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Sustainable Transportation Team

Sweco UK


(Originally written as an op-ed for Environmental Scientist)

The potential of bicycle and pedestrian travel in cities has long been underestimated, resulting in a deterioration of facilities and infrastructure over time. Encouragingly though, we are now seeing a revival of active modes of transportation as more people recognise the associated health, social and environmental benefits, which could and should open the door to 15-minute city living.

While the concept is valid and more salient than ever, the term ‘active travel’ itself has increasingly been diluted into somewhat limiting shorthand that tends to generalise movement as only being for exercise purposes rather than crediting it with the wider societal benefits that can be unlocked when people move under their own steam. Community fitness might indeed be of importance for some policymakers, but most people are more interested in simply travelling by whichever mode happens to suit their purpose at a given time.

Moving towards the 15-minute city

Where we think about the 15-minute city concept specifically, walking and wheeling lie at the heart of the far-reaching opportunities open to us. However, the actual distance covered in 15 minutes can vary wildly depending on infrastructure conditions. For instance, a journey’s progress may be halted by how a cyclist or pedestrian is treated when crossing the road – large junctions with multiple waits can significantly impact the quarter-hour travel budget.

Currently, many of the features on the roads are geared towards a motoring infrastructure, which other modes must work around. In reality, truly walkable and cyclable streets are in fact just streets that rarely require any controls. Once motors are introduced, we see traffic signals, parking controls, one-way streets and other measures aimed at the mechanical and not the human. We must therefore aim to remove the motors to subsequently eliminate the controls and break down the barriers to free-flowing travel that forms the basis of any bona fide 15-minute city.

Moving from active travel to social travel

Our daily conversations explore all sorts of benefits accruing from active travel in 15-minute living, but the most interesting effects centre around community cohesion. In a world where the furthest people might realistically walk is from their front door to their car (and at a time more recently defined by social separation), there is little neighbourhood interaction other than through a windscreen. When people are on the street, there is immediately a greater chance of ‘seeing, stopping and socialising’ as they meet friends and neighbours. This creates relationships and bonds that simply do not exist when we are constrained by our cars.

With that in mind, it is worth noting that from a logistical standpoint achieving 15-minute cities is not just about the infrastructure to get people from A to B. It is the distance between two points and whether people can also do other things along the way. This requires a change in spatial planning, where mixed-use development, employment and local retail are enabled in and around where people live. Gradually, car-based planning has left us with retail parks, drive-throughs, and edge-of-town hospitals and business parks. In contrast, 15-minute cities are enabled by active travel and, as a by-product, would thrive because of it – with shopping parades, corner shops, small supermarkets, community health facilities and local business hubs returning to prominence.

Moving beyond the theory

To understand how we can achieve 15-minute city transformation, we must first look at the roadblocks in our way. They include:

  1. Siloed service planning
  2. A planning system that facilitates the loss of small retail and business premises to residential conversion
  3. Minimal parking provision
  4. A political unwillingness to push ahead with street retrofit schemes that prioritise active travel because of a pro-driving minority
  5. A reluctance to densify suburbs

Local authorities are best placed to overcome most if not all of these obstacles, especially unitary authorities in control of local planning and highways since the two are closely interlinked. On that basis, it is probably no surprise that some of the most interesting work in terms of putting words and plans into action comes from London boroughs such as Hackney and Waltham Forest. There, we see investment in streets being rebalanced towards enabling active travel and developing community facilities (including local shopping parades). This means that the facilities people want to use are within local travelling distance.

Away from London, there are interesting things happening in Birmingham. Again, the city council is in control of planning and highways and so schemes such as the City Centre Segments to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport over people driving through will create conditions where denser and more people-focused development becomes more attractive.

On the west coast of Scotland, in Ayrshire, bold and ambitious plans are being developed to reallocate existing carriageway space to create direct and cohesive active travel links that never previously existed. These core networks are not simply looking to connect one place to another, but also to bring sustainability, green infrastructure and vibrancy throughout – thereby making walking and cycling the attractive choice.

Moving the dial

Fostering (and maintaining) political will is key. The local authorities working with planners and other professionals to make 15-minute cities happen are those with knowledgeable and empowered senior councillors who are leading the charge from the front, including challenging those who support the status quo. While unitary authorities may be best placed to deliver 15-minute cities, since they are responsible for planning and local transportation, combined and regional authorities are also creating the conditions within their area to align planning and transportation at different levels, with the most successful having political leadership at the front and centre.

Local politics are also important in building bridges with the community so that hyperlocal issues are understood, local cultural nuances are recognised, and change is truly inclusive. It is crucial that we collectively engage and bring people along on the journey rather than have it imposed from the top. This extends to how grassroots and community-based organisations can be empowered to develop plans and ideas that can be enabled by local government, including trialling alternative street layouts and uses. The key measure of success here is whether people are genuinely being offered realistic alternatives to travel and live their lives locally. The 15-minute city concept is scalable, even within large cities. For example, London has many metropolitan, major and district centres which can (and do) serve local catchments. Perhaps the challenge is to ensure that services are planned and provided where people live rather than pursue centralisation.

