Reduce carbon through an effective active travel strategy

Urban life 30 November 2020 Rebecca Dillon-Robinson Marianne Weinreich

Developing an active travel strategy needs to address so much more than just infrastructure; the barriers to active movement are emotional as well as physical, and to truly enable a modal shift in our cities and achieve net zero carbon goals we must tackle all of the barriers we face. We've reviewed five of these key barriers and how to address them.

Expert columns
6 min

The concerns caused by the pandemic and restrictions imposed by governments around the world on movement and public transport capacity have sped up the trend towards active modes in our cities. US Studies show that 85% of Americans perceive cycling as safer in a Corona context than public transport. Anecdotally bike shops have sold out, bike rental schemes are over subscribed and data collected by the European Cycling Federation shows dramatically increased spend on active mobility. Measures for cycling and walking in the form of pop-up bike lanes, traffic calming and subsidy schemes for buying, repairing bikes or getting cycling training are being implemented all over Europe(1).

However developing an active travel strategy needs to address so much more than just infrastructure; the barriers to active movement are emotional as well as physical, and to truly enable a modal shift in our cities and achieve net zero carbon goals we must tackle all of the barriers we face. Five of these key barriers and how to address them are discussed below.  

Five key barriers to an effective active travel strategy and reduce carbon:

1. Spatial: Tackle spatial and infrastructural challenges to build a safe network

‘The cornerstone of a cycling city is a network of protected bike lanes where the 8 year old can go to school and the 80 year old can go shopping and ride safely’: Marianne Weinrich, Market Manager Ramboll Smart Mobility and Chairman of the cycling embassy of Denmark

Watch Marianne talk about 'How can cities reduce congestion, noise and CO2-emissions?'

Safe and joined up infrastructure is key to enable safe active journeys across our towns and cities. Adults can make decisions when they leave the house as to whether to cycle, walk or take the car for a short journey, for example to school, whereas children can’t make these choices. It is essential that routes allow safe passage from a to b for those who can make active travel choices and for those who can’t. This may be through a combination of protected cycle lanes where needed, existing infrastructure, greenways, linking up to quiet streets and junctions that enable safe and easy crossing. If at any point on a journey a user has to take a risk, such as crossing a busy road unprotected, they, or potentially as critically their parents, are much more likely to choose a car which already has a joined up network.

If we understand where the key drivers to movement are, for example schools and workplaces, then we can implement infrastructural strategies for active travel that join up these dots. 

It is key that this infrastructure, whether it be a segregated cycle lane or a pedestrian crossing, is designed with all users in mind, crossing islands need to accommodate cargo bikes and gateways into parks or greenways should allow for buggies and wheelchairs to easily enter. Each barrier to convenience for an active mobility journey all needs to be dismounted in the same way it is for the personal car.

Women are statistically more likely to use different modes of transport and are more likely to involve ‘trip-chaining’ (multi-stop journeys) which tend to be for a balance of work, child care and household responsibilities. Planning for women is key to planning “for everybody”.

Without thinking of all potential users, we will never allow equitable access where everyone can take part in active travel. 

In places where we want people to meet and spend time is also essential that spaces cater to a diverse user group. For the older population, seating and shade are essential; studies show that elderly people walk more when benches and other types of seating or resting are available. Child friendly city design through both formal and informal play can encourage independence in children when moving around cities. Alongside formal infrastructure, these placemaking elements show that these spaces in our towns and cities are for everyone regardless of age or physical ability. 

However, even if these infrastructural elements are in place there are many other factors that still need to be addressed to create a long term sustainable modal shift. 

Ramboll's Achieving Sustainable Micro-Mobility report. 

2. Temporal: Perceptions around drop in usage due to weather conditions are unfounded but we need to tackle the 24 hour city 

Experience from countries with an extensive walking and cycling network, like Denmark and the Netherlands, shows that walking and cycling to school or work is fairly consistent year round. Weather conditions in these places are cold and wet during the autumn and winter months. The key thing is that a safe and convenient network for walking and cycling should be in place. In Copenhagen for example over 70% of people keep cycling during the winter months. 

However to ensure equitable access to all users we need to design our infrastructure and strategy to address the city at night. In the northern hemisphere in the winter much of the activity in the city in the afternoon and evening will be in darkness and the night time economy and workers employed in this cover multiple sectors from hospitality to health care. In London for example one in eight jobs is in the night time economy.(2)

Concerns about safety both perceived and actual also need to be addressed. Women have many concerns when traveling alone at night for example walking alone, waiting at bus stops, cycling makes women feel exposed to everything from cat calling, theft, groping to assault. Many women have strategies for how to deal with their fear; but the nature of the built environment plays a big role in how safe and secure users feel.

When developing a strategy for active travel we must ensure that the design of the public realm and active travel routes address these concerns. We must ensure that; routes are lit and directed along active or residential streets; access through key spaces is maintained; there is 24 hours access to secure bike parking. When looking at bike rental schemes, we must ensure that bikes are available at key places for night time as well as early morning commuters.  

3. Economic: Engagement with businesses is key to overcome perceptions around reductions in car traffic being bad for the bottom line

To implement infrastructure for active travel such as segregated cycle lanes often space must be reallocated for car traffic. Cities have limited amounts of space and in historic cities, narrow streets mean that if we want more liveable and welcoming places, the percentage of space allocated to the private car needs to be addressed. Increase in air quality is another key driver in reduction in car traffic. For instance in Waltham Forest in East London previously had dangerous amounts of air pollution, particularly around schools.

