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European Climate Pact
News article30 September 2021

Two wheels or two feet? Making Europe’s cities more walkable and cyclable

Two wheels or two feet? Making Europe’s cities more walkable and cyclable

Petrol and diesel cars dominate European cities, and with them come problems ranging from air pollution to traffic jams, safety issues and noise. Improving public transport is one way to fight this, but making cities safer and more pleasant for walkers and cyclists is the other piece of the puzzle. So how can we design our cities with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, rather than just drivers?

Walking and cycling: the perfect pair

“When making the city more walkable, we usually create cycling infrastructure too – and the other way around,” says Rafał Trzaskowski, European Climate Pact Ambassador and Mayor of Warsaw. “When a cycle path is created, the adjacent pavement is renovated as well. And when a new pedestrian crossing is designed, we consider adding a bicycle crossing. We also include other improvements, such as dropped kerbs at pedestrian crossings, or tactile paving for the visually impaired.” Many cities also add street furniture, for example benches and water fountains, air pumps for cyclists and wheelchair or pushchair users, and maps showing the area.

What else can be done? Trzaskowski underlines that each group should have their own designated space. “Shared paths are now few and far between, with the majority being the product of a bygone era when cycling wasn’t treated with as much care and attention to detail as it is now,” he says. By separating pedestrian paths from cycle paths, the city can guarantee enough room – and therefore a pleasant experience – for both groups.

Benefits beyond bicycles

Improving the walkability and cyclability of a city brings benefits to everyone – not just pedestrians and cyclists. Pontevedra, a city in the Spanish region of Galicia, is one example of this.

The city became car-free in 1999. It banned cars and street-side parking, and closed all surface car parks (a total of 1,686 spaces) in the centre. In the outer zones of the city, the speed limit was reduced to 30km/h. Exploring the city on foot was made easier thanks to a simple and attractive metro-inspired walking map, accessed via a downloadable app, which shows distances and walking time estimates between the main points of interest.

The results? Three quarters of city journeys that used to be made by car are now made on foot or by bike. This has not only reduced CO2 emissions by 70%, greatly shrinking the city’s impact on the climate, but it has also prompted a vast drop in fatalities caused by traffic accidents. In the same area where 30 people died in traffic accidents between 1996 and 2006, there have been no such deaths since 2009.

Putting the brakes on petrol and diesel cars

How about making driving inconvenient? Congestion charges, high parking costs, 30km/h speed restrictions, speed bumps and traffic lanes only for public transport or cyclists – all of these can deter people from driving, which in turn will result in fewer carbon emissions and less pollution.

But to ensure that people are less reliant on their cars, it is crucial to improve public transport. “Through the 1990s, the car became a symbol of wealth and prosperity for many Polish people,” says Trzaskowski. “Today, this is changing as cities in Poland are expanding and developing. More people are coming to live in them – often on the outskirts. We’re providing a better choice of transportation to these new parts of the city, mostly buses and trams.” By extending the public transport network into the new suburbs, the city of Warsaw is ensuring that citizens still have the choice to take public transport – even if they live on the outskirts.

For Trzaskowski, highlighting the attractiveness of public transport is key. “Street parking fees are getting higher and cars are stuck in traffic jams during rush hour. It’s faster to go by bus, thanks to special bus lanes. We’re also introducing a ‘tram green wave’, which allows trams to continue across all of the crossings without stopping.” This green wave is achieved via the programming of an algorithm, which enables traffic lights to stay green for trams. In some cases, this has cut tram journey times by up to a quarter – meaning that not only can people get to their destination faster, but fewer carbon emissions are generated in the process.  

“We are encouraging citizens to leave their cars in the garage,” Trzaskowski concludes.

Looking to the future, new technologies could make it easier for pedestrians to hop on a bus when needed. The city of Sofia, in Bulgaria, is currently developing “on-demand green public transport” through an EU-funded project. Instead of pre-defined routes, new electric buses could plot their journey based on user demand. Citizens would submit their request via a mobile application and the app would create the most efficient route for each journey by collecting as many passengers as possible. This means that the buses keep their impact on the climate to a minimum since they travel directly to where the demand is, instead of following a pre-determined route.

It’s up to us

Each city and its inhabitants are different, so it’s important to get the feedback of local people who use the streets. You could consider writing to your local municipality to let them know about particular problem spots, or to tell them how you might change your travel habits if your city was more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

Whatever is being done at city level, it’s also up to us all to commit to walk and cycle more in order to reduce our own carbon footprint. You can pledge through the Climate Pact to do exactly that – so leave the car in the garage, grab your bicycle helmet or walking shoes, and help to make movement in our cities more sustainable.



Publication date
30 September 2021