MobilityCyclingHow to Achieve a Walking and Cycling Transformation in Your City

How to Achieve a Walking and Cycling Transformation in Your City

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This article was written by and for the C40 Knowledge Hub, which delivers cutting-edge insights and practical resources from leading climate cities for others working in city government. It was originally published here in March 2019. We’re featuring the article with kind permission by the C40 Knowledge Hub.

Walking and cycling are the cleanest ways to get around a city, and both can have enormous benefits for health, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, road safety and equity. Cities as diverse as Bogota, Copenhagen, Montreal and Barcelona are leading the way in encouraging walking and cycling – and experience from cities like Sevilla shows that this transition can be rapid.

To make walking and cycling attractive options, cities must focus on safety, convenience, culture and comfort for cyclists and people on foot. This is relatively straightforward in engineering terms, but can be politically challenging due to opposition from groups that expect to be negatively impacted.

Here is the walking and cycling infrastructure that cities need; the policies, programmes and public messaging that encourage people to use them; and lessons from leading cities on how to make it work for everyone.

Secure a Mandate to Roll Out Walking and Cycling – and Act Quickly to Reap the Rewards Within a Single Political Term

Poll the public. Consider polling the public on whether investment in walking and cycling infrastructure would be good for the city. The answer is commonly yes, delivering a strong mandate for immediate action.

Face opposition. Giving up road space in favour of walking and cycling usually attracts some opposition from car and taxi drivers, businesses concerned about loss of trade and delivery vehicles. A positive poll helps to demonstrate majority support in the face of vocal opposition.

Move quickly. Opposition will usually be greatly reduced once the infrastructure is introduced and people are using it. It can also garner support for the next city election campaign.

Aim to build a network but begin with a smaller pilot if necessary. ‘Tactical urbanism’ or ‘pop-up’ urbanism approaches (that make temporary and low-cost changes) provide a cheap way to pilot innovative ideas, refine them and implement them more widely. The three-month Connect the Crescent project in New Orleans, United States, is a good example of this kind of pop-up approach applied to walking and cycling.1

Polling Citizens in Sevilla, Spain2

When the Mayor of Sevilla polled residents in 2006 on whether cycling infrastructure would benefit the city, 90% of respondents agreed. Sevilla then built an 80km network of segregated bicycle lanes in just 18 months, mostly by repurposing 5,000 on-street parking spaces. Crucially, this was done within a single mayoral political term. The cycle network was immediately popular. The number of trips taken by bike per day increased by over eleven times in just a few years. The city is now one of the best in Europe for cycling.

Focus on What the City Stands to Gain and Be Flexible With the Details

Positive messaging is critical to win majority support. Promote what the city – walkers and cyclists in particular – will gain rather than what car users stand to lose. For example, instead of talking about shutting down streets to cars and removing parking spaces, use positive language that focuses on how this will make the local area a better place by opening streets to people, cleaning the air and tackling congestion. For businesses and property owners, cities can emphasise the property value increase and boosted retail sales associated with more walkable and bike-able streets.3

Ensure participatory and flexible infrastructure design. At the local level, ensure that the design process for new cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is participatory. Be prepared to be flexible with the details to address concerns and maintain popular support. Usually, people who live on a street are in favour of improving walking and cycling infrastructure, and the opposition comes from those who drive through. Seek public input at the local design stage about how, not whether, to add bike lanes and other key infrastructure.

Use the Full Range of Infrastructure Options to Improve the Walking and Cycling Experience

Street space in most cities is disproportionately skewed towards motorists. Even in Barcelona, one of the most walkable cities in the world, 60% of street space is devoted to cars despite only 14% of the population using one regularly. In Copenhagen, the most bicycle-friendly city in the world, cars still have 66% of road space despite only 9% of trips being made by car.4 5 To encourage people to travel by foot or bike, cities need to rebalance the distribution towards pedestrians and cyclists.

Addressing this imbalance requires cities to redesign neighbourhoods and traffic systems to work in favour of cyclists and pedestrians, and to discourage car use. This will make journeys quicker, safer and more comfortable. It will also make journeys feel safer, which is almost as important for cycling uptake.Cities should build a combination of the following infrastructure options:

  • Pedestrianised streets and widened sidewalks. 
    To make walking an attractive option, footpaths need to be in good condition and well lit, and traffic speeds and car parking kept low. For detailed guidance on how to design the built environment to maximise walking, read Pedestrians First: Tools for a Walkable City.6
  • Segregated and wider bike lanes. 
    These are proven to be far more effective at encouraging cycling and improving safety (and perceived safety) than cycle lanes painted on the street.
  • Bike hire infrastructure. 
    This includes bikes, docking stations and vehicles to transport them.
  • Secure bike parking infrastructure.
  • Traffic light signalling that prioritises pedestrians and cyclists. 
    This allows pedestrians shorter waiting time to cross the road and helps cyclists to avoid red lights (with assumed speeds of around 20 km/h), sometimes known as the ‘green wave’.
  • Intersections redesigned to maximise safety for pedestrians rather than traffic speed.

