Cities That Get Mobility Right

Sustainable urban transportation — sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transit like subways, buses, and street cars — are all central to successful urban development, but no one size fits all. Smart cities large and small are using different approaches, but all are focused on improving the quality of urban mobility. At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, Oliver Schulze, Schulze + Grassov; Jonathan Solomon, Associate Dean, Syracuse University School of Architecture; and Chandra Brown, President, United Streetcar, Portland, Oregon, explained how three very different cities — Copenhagen, Hong Kong, and Portland — have created world-class sustainable transportation systems.

Copenhagen is a “micro-metropolis, filled with tall, good-looking people,” said Schulze. Copenhageners “get up every day at 6.30am and eat oatmeal.” There is a real sense of continuity in the Danish culture. Almost everyone gets on their bike to commute to work. “There’s no lycra, we just use our bikes.”

Copenhagen has mastered the “art of soft ways of getting around” — walking, biking, and public transit. He said these “slow means of transportation actually allow you to engage the city.” Biking also builds autonomy and individual development, particularly among kids. “Half of kids bicycle to school every day.” This mobility is a form of emancipation.


But beyond the broader benefits, people there bike so much “because it’s fast, efficient, and cheap. We do it because it’s an efficient way to get around.”

Copenhagen has only increased the share of people walking and biking, which, interestingly, is counter to national trends in Denmark (they, too, fight the rise of the car). The city has an ambitious plan to become “number one in walking and biking worldwide.” To accomplish this, Schulze said the city is already “making biking more competitive with other forms of transportation — by making it more comfortable and safer.” Cycling is seen as a key tool for helping Denmark achieve its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 (never mind all the oil it exports).

In Portland, “the European capital of the United States,” carbon emissions are down 6 percent below 1990 levels and down a further 26 percent on a per-capita basis, even though the population has grown 26 percent, said Brown. A big share of this success story is due to the sustainable transportation options the city provides. Portland was the first American city to do “modern street cars.”


These street cars are “modern circulation systems, not commuter systems.” They are designed so people can jump on and off at will. While the environmental and health benefits of street cars are clear, they’ve been an economic boon as well. In the blocks surrounding the street car line, there’s been more than $3.5 billion in private sector investment. Brown said these successes were due to “changes made through policy and planning. There’s a 20 year street car plan.”

Brown said due to Portland’s successes — both in policy and practice — many more cities in the U.S. and elsewhere are looking at putting in street cars to boost economic development. Washington, D.C. will use Brown’s street cars for its new H street line, putting back in modern street cars where the original creaky ones were a long time ago.

Hong Kong, the one megalopolis discussed, provides yet another approach, with thick “masses of pedestrian networks” at the base of skyscrapers. Combined with “great public transportation system” comprised of buses, subways, and ferries, there is a truly inter-modal transportation system, said Solomon, who spent six years studying the system and eventually wrote a book on it. It’s easy to “take a taxi to a ferry to a bus and have every type of transportation waiting for you on your journey.” Among the buses alone, there are multiple, competing private companies, which means there are always buses available (and some that unfortunately may be idling, giving off emissions and air pollution).

While Hong Kong’s system is planned, there’s also a sense of “happenstance.” Hong Kong’s intense “3-D multi-modality” is the result of an “aformal urbanism” that takes advantage of both “formal” top-down rules and “informal” bottom-up, “extra-legal or illegal systems.” As an example, public right of ways seem to meander right through privately-owned malls and hotel lobbies. Shopping centers can provide vital public space. “Public activities bleed through these networks.”

The HK equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement actually hosted protests on foot bridges and set up camp under a major bank. Solomon said these public-private hybrid public spaces “prove that public spaces don’t need to look like a typical park or plaza.”

Beyond the fact that the combined public-private transit and pedestrian system works, Hong Kong’s public transit system actually makes money, one of the two such systems in the world to do so (the other is Tokyo’s). This is because many subway stations also function as malls. The retail opportunities pay for the infrastructure and maintenance. Private developers take part in the system designed to boost foot traffic. Now, the new planning model is “podium structures,” which maximize foot traffic, with stations, shopping malls, and residential towers built as a single piece.

Hong Kong also uses sticks to push people to use their walking and transit systems: there’s a 100 percent tax on new cars.

Image credits: (1) Copenhagen bicyclists / Streets blog DC, (2) Copenhagen children bike carriage / A bit of that, (3) Kids bicycling / Storbrittannien, (4) Portland Street Car / CPM Associates, (5) Portland Street Car Condos and Development / Metro Jackson, (6) Hong Kong Foot bridge / Bus Station, Torontoist, (7) Shopping Mall signage / Travel blog, (8) Landmark Mall in Central, HK / The HK Shopper

4 thoughts on “Cities That Get Mobility Right

  1. Jamie Csizmadia 02/27/2013 / 2:27 pm

    Great article! I just sat in on a lively symposium in Oklahoma City last night, listening to esteemed transit planner Jarrett Walker discuss “abundant access” vs. “symbolic transit”. He differentiated between the real need to accommodate public transit users and the super-cool-feel-good-feeling we get when streetcars are suggested as THE solution to economic woes. As an unapologetic treehugger and as a lover of CHOICE/FREEDOM of transit options, I’m excited about the changes taking place in OKC, and I hope we take a few tips from the dynamic cities mentioned in this article. Thanks!

  2. Carol Clarke-Nash 02/28/2013 / 3:52 pm

    All urban planners/environmental ministry personnel should read this. Thanks.

  3. C H Krinsky 03/03/2013 / 5:34 pm

    Biking is healty and ecologically excellent but it is also dangerous if traffic rules are not enforced, as they aren’t in NY City. Cars and bikers collide, and bikers ordinarily do not stop at red lights, often bike outside bike lanes, often ride the wrong way on one-way streets, and even ride on sidewalks. Some athletic bikers proceed at racing speed, preventing them from apprehending danger to themselves and to others. Bikers, mostly young, may not understand that older people have slow reaction times, or poor vision or hearing. Enforcement of legal and courteous habits may be much better in Denmark and the Netherlands.

  4. winterseeker 03/17/2013 / 9:25 pm

    Reblogged this on greenpress~ and commented:
    Making the Big Move – so many rights (and even a few lefts) in these cities of diverse mobility…choice equals success.

Leave a Reply to C H Krinsky Cancel reply