Radically reshaping urban space to revamp mobility

29 February 2024

Mobility is about more than just transportation – it is about how people navigate cities. Where do they want to go, and how will they get there? Andreas Røhl, Mobility Lead at Gehl, gives his take: “We have to rethink the way we approach the intersection of mobility and urban space. Planners can redesign the city in a manner that doesn’t change the activities citizens want to engage in, but rather shifts the locations where they occur. This realignment with the overarching mobility vision of the city can encourage citizens to walk and cycle.”

The transformation of Copenhagen’s harbour for swimming is a poignant example of how radically reshaping urban space can transform mobility. “Before, the harbour was inaccessible and polluted, making it impossible to enjoy a swim there,” says Røhl.

“Those who wanted to swim in the summer had to leave the city, and often this was done by car, contributing to congestion on the highways, particularly during rush hour when capacity was already strained. Now that the harbour has been cleaned up, Copenhageners can simply walk or cycle to the harbour to enjoy the water. This action alone, which on the surface has nothing to do with mobility, eliminated many car trips.”

Through concerted efforts to clean up the harbour, residents can now enjoy a refreshing swim and get there by active travel. By altering the urban space, sustainable urban mobility can become more readily attainable.

This strong connection between urban space and mobility is why ‘radically reshaping urban space’ was chosen as the theme for Eurocities’ Mobility Forum for 2024.

Andreas Røhl tests conditions for Copenhagen’s work to integrate urban developments along the harbour into the existing cycling network.
People who don't have many resources or disabilities often spend a very, very long time commuting
— Andreas Røhl

Gaining insights from the elderly and the young

When reflecting on what radically reshaping urban space means, Røhl emphasises the importance of beginning with the following questions: “Who’s going to have a worse life? Who’s going to have a better life? You can use the experience of a vulnerable group like the elderly or children as a test. Are they able to get where they need to go efficiently? Especially in larger cities or poorer cities, people who don’t have many resources or disabilities often spend a very, very long time commuting.”

Røhl has grappled with these questions throughout his career, acting as a high-level advisor for cities such as Vancouver, Riga, Munich, and Melbourne. Under his leadership as the Head of the Unit for Mobility and Public Space in Copenhagen, cycling in the city reached its highest level in over 50 years.

“I was in charge of the bicycle programme for the city of Copenhagen for seven years,” he says. “At the end of my career at the city, I headed the Department for Mobility and Public Space. That means I also have the experience of working within the city and working in a political context and how to interact with many stakeholders.”

While Røhl’s approach employs older people as a litmus test for the system, Melissa Bruntlett, Sustainable Mobility Consultant at Royal HaskoningDHV, looks to children’s experiences to offer a different perspective and reveal where the mobility system is failing.

Melissa Bruntlett with her family. Photo from her book “Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives”

“The best example of this is talking to children about their trips to and from school,” says Bruntlett. “I always focus on the people who benefit when we create more sustainable options for moving in a city, like children, the elderly, the disabled and women. We must think beyond just making things better for cycling but the intersectionality within that.

She continues: “Who cycles? Who is missing from the cycling community? How can we make cycling a comfortable option for everyone in the city? The same goes for walking and public space design. It’s really about understanding who benefits when we really stop and think about what we’re dedicating our space to.

“We must think beyond the old modern city model of separating all those functions. The more it’s mixed where it makes the most sense, the more vibrant cities are, with more opportunities to connect with people.”

We must think beyond just making things better for cycling but the intersectionality within that.
— Melissa Bruntlett

Having the right conversations

Bruntlett, who has dedicated her career to studying how this intersectionality affects mobility, is the author of ‘Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives’ and ‘Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality.’

She explains her approach to amplifying the voices of those who are often left unheard. “Gaining support and buy-in starts with having the right conversations and bringing the right information at the right time to people,” she explains. “Think about who’s been historically left out in mobility and network planning. Particularly children, the elderly, people with disabilities, people that work non-traditional work hours, women and anyone falling into these categories have been historically overlooked.”

When asked how planners can make sure their initiatives are suitable for more vulnerable users, such as those with a physical disability or someone with a visual impairment, Bruntlett says there is only one way to find out.

“You have to talk to them,” she states. “On our own, we can only make assumptions about someone else’s experience, but it’s only by engaging people in dialogue that we can understand what their challenges are and find ways to address them. Cyclists and pedestrians aren’t ‘amorphous blobs’. Their experiences are impacted by their socioeconomic characteristics, or by gender, race and age. We may all have certain common characteristics or needs which intersect, but they’re diverse.”

Ahead of the Eurocities Mobility Forum, where she will be a keynote speaker alongside Røhl, Bruntlett says: “I hope that what people take away from all of the talks and workshops throughout the Mobility Forum is the varying needs that people have, how they intersect and how there’s a huge opportunity really to learn from each other to create a more complex but inclusive city.”


Melissa Bruntlett and Andreas Røhl will continue this dialogue at the upcoming Eurocities Mobility Forum, taking palace in Utrecht from 18-20 March 2024. Members of Eurocities can sign up here for the members-only event. If your city is not yet a member, find out how to become one.

Main photo: From the book “Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives”, courtesy of Melissa Bruntlett 


Alyssa Harris Eurocities writer