These infrastructure options are technologically simple, quicker and cheaper to implement than alternative transportation investments. They should be coupled with schemes to incentivise walking and cycling, as described below.

Cities can maximise walking and cycling success in the longer-term by designing cities that promote walking and cycling within a comprehensive transit-oriented development strategy.

Walking and Cycling Infrastructure Is Relatively Inexpensive

In Sevilla, the whole 80km network of segregated cycle lanes serving 70,000 trips each day cost €32 million. This is equivalent to building 5 or 6 kilometres of highway, and contrasts with the €800 million cost of Sevilla’s metro line, which serves 44,000 trips a day. However, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure rarely generate revenue, so governments will usually need to commit their own funds to build it.

Bike-share schemes often attract private investment. A rapidly expanding number of cities have negotiated public-private partnerships with companies who pay for the bike share infrastructure in return for the advertising opportunity from naming and branding rights.

For cities in developing countries, multilateral development banks are increasingly interested in supporting cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. For example, the city of Bogotá is receiving support from the Interamerican Development Bank to plan and design its ‘Quinto Centenario’ project, a new 25km-long cycle avenue that is expected to support 34,000 bicycle trips during morning commute hours. This is also one of the first two projects to receive technical support from the C40 Cities Finance Facility.

Transport Mode shares in African Cities

Many African cities have a large percentage of walking and cycling transport mode shares. For example, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Lagos all have bike and walk mode shares of more than 40%. These cities are fundamentally walking and cycling cities, but often lack the infrastructure and design to make it safe and comfortable. Read Streets for Walking and Cycling: Designing for Safety, Accessibility and Comfort in African Cities for tailored guidance for African cities.

Ensure Cycling and Walking Networks are Connected With Other Transport Networks

Where walking and cycling infrastructure leads from and to is just as important as the types of infrastructure built. Cities need to ensure that walking and cycling networks connect with other transport networks, and with key areas of the city.

Walking and cycling are commonly used to get to and from longer-distance transit hubs, such as train stations (sometimes known as ‘last mile’ transport stages). Cities can focus on these areas and their connections to other high activity areas.

In the long run, aim to turn all streets into bike and pedestrian streets, rather than a sparse selection of ‘cycling network’ streets, so that the street map is the bike network map. Amsterdam’s success in implementing this approach is a key reason why it is such a fantastic city for cycling.7

Putting Pedestrians First in Barcelona8

When Ada Colau campaigned to be Mayor of Barcelona in 2015, the city was suffering from congestion, pollution and a lack of green space. She focused her transportation policy platform on reclaiming Barcelona’s streets as enjoyable and healthy places to walk.

Since her election, Mayor Colau has begun implementing an innovative plan based on the city’s historic street layout, with the goal of reducing car and moped use by 21%. Her ‘Superblock’ strategy involves pedestrianising groups of three-by-three city blocks, limiting motorised access to single-lane streets around their perimeters.

The city began by piloting the strategy in the area of Poblenou and is now expanding it. Proactive and transparent communication with residents and business-owners, as well as investment in designing new public spaces in the intersections and streets formerly occupied by roads, have been central to its success.

This five-minute video explains how Barcelona’s ‘Superblock’ strategy works.9 Told from a United States perspective, it makes clear the need for equitable decisions regarding where the superblocks are located, and why the strategy should be coupled with transit-oriented development.

Replicate Schemes Proven to Incentivise Walking and Cycling

The main non-infrastructure programmes that have been proven to boost walking and cycling, especially when implemented in parallel with physical street improvements, are:

