Active Transportation

Beyond our Edges: Melissa Bruntlett – Telling Stories to Change Cities

Photo Credit: Cindy Hughes

Melissa Bruntlett is Urban Systems’ writer and social media manager who, when she’s not busy telling the Urban story, has been documenting her own family’s adventures getting around Vancouver, sans car. Since 2010, Melissa and her family have navigated Vancouver primarily by bike, and drawing from their experiences, she and her husband, Chris, launched Modacity, a creative consultancy aimed at promoting active transportation and livable cities. Melissa shared a bit about her story and how a passion has become her (second) full-time job.

When did this adventure first began?

In 2010, after years of commuting out of the city, Chris and I were both working about 30 minutes away from home by bike, and our car was collecting dust in the garage – but still costing us money. After thinking about how we wanted to live in the city, and a little bit of convincing (I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea), we decided to sell our family car on Car Free Day. Overnight we went from driving everywhere to using bikes, walking, the occasional car share and public transport to navigate Vancouver with our kids (ages 3 and 1) and we really had no idea where this path would lead.

How did things change when you started getting around without a car?

The way we saw our community changed. We started choosing activities for the kids that were closer to home, so we got to know our neighbours better, and how we communicated with each other while on bikes or walking or on the Skytrain was different than how we’d communicated in the car. We connected, laughed and talked more. Travelling this way has made our family closer and really strengthened our bond.

Never a dull ride for the Bruntletts

Why did you start sharing your story publicly?

As the neighbourhood “biking mom”, I’d constantly be chatting with friends and fellow parents about how I made the car-lite life work. I figured I may as well start blogging about it, sharing my daily stories and images. I come at my writing with human-focused lens, as a mother and just a normal person who uses cycling as a mode of travel, not as a technical expert or “cyclist”. When I started blogging, I wanted to take away the mystery and hopefully inspire a few people. Eventually, Chris and I were both writing about what we were doing and had our work published in a variety of local and international publications.

When did you start Modacity?

It really started when we were invited to speak in Auckland, NZ, about our experiences in Vancouver. It got us thinking about the value our perspective has to a wide audience, and how important it was to communicate how the technical changes to our streets actually feel for the people who use them. Our first-hand experiences have been a valuable addition to the conversation happening around active transportation, and that sparked Modacity, which is all about promoting and enabling happier, healthier and simper forms of transportation.

What are some of the types of projects you’ve been able to work on?

We always find time to write stories about the cool things happening in urbanism around the world. We’ve also been able to do some really fun film projects through our work, including a six-part award-winning web series, “Arlington Passages”, for Bike Arlington, part of the Virginia Department of Transportation, and promotional videos for our friend and colleague who owns Cycle City Tours in Vancouver. What makes the films so special is that are primarily filmed by bike, because we don’t do anything the easy way! We’ve even dabbled in making a podcast called The Strait and Narrows that talks about life in Metro Vancouver as told by the people who live here.

Melissa and her family during their Dutch adventures in 2016

Word has it you’ve written a book. Can you tell us about it?

Thanks to support from our community via crowdfunding and sponsorship from Daily Hive, in 2016 we did a 5-week immersive summer trip to the Netherlands with the kids. We visited five cities and learned what made each unique in their own way, and what it was like to live and ride bikes in those cities. From that we wrote series of articles for the Daily Hive, but when we sat down to write them, we quickly realized that 1500 words wasn’t enough to really share what we wanted to.

We were connected with Island Press who liked our pitch—to share how the Dutch make cycling a natural part of everyday life and to explore how North American cities are already translating and incorporating these ideas at home. In the book we cover some fascinating history and speak to a number of key figures active in the cycling and planning communities both in the Netherlands and in North America. So after a return trip to the Netherlands, some 40 interviews and countless hours of writing and refining later, we handed in our final draft in January. The book, called “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality”, will release on August 28, 2018 and we’ll definitely be doing a promotion tour to kick it off.

Melissa, Chris and their son, Etienne, at the 2017 Cargo Bike Championship

What’s next for Modacity?

Now that the book is done, we’re back into writing, hosting events, and we are hosting a film premiere for a Dutch documentary called “Why We Cycle” in Vancouver, Kelowna and Victoria this spring. We’re also excited for Vancouver’s 4th Annual Cargo Bike Championship, a film series for HUB’s 20th Anniversary, and if all goes well, we’ll be doing some more travelling in the fall. 2018 is going to be a big year for us!

Last question – Do you have any advice for people who want to start cycling or cycle more but are hesitant?

Start with what’s comfortable and don’t overthink it. Riding a bike is not as complicated as it sometimes looks like from the outside. Talk to people and get advice – and then take action. Work within your own limitations too—maybe you go for a walk instead of a bike ride. An active trip is still an active trip, and if you start slowly, over time you can see how easy it really is.

To learn more about Melissa and her family’s adventures, visit www.modacitylife.com

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