Integrating mobility and public life


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THIS paper addresses mobility, sustainability and safety from a people centred stance. In doing so, it expands the definition of each of these terms to investigate how the built environment can contribute positively to mobility, safety and a sustainable environment through a focus on quality of life and well-being. This paper also explores the absential in the built environment. Absential qualities can be explained with respect to an absence of discomfort or inconvenience and perceived sense of insecurity, barriers to free movement and lack of choice in mobility options.

People first mobility moves beyond the rationalist mode that historically places utility maximization of the individual at the centre of political thought. Instead, it shifts its focus to the wider health of social networks, the real life systems of society and culture. This transformation from an eco-centric era to a socio-centric one has numerous ‘software’ policy consequences for creating settings that nurture virtuous choices and ‘hardware’ consequences for creating physical environments that promote virtuous civic settings for people to coexist.

From Layard’s study of happiness,1 to the economics of well-being championed by Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi,2 to the study of primacy of social capital by Robert Putnam3 and David Brooks,4 the ‘people-centred’ approach is gaining ground. This movement is propelling practices beyond the functionalist epoch of the well-intentioned master plan projects orchestrated by politicians and architects seeking to fortify material development. The current social trend can be considered a true socialism of the 21st century – not one that values the state over society, but one that puts social life and people centrifugal to understanding well beyond the social sciences.

We explore this ‘true’ socialism by posing questions that challenge the current paradigms of mobility planning, urban design and transit policy. What if mobility systems provided virtuous feedback loops between policy and design that induce persons to act virtuously, both for the betterment of their own condition, but also to the betterment of collective society? What if planning policy and urban design created proper organizations and spatial support structures to empower citizens themselves as the capable agents of change rather than dictating centralized plans that are often blind to local social conditions and context?


This approach allows for design to address inequality and difference in the pursuit of basic rights for all that is pertinent to India’s increasing urbanization accompanied by increasing disparities in household incomes. It is our belief that ensuring the provision of a universal quality of life in the city is tantamount to its success on a global stage. As India pursues economic growth and dominance in this, the ‘Asian century’, it is crucial that the city administrations and citizens recognize and understand the pre-existing people first qualities that prevail and sometimes surprisingly sustain the world’s largest democracy. Indian cities have many urban experiences which should be shared in our increasingly urban world, to mention a few – experience in the absorption of massive in-migration, high densities, recycling, mixed spaces of consumption and production, economies of scale and the lively sociability of its streets.

In light of this social turn in our understanding, urban design discourse and the parameters by which we measure our environment must also change – and this we will begin to set out here. There is an urgent need for the linking-up of transport planning and urban design, public health and transport safety, well-being and the built environment. The multidimensional experiences of the pedestrian, cyclist, and passenger must all be considered as one, at the ‘eye-level’ of humans in the city. If we are to understand how to design a city that promotes the kind of urban lifestyles we want to preserve, promote or create, we must be people-centric in our analysis. As the world’s population moves ever closer to being 70% urbanized by 2030, the question of how to create sustainable urban lifestyles is a globally urgent one.


Human behaviour, people’s preferences, local culture and other types of ‘software’ can vary widely, making performance difficult to predict. As a result, many design professionals and the local authorities or companies that employ them typically shift their attention to ‘hardware’ such as technology and infrastructure, which they can control and measure. The consequences of this have determined how we invest in mobility, and dictated the role of public transit and cycling in our cities for 60 years. From the Federal Aid Highway Act to urban growth boundaries and transit orientated development, the focus has been on systems and infrastructure rather than people; in other words, public transit and cycling rather than transit riders and cyclists.

But the infrastructure and technology to develop safe cities, low-carbon transit solutions, green energy alternatives and other sustainable initiatives can only succeed if people choose to use them. Establishing a bike-share programme is only sustainable if cyclists use it. Investing in public transport is only worthwhile if it is comfortable and convenient and so promotes a shift from modes of travel that are more intensive in terms of space and energy. Implementing urban elements to promote safety will only be effective if people behave the way we predict they will.

This shift from hardware to software is complex, and requires design professionals to learn more about human behaviour – why do people behave as they do. We need to be able to measure how people make decisions about their mobility. This will require a multidisciplinary approach that marries analysis to design know-how.

