaking down political and cultural barriers.
  • The advantages of integrated infrastructure that promotes active travel in the community.

Links

Where to Buy the Book:

      Transcript:

      FELICITY:

      This is episode 33. Welcome to the All Torque podcast, where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque.

      I have here today, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, co-founders of Modacity Life from Vancouver, Canada. Chris Bruntlett is a former architectural designer who has always used the humble bicycle to get around. After moving to Vancouver, he saw officials focusing their efforts on policy and infrastructure while overlooking a critical third prong of increasing ridership, marketing the cycling lifestyle. He felt motivated to address the gap filled by advocacy groups and the bike industry who fell into the trap of dangerizing, politicizing and overcomplicating the act of cycling.

      Melissa's background is in sales, marketing and project management, and serving as an active volunteer in her community. She is continually developing written, visual and audio content that inspires and challenges organisations to reach out to a broad audience and promote more livable urban environments. "I strive to create cities where my children can flourish and where the simple act of moving through their city is a safe, simple and enjoyable act," Melissa quotes.

      Seven years later, Chris and his partner, Melissa, co-founded Modacity, which through their work as writers, filmmakers, photographers and speakers inspires healthier, happier, simpler forms of mobility. Their stories of cities around the world have been featured in Momentum Magazine, Grist, Spacing, and Huffington Post. Their recently launched book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality is now available and we'll put those details in our show notes.

      Chris and Melissa work through their writing, speaking engagements, and photography and film to promote a more human image of multi-modal transportation. Together, they strive to educate people and cities about the inherent benefits of moving away from a car-centric transportation model and to a more inclusive model that is accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and economic means. Promoting the health, environmental and social benefits of cycling, walking and public transport, their goal is to improve upon the great strides already made in their city and beyond creating a more open and welcoming environment for their family and the families of others. Welcome, Chris and Melissa.

      MELISSA:

      Hi there. Thanks for having us.

      CHRIS:

      Thank you.

      FELICITY:

      You're welcome. Thank you for joining us today. Tell us about your story. How did you get to where you are now writing about the Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality with your book, Building the Cycling City from being an architectural designer, being writers and filmmakers and photographers? Yeah, we'd love to hear your story. Please share with us.

      MELISSA:

      Yeah. I think our story kind of starts back in 2010. Chris and I were both working within a 30-minute bike ride of our home and found our car was collecting dust and decided to sell the family car and start getting around predominantly by active travel whether that would be walking, cycling or building in public transportation and through that, started to recognise some of the challenges that existed in terms of making that a realistic means of getting around, but also, the inherent joys that come with it, being more connected to our city, more connected to our family, and that eventually built into creating Modacity, learning what other cities are doing. Then in 2016, took us to the Netherlands to really experience what cities could look like when they really prioritise making cycling safe and accessible to everyone and that is sort of how we got to where the book came in just a few years after that.

      FELICITY:

      Is Vancouver, your home city, like a good model for that because I think that they already have a great infrastructure? I did actually attend the Australian Bicycle Summit last year, which Dale Bracewell, the director of Transportation Planning for the city of Vancouver attended and the stats he gave were very impressive. But that's over a 30-year period and it certainly takes a vision, commitment, drive and perseverance to create a culture to embrace the changes and also integrate all those aspects. Was that part of your drive from that integration that you've experienced in your city?

      CHRIS:

      Most definitely. Yeah, and I think in a North American context, Vancouver has a lot of advantages. It has a lot of benefits. It's built itself as a very walkable and transit-oriented city over those 30 years that you referenced, but it's only in the last 10 years or so that it started to take cycling seriously, and I think we were kind of the recipients of some fortunate timing in that we moved to the city around that time where they were starting to build fully protected bike lanes, routes that they were calling Triple A, which were suitable for all ages and abilities. To enable families like us and our children and the elderly and people that were on the sidelines when it came to cycling for transportation, suddenly enabling those people to get on a bike, and Vancouver became a great example of what North American cities could do, what Australian cities could do, what New Zealand cities could do that were very quick and easy and cheap and just required a little bit of political will.

      In those 10 short years, Vancouver's certainly come a long way and a lot of our work was communicating those benefits, those successes, telling the stories of people we knew who in cycling, the businesses we knew that were benefiting from that infrastructure and really telling a positive story and holding Vancouver up as an example of what can be accomplished in a very short period of time.

      FELICITY:

      Are there other cities as well, Chris, with a similar vision and making the effort like Vancouver?

      CHRIS:

      Most definitely, yeah. We specifically talk about some of them in the book because we didn't just want to tell the Dutch story. I think we wanted to also share examples of North American cities that were following in the Dutch's footsteps. Whether it's New York, whether it's Seattle, whether it's Austin, Texas, they're all making strides and following strategies to make cycling a convenient and comfortable and accessible mode of transportation for more and more of their residents. It's going to take decades. I mean it's not an easy task, but they're just starting out on their journeys and I think they should be commended for taking that first step.

      MELISSA:

      I think one of the things that we really try to emphasize with each of those examples, too, is that each and every city, whether it's Vancouver or Calgary or even Austin, Texas like Chris mentioned. Each of them is sort of going along the same path of providing these options for mobility, but in a way that makes sense for those cities. It's not necessarily about looking to places like the Netherlands that have really succeeded at making their cities accessible to everyone and copying exactly what they've done. It's taking the ideas that they've come up with and finding a way to make it work in the context of Austin, Texas, in the context of New York City and making it work for those communities in a way that helps them to be successful.

      FELICITY:

      Yeah. I guess everyone's got their own idiosyncrasies and other hurdles that they have to deal with so they have to kind of plan around that accordingly.

      MELISSA:

      Exactly.

      FELICITY:

      Has your passion always involved bikes and cycling or has that evolved over time?

      MELISSA:

      I think it's definitely been an evolution. I mean myself, I grew up riding bikes with my family, but it was always meant to be more of a recreation thing. Once in a while, I would use it as transportation to get to friends' houses or to school, but never really saw it as a real means of getting around, and I think in moving to Vancouver and as we mentioned, selling the car and exploring life a little bit differently, that sort of fueled our passion to really communicate those benefits and then also, help be advocates for continuing on those journeys instead of running the risk of resting on laurels once we saw a little bit of success here.

      CHRIS:

      I also think part of that is living in a city where conditions were such that we could enjoy cycling 'cause we didn't have to rub shoulders with cars. We didn't have to dodge with buses in the curb lane. Riding a bike was not stressful. We could stick to the protected bike lanes. We could stick to the traffic calmed side streets. We could stick to the seawall, which was completely car free and when you're in those conditions, cycling is an absolute joy, but there are so few cities around the world that have created those conditions that a lot of people don't enjoy those benefits and they don't understand those benefits. So, it was a matter of taking those emotions and trying to communicate them to other cities and say, "You can get to where Vancouver is. You can create a mode of transportation that is enjoyable, that is healthy, that is accessible, that is.. "

      MELISSA:

      Oftentimes easy.

      CHRIS:

      Easy, sure, and remarkably inexpensive, but you've got to create that space for cycling and if it doesn't exist, then it becomes just a fringe activity that's only done by the fit and the brave.

      FELICITY:

      Yes, yeah, that's right. I think when you've made the decision like you did to sell your car, then you make it part of your life and you embrace it and so, you just plan accordingly and change I guess your habits around that, don't you?

      MELISSA:

      Absolutely. Yeah, I think we talked about it quite a bit over the years that using walking and cycling as our main modes of transportation has really forced us to examine the kinds of activities that we do whether that's the kids' activities or where we work, where we have our extracurriculars, really picking places that are within a 30-minute bike ride or within a 10, 15-minute walk from our house. So the community centre where the kids go for their activities is down the street. The dance school is just up the street. My yoga studio's around the corner and we both worked at various points within a quick bike ride, and it's all very cognizant choices in terms of how we plan out the way we interact with our city and it doesn't mean that other stuff isn't accessible. It is always further to go afield, but it makes it more convenient for us as a family to have these smaller distances and it actually inherently creates more of a connection to our community where we live as well.

      FELICITY:

      Yeah, that's what I was thinking. It makes it more localised and then, you actually really do know your community and become a lot more involved and engaged I imagine because you don't have that travel time and you don't have that distance so you're really engaging at a local level with the community.

