How immersive learning creates mental shifts for policymakers from rural France

Published: 27 June 2024

Written by Louise Raclet

In most contemporary cities, solo car trips remain the dominant form of urban travel. More than ever before, cities are pressured to transition to more sustainable transport systems, favoring public transit and soft modes like cycling and walking. Although the topic of mobility entered the debate about sustainable cities in 1994, with the adoption of the Aalborg Charter, the 1st European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns, it only recently became a subject in rural areas (Sauvage et al., 2023).

Last year, we started working with civil servants from the rural region of the Vosges with our Transition Readiness approach. The second phase of our work is planning and leading a strategic study visit in the Netherlands. In April we welcomed a delegation of fifteen city staff and mayors to Utrecht for an immersive two-day trip. All delegates were from cities within the Communauté d’Agglomération of Épinal (CAE), an administrative association of 78 municipalities in Northeastern France. What was their ambition behind this exchange?

To learn about Dutch cycling policies and gather ideas to accelerate the sustainable mobility transition back home. Worth noting is that in the rural context of their home region, the car is deeply ingrained in people’s everyday mobility routines. In fact, daily cycling remains a minority activity in rural France due to the significant distances involved and the sparse cycling network (SIG, 2022). However, car dependency not only creates territorial inequalities, especially for the youth and the elderly in these areas, but also acts as a barrier to broader sustainability transition efforts (Flipo, 2021).

Building capacity for a sustainable mobility transition in rural France

Besides resistance from the citizens, in the multi-layered governance context of the CAE, organizational and institutional barriers are at play. Épinal’s mobility actors are still building up strategic capacity to organize and implement a far-reaching mobility transition, part of which involves learning from abroad. Historically, city officials have traveled abroad, drawing on foreign experiences as sources of knowledge and inspiration for adopting new practices in their home contexts. The knowledge and experiences gained by actors through these trips should be an integral part of policy transfer, enabling urban actors to acquire the necessary knowledge and build the strategic capacity to implement such transitions.

A study visit can be described as a short trip when “a delegation of people travels to another place to experience something with potential to improve their organizations” (Montero, 2017:336). More specifically, delegates aim to gain firsthand experience of a policy by visiting “best practice” destinations which, in the context of this study trip, is the Dutch sustainable mobility model (Hudson & Kim, 2024; Allen, 1994). It marks the second phase of the Transition Readiness Study, with the previous stage involving research on the delegation’s background, and the next step being the visit from us to the delegation’s home region. Behind each study visit hides the following question: How can policy transfer facilitate learning, and how can this be translated into practical knowledge? (Glaser, 2021).

Transforming Cycling in Rural France: From Hobby to Habit

One unique asset of this study trip was the contrast between two distinct geographies and mobility cultures: the Dutch densely populated urban context and “soft” mobility system versus the heavily motorized mobility system in the CAE’s rural and sparsely populated territory. With its lush forests, the green Moselle River Valley, rich historical heritage, numerous cultural and sporting events, and a 75 km cycle route traversing the territory, the Épinal region has much to charm both locals and visitors alike. Although the CAE is already renowned for mountain biking, everyday cycling remains an exception.

participants of the immersive learning course brainstorm session
Day one workshop: discussions with local expert and brainstorming on designing and mobilizing the cycling city

Social learning by doing 

From going on bike tours to sharing local meals and engaging in group reflection exercises and informal activities. Informal group activities give actors the opportunity to unite and strengthen their ability to work together and understand differences in individual interpretations of policy problems and potential solutions (Glaser, 2021). Overall, the program was designed to facilitate  cultural immersion, collaboration, dialogue, and shared experiences.

participants of the immersive learning course on a field trip
Cycling through Utrecht, from the historical center to the city’s outskirts

The journey began on Wednesday, with a deep dive into Dutch cycling policy and history, spending a day in Utrecht, a major Dutch city in the Randstad region with high rates of cycling. After observing busy intersections at the rush hour, the morning continued with a panel discussion with city officials and local community representatives. In the afternoon, we toured Utrecht world’s biggest bicycle parking, to the city’s historic center, to “real life neighborhoods” and, eventually, to the city’s outskirts. This journey through the city’s cycling infrastructure network plays a key persuasive role in knowledge transfer as delegates could witness and experience the concrete impact of the Dutch successful sustainable mobility policies.