The specific issue of improving the safety for non-motorized transit is not just a matter of hardware, such as wider sidewalks and dedicated cycle lanes, but also about changing the culture of mobility. Software-type solutions – elevating the cultural status of walking and cycling, allowing bicycles on trains, for example, or trip planning solutions that account for the non-motorized portion of all journeys – must address everyday life to investigate the incentives (both direct and co-benefits) and barriers (cultural and physical) of the modes people choose. The built environment must contribute to these incentives and mitigate barriers.


Inspired by McKenzie-Mohr, at Gehl Architects we understand incentives for desired behaviour as split between direct benefits and co-benefits. A direct benefit would be riding a bike or taking public transit from A to B because it is the fastest way; a co-benefit would be getting exercise while making that trip. Today, the co-benefits of cycling and public transit are widely discussed. When compared with private vehicles, they are less polluting, take up less space and are available to a wider income group.

Research from Denmark indicates that investment in walking and cycling infrastructure results in a net financial benefit to society in the form of increased worker productivity, fewer sick days and smaller health care costs, whereas investments in private vehicle infrastructure cost more to society than the upfront construction expenditure. Yet, these co-benefits do little to influence human behaviour.5 Public transit riders and cyclists, by virtue of interacting with others while moving through the city, become aware of each other’s presence across cultural, social and economic dividers.

Next, we take a closer look at Copenhagen, and how this city has used a people first methodology to dramatically improve the quality of life for its citizens, and subsequently New York. While the methodology may be similar, the types of designs and interventions are radically different – as they should be in two very different cities. Later we explore how the various lessons central to these best practice examples of people-centred planning might be applied to Indian cities, notably Chennai.


The Copenhagen story: Since the 1960s, the city of Copenhagen has gradually invited pedestrians to the city centre which has resulted in increasingly more people using the city centre. Professor Jan Gehl, as part of a research project at the School of Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, established a method for mapping and assessing city space and registering the city life that takes place there. First introduced in 1968, the Public Space Public Life Studies have been documented and developed into a key planning tool that is today institutionalized at several layers of Copenhagen municipal governance.6 This approach makes it possible for politicians and urban planners to acquire knowledge about how the city is currently serving the needs of city goers (especially pedestrians and cyclists), and how public life is changing. This empirical evidence can then be used to make wiser and more informed decisions as to how the city can be further improved.


Today, Copenhagen has established a remarkably balanced modal split with 42% of all trips being taken by NMT, public transit accounting for 32% and private vehicles taking the smallest share of 26%. Despite daily car trips across the municipality border growing from 392,000 in 1970 to 535,700 in 2010, car trips within the central part of Copenhagen fell from 351,000 to 284,900 during the same period. A physically and virtually integrated public transport solution between bus, train, and underground metro services enables passengers’ choice and freedom to choose the right mode for the trip.

Key characteristics of the system apply ‘software’ such as integrated ticketing on all transit and real time arrival/departure information to contribute to the success of the system ‘hardware’, like designing transit stops that ensure proximity between bus, train, metro and cycling facilities. The system is regularly reviewed and consistently improved through initiatives such as ticketing by sms message and the ability to take ones bicycle on regional commuter trains for no extra charge. The latter initiative resulted in the trebling of the number of people travelling with bikes and a 6% increase in satisfaction with the system.7 Ambitions are also constantly pushed – Copenhagen’s mayor unveiled an official policy of becoming the world’s best metropolis for people, and the world’s best bicycle city and most ambitiously, carbon neutral by 2025.

The bicycle can be the key component in an integrated ecosystem of mobility on longer journeys. With the development of a cycling culture in Copenhagen, 35% of all trips in Copenhagen are by bike, and 50% of all Copenhagen resident’s journeys are by bicycle. Within the 5-10 km travel distance, 44% of all travellers bicycle (Figure 1). When asked why they choose to ride their bike in Copenhagen, the overwhelming reasons were direct benefits – convenience, speed, and simplicity, rather than co-benefits like saving money or protecting the environment.8


Percentage of Journeys by Bike According to Distance and Why Copenhageners Bike


Traffic planners typically use indicators for their traffic models that can be linked to an area’s economic development and need based on benefit-cost ratios. Tax payers are justified in demanding value for their investment, and it appears that pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can provide that value. The city of Copenhagen has done a cost benefit analysis of cycling infrastructure and found that when one includes transport costs, security, comfort, branding/tourism, transport times and health there is a net social gain of DKK 1.22 per cycled kilometre compared to a net social loss of DKK 0.69 per kilometre driven by car.

