Interview with Mikael Colville-Andersen
As most cities in the Europe are currently quiet due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some are already planning for the future. A future that might include more emphasis on active mobility. To discuss current and future perspectives, the PACTE project sat down with Mikael Colville-Andersen, Urban Design Expert and host of the urbanism documentary series The Life-Sized City.
For decades, cities have been designed relying solely on traffic engineering. Why is it an issue for the development of active cities in Europe?
The pedestal on which we have placed traffic engineering is undeserved and it has been brutally destructive for decades. For millennia, we designed our streets and cities for our citizens. Design is a human-to-human process involving a symbiosis between the designer and the end user. Traffic engineering is focused on mathematical equations with little regard for the human experience. It is folly to continue allowing one profession to dominate the streets of our cities, also because the car-centric streets now dominate all urban life. We will still need the engineers but it’s time to reverse the pyramid. Urban designers, planners, anthropologists, sociologists and our citizens should be our primary consultants.
Many newspapers have dubbed you “The Pope of Urban Cycling“. In your opinion, why is urban cycling essential in modern cities? What can be done to promote it?
We have known for more than a century that cycling as transport is good for cities and over the past 30 years we have proven it beyond a doubt. Every city on the planet was bicycle-friendly for decades until the onslaught of American traffic engineering pushed everyone out of the way. Cycling is the most urban-anthropologically appropriate form of transport. It affords citizens a quick way to move about the urban landscape and offers massive benefits for public health and interaction with one’s city. Regarding efficiency, we can move 5900 people per hour down a street on Best Practice bicycle infrastructure, as opposed to merely 1200 motorists. All while using a fraction of the space to do so.
Copenhagen never really promoted cycling. The city just built the infrastructure. A complete, cohesive network of protected cycle tracks that allows the bicycle to outperform other forms of transport with regard to travel times and ease-of-use. Only THAT will boost cycling numbers anywhere.
According to you, what other aspects of urban development and citizen engagement should be implemented in order to help citizens to be more active?
Our ongoing and embarrassing obsession with traffic engineering also removed citizen engagement from urban planning. After 7000 years of cities where citizens were – in one way or another – involved in the process, we ignored them. The true experts in a city are the citizens who use it. You, reading this, are the absolute expert in what works or needs to be improved in the immediate area around your home. Urban citizens around the world are now speaking up and taking action. It is the main theme of my urbanism documentary series, The Life-Sized City and it’s inspiring and beautiful. In Denmark, we rank in the top tier of nations that recycle. Why? Because an effective system is in place. We lead the world in buying organic food. Why? The food industry made organic products financially accessible – banking on making money in the long-term as opposed to capitalising on the trend and profiting unfairly in the short term. Sixty-three percent of Copenhageners cycle as transport. Why? It’s the quickest way to get around, not for environmental reasons. Cities can enable their experts by creating the loose framework in which citizens can be involved and engaged. Loosening up zoning laws, restrictions and encouraging citizen-led initiatives and ideas.
The current Covid-19 crisis has shed a strong light on the need to be moving. A few cities in Europe have responded by committing to increase active mobility schemes. How confident are you that it will bring lasting changes to our mobility habits?
For me, the best idea that has gained purchase during the Covid-19 crisis is pop-up bike lanes. Now that cities FINALLY have a reason to put in bike lanes, the goal is to keep them and make them permanent. This is the time to act. I am an optimist but I’ve also worked in over 100 cities around the world, so I know that it’s important to be a realist. Some cities will exploit this opportunity for the better and reap the benefits. Others will throw themselves back under the wheels of car-centric planning once the crisis fades.