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Report: Urban Mobility on a Human Scale

Urban mobility on a human scale – promoting and facilitating active travel in cities

The potential of bicycle and pedestrian travel in cities has been underestimated in past decades, resulting in deterioration of facilities and infrastructure. We are now seeing a revival of these active modes of transportation as more people recognise the health and environmental benefits. The report “Urban Mobility on a Human Scale – Promoting and Facilitating Active Travel in Cities” discusses ways in which walking and cycling can be further promoted and facilitated in our cities.

In 2017, three Swedish reporters carried out a test in Stockholm to discover the fastest way to cross the city: by car, public transport or e-bike? Each reporter used a single transport mode in a race across two different routes. The first route took them from a district at the city outskirts into the city centre, with the second route running from a suburb into the city centre. The reporter travelling by e-bike won the first race. The second race was won by the public transport traveller – but the cyclist was not far behind.

This example illustrates the potential of active travel modes in the city. Walking or cycling can be just as fast as travelling by car or public transport, as long as the right conditions and infrastructure are in place. Historically, this potential has been overlooked by many decision makers and city planners, leading to a deterioration of facilities and public space availability for these road users. However, in recent years the value of these transport modes has gained recognition and is being prioritised much more highly in cities’ mobility policies. Why is that?

Facilitating and promoting these active travel modes in cities has multiple positive effects:

  • Reduces the transport systems’ carbon footprint and other pollution with harmful effects on inhabitants, while also benefiting travellers’ health through physical exercise (as illustrated by the ‘active travel’ concept, popular in the UK).
  • Cycling and walking infrastructure require much less city space than cars and car infrastructure (e.g. streets and parking), while also improving traffic flow efficiency. Active travel modes are well suited to city environments, where space is scarce and mobility is of great importance.
  • The economic benefits of cycling and walking are of growing interest and should not be underestimated – cyclists and pedestrians, for instance, make a substantial contribution to retail profitability.
  • Walking and cycling infrastructure is, to a great extent, public and accessible space that is well adapted for city residents and visitors – and that therefore helps meet the need for liveable and sociable city areas.

Cities worldwide continue to grow at a fast rate, presenting challenges when it comes to accessibility, liveability and sustainability. The benefits of mobility on a human scale, presented above, are therefore of increasing importance. To make our cities future-proof, city planning should focus on ways of promoting cycling and walking.

Lessons from cities across Europe

Today, cities throughout Europe are investing in space for pedestrians and in connected networks of dedicated bicycle paths, reclaiming space from cars and separating cyclists from motorised traffic. Examples from various countries illustrate this.

Helsinki, Finland

Cycling in Helsinki has doubled since 1997 (Helsinki Bicycle Account 2017, City of Helsinki, 2017). The development of a high-quality bicycle road network, ‘Baanas’, and a well-functioning bike sharing system contributed to this success. Helsinki’s bike sharing system had 500 bicycles and 50 distribution stations in 2016, with 400,000 trips made during the cycling season (May – October 2016). In 2017 the system was expanded to 1,400 bicycles and 140 distribution stations, gaining substantially more users. Every bike made 6 trips per day on average.

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

The city has elaborated on the economic and social returns from active travel (City of Edinburgh: Active Travel Action Plan – Refresh, 2016). It found that good walking environments can encourage people to linger and spend more. Edinburgh also found that there are social benefits associated with active transport modes. When people walk and cycle around their neighbourhoods they are much more likely to meet and interact, creating community cohesion. People walking and cycling provide ‘social supervision’ that improves safety and security in the streets.

London, UK

The planning of Cycle Superhighways is an interesting example of the way high-quality bicycle routes can be developed in dense, existing urban areas. This is done by creating dedicated infrastructure along main routes while reducing the number of car lanes, and by using quiet parallel routes with mixed traffic.

To make the route safe for cyclists and other road users, the city created:

  • an adequately segregated, two-way cycle track to separate cyclists from motor traffic
  • junction innovations including early start and safe two-stage right turn facilities for cyclists
  • expanded pedestrian space with widened footpaths, traffic islands and bus and coach stop waiting areas
  • improved and new pedestrian crossings

Looking ahead – conclusions and recommendations

Cycling and walking are considered ‘remedies’ for cities in their policies aimed at achieving a safer, more liveable urban environment with cleaner air, less congestion and more space for people. Employers notice less sickness absenteeism on the part of cyclists. Shops view cyclists and pedestrians as an important customer group. Cyclists and pedestrians are highly valued ‘mobilists’ in our cities, establishing and ensuring mobility on a human scale. What can be done to further promote and facilitate active travel modes in our cities?

Increasing bicycle ability

All cities should investigate different strategies and measures to increase bicycle availability. For instance, employers can provide office bikes and programmes to buy (e-)bikes for their employees.

Improving the position of the cyclists and pedestrians

The position of pedestrians and cyclists in many cities needs to be greatly improved. Cities in countries with a relatively low share of active travel need to improve the position of these travel modes. Here, the challenge is to identify the best division of public space among various user groups.

In countries where walking and cycling are a more prevalent part of urban mobility (e.g. the Netherlands and Denmark), new challenges arise in dealing with sharply increased bicycle use, the rising number of of e-bikes and the greater diversity of bicycle types – all of which cause congestion on bicycle paths and make cycling less safe.

Developing a method of urban planning that prioritises the bicylce and the pedestrian from the outset, in all phases of the planning process and for all types of urban spaces, will create the best starting point to position these travel modes.

Developing safe infrastructure

It should be kept in mind that, although active mode travellers may be great in number and may even dominate a city’s traffic, they are still vulnerable groups. Considering the positive impact of active travel modes on the city and its inhabitants, active modes should have the best infrastructure. Cities with low bicycle and pedestrian use should formulate goals to accelerate infrastructure development, convert car lanes into space for bicycles and pedestrians, create dedicated cycle paths, and redesign crossings for safer active mode travel. Cities in countries where active travel modes already have a strong position should aim at the ‘next step’ in developing their transport networks to provide the greatest comfort and capacity for increasing bicycle flows.

Changing behaviours

Influencing the behaviour of all travellers through promotions, bike sharing programmes and bike use reward programmes is important to achieve the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of tomorrow’s resilient cities. Cities should clearly connect higher goals for society, such as health and sustainable development, with mobility and traffic. This provides arguments in the political arena to address motorists’ objections.

Through promoting active modes of transport we can achieve more environmentally friendly, healthy and connected cities. Making European cities more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly will remain a top priority for urban planners in coming years.

Urban Mobility on a Human Scale

About the author

Jeroen Quee et al.

Expert on sustainable mobility solutions, Sweco NL

Jeroen Quee is a Mobility Expert specialised in Sustainable Mobility Solutions and Innovative Transport Systems. Since the start of his Sweco (formerly Grontmij) career in 1992, he has had a keen interest in the interaction between urban development and mobility. In his view, this interaction is necessary to ensuring that cities remain enjoyable and healthy places in future. Jeroen’s projects involve research, policy making and feasibility studies. His customers are primarily local governments, urban developers, knowledge institutes (e.g. CROW Netherlands) and automotive companies (e.g. Daimler Germany).

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