The key to this people first approach is recognizing that walking is the most universal form of transport. All cyclists, public transit riders and motorists begin their journey as pedestrians and therefore the transit and automobile network can only be as good as the pedestrian network that brings them to other modes of transit. By applying this type of integrated thinking in conjunction with other initiatives, we can collectively reach aspirations for safety and access and the challenge becomes less daunting.


What’s remarkable in Copenhagen is that more cycling in the city has made it safer. As the number of cyclists increased, the number of total accidents as well as serious accidents involving cyclists decreased.9 The total distance travelled each day by bicycle city-wide has increased by 13% (from 930,000 in 1996 to 1,210,000 in 2010); yet the number of seriously injured cyclists annually has gone down by 172% (from 252 to 92 during the same period). By 2015, the municipality hopes to reduce the number of seriously injured to 56 while simultaneously increasing the modal share of cycling from 35% to 50%.

Extensive research on traffic accidents at road junctions in Denmark reveals there is no clear-cut connection between the geometry of junctions and the associated accidents.10 In fact, Danish researchers conclude that there is no single determining factor in the accidents they studied; rather, it is an accumulation of bad habits that are a part of a traffic culture that takes years to change. What is needed is a ‘greater duty of care to the way (road users) behave.’ This research suggests that intersection ‘hardware’ – the main focus of transport experts and traffic – is vital, but more effective when considered in relation with ‘software’. Accordingly, Copenhagen municipality has incorporated metrics for how to measure behaviour, habits and perceptions. The notion of perceived safety has also been closely monitored, increasing from 51% of cyclists in 2008 to 67%. Recognizing that the main reason for people not cycling is perceived safety, the municipality has a goal of 80% of all cyclists feeling secure in traffic, and has established strict punishment for pedestrians and cyclists that do not follow basic road safety rules.


City leaders understand that the socially oriented targets they can still achieve are environmental goals of CO2 emission reduction, economic growth and global competitiveness. Three people centred goals are to increase the amount of time Copenhageners choose to spend in urban space by 20%, increase the amount of pedestrian traffic by 20%, and ensure that 80% of Copenhageners are satisfied people with opportunities for taking part in urban life.

The Copenhagen case provides a powerful lesson – people don’t change their behaviour when told to but when the context compels them. Direct benefits to the individual have the largest impact on behaviour and choice and as more people choose NMT, the co-benefits for society increase exponentially. Therefore, the challenge is to align the co-benefits and direct benefits as much as possible to create a virtuous cycle – the ultimate win-win for both individual and society. Specifically for mobility, the city can still accommodate motorists and public transit riders by prioritizing proximity and high quality conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. Experiences from around the world show the converse is not true; we cannot create good environments for people by prioritizing the needs of motorists and public transport capacity alone.


The New York story: When NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden visited Copenhagen together with NYC Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in 2006, their goal was to reach the kind of change it took Copenhagen forty years to achieve in just a few years before the end of Bloomberg’s next term. Their strategy was to implement the changes in a quick, inexpensive and temporary manner, and to evaluate the consequences of the changes before introducing permanent changes. Big change began with small steps.

In 2007, the Department of Transportation implemented New York’s first ‘Copenhagen style’ bicycle track along 9th Avenue and began to monitor and test its impact on mobility and safety. Dedicated to cyclists and protected from ongoing traffic by a row of parallel parked cars, the new bike lane (the first of its kind in North America) gave cyclists an uninterrupted and safe route along six blocks of 9th Avenue. By replacing a lane of vehicle traffic with a lane for bicycles, rather than expanding street capacity for private vehicles a precedent of prioritizing non-motorized transit (NMT) was established. The project itself was small, but symbolically a giant leap, as it embodied the broader vision for a ‘Greener, Greater New York City’ by 2030.

The approach to these temporary projects was simple: consult/analyze, envision, test, redesign or remove. By rigorously collecting people centred data, and clearly communicating it to the public, the decision to redesign or remove was not random, or politically charged, but rather based on an empirically based decision making framework. With this framework established and documented in the World Class Streets Document (NYC DOT, 2008)11, DOT effectively reclaimed underused space with affordable and often recycled materials serving as demarcation boundaries across the entire city. Begun in out of the way corners in Brooklyn, lessons learned from the first projects were quickly disseminated across departments and utilized to help ensure the success of the much more visible, Green Light for Midtown projects along Broadway in Manhattan.


