Up against an old tale – ethnographic impressions from Bremen

Bremen in North Germany, a city with a population of 550,000, is steeped in the sea-faring and trading heritage of a harbour city (Hansestadt). It retained its free city status in the organisational political structure: in Germany’s devolved organisation of regions, Bremen, although small in area and population size, is both a region as well as a city (the other city states are Hamburg and Berlin). The city’s history is colonial, laden with class-conflicts and various power inequalities. Bremen’s politics today, I would describe as more akin to Bristol or Brighton in its fair and sustainable outlook to the future. As for cycling for example, Bremen has a cycle mode share of 25% (all journeys) which has remained largely the same since the 1980s. (In contrast, in Newcastle, a city of 280,000 inhabitants, 1% of all journeys are cycled.)

In the following account of my Bremen ethnographic experience I am concentrating on Level 1: fighting paradigms of reduced realities (outlined in more detail here). I intend to tackle Level 2: fighting collaboration in another blogpost at a later date.

Blogging –impressions on a journey

Re-reading old web posts and analysing them for their topics and narratives gives an insight into the directions of my thinking and thought development. I have listed the posts concerning Bremen chronologically below. What the list displays to me is that I had to find my feet first. My burning question appears to have been one of position: how to position Bremen in relation to Newcastle and how to position Bremen as a political city in need of transport ambitions?

Bremen is a cycle city in the true sense of the word (demonstrated by cycling’s high mode share), whereas Newcastle is an aspiring one, at best. But how could I describe Bremen in admiring and also in critical terms? This is a question that has irritated me for a while. It is also reflected in my retrospective video diary (for example a discussion about the position of Berlin in relation to Newcastle with a fellow cycle campaigner). The answer to this question of position must be related to context. It is important to clearly contextualise Bremen’s position, and lay out that even the good are not best and can be better. The position the writer/speaker sets, matters. The position must be laid bare. After all, even Bremen has a cycle campaigning scene, fighting to be heard. Bremen as a city can still gain from increasing cycling and looking up to well established cycling cities in the Netherlands, or Copenhagen as well as recent research from the US telling us about the how-to and possibilities.

Politics seem to struggle with that ambivalence of position too (and not just Bremen, I can see it in Newcastle as well). How do you bring about change (read: mode shift, car reduction) if you do not see your strengths and weaknesses? How do you create a narrative that is one for pleasing the presence without being too passive to boldly step into a new future? How can narratives about the past shape the future? When (political and professional) practices become embedded, questioning ceases or is tightly controlled. When paradigms develop, they bring with them a dominant group controlling reality and access to resources.

Ethnographic effort

Following shorter stints in Bremen in 2015/16 scouting the city and piloting my thoughts, I was recently lucky enough to spend a full five months in Germany from February to June 2017 – most of it living in Bremen. Spending intimate time in the comparison city was priceless. I was able to absorb the city’s spaces and places, and therein interact with civic society: residents, activists, politicians and professionals – conducting formal (taped) interviews, as well as attending meetings and chatting to many people over a coffee or two. Transport, and cycling within that, is a hot topic.

The politician

When interviewing the politician in February this year I was struck at first sight by the apparent openness to express and discuss politics and cycling concerns (especially compared to the relative wariness and plainness of the Newcastle politicians I had experienced). The stories the Bremen politician could tell were longer and were able to hold more complexity. In many ways this undoubtedly is related to the different “position of normal” in Bremen (again compared to Newcastle): Bremen already understands itself as a cycle city and can proclaim it without too much controversy.

Saying that, there are limitations to the volume of this proclamation as well. I attended various public meetings and listened to radio shows and the story told there started to differ. The politician was often apologetic, even dismissive, about cycling and lacked the coherence in the line of argumentation in comparison to my interview. It’s striking, even in a cycle city, the position of the bike towards the car was still in question (verifying findings by Freudendal-Pedersen concerning Copenhagen). Invisible taboos are in place upholding the status quo. The conflict most likely stems from Bremen also understanding itself as a car city. There is a car manufacturing plant after all. It is perhaps particularly difficult for a Green Party (Die Grünen) politician in a coalition with Labour (SPD) to find a position that spans big business (jobs) and the inevitable transport transition away from the private car. The chasm is wide open. There were clear tensions in the politician’s narrative, and certain discourses were restrained and some retained. The bike-car gulf had not been narratively bridged and could hold up progress towards mode shift and motor traffic reduction.

The politician’s ability to explain complexity in the administration’s process and approach vanished most notably in relation to cycling infrastructure, where the statement simply became: “cyclists are safer on the road”. The politician was speaking against protected cycleways (the one thing we desperately need where they don’t currently exits and need to expand on where they do according to recent research results, see Pucher & Buehler, Pooley et al). This matches Bremen’s current approach to promoting cycling: to remove its (often narrow and bumpy) cycleways in favour of “allowing” on-road cycling, rather than widening and smoothing the existing cycleways.

I was intrigued where this on-road vehicular-cycling narrative had originated from, especially as there is no discernible evidence in favour of the statement that “cycleways are dangerous” that I have found to date. In the interview I asked where the politician would place the origin of this statement. I was duly referred to the council as the seat of the expert professionals – they would be able to add the detail and explain further.