  • Cycle-hire schemes. 
    Bike-share schemes that allow anyone to hire a bike for short trips, either from a docking station or using dock-less bikes, have multiplied dramatically over the past 10 years. They require the infrastructure investments described above alongside a managed cycle-hire scheme. Docked bike-share schemes can be delivered by the city or in partnership with a private sector sponsor. Read the Urban Bikeway Design Guide,10 Bike Share Station Siting Guide11 and Bikeshare Planning Guide12 for more information. Dockless bike-share schemes are usually implemented by a private company alone and should be accompanied by regulations to define service areas and rules on where bikes can be parked. Read Optimizing Dockless Bikeshare for Cities.13 
  • ‘Car-free street’ or ‘open-street’ days. 
    Close down select main streets on Sundays and public holidays for use by pedestrians and cyclists. This practice was first used in Bogotá in the 1970s with its Ciclovía days and has since spread around the world. It has proved enormously popular wherever it is introduced. 
  • Cycling and road safety lessons. 
    People with little experience of cycling can feel nervous about starting to travel by bike, especially when their city has not had a reputation for cycle safety in the past. Partnering with local NGOs to provide free road safety and bike maintenance lessons, often through workplaces and schools, can be a great way to help people gain the confidence to give cycling a try. 
  • Bike- and walk-to-work days. 
    Organise and publicise an annual or monthly ‘bike-to-work day,’ with accompanying events, snack stations and bike maintenance services to get people out on their bikes. Encourage workplaces to designate ‘bike champions’ to motivate colleagues to participate. 
  • Cycle-to-work programmes. 
    These are schemes to ease the upfront cost of purchasing a bike and related equipment, and to reduce the overall cost. The employer pays the upfront cost. This is then paid back through the employee’s monthly salary. Often, the government will offer tax benefits. Cycle-to-work programmes are usually arranged by national governments, so cities should lobby for their introduction if they don’t already exist. Where they do already exist, cities should work to increase awareness among local employers and workers. 

Communicate the Many Benefits of Walking and Cycling to the Public to Promote Uptake

The main reasons why residents chose to walk or cycle are:

  • Quicker journey times. 
    For trips within cities, cycling and (for shorter journeys) walking is often the fastest way to travel. This is cited as the biggest motivation for cyclists in Copenhagen, with 56% of people cycling because of the speed.14 15
  • Exercise. 
    The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken a health-focused approach with his Healthy Streets for London transport planning strategy. The strategy focuses on boosting walking and cycling as a way to tackle London’s ‘inactivity crisis.’
  • Low cost. 
    Walking is free, and cycling is cheaper than travel by car or public transport.

Improving access to walking and cycling also has equity benefits. In New Orleans, United States, much of the debate has focused on how targeting cycling infrastructure investments can promote equitable access to healthy transportation options for minorities and those living in low-income neighbourhoods.16 In Cambridge, UK, improving cycling infrastructure has allowed 26% of all commutes by disabled people to be made by bike.17

While broader benefits for the city, such as improved air quality and congestion, are important for building support for walking and cycling, they are not as effective arguments for driving individual uptake. Cities can focus on promoting the above personal benefits in campaigns aiming to change individuals’ transport choices.

Designing Walking and Cycling Journeys to Work for All in New Orleans

New Orleans has been working to improve cycle safety and cycling uptake for almost a decade. Since 2011, the city has doubled the number of bike lanes.

However, by 2017 the most dangerous areas for cycling coincided with high-poverty neighbourhoods and ridership in these areas was lower.18

To address these equity concerns, New Orleans introduced a public bike scheme called BlueBikes (sponsored by health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield). The scheme was designed to serve locals rather than tourists. The city and partner non-profit organisations conducted extensive community engagement to determine where to locate bike stations. It launched the scheme in December 2017, installing 70 stations in a few weeks.

The city designed the scheme to be as easy as possible to sign up for and, critically, included a heavily discounted membership plan for low-income residents. The city has also made it possible for residents without bank accounts to pay for membership using cash. Early evidence suggests that these efforts are having some effect: since the introduction of BlueBikes, the cycling transport mode share in New Orleans has increased by 50%.


[1] USA Street Blog (2018) Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.
[2] Connect the Crescent (no date) Safer walking, improved transit, protected bikeways.
[3] Transport for London (2013) The Economic benefits of walking and cycling.
[4] Copenhagenize (2017) Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index 2017.
[5] Copenhagenize (2018) Copenhagenize your city: the case for urban cycling in 12 graphs.
[6] Institute for Transportation and Development (2018) Pedestrians First: Tools for a Walkable City.
[7] City Lab (2017) 5 reasons why Amsterdam works so well for bikes.
[8] Urban Land (2017) Redesigning the Grid: Barcelona’s Experiment with Superblocks.
[9] Vox (2016) Superblocks: How Barcelona is taking city streets back from cars.
[10] National Association of City Transportation Officials (2011) Urban Bikeway Design Guide.
[11] National Association of City Transportation Officials (2016) Bike Share Station Siting Guide.
[12] Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (no date) The Bike-Share Planning Guide.
[13] Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (2018) Optimizing Dockless Bikeshare for Cities.
[14] Copenhagenize (2017) Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index 2017.
[15] Copenhagenize (2018) Copenhagenize your city: the case for urban cycling in 12 graphs.
[16] Bike Easy (no date) Website.
[17] The Guardian (2018) ‘A rolling walking stick’: why do so many disabled people cycle in Cambridge?
[18] Bike Easy (2017) An Evaluation of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

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