For the last decade, it’s been clear that improving city transport can and should mean more than simply adding metro or bus capacity.

As cities also grapple with the challenges of meeting net zero goals, the focus is increasingly on measures that will encourage both public transport and expand the popularity of ‘active travel’ – cycling, scooters, walking, jogging. In this way travel is an issue that addresses multiple priorities: health and wellbeing, economic opportunity, public safety, traffic congestion, air quality and social inclusion. With budgets always under pressure, the goal is to develop active travel programmes that are genuinely inclusive, for all age groups, genders, and that command real public support and engagement. 

How does active travel respond to a city’s historical transport decisions and priorities? Often the status quo includes wide congested roads, triple lane highways, a preference for cars and trucks and buses. In this scenario the public are often understandably hesitant to shift away from their cars, despite the traffic, citing safety, difficult routes or poorly lit pathways. As our recent work on an inclusive active travel plan for Ankara, Turkey demonstrates it’s not simply a case of building cycle paths and expecting people to leave their cars at home.  

While the initial pilot scheme extends to 4.75km, the longer-term ambition for this project in Ankara is to realise 210km of new cycle lanes – a major step forward, assuming cycling gains acceptance in the city. So, what principles guided our work?

Listen and learn

To produce real local interest in active travel options, particularly where this involves overcoming entrenched patterns of behaviour, you have to conduct local research and focus groups. A listening exercise will reveal both general and particular barriers to overcome. In our Ankara work, we discovered that the lack of physical barriers between cycles and other vehicles and pedestrians was seen as a major issue to overcome. This would go on to shape our thinking about how cycling could go from ‘unfamiliar/unsafe’ to ‘obvious choice’ in the shortest time. We also identified key motivators to weave into the overall narrative.

Craft messages for different user groups

In the case of Ankara, we knew we were facing the city with the highest level of car ownership and usage in the entire country. It would not be enough to provide some cycle hire points and expect instant change. We realised that to ensure engagement with what is a new way to travel, we need to understand the consumer and their motivations, address their concerns, convince them, and correctly position our cycling proposition. It also means tailoring the message to different user groups. Children and young people can be encouraged to see cycling as something that improves their leisure and freedom. For adults and older groups, cycling can make more sense as a healthy choice and as a cheap, inclusive form of transport to work.

Safety is the first story to tell

In that communications strategy, the research with local people was clear on the reasons for scepticism or concern: the city in its current form didn’t seem at all safe for cyclists; there was a belief that you wouldn’t be able to go point-to-point by bike, without giving up or switching back to powered transport at some point. In the background of these concerns are Turkey’s road fatality rate, running at around three times that of the UK (2019 figures).

To guarantee the safety of cyclists, we designed the cycle network to minimise interactions between cyclists and motorised traffic, especially on roads with higher speeds and traffic volumes. We also considered physical criteria to determine which streets have the potential to be cyclable; gradient, surfacing, speed, parking, street width. Significant sections of the local street network in Ankara can be considered inherently cyclable for all population groups of the city. These streets are characterised by narrow carriageways, low speeds, and the absence of through traffic. These cyclable streets will play a key role in building the cycling culture of Ankara and will act as feeders to the more formal infrastructure.

Active travel is multi-modal

Part of our approach to encouraging the adoption of cycling and active travel measures, was to make explicit their connection to other forms of public transport. Once users grasp how cycling or walking integrates with other affordable, regular and safe transport options, there’s greater possibility that they will make the switch. This is particularly important for older, more frail or disabled travellers, who need to have confidence they will be able to complete their journeys safely. 

A climate change roll for the public

In poll after poll, the public are ahead of politicians in wanting to see urgent progress on net zero, decarbonisation and climate change. This indicates a clear opportunity to position active and inclusive travel programmes as a means by which the public can play their part in this local and global agenda. Related issues like air pollution, clearly caused in part by fossil fuel vehicle emissions, are more tangible to city populations than the more distant and complex idea of climate change. Everyone shares the same oxygen, so everyone can play their part in improving its quality by changing their travel behaviour. 

Keep selling the benefits

Among the many negative impacts of the 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic has been the fall in use of public transport networks, often after years of vital investment and development. To prevent the spread of the disease, populations were encouraged not to use them, and in places that behaviour has stuck. While this will hopefully prove temporary as the vaccine rollouts continue to take effect, it’s a reminder that active travel programmes will require a continuous sales pitch to the public at large.

Ultimately, we believe that active and inclusive travel has enough merits that it will begin to sell itself. Post-pandemic there has been a resurgence of interest in ideas like the 15-minute neighbourhood, where life, work and leisure coexist in a contained neighbourhood – a scale where active travel makes the most sense. For city authorities, it is these lifestyle improving elements that will be most valuable as they attempt to encourage this more sustainable model of travel across our cities.