The second day was dedicated to exploring mobility in a context more similar to Épinal, namely, a low-density cluster of villages that also face challenges of car-dependency. We took on this challenge to find the Dutch equivalent to Épinal – and we were excited to find the rural context of the village region of Oosterbeek and Renkum, located about fifty kilometers from Utrecht in the Gelderland province. Christian Ratering, a senior advisor, policymaker, and researcher in Transport and Spatial Planning, agreed to host the group for the day and his support was crucial for facilitating knowledge exchange.

On Thursday morning, we received a warm welcome from the mayor and the Alderwoman of Traffic, Tourism, and Recreation, as well as the Alderman of Space, Agriculture, Nature, and Mobility. After an engaging discussion, Christian led us on a bike tour to visit upcoming cycling projects in Renkum and Oosterbeek, and showed the delegation how they combine recreational cycling with daily cycling. We visited a local school, town center, and passed through the forest on the return. Attention was directed to the absence of car parking by the school’s entrance, reserving the space for bike parking, making cycling the default mode choice for pupils and parents alike. Through this tour, the  participants observed, learned and gained first-hand experience of local mobility policies (Glaser, 2021).

immersive learning course group photo
Meeting  with local officials at Oosterbeek town hall: Bridging Dutch Villages and Épinal

Transitions in two directions

A central takeaway from this cultural encounter is the striking differences in how change was and is being facilitated in the mobility sectors of France and the Netherlands. In Epinal, the approach is characterized by a top-down method where initiatives are primarily enforced by governments, with potential to create resistance. In contrast, the Dutch cycling culture is an example of a non-state-led national similarity, decades ago driven by grassroots movements – a bottom-up revolution (Kuipers, 2013). Unlike in the Netherlands, community-based organizations such as cycling associations are still nonexistent in the CEA, highlighting a gap in broader civic engagement in the French region.

Three successful outcomes from the visit

Firstly, the mobility culture shock experienced by the participants was profound, beginning with the morning rush hour in Utrecht. For the delegates, witnessing this was a new experience, and for us, it was a chance to see it again with fresh eyes. The sight of young children cycling independently, coupled with the general absence of helmets, was particularly noteworthy to the delegates. In reaction to the absence of car parking by a Dutch schoolyard, a comment like “Why is there no car parking in front of the school?” sparked a group discussion about the benefits of such infrastructure. Indeed, the Dutch approach favors the creation of dynamic spaces in front of schools, spaces where human well-being and interactions takes precedence over cars.

This was witnessed firsthand in Oosterbeek, as we arrived just in time for the end of the school day. Parents gathered by the yard’s fence to pick up their children, taking the time to socialize without worrying about poorly parked cars or the danger of fast traffic nearby. Several delegates were inspired by such examples and documented their trip by taking pictures and videos throughout the journey. They further expressed their eagerness to share what they had learned and observed with their colleagues and family members back home.

Secondly, was the notable change in mindsets and discourse from the delegates. The growing enthusiasm, particularly by the director of the CAE, marked a notable transformation during the study visit as he became an outspoken advocate for cycling in the region. Another example to be reported happened  during the first workshop where the delegates approached the topic of mobility using factual information, such as the CAE’s environmental commitments, or referred to mainstream urban transport problems.

However, as discussions progressed, they developed a more integrated understanding by reconsidering cycling as the driver of a broader shift toward improved well-being and quality of life in cities through cycling, thus demonstrating “enhanced conceptual learning” (Glaser, 2021:191). When asked by Meredith to describe his experience, his reflection showcased the profound personal and professional impacts that firsthand experiences can have on one’s perspective towards urban mobility, what Glaser (2021) describes as learning from the “embodied experience” of riding a bicycle.

Thirdly, the trip fostered increased agreement and cohesion among the participants, propelling them to transform their newly acquired insights into tangible actions back home. One mayor felt encouraged to see that the vision he has for his city is a reality in Oosterbeek. As the mayor most supportive of everyday cycling in the region, his confidence in pushing for ambitious mobility transformation Epinal was certainly reinforced by the study visit. From Friday morning, the mayor had already ordered a study on the mode of transport used by customers of shops in his city’s town center, with the prospect of reducing car parking in commercial streets, as observed in Utrecht.

