Urban mobility is about autonomy and connection

28 March 2024

“Who is benefitting from your work?” asked Melissa Bruntlett, Sustainable Mobility Consultant, Royal HaskoningDHV, addressing city officials at the Eurocities Mobility Forum in Utrecht last week. “Who are you giving the tools to contribute to society, and who is excluded?” added Salma Belmoussa, an activist in Utrecht defending the rights of disabled people.

‘Radically Reshaping Urban Space’ was the forum’s theme this year, and if one thing was clear from the discussions over the three-day event, it was that this can’t happen without making sure cities involve people and understand their needs.

“We make, plan, and design based on our own experience, so we have to get other voices around the table,” explained Bruntlett. And this is important because, as Belmoussa pointed out, “by designing your city and how people move in it, you decide who can contribute to society or not”.

Design to include and empower

One of the essential aspects of mobility is the feeling of freedom and autonomy. “Our feelings dictate our behaviours, including how we move around our cities,” explained Bruntlett. For example, a cycling lane that is a shared space with cars that can drive as fast as 50km/h will bring up a fear response in some users, especially children, who won’t cycle on it.

Is a new solution usable? By whom? “Can someone blind or in a wheelchair use it independently, or are we forcing people to be dependent?” asked Belmoussa. Sometimes, the solution is not the latest technological innovation, “let’s focus on human needs,” was the invitation from Angela van der Kloof, a Strategic Advisor at Mobycon and co-founder of the ‘Women in Cycling’ network. “All we want is to move with ease, comfort and a sense of safety.”

Some solutions have vital spillover effects. For example, Orrwa Alhaffar, an activist in Utrecht working with migrants, shared how learning how to cycle was a way for many migrants to “access and integrate the Dutch culture”. Bologna realised that their cycling classes and the initiative to provide newcomer women with bikes were the first steps in getting them a job.

All we want is to move with ease, comfort and a sense of safety
— Angela van der Kloof

Usability, autonomy, and connection are core ingredients of more liveable cities. “We want to create ‘hi moments’,” insists Bruntlett, explaining that these driving principles will affect locals’ physical, mental, and social health, particularly that of children and older adults who may suffer even more from loneliness. “Quality of life is what we are giving back to people,” said Lot van Hooijdonk, Utrecht Deputy Mayor for Mobility.

From right to left: Angela van der Kloof, Salma Belmoussa and Jeroen Roose-van Leijden,(c) Michiel Ton

Limited space, many competing interests

Cities agree, yet they face concrete challenges to make everyone happy. Utrecht and Brussels highlighted how interests compete for limited city space and the challenges faced in reconciling heritage conservation and accessibility needs. “Public space is a commodity, and multiple needs require space: housing, green areas, transportation, commerce, etc.,” said Eva Oosters, Utrecht’s Deputy Mayor for carbon-free Mobility.

Quality of life is what we are giving back to people
— Lot van Hooijdonk

Therefore, today’s public interventions in cities must look more and more at aspects such as multi-use public space redesign. Be it street experiments or more permanent interventions, cities across Europe, through projects such as Reallocate, explore approaches that combine policies targeted at traffic calming and improving mobility, reducing CO2 emissions, repurposing public space and street space reallocation. For instance, Barcelona, one of the partners in Reallocate, has focused on creating a green street network that prioritises pedestrians and connects neighbourhoods. Within the project, Barcelona is also exploring how to face issues related to conflicts from different users sharing the same space. The city sought input from other cities facing similar problems during the forum poster session.

Facing and managing backlash

Potential or actual public backlash to city initiatives is an even more crucial barrier. Dhondt shared the experience of Brussels with the Good Move project, where, regardless of the strong political backing and an extensive engagement campaign with locals, the project still faced much backlash. This seems a common experience within local governments and an inevitable one.

“Rage makes more noise,” said Simona Larghetti, Bologna’s Metropolitan Councillor for Mobility, and she invited colleagues to “resist and re-evaluate” in the face of opposition. “When you’re selling the dream, be aware of critics, but don’t lose the hope and the drive to engage with people,” she added, sharing how Bologna’s inclusion of the 30 km/h speed limit gave way to many negative responses on social media and traditional media but was welcomed by residents of the areas where the change took place.

Similarly, Brussels’ officers continued to meet people and engage in dialogues for months after implementing the Good Move project. “We were in the streets, we were present, listening and showed we would adapt small things in our plans to reply to people’s criticism,” explained Bart Dhondt, Brussels Alderman of Mobility and Public Works. This shows that ambitious projects can succeed with much work and perseverance.

When you’re selling the dream, be aware of critics, but don’t lose the hope and the drive to engage with people
— Simona Larghetti

From the activists’ side, Salma also stressed that the collaboration needs to go both ways. “We have to think with the politicians about how we can move together. It’s not us versus them; it’s we as a society,” she said. Chiara Foglietta, Turin Deputy Mayor Ecological and Digital Transition, Innovation, Mobility and Transport, concluded by inviting colleagues not to fear the backlash, “take the hands of citizens and continue reshaping the urban space”.

