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Interviews with PhD Students #1

Green Office UvA x Centre for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS)

Mr S. (Samuel) Nello Deakin MSc

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

GPIO : Urban Planning

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Can you shortly introduce yourself?

I’m a third year PhD student in the Urban Planning group, under the guidance of Marco te Brömmelstroet and Luca Bertolini. I’m also a fairly active member of the Urban Cycling Institute, which brings together social science researchers within the UvA who work on cycling-related topics. My PhD explores the spatial and social dynamics of cycling in Amsterdam and is part of the larger Smart Cycling Futuresproject, which includes various universities and municipalities within the Netherlands and is sponsored by the NWO. Other idiosyncrasies of mine include playing the bassoon, having flat feet and speaking Esperanto.

In regard to your study path, within what subject/subjects do you have your bachelor's/master's, and what lead you to choose this path?

Although I am from Barcelona and have lived there for most of my life, I decided to make the most of my good English (my father is Catalan, but my mother is Australian) and go to study at university abroad. For my bachelor’s degree, I studied Geography at the University of Cambridge – a privileged place to be at, even if quite a quirky too. I was the kind of child who spent hours going over an atlas for fun and drawing invented cities, so it seemed like a logical subject choice. I then took a master’s course in Transport and City Planning at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning. After that, I wanted to see what a “real” job would be like, so I worked for a year at a transport consultancy in London. It was in the heart of the “City”, and in a way it was quite fun to be part of the huge human river of commuters in suits making their way to work every day.

At what point and why did you decide to apply for a PhD programme?

I think that a constellation of factors came together at the same time. I had been working at a transport consultancy at London for around a year but was increasingly becoming bored by the day-to-day realities of the job. I wasn’t actively looking for a PhD opportunity, but by chance saw that someone I knew had posted something on Facebook about a fully-funded PhD vacancy on cycling in Amsterdam – a topic which has always interested me, and which I had already written my bachelor thesis on. Having always had an academic bent, I thought it sounded like something which might suit me. In addition, my girlfriend was living in Maastricht at the time and the Brits had just voted for Brexit; I don’t think how consciously this weighed in my decision, but it probably contributed to it. In retrospect, I confess I don’t really think it was a particularly well-considered decision – it is only now in the midst of my PhD that I realise how much of a commitment I was getting myself into. But I guess that many big decisions in life are often somewhat accidental.

What is the subject of your PhD?

In a nutshell, my PhD seeks to untangle the role of the spatial and the social environment in contributing to the preponderance of cycling in Amsterdam. What makes Amsterdam a cycling city? At present, most cycling researchers and practitioners – particularly in the fields of urban and transport planning – tend to focus almost exclusively on the role of physical infrastructure in encouraging cycling. Although physical infrastructure is certainly an essential part of the picture, in my PhD I am trying to show that other dimensions are also critical. In the case of Amsterdam, for instance, cycling infrastructure is actually better in peripheral neighbourhoods than in the city centre, yet fewer people cycle. Part of this can be attributed to a lower urban density and the greater competitiveness of other transport modes, but neighbourhood sociodemographic composition also plays a vital role. My research also shows that less measurable aspects, such as social pressure and the expectations of other people, are important in encouraging cycling in Amsterdam. In fact, many factors which encourage cycling are themselves the outcome of cycling normality, so in this sense they cannot be easily replicated by cities without a mature cycling culture.

Why is your research innovative?

Somewhat surprisingly, urban cycling in the Netherlands had not received much academic attention until fairly recently – the bulk of established cycling research comes from Anglo-Saxon countries, and the US in particular. Given the marginal role of cycling in these countries, their findings do not seem particularly translatable to the Dutch context. At the simplest, then, my research is part of a wider effort to begin documenting Dutch cycling practices in more depth. In my PhD, I am also trying to bring different methodological and theoretical perspectives into conversation. If we look at existing cycling research, we can see quite a visible divide between the quantitative, statistical approach which tends to dominate amongst urban planners, transport and health researchers, and the qualitative approach generally espoused by historians, human geographers and sociologists. I find the lack of dialogue between both approaches quite frustrating, since both perspectives seem complementary to me, and limited if considered on their own. By adopting a mixed methods approach in my PhD – including both statistical analysis but also in-depth interviews – I am trying to bring these approaches closer together. I am increasingly realizing that doing so is not easy!

What do you expect the impacts of this research to be?

To be perfectly honest, I harbour few illusions about the real-world impacts of my research. At best, I think that all I can realistically expect is that a couple of hundred people end up reading one of my articles, and that some of them hopefully find something interesting or useful in them – however small – which they will not forget. I think the biggest impact of my research will clearly be on myself – in terms of what I have learnt about my subject, but also more broadly about academic research, and about what I like and dislike about modern academia. My plans for after my PhD remain vague at this stage, but at some level or other I think I would like to find an opportunity to apply what I have learnt in a more practical setting to help further urban cycling outside the Netherlands.

What are the reasons that led you to focus on this subject?

My father has always been somewhat obsessed by bicycles and used to take me and my brother to school on his bike – something unremarkable in Amsterdam, but not in Barcelona (especially 15 years ago!). I have always cycled to get around the various cities I have lived in, and it seems to me that people who do not do so are missing out on so much. I also grew up without a car, and since I was a child have always felt that cars are “evil” at a very basic emotional level. I think that I have slowly come around to understanding the appeal of automobility, but only as featured in 1960s James Bond films or as part of a leisurely road trip… I had previously also already focused on cycling for my bachelor’s dissertation, in which I studied the new bikesharing system launched in Quito (Ecuador) some years ago.

Why did you decide to focus on sustainability-related issues?

Well, I find it hard to think that you might focus on urban transport withouthaving sustainability in mind.For those of us who share a geographical perspective on the world – in its broadest sense – environmental issues simply seem to be the greatest societal challenge we currently face. I’m somewhat of a pessimist, however: if you look at the facts coldly, we’re not doing well. Ultimately, I worry that “institutional” efforts to promote sustainability – including most of what we do at universities, and certainly my own PhD project – might be a distraction from more radical movements and actions. The recent Extinction Rebellion movement, however, has made me think that there might still be some positive surprises ahead.

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