The council implemented a low traffic neighbourhood and along with a dramatic increase in air quality many more people visit the area and many of the previously derelict shops have reopened. The regeneration of the area has been centred around creating a liveable and walkable neighbourhood which also tackles air quality and brings economic benefits.(3)

Often a concern of local businesses is that if people can’t drive into a city centre or park outside of a shop then they will not spend money or come into the city, but this is an urban myth, multiple studies show that actually the reverse is the case. In Sheffield for example a public realm improvement project including the re-construction of the Peace.

Gardens saw a 35% increase in footfall, with a net increase in visitors from 350,000 to 770,000 and a net increase in spending of £4.2million.(4) 
It is essential that businesses are engaged to ensure the success of active travel strategies. In Olso, the city has a radical plan to pedestrianise the whole of the city centre, however after concerns from business group the city is taking a more gradual approach to implementation and in doing so are bring local businesses along with them. As parts of the plan have been implemented footfall has risen by 20% with people spend more time in the city and spending more. Local businesses can then see the benefits and be part of the process of change.

In addition to local neighbourhood economies, cost benefit analysis in Copenhagen has shown that society ‘saves at least DKK 10 per kilometer (€ 1,34) when people cycle rather than drive.’(5) Active travel is therefore an essential part of a green economic strategy.

4. Physiological: Fear is a strong emotion and tackling this and other physiological barriers is essential to implementing a successful active travel strategy

In personal experience: As a holiday job I used to work at an outdoor activity centre where we rented out mountain bikes, one day a middle aged woman came in, her family all rented bikes but she had never learnt as a child and the fear of cycling had stopped her from ever getting on a bike as an adult. Through a slow and steady process I helped her get over her fear and build her confidence to cycle so that by the end of her families’ holiday she was able to cycle with them into the nearby coastal town.

Beyond this simple act of learning to ride a bike, fear of moving through a city, navigating car traffic and knowing where to go is a real barrier for many, in particular women as mentioned above. Active travel strategies need to elevate the voices of diverse cycling and walking participants and advocates, such as women, children and those with disabilities. The more that we see ourselves reflected in those using public spaces and cycle infrastructure the more that we feel it is for us too.

The key to long term success in changing mindsets around active travel are with early interactions. If children grow up feeling confident walking and cycling then they are more likely to continue these behaviours as adults. During the pandemic, Greenlanes National School in Dublin trialled a cycle bus scheme with the primary aim being to minimise coronavirus risks. They have found massive take up in the scheme so much so that they now need almost as many cycle racks at the school as children to accommodate demand.

Cycle buses can act as a great starting point for building confidence on routes and until formal protected infrastructure is implemented. It is critical to at first facilitate positive attitudes and experiences to enable a public appetite for infrastructure.

5. Social: Lastly we need to tackle social barriers to truly enable equitable access to active travel in our cities and towns 

In a recent Bike Life Report in Dublin the study found that the most socially disadvantaged group were the least likely to own a car were also the least likely to cycle.5 For these groups cycling could help them access day to day services and increase social and economic benefits and access to employment.

The perceived and actual cost of owning and maintaining a bike is also a barrier to access for many. Along with changing perceptions of needing to have ‘all the gear’ to cycle, promoting and supporting bike share equity programmes can also enable wider access to essential equipment. In Glasgow the ‘Bikes for All’ scheme focused on shifting the demographic make-up of cyclists to ensure that economic investments in infrastructure will be beneficial to the whole population.(6) Bikes do not need to be expensive to be effective particularly when we consider children, handing or selling on bikes as children out grow them is part and parcel of family life. If we consider the components of active travel as part of a circular economy we can also further reduce of climate impacts.

In addition to real and perceived costs, in many cities cumulative effects of planning and gentrification have resulted in economically and socially disadvantaged groups being the most disconnected from economic opportunities. It is key that active travel strategies connect these places together, whether through purely active travel or integration with the public transport network.


Taking a holistic approach to an active travel strategy will ensure that investments we make in infrastructure will truly enable us to reduce carbon in the transport sector.

To implement an effective active travel strategy all five factors; spatial, temporal, economic, physiological and social, must be tackled to achieve a long term sustainable modal shift. Around the world cities and governments are investing in cycle infrastructure and the public realm, to make sure that these investments enable the modal shift we need to move towards a net zero future, they must come alongside a holistic approach that opens up the wonderful world of active travel to the whole population of our towns and cities.


2. London’s 24 hour economy: 


Urban life

Ensuring a life that flourishes for people and nature in an urbanised world

Related services

Situation management


Situations of challenge, concern and uncertainty which have the potential to slow progress or knock a project off track can occasionally occur. Ramboll’s experts bring experience in Situation Management where we help to anticipate future challenges, support existing project teams or lead the recovery of a project not performing to plan. 

Strategy & assurance


Ensuring the objectives of projects, programmes and portfolios are clear, governed, aligned to strategies, with the right processes supporting them, is key to their ultimate success and providing confidence to stakeholders. Whether projects in the built environment or a major change transformation, Ramboll’s advisory and delivery services reassure clients and stakeholders that projects have been set up for success and will deliver.



Our online platform for sharing new and innovative ideas, insights and solutions to create sustainable societies.

[noun; the quality of being clever, original, and inventive; the ability to invent things or solve problems in clever new ways]