Two specific characteristics led to the New York model’s success. First, the scale, speed and ambition of the temporary pilots, not as one-off projects but as working toward a wider vision for the city and second, the commitment to extensive people based analysis prior to implementation and to per- form post occupancy tests based on how the projects perform for people and quality of life.


Similar to Copenhagen, NYC officials balanced a broader vision with a pragmatic/opportunistic flexibility that allowed the organization to capitalize on mobilized local support and capacity. The city has consistently analyzed, surveyed and monitored the human centred performance of these spaces and the public’s perception of them. This data has allowed them to make changes to the temporary projects quickly and affordably, to learn from their mistakes and incorporate public feedback while remaining fiercely dedicated to a broader vision. Whether it be moving the bicycle lane from the left side of the street to the right, or realigning the location of bicycle tracks in proximity to reclaimed public space to the use of materials and implementation techniques, the city has utilized the people first approach to ensure that changes in physical ‘hardware’ are rooted in the experiential ‘software’ of these spaces.


Density and Population Comparison of CPH, Chennai, NYC

When integrated as part of a wider street design process, temporary initiatives can be used as public consultation at actual scale and in real time – thus making a project process more inclusive, effective, engaging and efficient.

Inclusive – Not everyone has time for online questionnaires, access to digital media, nor the skill needed to translate words and diagrams into real life experience but everyone can use their senses to experience place.

Effective – Pilot projects ensure the significant investment inherent in permanent projects is well spent by providing opportunities to experiment, analyze and redesign.

Engaging – Testing design solutions at 1:1 and then refining them based on their performance helps ensure the design is truly in harmony with resident needs and demands.

Economically Efficient – Such pilot projects not only expose ‘low hanging fruit’ (min cost/max impact), but also help inform further design development.


The Green Light for Midtown Campaign alone reclaimed over 35,000 m2 of public space (the equivalent to three Piazza Navona’s) radically changing city goers’ perception of the city, while contributing to increased traffic speeds in the CBD by 6% between 2008 and 2009. There was a 2.5% overall reduction in motorized traffic volume, yet 17% improved travel time through midtown, 35% decrease in pedestrian injuries along Broadway yet an 11% increase in pedestrian volumes. Since 2008, even as New York City has implemented over 320 km of bicycle lanes and tracks, there is a 72% decrease in the average risk of a serious injury experienced by commuter cyclists in New York City. The percentage of area employees satisfied with the Times Square experience increased by 72% (from 43% to 74% of those surveyed in 2007 and again in 2009) and 74% of New Yorkers say that Times Square has improved dramatically.

By providing choice and ensuring integration, New York City, like Copenhagen has made the experience of moving through the city more enjoyable for all; pedestrians and cyclists are safer and more comfortable for more and more journey types, and when people need to drive or take a taxi, they are also able to do so more safely and conveniently.


Comparing the Length of the Street, Width of Sidewalk and Prevalence of Hawkers


Chennai, India: To begin to understand what lessons learned in Copenhagen might succeed in the Chennai context, we must highlight the particularities of the spatial understandings and social behaviour. Whilst some Indian cities contain vestiges of the colonial city and the ‘classical’ types of public space, their uses are culturally specific. India has its own vernacular of the European meaning of ‘public’, sometimes referred to as the ‘pablik’.12 It could be described as the absolute negative of the private realm of the home.13 Tagore, the Bengali novelist, captures it well in the title of his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World). Perhaps it would be fair to assert that in the Indian vernacular, public space has lesser emphasis on the notion of ‘common’, and rather emphasizes that which is not private and therefore claims (usually by the poor) that can be made upon it. This has been perpetuated by a mixture of conditions, both cultural and by way of necessity that present themselves, both as benefits and problems – encroachment, street trade, street dwellers, religious shrines appropriating pavements and so on, in fact, many of the things which give rise to some of the distinctively Indian sights and sounds of the city.


Chennai’s particular brand of Indian street life offers all sorts of organic manifestations in trade and social opportunities, direct and co-benefits. The neighbourhood chai wallah, where news and gossip is shared; the ‘natural markets’ which form at different times of the day according to commuter patterns; where women of a household might gather such as outside the nursery school and the hawkers who punctuate the routes to school and work offering rest and refreshment. This ‘logic of the street’ provides convenience and has the co-benefit of adding to the efficiency of the number of journeys made. However, street trade also brings with it problems, issues around land rights, congestion and negative perceptions of sanitization and clutter.14


In a society which is in some ways governed by the propriety of class if not indeed caste, ‘public spaces’ in the European sense such as parks and communal garden squares often delineate these stratifications in their users. It is in the street and on public transport where all encounter one another in an unsocial sociability.15 Making these spaces comfortable, convenient, safe and affordable for all creates a platform for the democratic city to continue to operate. Change that embraces the existing economies and efficiencies poses a challenge to both software and hardware as journey choices are also influenced by the hardware of the city and the morphology of individual neighbourhoods.