With your own eyes

People looking at a map of Utrecht on public floor
Click on the image to see a video of the visit

The Eurocities Mobility Forum was also an opportunity for the City of Utrecht to showcase its impressive mobility initiatives. Some participants cycled through the transformation of the Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood, getting a taste of the seamlessly integrated Dafne Schippersbrug bridge, harmoniously melding with the design of a primary school and the project to cover the A2 highway, transforming the space into parks, cycling paths, and sports fields.

Man shows before/after images of the station area in Utrecht
Click on the image to see a video of the visit

Others walked around the Station Area, witnessing some examples of the transformation from asphalt for cars to areas for pedestrians and cyclists and more greenery and the connection created between the new bustling neighbourhoods and the old city centre thanks to the restoration of the canal surrounding the old town sacrificing the 12-lane motorway and prioritising water and greenery over a highway, and people over cars.




Group of people with bikes standing in the steet listening to one person
Click on the image to see a video of the visit

More participants cycled around the city following a route planning reshaped to prioritise safety while ensuring the efficient flow of substantial traffic.




View through a window of cyclists and pedestrians on a cetral street in Utrecht
Click on the image to see a video of the visit

Others were in awe of the world’s largest bike parking at Utrecht Central station, the underground bicycle parking at Vredenburg, and neighbourhood parking allowing residents to rent bike spots in areas with limited home storage.


Main street in Utrecht showing a bus, cyclists and pedestrians
Click on the image to see a video of the visit

The visit to Cartesius and Wisselspoor showed housing developments that challenge traditional car-centric planning, designed to house approximately 6,000 residents, where the public space is planned to be almost car-free.



A bike cycling in front of a logistics hub

Utrecht also proudly showed its approach to Urban Logistics. Goods are seamlessly transferred from trucks to smaller, zero-emission vehicles, the city nudges transporting companies to operate or use the urban logistics hubs, and a public-private initiative aims to increase water deliveries.

What’s on cities’ minds

A Eurocities forum can’t end without passionate exchanges about challenges and solutions cities are currently dealing with. Here’s where more knowledge exchange and priority setting happen. The forum in Utrecht was no exception, showcasing an array of innovative sessions that delved deep into the present and future of urban mobility.

The sessions on cycling, notably the Dutch masterclass and the Eurocities Cycling Task Force meeting, illustrated the critical role of infrastructure and data in advancing urban cycling. Learning from the ‘CROW Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic,’ participants explored how to enhance their cycling networks. Cities shared innovative data usage, from Strasbourg’s ‘bike to work’ challenge insights to Amsterdam’s real-time user feedback mechanisms, underlining the ambition for a unified European approach to cycling data. This data-driven dialogue promises to inform better mobility planning and the development of more connected and safer cycling environments across cities and hopes to feed into the emergence of a European blueprint for cycling data collection.

Electrification was another hot topic, with cities discussing the nuanced challenges and strategies around integrating electric vehicles (EVs) into the urban fabric. Electric vehicles are increasingly present in European cities as they contribute to a more sustainable transition. However, cities face challenges in choosing adapted charging infrastructure solutions and managing grid congestion risks. Different cities presented their strategies, from Madrid’s off-street charging systems to Utrecht’s on-street network and Budapest’s focus on electric shared mobility. With more cooperation with local stakeholders and a balanced approach to charging solutions and modal shifts, cities hope to address concerns over the charging infrastructure’s role and the challenge of increased energy demand, particularly from larger vehicles like SUVs.

European cities encounter diverse challenges in influencing the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) infrastructure planning due to varying degrees of governance and autonomy; for instance, Warsaw enjoys significant negotiation power, unlike German cities, which often clash with national government barriers. Being designated as ‘urban nodes’ places cities at the heart of achieving sustainable mobility, yet it burdens them with regulatory challenges and a lack of resources for projects that are ultimately outside their control. Cities are exploring options like Ghent’s national urban nodes alliances aiming to amplify urban concerns at the national level, advocating for revisions of the TEN-T directive that grant urban nodes more direct access to funds like the Connecting Europe Facility, bypassing the need for regional or national government intermediation.

Finally, cities also briefly touched on preparing for disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), mobility as a service (MaaS), and Intelligent Speed Adaptation (ISA) for micro-mobility solutions. Cities are eager to participate in innovation despite the challenges of integrating new technologies into existing urban frameworks.

The Eurocities Mobility Forum in Utrecht encapsulated the ongoing journey towards sustainable urban mobility. Through workshops, dialogues, and exploring existing mobility solutions, participants left with a reinforced commitment to creating greener, more inclusive cities. The insights gained, and the collaborative spirit fostered at the forum underscores the collective path forward in addressing urban mobility challenges.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer