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Natural Environment

Can cities do more to promote active travel?

What can be learned from the world's most walkable, runnable and cyclable cities?

World Built Environment Forum
25 November 2020

Copenhagen and Amsterdam are world’s most cycle-friendly cities

“Maybe this isn’t a big surprise for most people,” says Clotilde Imbert, Director of Copenhagenize France. “What is perhaps more interesting is the cities that are set to join them as world cycling capitals. These are cities that don’t have the same cycle-friendly background as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but that are now investing massively in cycling.”

Copenhaganize produces an annual index, ranking the cycle-friendliness of cities, not just according to infrastructure investment, but also provision of services, and quality of public leadership and advocacy. “The index takes a more comprehensive approach to what makes a bicycle friendly city. We’re ultimately trying to implement what we call ‘bicycle urbanism,” continues Ms Imbert.

“Take Paris, for instance. What has been so impressive there has been the creation of a cohesive cycle network. The city follows the same approach and style across all streets, so it is intuitive for users. I could also mention, in South America, Bogota; in North America, Vancouver; and in Asia, Taipei. It’s really becoming a global phenomenon.” 

What has been so impressive in Paris has been the creation of a cohesive cycle network. The city follows the same approach and style across all streets, so it is intuitive for users.

Clotilde Imbert
Director, Copenhagenize France

Cities that facilitate active travel will enjoy both environmental and social benefits

With most urban highway networks still optimised for automobiles, cities continue to tacitly incentivise emissions intensive modes of transport. What’s more, the private car is inherently exclusionary – particularly in cities with high-levels of social deprivation and elevated living costs. COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to refashion city centres to aid more equitable and environmentally responsible travel.

Walk, run cycle: Can cities do more to promote active travel

European Union estimates show that a 33% reduction in the number of car journeys  taken in the continent’s cities would significantly reduce harmful emissions, noise pollution and congestions, and increase liveability. Widespread shift to active travel would also have far ranging benefits for ten physical and mental health of citizens. Nonetheless, estimates suggest only 6% of total miles travelled through the world’s cities per year are completed by cyclists. The city remains dominated by the automobile.

How can city leaders encourage a modal shift from cars to bikes? What can be learned from the world’s most walkable, runnable and cyclable cities? What is the likely cost of developing “active travel-friendly” city infrastructure, and how can investors be encouraged into the space?

Fran Graham, Campaigns Co-ordinator at London Cycling Campaign explains: “When we started to transition out of lockdown, public transport use was massively depressed. Decision makers were very worried about car use in the city. The average car in the UK is only in use 4% of the time, the rest of the time it is parked. Even still, before lockdown, our road system was at maximum capacity; congestion was a consistently talked about problem. The concern was that everyone who had previously used public transport would move straight into their cars and overwhelm the roads. And so, there was a drive to invest in the Streetspace programme. This looked at how we make people feel safer cycling and walking, so that they feel they have that choice and don’t feel that their only option is the car. This is particularly important when you consider that only 50% of Londoners have access to a car – there’s a justice element to this.”

And the private sector has a crucial role to play

“Businesses should be lobbying governments to move towards more active travel,” says Neil Webster, CEO of Cyclo Consulting. “Employers shouldn’t shirk this responsibility – particularly where their employees support the measures.”

The encouraging results returned by a number of Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trials hint at the possibility of an imminent return to the workplace. For Webster, it is vital that businesses ensure they combine a corporate culture that encourages active travel with real estate that enables it.

Businesses should be lobbying governments to move towards more active travel – particularly where their employees support the measures.

Neil Webster
CEO, Cyclo Consulting

“You get a number of CEOs and other senior leaders who are running, cycling – there’s even a chap in Germany who swims to work! Then there is the provision of end of trip facilities. Wherever somebody is going to work, they should find facilities when they arrive that make it easier for them to choose active travel. This links to the question of ESG. An active travel plan for staff can be a big component of a broader corporate environmental agenda. Many responsible businesses are already doing this.”