Chennai, like many Indian cities has a large proportion of mixed-use neighbourhoods of high density offering local services and jobs that promote local rather than non-local journeys. Over half the journeys made in Chennai are under 5 km, ideal for non-motorized transit. The long history of public transport also plays a significant role in the psyche of Tamilians; the central station used for cross-country journeys opened in 1873. The intercity rail lines built across the country, and subsequent metropolitan and suburban lines, have nurtured a culture of public transport and ‘organic’ transit oriented development, both formal and informal. A tremendous opportunity to capitalize on this inherent culture is reflected in the evolution of the role of walking in the modal share of journeys in Chennai. The share of pedestrian trips in the city has increased since 1970, but based on mobility projections for all similar sized Indian cities, is expected to fall again over the next 20 years.


The hardware of existing roads is mixed in quality and design; yet a large proportion of the road surfaces are level with undefined edges and few street markings which in some respect suit the multiplicity of uses they serve at different periods of the day, the streets being very much a social space as well as a space for traffic. 32% of trips are made by pedestrians on only a 3% share of street space,16 and as 43% of all accidents involve pedestrians and cyclists, the deficiencies in the infrastructure that create unsafe environments are very clear. The inherent value of such an enormous modal share being pedestrian journeys (and this forecast to continue in the near future) – providing adequate infrastructure and inviting more pedestrian and cycle journeys could capture huge environmental, economic and social latent values. Transition narratives claiming that Chennai, say, could become London or Shanghai obscure and undermine the real project of capturing the preexisting values inherent in behaviour and form and ‘finding the shape and form of India’s own modernity’ something we keep in mind in our analysis of T-Nagar, Chennai.


In 2010, Gehl Architects, working in collaboration with the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP), visited Chennai to investigate how we could leverage ongoing investment in improving mobility toward a people centred approach. We investigated the T-Nagar district as a project site to conduct surveys, analyze data, describe a process of implementation and effectively communicate these facts to decision makers. Using the same Public Space Public Life methodology employed in New York City and Copenhagen, Gehl Architects measured the movement patterns of pedestrians moving through streets, the quantity of people lingering in the streets and spaces and documented the age and gender of street users as well as the type of activities in which they are engaged.17

The T-Nagar district is a regional transit hub, hosting two major train stations, Tamil Nadu’s busiest bus station and a proposed new metro stop, all within a one km radius. Equally important in the district is the regional retail destination with a high concentration of shops as well as vibrant hawker/vendor activity along South Usman Road and Ranganathan Street. The urban grain of the area is ideal for its mixed use character. A fine grain (narrow buildings, several entrances) is the dominant form with quieter residential streets offering an intimate refuge from the bustling retail streets, major city parks and other institutions which ensure an active and lively district, both day and night. Similar to most major retail corridors in Indian cities, the presence of street vendors and hawkers dramatically affects the character of the street and the intensity of public life.

Despite having a similar pedestrian traffic volume to vibrant retail streets in Copenhagen, S. Usman Road in T-Nagar exhibited a much higher frequency and intensity of lingering activities. S. Usman Road is much more intensely used as a public space than Broadway and has even more activity than Oxford Street in London, which has nearly twice as much pedestrian footfall. In the T-Nagar neighbourhood, the street space is used much more intensely as a social space than neighbouring public spaces as exemplified with over 12 times more activity recorded in S. Usman Road throughout the day than in the neighbouring Panagal Park. This despite the fact that Panagal Park provides many more places to sit and more space for other types of lingering activities not possible in the exceptionally hectic and crowded S. Usman Road.


The type of user groups that feel comfortable in public spaces in T-Nagar varies dramatically between day and night-time hours. Women are the predominant gender (approximately 58% of pedestrians) until 5 pm when a dramatic shift occurs and then men dramatically outnumber the number of women (approximately 64% of pedestrians observed were male) moving through the S. Usman Road. This stands in contrast to Copenhagen City Centre were the average number of women remains relatively constant throughout the day at approximately 60%.


