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What makes a good walking/cycling city?

What makes a good walking and cycling city? We explore these characteristics in more detail.

In a previous exercise, we discussed the sometimes strained coexistence of different urban fabrics and their associated movement systems in the contemporary city.


While walking—and an urban environment that is easy, safe and comfortable to walk in—underpinned practically all urban activity before 1945, subsequent decades saw concerted efforts to accommodate large volumes of car traffic in cities. The associated reconstruction and reconfiguration of streetscapes and neighbourhoods often worked to the detriment of walking, and the loss of walking-friendly urban spaces:

‘A rigid transport engineering system had been implemented and adhered to. I liken it to the film The Matrix, and it feels like we, the citizens, just wander around in a fabricated reality, controlled unawares by complicated—and outdated—mathematical models.’
(Colville-Anderson, 2018, p71)
Dedicated efforts to understand and reclaim the qualities of the walking urban fabric from the proliferation of car-centric planning date back as far as the early 1960s—Jane Jacobs’ seminal work (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) stands out here. Nowadays, knowledge about what makes a good walking city is consolidated and widespread (though the process of creating more walkable places is far from concluded).
University of Melbourne professor Kim Dovey (2016) speaks of the ‘urban DMA’ as a guiding principle of assemblage for the walkable city. The acronym stands for:
  • Density: How close together can we place origins and destinations, and how many of them can we concentrate in a compact space? Since walking is a low-speed form of movement, proximity is critical.
  • Mix: How attractive is an area for different people and functions? The mutually supportive coexistence of a variety of land uses in a compact space enables both planned and spontaneous connections and encounters where walking plays a crucial part.

    ‘Linking where people live and work allows more to commute by foot, and this appears to shape mode choice more than sprinkling multiple land uses around a neighbourhood.’ (Ewing and Cervero, 2010, p276)

  • Access: How do we get around in an urban space? This relates to how permeable a neighbourhood is, ie. to what extent and at what scale pedestrians have a choice of alternative routes between places of activity, and how these connect to faster modes of transport (cycling, public transport and car).
‘Without a walkable pedestrian network, density and mix will not work their magic, and a walkable city at metropolitan scale relies on the interdependencies between walking and public transport. Density, mix and access work in synergy, all are necessary and none are sufficient.’
(Dovey and Pafka, 2020, p103)
Consequently, the ‘urban DMA’ is a precondition, not a direct determinant, of walking culture:
‘The logic connecting density, mix and access to walkability is deductive; these properties are capacities that enable and constrain, rather than directly cause, walking.’
(Dovey and Pafka, 2020, p102)


Similar principles can be applied to understanding the role and impact of cycling within urban transport. Not unlike pedestrians, cyclists tend towards the shortest, flattest, most legible and most comfortable links between origin and destination, without necessarily adhering to a hierarchy of main and secondary roads like car users, or one of the different modes or lines like public transport users. In the absence of barriers imposed by motorised traffic or topography, every street is (or should be) a cycling street.
Meanwhile, the greater speed of cyclists over pedestrians (12-20 km/h in urban areas, including stops at traffic lights etc) increases their spatial range and up to a certain distance (3-5 km), competes favourably with surface public transport (buses, trams) and cars when door-to-door travel times are considered.
Cities with high bicycle use—Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other Dutch cities are the most well-known examples in Europe—primarily achieve this status from cycling being the fastest travel option available for many urban journeys, and is well provided for in terms of infrastructure. Cycling thus becomes ‘second nature’, an intuitive choice, for many citizens.
‘A well-designed bicycle network is like a well-designed chair. It is practical and functional and requires little interpretation to use it. If it is also elegant, then so much the better.’
(Colville-Anderson, 2018, p22)


  • Colville-Andersen M (2018) Copenhagenize. The definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism. Island Press, Washington (DC).
  • Dovey K (2016) Urban Design Thinking. A conceptual toolkit. Bloomsbury, London, UK.
  • Dovey K, Pafka E (2020) What is walkability? The urban DMA. Urban Studies, Vol 57, No 1, pp 93-108.
  • Ewing R, Cervero R (2010) Travel and the built environment: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol 76, No 3, pp 265-294.
  • Gehl J (2010) Cities for People. Island Press, Washington (DC) Jacobs J (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York (NY).

Web resources

What is the role of a public transport network, and why is it important to have a useful network like this? You will explore this topic in the next step.

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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