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Professor of Vacuuming

154a402d575f8afedb92c3dfc74a5ef6A metaphor that Mikael Anderson has been promoting is that Danish cycling is like a vacuum cleaner: a useful tool to complete a task but nothing special. Just as vacuums are a helpful element with home care, bicycles are useful means of physical travel in cities. People don’t need six shiny bikes in the garage, lyrca or “other” experience. There’s little need to ‘celebrate’ cycling because its “built into” the activity of getting around; its what people do.

An unstated implication is that that the knowledge-base for vacuuming (possibly for cycling?) therefore fails to warrant special consideration. You do not need a professor to help teach you about the merits of vacuuming, the ‘hows’ of vacuuming or the conditions under which vacuuming might be met with success. But do you need professor to help you with bicycling? That is the question I found myself asking over the past week.

I am honored to begin an appointment a visiting professor of “cycling in changing urban regions” in the School of Management Sciences at Radboud University in the Netherlands (part time, 2014-2017). You ask: an American as the “cycling professor” in a country with more cycling than anywhere else in the world? It’s a bit ironic. And, it would be a bit misguided for an American to think they can teach the Dutch about cycling.

Or can they? Relatively speaking, the Dutch do an outstanding job with their cycling environs. Interestingly the “supposedly” rich knowledge base has been fostered by practitioners and/or consultants. Research has played a surprisingly small role. Dutch cycling has basically evolved and generally speaking, they don’t know themselves what they did so well. Their systems have rarely been planned, assessed, or evaluated. It just moves on, sometimes with guidelines and other times without.

Just as we take for granted the inner workings of a vacuum cleaner, we take for granted the dynamics of successful cycling systems. Maybe there is role for a cycling professor? At least fresh eyes and fresh perspectives would help position attributes of successful systems. Documenting some of the why’s would be beneficial as well. This new position has a number of goals, inter-alia: helping lead a research program on cycling, solidifying the scientific research base for cycling, critically examining which elements of Dutch cycling can be better ‘exported,’ and collaborating on various initiatives in Nijmegen, around the Netherlands and Europe. I’ll be living in the Netherlands for roughly a month a year (not all at one time) and working with faculty in the spatial planning unit at Radboud University. As posts and insights come available related to Dutch bicycle planning and this position, they will be identified with the  “nl” label. Just as I am looking forward to learning more about the ins and outs of cycling in new contexts, some members of my household might be looking forward to me learning more about the ins and out of vacuuming.

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