The high modal share of pedestrian activity in Indian cities is in part due to the proportion of economic ‘captive pedestrians’ and according to forecasts this is not set to change. Cities should try to ‘capture’ the inherent value this type of journey offers the individual, the wider environment as well as the public purse. We have shown the levels of investment required for cycle tracks compared to monorail in Figure 4. Chennai proposes to build 311 km of track, almost the total length of Copenhagen’s cycle network. The municipality of Chennai should reconsider this transit oriented development that requires massive financial investment and captures value from land-markets instead of capturing the greater, more sustainable values inherent in current human behaviour and transit choices.


Infrastructure Cost Comparison for Non-motorized Transport vs. Monorail

In Chennai and across Indian cities there is an opportunity to sustain the function of the street as a social space as seen on South Usman Road while improving safety and increasing traffic speed. As seen on Broadway, an increase in traffic speeds was achieved simultaneously with an increase in space for pedestrians. The simplification of crossings has helped reduce accident rates. In a people first approach to safety in the street, the social signals and a correct propensity of risk build on the grain of human behaviour rather than trying to control or regulate it with barriers, signals or indeed CCTV. Creating a shared space whereby safety is part of our individual and social responsibility allows hazards to inform and influence behaviour along with creative design of places that read properly and protect the most vulnerable. This is in line with some of the most progressive thinking around road safety and the software of Chennai is well equipped to adopt much of it.


The expression cycling culture is used to describe something broader than high rates of cycling; it infers wider social trends and lifestyle choices that have either pre-dated the cycling rates or are affiliated to them. In Copenhagen, cycling is ingrained across all sections of society but this has taken a great deal of time. New York is just beginning to invite wider populations to cycle in the city, policy in part prompted by vanguard groups who dispelled the myth that you couldn’t cycle in NYC. As India’s booming middle class seeks out new consumer and urban lifestyle choices, this is an optimum moment to promote cycling culture across cities, especially in young adults.


As this paper has shown in the cases of Copenhagen and New York, facilitating a change in mindset (software) is as important as implementing high-quality pedestrian, cycling and public transit infrastructure (hardware). This change of mindset is embodied in the perception of safety, accessibility for everyone, invitations for young and old, the fit and the unfit, and men as well as women. We must create invitations based on understanding people’s behaviour and their specific reasons for transit integration, rather than trying to design and build our way blindly out of a problem.


Implementing the principles below is a start toward ensuring that mobility and an accessible city for pedestrians and cyclists can become a liveable city for all. Improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders means improving the quality of life in the city. Inviting more people to use NMT and PT is a tool to improve quality of life – not a goal in and of itself. In short, mobility must be seen as a means not as an end. People First Mobility (PFM) prioritizes comfort, safety, choice, and convenience while optimizing proximity to services, priority for pedestrians, and the integration of various modes of transportation. Mobility should be considered both a necessity and a right. The way in which one moves through the city impacts the way in which he experiences it. The ability to travel through the city, reaching desired destinations in an efficient and safe manner, is a freedom that all citizens should have.

Today, reducing automobile dependence by improving mobility within cities is talked about in terms of global sustainability, using public transportation instead of driving a private vehicle decreases traffic, fossil fuel use, and the output of harmful emissions. We believe that reducing CO2 emissions, conserving land and making transport more efficient go hand in hand with improving the quality of life.


Promote social inclusivity: A complete system of mobility within a city encourages a sense of equality among its citizens. When successfully incorporated into the grain of the city, public transportation, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle lanes, are usable by all because of their low cost and convenience. In this sense, People First Mobility fosters democracy as well as a sense of individual importance. PFM promotes inclusivity by increasing accessibility to transport infrastructure and other amenities, while ensuring proximity to necessities such as health care, education, and places of employment, improving daily life for individuals and lessening gaps between social classes.

Enhance personal freedom: People First Mobility concentrates on the actual experience of moving through the city. Rather than considering a transportation network as a plan of linked pathways that should be viewed from above, PFM focuses on the details, such as sidewalk widths, intersection details, and station accommodation, that are experienced at eye level and impact one’s daily life. Comfort, convenience, and safety are of utmost importance. A holistic approach to movement means that various modes of transportation are linked together, and people are free to choose from many options and modes on how to best move from A to B.


