Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

The Psychology of Urban Culture

I recently read an intriguing post on This Big City called How London Tried (and Failed) to Become a Cycling City. The author makes the argument that part of the reason for this failure may be the attitude towards bicycling fostered during World War II, thus providing a psychological explanation for the disappointment of the city’s cycling initiatives. In the Netherlands, the occupying Germans stole thousands of bicycles from the residents, depriving them of their primary mode for short, efficient travel. In London, on the other hand, World War II brought unprecedented bicycle use out of necessity because of strict gasoline rationing. By the end of the war, the Dutch could not wait to get back on their bikes while the British quickly readopted the automobile. 

The post also supplements the explanation of London’s failure (specifically to meet its 12% bicycle modal share by 2012) with spatial and infrastructure-based reasoning, revealing the challenges in having an extremely concentrated financial district and a lack of small mixed-use developments. But overall, I was completely fascinated by this connection between historical events and culture. Can the perspective-changing, culture-defining role that World War II has played in the urban imaginary of European cities be justifiably used as an explanation for behavior patterns–and their stubborn stagnance?



Newton’s law is convenient here: we’re all taught that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Amsterdam was stripped of its bicycles, and thus jumped right back on them as soon as they could, reinforcing their thriving bicycle culture. London was bound by scarcity, and thus adopted the car in a frenzied postwar attempt to demonstrate progress. If these cities were defined by their deprivation, is America a nation defined by being deprived…of everything? Is our insatiable thirst for consumption a remnant of our immigrant past and contining immigrant reality, driven forward by the desire to acquire houses, clothes, food, gadgets, vehicles–in essence, lifestyles–that weren’t available in our countries of origin? 

The tendency of people to react with consumptive tendencies in the face of scarcity is natural, and given a traumatic era like that which spanned both World Wars, explosive growth in automobiles before another war came around does not seem out of place. What is unnatural, though, is our clear ability to consume (pioneered by Americans, but proving increasingly contagious) even when we know that it is in our best interests to restrain ourselves. It is interesting to factor in this psychological component of historical deprivation because it provides an explanation that goes beyond individual greed to create a collective experience of absense or shortage.  

This isn’t to say that artificial actions will produce the reactions we desire. Urban waste won’t be solved by confiscating peoples’ compost bins, nor will shutting down homeless shelters produce an inevitable upsurge of community activism. Solutions to urban problems surely involve education, regulation, an proactive policies. But above all, they require understanding, and examining the historical underpinings of local resistance to behavioral change is a useful and informative exercise. 


One response to “The Psychology of Urban Culture

  1. MKahan December 6, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Anna,Interesting post. Joe Kott recently brought to my attention a short video on the history of cycling in the Netherlands (link below). It argues that cycling was not especially prominent there in the 1950s and 60s–in fact, it says, Holland was on a similar car-focused trajectory to the US. The video makes the case that the bicycling network grew out of anti-car political activism in the 1970s, combined with fuel saving efforts in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo. I don’t know enough about the history to know if this is correct, but it’s worth checking out. See http://citylines.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/the-history-of-the-dutch-bicycle-success/ for the video.

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