”We should design cities for active mobility”

Philippe Crist is one of the world’s leading experts on cycling and urban mobility. He sat down with Emma Latham-Jones to talk about cycling culture in emerging countries, infrastructure improvements, and what mayors can do to promote cycling.

At the world’s largest conference on cycling and urban mobility, Velo-City, politicians, city officials, transport experts, advocacy groups and researchers gather to discuss how cycling, and active mobility in general, can complement and replace non-sustainable transport options. At this year’s Velo-City conference in Dublin in Ireland, the keynoter was Philippe Crist of the International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental think tank for transport policy linked to the OECD. I sat down with Philippe to understand more about the role of cycling in modern societies and what cities around the world are doing – or not – to embrace it.


Velo-City is the Mekka of the cycling community. This year in Dublin you roused the audience with your opening speech on “The City of the Future”. What is the main value of events like this one?

Philippe Crist: I think they bring a lot of value! They’re a great opportunity for cross-fertilisation of ideas. It is a good way for public authorities and activists to get inspiration from their peers and to share best practices. Events like Velo-City encourage city officials to talk among themselves to scrutinise policies and work out how to improve them. I think that everyday examples are really important in these discussions. Often the small things can make a big difference. Take for example how the the Dutch and the Danes angle or lower the curbstones next to cycle tracks to make cyclists feel safer and allow easy on-off access to these protected spaces.. These are small touches but they make cycling a more attractive and compelling option for all.

Are cities doing enough for cycling safety?

PC: Some are, some aren’t. Since the 1980s and 1990s, we’ve seen some real leaders emerging from the Netherlands and Denmark. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are constant leaders here, although Rotterdam has significantly redesigned a lot of their city to improve cycling and public transport use.   But we shouldn’t overlook other cities. London, for example, has seen some pretty impressive results and has managed to double the number of cyclists in the past ten years. Bicycles now represent up to 16% of all trips in central London at peak hours.

Cities need to make it inviting for people of all ages and backgrounds to get on a bike. In cities where not much has been done to make cycling a compelling and safe option, the cycling population is not at all representative of the overall population. Instead it is largely skewed to young, male, risk-takers who generally feel comfortable breaking traffic rules they feel are not designed for them. When I see a lot of such cyclists – or a lot of cyclists in lycra — I see that as a symptom of bad cycling policies. Cycling should be made a feasible and attractive option for all – especially those that do not cycle now.

man on cycle path
Cyclist in car traffic in Sao Paulo, Brazil

What are the most noteworthy future trends in active mobility?

PC: There is a kind of tension in what the future holds. On the one hand, citizens want to be more active. Their commute is an obvious, and easy, way to include physical exercise into their day. On the other hand, there is a counter trend to more and more immobility. We’re witnessing a rise in transport that makes things as convenient as possible, which translates into minimising movement – it means moving the least amount possible door-to-door. You see this with ride sourcing and electric push-scooters. These forms of mobility mean you don’t even have to walk down the road to your bus stop or train station. Hence, activity is reduced. We know that the greatest benefits of active mobility are the health benefits and so we should be thinking about building cities to ensure activity mobility. If you make it easier to cross the city by bike than by car, you’ll soon see a rise in the uptake and convenience of active mobility.

Can you list your top three things a city official can do to promote cycling?

PC: Yes! First is managing speed. They need to implement speed limits, while redesigning streets for slower speeds. Where the speed limits have already been put in place, they then must be properly enforced. The second is space! They need to give cyclists more space on our roads. And this space needs to be properly separated. The final thing I’d recommend is making sure that cycling safety is built into the education system. In fact, not just the education system, it should also be a part of the drivers’ licensing system… But these changes must be made at the national level.

Cycling seniors

You mentioned Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London as pacemakers. All four are in Europe. Are there other cities that stand out to you as cycling pioneers and from which city officials and citizens draw inspiration?

PC: To answer this question fairly, I think you have to take into account where the cities have started from. Mexico City and Los Angeles are now doing a lot, despite little preexisting cycling infrastructure. Taipei is rolling out an impressive bike-sharing system. Rotterdam is known as a cycling leader, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the situation was very different only ten years ago. Back then, they were entirely car-centric. In just two years Seville built an entire city-wide cycling path network. Berlin is looking now to integrate cycling with public transport. Cities are working around the world to rapidly scale-up cycling infrastructure.

Not everyone is keen on cycling. And some, frankly, just aren’t very good at it. What are some of the best low-carbon alternatives for these individuals?

PC: There are all sorts of human-powered vehicles out there. A lot of older people have tricycles to help with balance issues. Children, of course, often use them too. Companies are increasingly using cargo bikes to deliver their products, as they are much more reliable and are able to navigate dense and congested conditions more easily. This translates into high rates of on-time delivery, and so happier customers! Individuals can also use cargo-bikes. They are great for carrying people that are less mobile or incapable of walking.

It seems that mostly young people use bicycles. Is cycling something that is also accessible for older generations and for the less physically fit?

PC: In a city that has done enough to encourage cycling, there should be no difference in terms of the demographic using bicycles. There should be children on a bike, the elderly, fathers with their babies, young women – you name it. We see this when city design has made cycling the most compelling and convenient option. Technology can also help. E-bikes are making cycling investment possible even in cities with low population density, because they extend the range of cycling and overcome some of the topographical challenges.

Cyclists in Vietnam

Is cycling an option to increase mobility in cities in the developing world?

PC: There is a lot of cycling taking place in the developing world – but it’s often viewed as an “imposed” mobility option rather than a positive one. Cycling is something that poor households do, as it’s the cheapest option. But it is also done in horrible traffic conditions and street spaces that are not at all designed for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians – as soon as households gain income, they typically move away from active modes of travel.  In the developing world too much space is allocated to vehicles that only a minority of the population can afford. Investment in cycling infrastructure is one of the best ways to increase the safety and attractiveness of active mobility. This includes the “hidden infrastructure” that is speed management. Such cycling infrastructure in turn enhances a city’s accessibility and inclusiveness.

Thank you so much for your time, Philippe.


Philippe Crist is Advisor for Innovation and Foresight at the International Transport Forum (ITF). His interests include how to use new data sources to improve transport decision-making. Currently he is investigating how policy and regulation might adapt to an increasingly algorithmically-driven world. Philippe won the Leadership Award for Cycling Promotion of the Danish Cycling Embassy’s in 2016. He is the author of “The Shared-Use City: Managing the Curb” (ITF, 2018)

Cover of the report "The Shared-use City: Managing the Curb" (International Transport Forum, 2018)