Physically, mentally and socially healthy: By encouraging means of individual transportation such as walking and bicycling, PFM promotes a healthy lifestyle. When it is easy and convenient for individuals to get from place to place within the city in a way that keeps them physically fit, they will be more likely to incorporate exercise into their daily routine. PFM can promote mental health. Reduced commuting time can be achieved when efficient transportation systems exist, resulting in less stress and more time for family and friends. PFM also seeks to provide proximity to nature in the city and adequate access.

Support local viability: PFM supports the development of communities by encouraging individuals to spend time in neighbourhoods, making them more social, lively, and economically viable. Areas of the city that are easily walkable and bike-able create an atmosphere in which people tend to linger, increasing local economic value through retail and light industry and bringing individuals together. When it is easy to get to and move between multiple parts of the city, small businesses and local trades regain their competitive advantage allowing them to persevere and possibly flourish.

Measure economic efficiency: People First Mobility encourages investments that are efficient for society. Incorporating inexpensive NMT infrastructure such as bike lanes and pedestrian zones into a city makes an excellent complement to more expensive infrastructure such as high-speed rail or underground metro systems. By creating this opportunity in modal shifts, an increase in capacity is gained along with a cost effective infrastructure system. In addition, such infrastructure is sustainable over time, as it can change as the needs of the city evolve – it is much more affordable to add more bike tracks to major streets than it is to incorporate new destinations to a railway line or to expand underground subway systems.

Embrace diversity: People First Mobility represents a new way of thinking that is relevant to the contemporary city. Rather than following the models of development that have been established as normal over the course of the past half century, it seeks to rethink how cities can be improved for people. Cities are the most rich and diverse forms of human settlement. PFM aspires to capitalize on this diversity with simple solutions. PFM is not about encouraging the most complex solution to mobility within cities, but works to incorporate its diverse richness.


As we try to achieve the integration of walking, public transit and cycling, we will have to understand that people are different, not all public transit is the same, and cyclists do not all have the same needs. Using liveability and quality of life parameters, we can provide a variety of incentives (or ways to break down barriers) to diverse users. To achieve this fine aggregation, we need the data to support our arguments.

This paper has provided several examples of parameters that can be measured to assess the extent to which the built environment promotes human well-being. In addition to many of the safety parameters measured today such as reducing accidents, injuries and fatalities for all road users, more qualitative measurements such as perceived safety should be measured as well. Safety can also be quantified indirectly by measuring the amount of female, young and elderly pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders. A proportionate share of these users in relation to population indirectly indicates both the perceived and actual safety of streets. Accessibility is another vital indicator that can be measured through improved travel time, having numerous options for journeys of all lengths and the level of seamless integration between transit modes. A balanced modal split is also vital, with NMT comprising at least 20-30% of all journeys.


The experience of moving through the city is improved by providing high quality opportunities to stop and linger. Therefore, measuring the intensity of activity taking place in city streets such as the quantity of people lingering in streets and spaces and documenting the age and gender of street users as well as the type of activities they are engaged in are necessary. This intensity should be considered in relation to the quantity and the quality of space provided, quantity of space in terms of sidewalk width in relation to road width in relation to quantity of users as illustrated in the New York example. The quality of space can be measured by a variety of factors relating to buildings such as frequency of entrances and transparency of facades as well as in terms of invitations provided to spend time either through public seating or other attractive amenities.

Current indices of urban livability, such as those from The Economist or Monocle, measure livability in terms of safety, crime, international connectivity, climate and political-economic stability. No widely reviewed and accepted parameters exist to assess mobility systems, or their relationship with human parameters such as comfort, perceived safety and sense of belonging. More easily quantifiable measures for improved health, increased mobility and decreased commuting times would be a step in the right direction. The aim has to be to measure the overall ecological efficiency with which a human well-being is delivered through the built environment.


The people first approach requires politicians, city officials and design professionals to undergo a drastic change of mindset. The approach demands that we expand the definition of design from a fixed plan to a guiding framework; success criteria from a specific form based design code (New Urbanist), to a human performance based code (opportunities to meet, interact and flourish in public space either alone or together); from transportation system performance criteria (e.g. system speed) to human mobility comfort and convenience performance criteria (proximity and accessibility to education, work, leisure). As we have discussed in this paper, a shift from a ‘hardware’ driven approach where infrastructure is the main driver to a mix of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ where the relationship between the form of the built environment and its impact on human sociability and mobility is what is required. This methodology does not define a specific aesthetic or a one-size fits all design solution and therefore requires that policy makers and design professionals relinquish a certain amount of control to citizens.