      CHRIS:

      For sure. Yeah, and I think that's exactly what Modacity grew out of, was the advocacy work and the articles we were writing, the videos that we were producing as advocates on the evenings and weekends that eventually snowballed into a business that we were again, the.. It all stemmed out of this decision to live close to work and sell the car, eventually led to us creating an entire business around selling these ideas and promoting them, which is certainly not what we had anticipated or planned at the very beginning. It was a pleasant surprise, a pleasant..

      FELICITY:

      Yeah, really evolved into something different. Since launching the book and travelling extensively to promote it, meeting people who were trying to improve the infrastructure in their respective cities, is there anything that stands out to you both from your travels?

      MELISSA:

      I think it's that while every city has their own unique challenges, be it geography, be it economy, be it just the general makeup of the city, I think most of us are all dealing with similar challenges in terms of reallocation of space and how do we prioritise safe walking and cycling for people when cities have been, at least in North America, in Australian contexts been really designed for automobile traffic and automobile accessibility. I think we can all sort of learn from each other because we're all fighting the same battles. Just because we might be coming at it from a different perspective doesn't mean that there isn't something to learn from each other, but I think that's really been the underlying is a lot of people.. even the Dutch for example, are dealing with issues around space and how do we deal with parking on the side of the street and changing that to a bike lane or bike parking. We're all fighting the same battles and there's a lot to be learned by building that community even internationally to learn from each other.

      FELICITY:

      Yes, yeah. That's right. I agree. I think, yeah, just same problem, different city.

      MELISSA:

      Exactly.

      FELICITY:

      That was actually my next question really was what common problems do you see over and over again, but I think like you say, they're similar and it's just we're fighting the same battles so it's a matter of collectively working together really and learning from one another's experience and, for instance, with Dale presenting at the bicycle summit here last year, we can learn from him because of all the experience that has already been learnt with Vancouver. Of course, our political infrastructure I think is a lot more layered so it's a bit more complicated or political in that sense from what I could understand, from what he also could ascertain from what he experienced, but even so, that's still all a learning curve and we can I think join forces collectively and support one another and actually perhaps get some shortcuts from collaborating together.

      CHRIS:

      Most definitely. Yeah, and I think I mean Janette Sadik-Khan said this when we spoke to her for the first chapter of the book was none of the barriers are engineering based. We know how to solve these problems. We have the exact solutions when it comes to the design of our streets. All of the barriers are political and cultural, and every city's dealing with political and cultural pushback to this reallocation of space that we're hoping to achieve. So, we've really wanted to spell out the different strategies for getting around those cultural and political barriers in the book and so we talk about the role that citizen activism can play, the role that encouraging someone to run for office or yourself running for office can have in terms of changing the conversation. There's all kinds of different, I think ideas and strategies and ultimately now, case studies of cities that have accomplished this such as Vancouver that we can say pretty reassuringly that initially, there's going to be some growing pains.

      We're going to have some controversies. There's going to be bike clash, but once we get through the other side, the businesses benefit, the community benefits, the residents benefit and by building out these triple A bike networks, it really can be a win-win situation and even in some cases in the Netherlands, we talk about how drivers can benefit because there's fewer cars on the road, the levels of traffic congestion could go down. At the end of the day, it's about communicating these win-win scenarios and giving politicians and business leaders the facts and the figures and the wherewithal to go out and make these pretty brave decisions because ultimately, they're the ones with their necks on the line and they're the ones that are facing reelection and the ones that need to be convinced that these are smart decisions. Yeah, I think that's really the biggest challenge and one that we're continually trying to think about and help people to solve.

      FELICITY:

      In my area, we're in a coastal town and there's quite a bit of new development going up for housing, housing development, and land that's actually being built on so it's acres and acres of land and I'll be interested to see what infrastructure is being put in place there for cycling because obviously moving forward from today, for instance, I think the new generation would like their kids to ride to school because that has become so much more prevalent now with obesity and the lack of exercise and access to schools and just part of that whole community engagement as well. They do actually do market it on families riding their bikes like that's all in the visuals when you see it and where we live, it's promoted very much on lifestyle.

