On the move: Urban design for access
New York City complete street. Photo by Kyle Gradinger/Flickr.

Two cyclists pedal in a New York City bike lane. New York is one of the leading cities in implementing complete street policies, which improve accessibility and safety for users across all modes of transport. Photo by Kyle Gradinger/Flickr.

This is the eighth post of the “Sustainable Urban Transport On The Move” blog series, exclusive to TheCityFix. Preparation of this series was possible thanks to a grant by Shell Corporation. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors.

The most recent UN-HABITAT Global Report on Human Settlements affirmed that access to destinations, activities, services, and goods lies at the core of urban mobility. To meet this end, transforming urban development patterns towards mixed use and compact design, combined with high-quality pedestrian and biking infrastructure, will help create more accessible – and sustainable – urban spaces.

Today’s urban form and travel patterns that stem from the mass production of automobiles have produced a range of negative impacts that are prompting urban and transport planners to rethink how we design our cities. While car-centric development is still the prevailing urban development paradigm, there is a growing emphasis on designing cities for people in many major metropolises.

Changes in public streets: 1900 - present. Graphic by Gehl Architects, adapted by EMBARQ.

Changes in public streets: 1900 – present. Graphic by Gehl Architects, adapted by EMBARQ.

The global reemergence of transit-oriented development (TOD)

North America and Europe

Transit-oriented development (TOD) refers to compact, mixed-use development near transport facilities and accessible walking environments. Prior to the era of private vehicles, TOD was commonly implemented around railway stations in cities across the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States. And from the 1950s to 1970s, while the United States focused on highway expansion, TOD remained popular in Scandinavian cities like Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden. Indeed, Copenhagen’s 1947 Finger Plan – an example of citywide TOD planning that still influences the city’s growth today – was the earliest document to guide integration between major transport corridors and urban development.

The United States saw a reemergence of TOD in the 1970s with the rise of the New Urbanism movement. Today, TOD is an important principle referred to by federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (DOT FTA). Although urban areas planned according to TOD principles are still in the minority compared to low-density suburban developments, several successful TOD projects have been implemented across the country, including the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor in Arlington, Virginia, and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) in northern California. And the future demand for housing located near public transport is expected to grow rapidly – the number of households living within half a mile of public transport stations is predicted to increase from six million to 14.6 million between 2004 to 2025.


Across the Pacific, successful examples of TOD are found in Hong Kong, China; Tokyo, Japan; and Singapore, to name a few notable instances. Often considered to be one of the world’s most successful TOD models, Hong Kong’s “rail plus property” approach concentrates dense and diverse urban development along transport corridors, while successfully financing capital infrastructure through land value capture.

TOD has also gradually become a key design principle referred to in mainland China, and increasingly in India, and several Chinese cities have adopted TOD principles, including Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen. However, in many other Chinese and Indian cities the exploration of TOD is more focused on planning proposals than implementation, as most cities lack policies that enable the cross-institutional collaboration necessary to implement TOD projects.

Latin America

Despite urban characteristics that would seem favorable to TOD, the number of TOD projects in Latin America is fairly limited. Recently, however, various TOD principles have been implemented around bus rapid transit (BRT) stations in Curitiba, Brazil; Bogotá, Colombia; and Santiago, Chile, among others. Curitiba has pursued linear, high-density, and mixed-used development since the 1970s, supported by high-capacity bus transit corridors, and it has paid off – today, 70% of commuting trips are made by bus. Bogotá has also implemented ambitious redevelopment projects linked to the city’s TransMilenio BRT system.

Designing streets for pedestrians and cyclists

The needs and safety of non-motorized transport users have long been ignored in many cities when it comes to designing streets. But recently, there’s been a revival of people-oriented street design, similar to that of TOD. Begun in Europe and spread to the United States, this revival is reflected by the increasing number of pedestrian zones and complete streets worldwide.

Pedestrian zones, or car-free zones, designate certain urban streets or districts as spaces exclusively for the use of pedestrians, in an effort to improve pedestrian safety and street vibrancy. The first designated pedestrian zone was in Lijnbaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 1953. From there, the concept gained popularity throughout Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, over 370 cities on all five continents have adopted some form of pedestrian zones.

In the United States, complete streets policies have been widely adopted in the past decade. Complete streets promote the design, operation, and maintenance of streets for users of all ages and all modes of transport. The first complete streets policy was implemented in Portland, Oregon in 1975, and by July 2013, over 520 regional and local jurisdictions in 27 states had adopted selected complete streets policies. Complete streets demonstrate benefits such as increased accessibility, enhanced pedestrian safety, and increased urban vitality.

Complete streets policy adoption. Graphic by EMBARQ.

Complete streets policy adoption between 2005 to 2011 in the United States. Graphic adapted from Complete Streets Policy Analysis 2011.

Challenges and opportunities for the future

Many cities in emerging economies – particularly mid-size, rapidly growing metropolises – face the major challenge of maintaining healthy mode shares of non-motorized transport despite urban growth. This challenge is particularly paramount in Asia and Africa. And while most cities in these regions are being designed with the car in mind, the importance of preserving biking and walking mode shares has started receiving attention – especially in China. In fact, the Chinese National Government recently recommended that cities increase their non-motorized share of travel by 5-10% before 2015.

People-friendly, transport-oriented urban environments encourage residents to bike, walk, and ride public transport more often, and if well-managed, cities can reap many positive economic and social impacts from this shift. While there has been growing progress in urban design for access in cities in both industrial and emerging economies, continued scaling-up of these efforts will require greater policy recognition and action in more cities.

Robin King, Dario Hidalgo, Akshay Mani, Ryan Schleeter, and Kyle Mackie also contributed to this blog.

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