The professional

When asked about on-road cycling purportedly being safer than cycleways, the council officer was clear: the statement is too pragmatic and there are nuances that must be taken into account. In other words the officers could not verify the shortened truth the politician had been using as their slogan (a slogan most useful to the administration, as it meant not dealing with spatial re/allocation questions). Yet when I observed the professional in the setting of a public-meeting, again just like the politician, the narrative was obscured. A natural counter-rhetoric had not developed (yet).

The professional also talked about civic society, and explained that the slogan “cyclists are safer on the road” historically came from the local activist group and that it had influenced official and political opinion, direction and policy. (The where-to-cycle divergence is easily picked out in the local plan (VEP). The policy leaves the divergence only liberally resolved: dismissing people’s experiences and resorting to social-control measures of mild condescension and authoritative-expert pressure.)

Local activism

With regard to the question of where-to-place-cycle-space, the national campaigning direction in Germany had notably changed away from “mixed-traffic cycling is best”. In the autumn of last year an infrastructure policy document was adopted at the annual general meeting promoting a risk-based approach (not unlike CROW, the Dutch policy/standard). Armed with the knowledge that the politician was pro-road (old-paradigm) and the professional was more discerning in their view (emergence of a new paradigm, but yet weakly expressed), I was interested to see what the local campaigning scene would make of the new direction of their national campaigning arm. How much had filtered through to the ground, locally? Were cycleways on main roads, previously abhorred and denied for being dangerous, now accepted as a building block to increasing the cycle mode share?

The local activist picture I encountered is one of change in progress. I spoke to a number of activists, each in varying stages of change ranging from totally committed to invariably unbelieving. Overall the atmosphere I picked up though was one of positive excitement and energy.

Active immersion – a deep dive

I really got myself involved on the local campaigning front. Attending a sub-group meeting of the local campaign group in March, I was challenged in my suggestion that cycleways separate from motor traffic are a good thing. The emotional and aggressive challenge came from one man in particular: he wanted me to respect his authority and knowledge on cycling in Bremen whilst totally dismissing my personal account of Newcastle (few cycleways, low cycle share, making cycling positively unpleasant). Assembling my thoughts after the meeting, I contacted the chair to inquire about a way forward.: maybe a discussion on cycleways could take place at the next meeting. In short offered my active involvement. Given the challenger’s deeply emotional nature of the intervention at the March meeting, I presumed a reasoned debate would aid bringing about some clarity and help foster group coherence too. Getting other group members involved should be key.

A little bit to my surprise, I was taken up on the offer. I presented the ambiguous stats and figures on “cycleways are dangerous” at the April meeting. The debate however and sadly did quickly run out of time, as my presentation had been pushed towards the end of the meeting (by layout of the agenda). So the debate was to happen at the next monthly meeting in May. This, again, happened only partially (the agenda got in the way) and the meeting organisation was lacking some rigour (due to time pressure).

After the meeting I asked myself why at neither of the three meetings the new national policy on infrastructure had been brought up by the chair or any member of the group. Should this not be discussed with urgency, and more deeply and extensively? The forth meeting I attended (and I ended up chairing) was a meeting where a board member from the national campaigning arm was invited to present the new policy to the local group. As chair of the meeting I gave the lone challenger’s voice disproportionate space in the debate in order to let him air his concerns and to let others respond (only to be contacted by him via email after the meeting to describe his disappointment in my chairing abilities and accusing me of unfair treatment). A singular voice, but very destructive to the group’s development and coherence. Also perhaps a sign for the aggression employed by the liberal on-road cycling voice.

Throughout these months, the same challenger was solely in defiance, retaining an inability to listen to others’ views and a fixation on their own position (some further thoughts on what’s happening can be found here). Whereas, I am sure, by contrast the group overall enjoyed the meetings and the new developments that were presented with the space, albeit limited due to pressing agendas, for discussion.

The moral of this tale

The paradigm that runs like a bright red thread through my Bremen ethnography is “cyclists are safer on the road” and the often mute/assumed one is “cycleways are dangerous”. Chronologically I first encountered it head-on at the politician’s interview. This was then softened by contextualisation in conversation with the transport professional. The thread also continued in the activist community. There the paradigm had started to fray and its future trajectory was shifting, only clinging on “at a thin thread”. Beatrix Wupperman of bremenize has followed the “on-road cycling is safer” paradigm back to its origin in the 90s and points towards a specific report. Over time an ideological misinterpretation of the study had been made into a paradigm, which had to be maintained in order to remain “right” (read the fuller story published on bremenize here). Some increasingly isolated individuals are still fighting today for the paradigm’s upkeep despite its ideological imprecision.

The parallel slogan I picked up in the activist community (in Germany on the whole, not just Bremen) was this: “we do not campaign for our own (that is people already cycling) needs, we are different”.  This is a nascent provocation to the old paradigm but does not yet go far enough to unseat it. A new, fully-competing, paradigm has not emerged. I will keenly observe the next steps of politics, authority, the activist scene and the interaction between those three players. A new paradigm such as “good cycleways are good for everyone” (“gute Radwege tun jedem gut”) is overdue.


Bremen blogging chronology



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