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the cities of the future are people-friendly cities

A humanistic, people-friendly city is first and foremost an accessible city, where mobility is possible for all. Many cities today are plagued by traffic congestion, and in densely populated city areas the fastest way of getting around is often on a bicycle, which is a highly efficient means of transport.

By Louise Kielgast, Gehl Architects

A steadily growing number of cities around the world are eager to become cities of bicycles, as part of an overall strategy on sustainable development and the desire to become green cities. The development of cycle path networks that can supplement the public transport system also makes a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions – in Copenhagen for example, cyclists are saving the city 90,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually. But there are many more benefits to be gained from focusing on bicycles than a green profile.

Cities of bicycles are very much people-friendly cities, and city planning that considers pedestrians and cyclists will form a significant contribution to the humanistic city of the future. Gehl Architects have helped to promote this development in a number of the world's metropolises.

Jan Gehl
Jan Gehl (born 17 September 1936) is a Danish architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen and whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist. He is a founding partner of Gehl Architects. 

People-friendly cities require mobility for all

A humanistic, people-friendly city is first and foremost an accessible city where mobility is possible for all. Many cities today are plagued by traffic congestion, and in densely populated city areas the fastest way of getting around is often on a bicycle, which is a highly efficient means of transport. In Copenhagen, a survey has shown that the majority of cyclists choose this means of transport because they want to get quickly to their destination, and that this is one of the most important reasons why they use a bicycle instead of a car. As an efficient means of transport the bicycle is also becoming popular elsewhere in the world, including Mexico City – one of the cities worst affected by traffic congestion.

Traffic congestion represents a major economic problem because of the many working hours lost each day from sitting in traffic jams. The average speed of cars in Mexico City is 4 kph in the rush hour, while bicycles have a comparative average speed of 10 kph. As part of alleviating the major traffic problems and generally creating a better public environment in the city, local government has chosen to prepare a bicycle strategy in collaboration with the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Gehl Architects. Besides being an efficient means of transport in terms of time, a bicycle is also affordable. Unlike cars, even the poorest segment of the population can generally afford one. Planning a bicyclefriendly city thus helps create a more socially inclusive and socially just city where large groups of people are not excluded from moving around in the city. This social inclusion can be put into practice in several ways. 

The bicycle as social integration

In Mexico City, spatial segregation is very distinct with the upper and middle classes living in the city's central areas, while the poor segment of the population is generally relegated to informal settlements on the city's periphery. In the bicycle strategy that Gehl Architects have prepared, this problem is tackled via a comprehensive cycle path network which aims to create mobility through otherwise closed areas and thus enable different social groups to interact.

A well-developed cycle path network can also help social inclusion across age groups. Even in very wealthy cities, large groups of people such as children, young people and the elderly are severely limited in their mobility because the city is designed for cars – a means of transport that they cannot use. Cities that are designed for cars are also characterised by large distances and many obstacles which hamper movement on foot and by bicycle. Improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists ensures that a lot more people can move around in the city. In some of the world's metropolises, the distances are so large that a welldeveloped cycle path network is insufficient to ensure mobility for all. This is a challenge not only in Mexico City but also in Beijing. Since 2008 Gehl Architects has advised the Planning Institute on how to provide more peoplefriendly city planning. In this instance, a bicycle strategy must be supported by and built up around a public transport system.

A sustainable and people-friendly city – how?

A city of bicycles naturally needs the right infrastructure including cycle paths and bicycle parking, but also a number of communication initiatives such as campaigns to promote cycling, educating children and special initiatives targeted at groups who do not normally cycle. Such initiatives are important in building a bicycle culture in cities where it is otherwise absent.

It is also important to create a quality of urban environment that makes it attractive to move around both on foot and by bicycle. This is a self-perpetuating process since the presence of pedestrians and cyclists significantly contributes to the life of the city and thereby its attraction.

In contrast to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians share the characteristic of moving at a moderate pace, making them visible in the cityscape. Cyclists are also flexible in the sense that they can quickly shift from being cyclists to being pedestrians. This creates the conditions for people to see and meet each other in the city. It is equally important to highlight that both cyclists and pedestrians are physically present in the public spaces – in contrast to motorists who are essentially isolated from their physical settings. But the desire to move around in a city on foot or by bicycle does not come by itself, and must be supported by a people-friendly urban environment.

Pedestrians and cyclists are exposed to all sorts of weather – sun, wind and rain – and to the extent possible, these conditions must be incorporated into the planning of sidewalks and cycle paths. In addition, presence in and movement around a city must be encouraged by creating interesting and involving urban environments. Long, monotonous stretches have to be broken down into smaller sections and offer details that can be registered at head height, such as interesting features at ground floor level. These are significant principles that can be used all over the world, but different cities naturally need different strategies and initiatives.

World metropolises take the important first steps

In New York City a general upgrading of the public environment has had high priority. As part of the city's 20 year vision “PlanNYC for a greener and greater New York”, Gehl Architects has advised the city on preparing the “World Class Streets” strategy, which involves the conversion of a number of public spaces and a plan for a comprehensive cycle path network. A number of pilot projects have been carried out to facilitate new ways of thinking about and planning the city's public spaces.

Acknowledging that it has no strong bicycle culture at present, Mexico City has chosen to prepare different strategies for different target groups in a collaboration that involves the municipality and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In Beijing, the problem is in a way reversed. It has a deeply embedded bicycle culture, but the problem is that it is considered opposed to the country's desire for progress and growth. In China's future scenarios, the car is seen as an important symbol of progress, while the many bicycles which still dominate street life are considered a relic of the past and an aesthetic blight on the urban landscape. Local government is nevertheless promoting cycling as a necessary and sustainable activity in relation to the city's progress, which can help ease the enormous traffic problems that have arisen in the last 10 years. The aim is that bicycles primarily function as a supplement to a well-developed public transport system.

With consultancy from Gehl Architects, Melbourne has chosen to promote and strengthen urban life, and here “Copenhagen” cycle paths are just one of many initiatives. This effort has produced significant results in the last 5-10 years, where the city has flourished and built a strong and lively city centre.

Different facets of the same issue

Thinking of the city of bicycles as one contribution among many which are intended to promote an attractive urban environment, has turned out to be highly effective: the city of bicycles, the pedestrian city, the healthy city, the attractive city and the accessible city are all facets of the same issue. Planning for pedestrians and cyclists is thus an obvious place to start in order to create a sustainable and people-friendly city.


”Copenhagen style” cycle path in Melbourne, Australia. A path next to the sidewalk separated from the moving traffic by parked cars and a buffer zone for opening of car doors. Photo: Simon Goddard