This undoubtedly also creates problems. Our experience shows that smaller municipalities often lack the skill and expertise to create truly livable and sustainable design solutions. Larger city authorities might have been able to attract talent capable of implementing these types of people first design strategies, but in an age of public sector austerity, funding for these processes is limited. Even if they do have the skill and funding resources, as several local authorities do in Scandinavia, a cultural will must still exist to prioritize more difficult to quantify goals such as perceived safety, observed longer lingering times in public spaces, and impacts on well-being and overall health.


Revising policy and retrofitting our physical surroundings will result in only so much change. Not until the talents of architects and planners together with sociologists and urban economists become fully focused on these realities, rather than falling prey to utopian aspirations, can we begin to holistically create urban and suburban environments for the 21st century.


* With thanks to Somya Sethuram and Roshan Toshniwal at Transparent Chennai for data and statistics. Thanks to ITDP India and Chennai City Connect for making Gehl Architects’ work in Chennai possible providing volunteers for data collection. Thanks to Emmy Laura, Pérez Fjalland, Sia Kirknaes and Lars Gemzøe for input and support.


1. R. Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Penguin Press, New York, 2005.

2. J.E. Stiglitz, A. Sen and J. Fitoussi, Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. CMEPSP, Paris, 2009.

3. R.D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001.

4. D. Brooks, The Social Animal. The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Random House, New York, 2011.

5. WHO, WHO Statistical Information Services (Whosis). World Health Organization, Geneva, 2008.

6. J. Gehl, L. Gemzøe and S. Kirknaes, New City Life. The Danish Architectural Press (Arkitektens Forlag), Copenhagen, 2006.

7. City of Copenhagen and Arup, Copenhagen: Solutions for Sustainable Cities. City of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 2011.

8. T.T. Copenhagen, Copenhagen Bicycle Account 2008. The City of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 2009.

9. H. Commission, Traffic Accidents Report 5. Accident Investigation Board of Denmark, Copenhagen, 2008.

10. Ibid., H. Commission, 2008.

11. NYC DOT, World Class Streets: Remaking New York City’s Public Realm, 2008. Available at [pdf] : spreads.pdf

12. Partha Chaterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

13. S. Kaviraj, ‘Filth and the Public Sphere: Concepts and Practices About Space in Calcutta’, Public Culture 10(1), Fall 1997, pp. 83-113.

14. S.K. Bhowmik, ‘National Policy for Street Vendors’, Economic and Political Weekly 38(16), 2003, pp. 1543-1546.

15. P. Murphy, Social Capital Networks. Lecture Copenhagen Business School (online), 2007 Available at < Unsocial-sociability-The-paradoxes-of-intellectual-capital-formation-and-social-capital-networks>

16. Transparent Chennai (2009) [online] Available at <http://www.transparent>

17. J. Gehl and L. Gemzøe, Public Spaces Public Life Copenhagen. The Danish Architectural Press (Arkitektens Forlag), Copenhagen, 1996.


Further Reading:

National Policy on Urban Street Vendors. Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, Government of India, Delhi, 2009.

X. Godard and I. Fatonzoun, Urban Mobility for All. Swets and Zeitlinger, Lisse, The Netherlands, 2002.

D. Mohan, ‘Social Cost of Road Traffic Accidents in India’, in: Proceedings of the 1st Safe Community Conference on Cost of Injuries, October 2002, Viborg, Denmark, pp 33-38.

D. Mohan, O. Tsimhoni, M. Sival and M.J. Flannagan, Road Safety in India: Challenges and Opportunities. UMTRI, Michigan, 2009.

M. Seedat, S. Mackenzie and D. Mohan, ‘The Phenomenology of Being a Female Pedestrian in an American and Asian City: A Qualitative Investigation’, Transportation Research Part F, 2006, pp. 139-153.

R. Sennett, ‘Why Complexity Improves the Quality of City Life.’ Cities Health and Well Being conference. Urban Age. Hong Kong, 2011.

G. Tiwari, ‘Returning Streets to the People’, BMJ 324(1), 2002.



Captive pedestrians: Those who are priced out of even very low cost travel such as bicycles and are therefore required to walk, even when it is for long distances.

Natural markets: The natural propensity for street vendors to locate at particular places at particular times.

Primary cities: Those Indian cities with a population greater than 50 lakh, or 5 million viz. Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.