Acceptance of one another as people travelling from origin to destination, as opposed to the ‘them and us’ culture of private vehicle driver versus pedestrians or cyclists, is a sensitive but critical issue in the successful delivery of new active travel infrastructure. The voices of the opposing few are often very loud, while the numerous quiet, positive voices can be drowned out, influencing design considerations. This can result in the withdrawal of local political support to continued delivery.

Creating empathy for all users is the key measure to effectively communicate how active travel infrastructure can be a hugely positive intervention. It is the creation of choice, allowing people to travel more sustainably that is often seen as detrimental to another person or user; for example, where carriageway space is seen as being removed, when often it is being repurposed to provide safe and attractive choices for cycling and walking. This may result in drivers re-evaluating the decision to drive and leaving the car at home next time.


As 2022 unfolds and the threat from Covid-19 subsides, we need to take stock of some of the lessons from the past couple of years. We have seen a real interest from people who want to be able to walk and wheel where they live as well as use local shops and services. We have seen the rapid introduction of low-traffic neighbourhoods and protected cycle lanes, which have seen levels of walking and cycling increase and the use of motor vehicles decrease, even where there were fears of greater congestion on main roads. There are potential unintended consequences of the 15-minute cities concept.

If the pace of change happens quickly, there is a risk that parts of the community are left behind – an issue brought home by Transport for All in its Pave the Way review, which highlighted issues with disabled people being left out of the conversation around the rapid introduction of low-traffic neighbourhoods. There are also risks around equity, where services are not provided across all areas, depriving some citizens access to the range of services that others might enjoy elsewhere. We have also seen the role of regional walking and cycling commissioners become more important in raising both the quality of interventions and awareness of active travel as being a proper mode of transport. We have also seen improved design guidance for cycling across the UK that challenges previous advice of combining it with walking or driving when it should be treated as a distinct mode.

As planners, designers, engineers, policymakers – and citizens – we need to come together to work towards:

Increasing cycle ability

All cities should investigate different strategies and measures to increase bicycle availability. For instance, more employers can provide office pool cycles and programmes to buy (e)bikes for their employees, although this facility is not available to self employed people. Access to cycles is a barrier for people who cannot afford the initial cost; projects such as Birmingham City Council’s Big Birmingham Bikes try to address this. People with disabilities sometimes require non-standard or adapted cycles, and this is often a cost barrier as highlighted by the charity Wheels for Wellbeing.

Improving the status of cyclists and pedestrians

The status of pedestrians and cyclists in many cities needs significant improvement. Developing a method of urban planning that prioritises cyclists and pedestrians from the outset, in all phases of the planning process and for all types of urban spaces, will create the best starting point to better position these travel modes.

Developing safe infrastructure

Although active mode travellers may be great in number and may even dominate a city’s traffic, they are still a vulnerable group. Considering the positive impact of active travel modes on a city and its inhabitants, walking and cycling should have the best available infrastructure. Cities with low numbers of cyclists and pedestrians should formulate goals to accelerate infrastructure development, convert car lanes into space for cycles and pedestrians, create dedicated cycle paths and redesign crossings for safer active mode travel.

Changing behaviours

Influencing the behaviour of all travellers through promotions, cycle-sharing programmes and cycle use reward schemes is key to achieving the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of tomorrow’s resilient cities. Cities should clearly connect higher goals for society, such as improved health and sustainable development, with mobility and traffic. This provides arguments in the political arena to address motorists’ objections. Maximising funding. Public funding for sustainable transport infrastructure has never been as widely available or as extensive. There are various current funding sources across the UK, including:

  1. Sustrans – Places for Everyone and Spaces for People programmes;
  2. UK Government – Levelling Up Fund;
  3. Paths for All – Active Travel Grants Scheme;
  4. Department for Transport – Transforming Cities Fund;
  5. Scottish Government – Cycling, Walking and Safer Routes;
  6. Welsh Government – Active Travel Fund;
  7. Various local area partnership funds across the UK; and
  8. City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements for English mayoral authorities.

Through promoting active modes of transport we can create cities that are more environmentally friendly, healthier and better connected socially. Whether we label it active travel, walking and wheeling or something else yet to be determined, making cities more pedestrianand cycle-friendly will remain a top priority for urban planners in the coming years.

Developing plans at a neighbourhood level will be key to developing 15-minute cities, and this includes putting community facilities and services at the centre of those plans to maximise utility trips by foot and cycle.

It also requires a recognition that when only provided for commuters, the potential market for local utility trips, especially those that can be linked together (trip chaining), is largely ignored. Having the ability for carers to do the school run, pick up shopping and work locally will be the kind of thing that helps reduce the number of short car journeys we are trying to target.