Henk-Jan Kooij deliberately does not have a car and prefers conferences within train distance

Foto Henk-Jan Kooij
In general, sustainable behaviour is not rewarded in this world
Henk-Jan Kooij
Current role
researcher and lecturer (assistant professor, UD) in Planning and Geography

Henk-Jan Kooij is a researcher and lecturer (assistant professor, UD) in Planning and Geography. He deliberately owns no car and prefers to attend conferences that can be reached by train. As a result, he cannot always attend a conference every year if it does not take place in the same location. That is the trade-off he makes. This means that Henk-Jan sometimes ends up attending other conferences, which he finds very enriching.

Henk-Jan approaches our questions from three angles: as a researcher, as a planner, and as a geographer.

1.    How important are short and long-distance travel for you as a professional to do your work and build or maintain your network? In other words, can you be a good researcher if you fly less?
I have an existing network, but there is an ongoing inflow of new players that I would like to get to know. Now, for example, I have an application pending for international cooperation on a research project. There is quite a lot of competition for this kind of international collaboration. With this competitive pressure, if you want to succeed, face-to-face contact really has added value.

On the other hand, with research proposals, it is good to look for partners who are as different from you as possible, also in terms of socio-economic/cultural background. This means, for example, not partnering with Germany or Belgium, but with Romania or Portugal. This does create more geographical distance. 

A few years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic, we did research on climate mitigation, but based on the idea of Climate-Friendly Climate research. It was actually a precursor of what we are doing now at RU. The idea was to think about the travel moves you make to see one another. There was no ban on flying, but we looked at holding a consortium meeting at a strategic location where as many people as possible could come without flying. Or combining a planned conference visit with other activities. We did that several times. To me, that is already a step in the right direction, and an elegant way to think about it.

2.    Radboud University and the Radboud university medical center aim to achieve CO₂-neutral travel by 2030. Do you think that it's feasible, and why or why not?
If you prioritise it above all your other goals, and you can also move other parties towards system change, then it is certainly feasible. It means taking into account different distances and travel times as well as scientific practice, for example how funding is arranged. It requires a system transformation, and not just exchanging flying for trains or Zoom. There is much more to it, and it requires a balancing act and a customised approach every time.
This in turn requires sacrifices, and I think it’s important that this pain is shared fairly. I would be really annoyed if young researchers who are just starting out had to miss out on community-building because of a general ban on flying.

I warmly welcome the 2030 aspiration, but make sure you look at it both in general lines and in detail. The pandemic has led to many people living further away from their workplace. This creates more mobility, which is neither desirable nor sustainable in the long run. I think it's OK for employers to encourage people to live near their workplace. 

3.    How can we encourage employees to travel more sustainably? 

Policies usually work because people already think that is a good idea. Policy-makers think the other way round, but mostly policy is an expression of what we already agree on.

It’s good to think about our travel and flight policy. But I wonder whether this is the best way to reduce the climate impact of the University and the hospital.

At my department, there is already quite a lot of awareness around the issue of whether or not to fly somewhere. This is about a social norm that you have to create together, and then also not make a fuss when there is no other way. For this social shift, some framework conditions need to be in place, i.e. time and money and things like that. That is going to be more decisive in the end; policy alone is not enough. Policies usually work because people already agree with the idea. Policymakers might not agree, but as a rule, policy is an expression of what we already agree on.

4.    Did the COVID-19 pandemic change your perspective on work-related travel and the online alternative? And if so, how?
To a very large extent, the pandemic has made me realise that the online alternative is not a full replacement for in-person meetings. If you’ve already established a trust and collaboration relationship, and you just need to agree on some things in ongoing processes, I think working online is no problem. But when it comes to community forming and building trust relationships with new people/parties, I don't think it's a good replacement. It’s too ineffective for that.

Economic geography is always about cognitive distance. That’s easy to overcome; you can always write a letter/email or a book. Then there is relational and geographical distance. These three distances are what you actually have to consider. And they are interconnected. Some networks are very good at finding each other based on cognitive distance, because you're doing roughly the same thing. You find each other through that, and the other two distances become secondary. You can also find each other based on relational distance, even if there is a bit more cognitive distance. Then there is geographical distance. You work together because you are geographically close to each other.

From the perspective of economic geography, these are the kinds of interactions we look at. It all depends on what you do it for, and that will be different for everyone. Depending on your career life cycle, you will make different choices. If you are just starting on your first academic job and you plan to obtain a PhD, then community building is important and that requires meeting people in person. In such cases, bonding is much more important than cognitive distance. Later on, once you've built your network and you can work well with it, you don't need to see each other all the time. You already have some experience working together, and you can easily exchange information online.

5.    What do you think of the policy to stop flying to cities that can be reached within seven hours with sustainable alternatives?
In principle, I'm in favour, but practice shows that not all destinations can easily be reached by train. Plus, with this kind of policy, you're actually assessing people, judging them on their flying behaviour alone. A more thorough approach would be to look at the totality of a person's sustainable behaviour. As a rule, sustainable behaviour is not rewarded in our world. 
In terms of planning, there is always a trade-off. If you take into account sustainable mobility, i.e. not just flying, it's not enough to just say: you need to fly to destinations that are further than seven hours away. You also need to come up with a range of measures and incentives that reward sustainable behaviour. You could, for instance, reward sustainable travel (walking, cycling, using public transport) more generously in the travel expenses regulations. 

What strikes me is that the discussion is mostly focused on financial incentives, whereas one of the biggest barriers to sustainable travel is time, and I hear very little about that. I think that's a pity. If we force each other to travel by train, it will cost us time. In a busy life with all sorts of things happening, you could say that this is actually a dimension that you should take into account, instead of just assuming that someone will take the train. 

We suffer from time poverty more than from financial poverty, and that is not something we can solve with financial incentives and nudges.

About the travel agency: in my opinion, it would be better to collaborate with all universities and create a single sustainability agency. Together, we will have more market power to do something with it. Don't think too small, try to scale up. Possibly also involve governments. What is required here is a systemic change. Before you know it, it will be 2030, so we need to start now. We can't afford to procrastinate.

6.    Travelling long distance to attend conferences can be a privilege, putting established researchers from wealthy institutions at an advantage. How can we ensure that scientists worldwide have more equal opportunities to build an international network, regardless of their background? In other words, how do you make conferences and research more inclusive? 
Nowadays, a lot is already hybrid, but I don't think you can do that for an entire conference. After a few sessions, people run out of steam. I personally work primarily in Europe, so I cannot judge whether the hybrid approach has made conferences more inclusive.

7.    Anything else you'd like to say about sustainable travel? 
Within the Netherlands, there is also lots of transport or accessibility poverty, i.e. people not being able to travel to their workplaces easily. This is more of a general problem. From villages, the public transport connections could really be much better still. Encourage sustainable transport by reimbursing people a bit more generously. And think of it as an investment in health, too. Take a more holistic perspective, and make it all a bit easier for people. For example, you could make sure that there is a good bicycle shop nearby. Provide bicycle pumps in the bicycle basement. And why do bicycles always have to be stored in the basement while cars are allowed at ground level? Why not move all the cars further away?
You can make sustainable travel much more accessible still.