      I find it quite fascinating that, for instance, that doesn't really appear to be part of the plan unless either the developer has that focus themselves or the councils say, "You need to do this." It seems to be a bit more by, generally speaking I would say by dangling the carrot rather than actually wanting to, if you know what I mean, but yeah saying that. I know there's a development in Queensland that have done that with acres and acres of cycling or kilometres of cycling lanes, which I think is fantastic 'cause I think that that's so much more appealing for the community at every age and is a good selling point for that community.

      MELISSA:

      Absolutely. I think oftentimes, especially in North America, we deal with a lot of sprawl whether you're in Canada or the U.S. and very similar to what we experienced in terms of the city makeups in Australia and New Zealand as well. I think when we talk about cycling infrastructure, so often we focus on what that looks like in the urban context or the big cities, but we both feel as there's a huge opportunity in these more suburban communities to build cycling in as a way to keep you connected with your local community. Understanding that cycling doesn't have to be the only solution to your transportation so it can get your kids to school, it can get you to the local grocer, but if you need to go further afield, maybe it can get you to a transit station that gets you into the city centre.

      It's a combination of, but by building in those options in those suburban areas, you start to provide people with an opportunity to move away from being completely dependent on getting around by car and it comes back to yes, that infrastructure needs to be there in order to enable that, but there's such an opportunity to just build that into the habits of how people live because not everyone can live in the city centre and so for providing those options no matter where people live, it just trickles down into making life inherently better. It takes the congestion off of our highways by providing other options for people to get around, mixing modes or choosing the car as a last resort when it's absolutely necessary as opposed to the only option.

      FELICITY:

      That's right. It's about active travel overall, isn't it, so that it can all be integrated and it can flow one from the other so you're not totally reliant necessarily on one and you can use whatever aspect you want to, like you say, walk to the train station or ride to the train station or if you live near a train station or that's accessible or the bus or whatever, that's right, just mixing it up so that you've got the choice and you can actually do it. Whereas where we are, we actually pretty much can't do that 'cause we're a bit more regional, but I understand what you're saying. So, I think that that would be great if that was taken into the bigger picture and the vision and put into place so that it would suit everyone in the demographic, in the community you would think, wouldn't you?

      MELISSA:

      Yeah. I think it even hearkens back to where Chris and I grew up. We grew up in a Canadian suburb just outside the city of Toronto and I can remember biking around quite a bit when I was younger, but slowly into the mid to late '90s, that kind of petered away and it became more about driving around because the streets became more hostile and so riding around wasn't as safe, but if we started to think about reallocating that space back and making a safer space then perhaps my nieces can travel around by bike, maybe it missed a generation and can come back again for the next one.

      FELICITY:

      Yeah, absolutely. Do you guys have a quirky or funny story that you'd like to share with us from your travels?

      CHRIS:

      Yeah.

      MELISSA:

      I think, I don't know if it's necessarily funny, but when we were travelling, my parents.. We live in Vancouver. They live in the suburbs in Ontario still and they joined us for four weeks of our trip and it was interesting because we never quite know what it's going to be like when our families who are in different context common experience how we travel 'cause it's very much focused on getting on bikes and getting around and exploring cities. It was interesting because my parents when we were in Brisbane were on ebikes with us riding along the river and they had this almost epiphany of like, "This is actually really wonderful and I hope that we can get ebikes when we get home and travel around that way." They started to see how they could build cycling into more of the way they live their lives back home.

      Yeah, it was a pleasant surprise I think in terms of often worrying that we're the fringe children that went on this weird path away from how we grew up and seeing that sort of resonate now with my parents who are both retired and are looking at how to build cycling back into how they get around, which is what they did when they were in their teens so they're coming full circle and realising that was kind of a nice little treat for our travels.

      FELICITY:

      Absolutely. I know a guy locally. He is 85 and he was bunch riding and due to his health, he's unable to and so, he's actually on an ebike now and loving that. It just goes to show that everyone at every age can be riding and it doesn't necessarily need to be a road bike, a mountain bike, whatever. It can be any bike and that just kind of makes it more.. He can still be engaged with the group and still meet them for coffee so he gets that socialising so it's still fun and entertaining, and he's still getting out and exercise like your parents embracing that. That's really fantastic, isn't it?

      CHRIS:

      Yeah, we..

      FELICITY:

      It's just great that it can involve everyone and from all layers of the community, that's what excites me really and that they're open to it.

