John Pucher on purely academic research vs. politics, implementation and practical approaches to getting things done

Courtesy of John Pucher (and used with permission), the following is a guest post where he is commenting on the central focus of a proposed conference on cycling.

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Some of the very best urban transportation research (and 95% of the refereed publication) is done in Australia, North America, and the UK.  Yet when you actually look at the walking, cycling, and public transport systems in the cities there, they lag far behind what you experience in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and much of western Europe.  Why is it that our superb academic research has been so ineffective (or at least very slow) in improving public policies??  I can assure you that the Dutch, Danes, Germans and Swiss did NOT wait for the results of academic studies to undertake the decisions that made their urban transport systems so much more sustainable than those in the USA, Australia, and Canada, in particular, but also much more than in the UK.

Refereed academic research gets promoted and much more rewarded in North America, Australia and the UK, but when I see the practical results on the ground, I feel like a LOT more emphasis needs to be placed on political implementation of the right policies.  Instead of spending yet more decades refining what we already know, I think it would yield more practical benefits to shift the focus more toward implementation.

Do we all really think it is total mystery what gets folks walking and cycling and taking transit?  Do we really need even more ultra-sophisticated simultaneous equations models (which almost no one can understand anyway) to prove what any person on the street can tell us?

In short, I would support Gil’s Penalosa’s contention that, however valuable academic research is, it is NOT the key to actual improvements on the ground, at least so far as I can tell.  It’s political actions and not equations that get folks on bikes, on their feet, and onto transit.

I apologize if this offends some of my academic colleagues, but after thousands of ever-more sophisticated academic articles on walking, cycling, and transit, we surely know enough about what needs to be done.  The more difficult question is HOW we get these measures implemented.

I do not want to put us academics out of business, so I certainly advocate continued research, but with more emphasis on political implementation.  One can argue that Velo City and Pro-Walk, Pro-Bike suffice for examining practical approaches toward implementation, but I think we academics need to think more about implementation issues as well and not act as if it’s up to someone else to put our recommendations into practice.”

John Pucher
Rutgers University

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