Furthermore, by the end of the trip, Thomas Peignard, the Mobility Director and Cécile Topart Vice Mobility Director had gained support from the director of the agglomération, who reasserted his wholehearted support for their longstanding efforts to develop soft mobility across the region. Thomas insisted that infrastructure and investments will remain at the core of the agglomération’ mobility model, linking all causal relationships they identified. Infrastructure serves as a lever to first improve environmental quality in Epinal, and second, enhance citizens’ health.

Ultimately, these experiences convinced some participants to envision a future for their region based on the “city of proximity” model; one where cycling is practical, relevant, and effective. “We just spent two days riding our bikes and talking non-stop,” Thomas said, expressing his aspiration to create a city that is more inclusive and relationship-focused. Thomas and his colleagues concurred that although the engineering work might seem straightforward, creating a routine environment, it is essential. Without these infrastructure improvements, the general consensus among the delegates was that advancing their mobility policies would be challenging.

Next steps and cultivating commitment 

One thing that stands out from these observations is the immediate impact of the study visit. Beginning with the awe experienced by participants, the culture shock, and the transformative experience of riding a bicycle, the delegates were overwhelmingly charmed by the end of their stay by the benefits of cycling. The critical next step following such declarations is to “cultivate commitment” (Glaser, 2021), starting by concluding the study visit with a final debrief. 

After the cycling tour in Oosterbeek, the delegates participated in reflective exercises where they outlined the actions they planned to take after the trip. Within the first week after the delegation’s visit, promising echoes from Épinal were already emerging. Some delegates had already reached out to their peers to share how their perspectives on mobility had drastically changed since they visited. For instance, the Mayor of Essegney expressed a desire to initiate a project aimed at redesigning spaces around schools in his town to promote cycling. Similarly, the Mayor of Dounoux described the trip as a turning point for him, referring to its eye-opening nature. The mayor declared his willingness to support mobility initiatives and lead the transition. Perhaps the most striking change came from the General Director of the CAE, who, previously attached to the car, began cycling to work every day since the trip.

We continue to work with the region of the Vosges as part of our Transition Readiness Study. The next step, which took place in May, was our visit to Épinal. The purpose of this visit was to reconvene the group, trace observable impacts of the previous visit, and conduct follow-up interviews with local elected officials. Based on this, our team will further analyze the CAE’s mobility system and propose a final report with policy recommendations and next steps to accelerate the sustainable mobility transition in the Épinal region.

References: 

Allen, J. G. (1994) Lesson Drawing in Public Policy: A Guide to Learning Across Time and Space Richard Rose Chatham: Chatham House, 1993, pp. xvi, 176. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 27(1), 173–174. Doi:10.1017/S0008423900006375

Glaser, M. A. (2021) From global ideas to local action: Building capacity to reshape urban transport policy. [online] Retrieved from: https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=f0eb5f34-a915-429a-970e-c0a058d571e5

Hudson, J., & Kim, B. (2014) Policy transfer using the ‘gold standard’: exploring policy tourism in practice. Policy & Politics, 42(4), 495-511. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557312X655620

Kuipers, G. (2013) The rise and decline of national habitus: Dutch cycling culture and the shaping of national similarity. European journal of social theory, 16(1), 17-35. Doi: 10.1177/1368431012437482.

Montero, S. (2017) Study tours and inter-city policy learning: Mobilizing Bogotá’s transportation policies in Guadalajara. Environment and Planning A, 49(2), 332–350. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X16669353

Flipo, A., Sallustio, M., Ortar, N., & Senil, N. (2021). Sustainable Mobility and the Institutional Lock-In: The Example of Rural France. Sustainability.

Sauvage, T., Aboussikine, H. and Perrin, L. (2023) La coopération interterritoriale pour améliorer la mobilité dans les territoires peu denses : analyse des nouvelles configurations et des acteurs. Congrès de l’ACFAS, CERGO, Quebec, May 2023, Montreal, France.

Service d’Information du Gouvernement (SIG) (2022) Les Français et le vélo en 2022 [online] Retrieved from: Les Français et le vélo en 2022 (notre-environnement.gouv.fr) [Accessed on 14/05/2024].

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