      CHRIS:

      There was one really striking example that sticks out in my mind and that was on the same vein as the ebike conversation. We'd taken the ferry over to Devonport on a day off in Auckland, New Zealand and on the other side of the ferry, this gentleman strikes up a conversation with us. He saw that we were riding ebikes and introduces himself as Ronnie. He was I think a 73-year-old gentleman that had lived in Auckland his entire life and had recently purchased an ebike for himself. I think he said it keeps his ticker going. He rides it every day to keep his heart pumping and subsequently offered to escort us to the top of Mt. Victoria, which is a dormant volcano on the other side of the harbour from Auckland and so we all cycled up this 900-foot tall dormant volcano together on our ebikes.

      It was really a wonderful conversation starter and then to see that he's pushing in his 70s and still active every day, that the ebike enables that and allows him to stay active because he said himself, he wouldn't be pedaling the regular pushbike if the ebike wasn't an option so that was, yeah, a really kind of special moment on our trip.

      FELICITY:

      That's lovely, yeah, and he's proud of his city and hosting and it enables him to be more social as well like he's met you and then can invite you to do that. That's really lovely. That's really nice. Where to from here for you two and the family?

      MELISSA:

      We're actually in the midst of packing up our lives here in Vancouver and we've both been offered employment in the Netherlands working in communications. My job is still on the down low so stay tuned for that, but Chris has been offered an employment opportunity with the Dutch cycling embassy so he'll be doing a lot of that idea of communicating the benefits of what the Dutch have done with international organisations that are looking to bring those ideas and people working in those fields into their communities to help share the message so in just five weeks, we will be landing on Dutch shores and starting a new life over there.

      FELICITY:

      Wow, that's fantastic. Congratulations.

      MELISSA:

      Thank you.

      FELICITY:

      What an exciting adventure and who would've thought.

      CHRIS:

      Yeah, it's I think brought up a lot of retrospective thought about how we got started in the bike advocacy. Neither of us are trained marketers or educated in any of these fields. I studied architecture and Melissa studied fashion, and to think that we're now travelling halfway around the world having been hired by these organisations that want to promote Dutch cycling around the world is pretty surreal and pretty amazing. We have got a lot of work to do between now and then in terms of packing up our lives and moving over there, but we couldn't be more excited about living and working and existing in these little Dutch cycling utopias where everybody gets around by bike. Cycling is not a fringe activity. It's a fairly mainstream thing.

      FELICITY:

      No, very integrated, yeah. That's really fantastic.

      CHRIS:

      Yeah.

      MELISSA:

      And really looking forward to further sharing the lessons that we learn 'cause we know that we've just scratched the surface with our book and there's so much more in terms of not just the history of how the Dutch got to where they are, but what they're still doing, and we look forward to being able to learn even more and share that with everyone that has been following us on our journey since day one.

      FELICITY:

      Definitely. I know Stephen Hodge and Peter Bourke from the Bicycling Industry Association, we've been following what the Dutch do generally speaking and they've had trips over there. They're definitely well-known and iconic for us Aussies and so, we look forward to following you with interest. Speaking of that, I'd like to thank you both for joining me today and it's been great to learn more about your book and the journey that you're now embarking on. Our listeners can follow you on Facebook and YouTube as @modacity as also Instagram, Twitter, @modacitylife and they can also check out your website, which iswww.modacitylife.com , and we'll have all those details in our show notes as well as where they can purchase your book. Yeah, I'd really like to thank you for joining us today and I look forward to seeing what you get up to when you're over in Europe.

      CHRIS:

      Yeah. No, it was our pleasure and yeah, we're.. Ask us in five weeks and we'll be much more excited, but for the time being, we're laser focused on getting the immigration and get the kids registered in school and securing an apartment and all those kind of life things, but it's a big move.

      FELICITY:

      That's right, there's a lot of administration to get to there first, isn't it? Get done first..

      CHRIS:

      Exactly.

      MELISSA:

      Yeah.

      FELICITY:

      Yeah.

      MELISSA:

      But it'll be worth it once we get there.

      FELICITY:

      Yeah. Thank you for joining us.

      MELISSA:

      Thanks, Felicity.

      FELICITY:

      Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.


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