Mary Elbech is an Integrated Mobility Consultant with Mobycon, a mobility consultancy rooted in the Dutch approach to transportation planning and design.
At Mobycon, we are honored to be partnering with Project for Public Spaces for their upcoming Reimagining Streets as Places masterclass-style training this October. The training will focus on the intersection of placemaking and transportation planning, bringing together our experience in multimodal systems planning, and Project for Public Spaces' expertise in creating inclusive, interesting, and full-of-character public spaces at the street level.
The multi-day training will teach the essentials within three overall topics: systematically changing transportation infrastructure and behavior; preparing community-based street activations; and balancing the movement and public space functions of a street. We are particularly excited about this series because both organizations share a strong commitment to a people-first approach.
In this article, we wanted to give you a taste of Mobycon's approach to balancing transportation and placemaking on the street, and some of our recent cutting edge research that we'll be sharing in the training.
The training will address a fundamental challenge to public space that has been growing over the past several decades: The extent to which city streets around the world have been turned over to the automobile.
Although they are a part of the public realm, busy streets can often be perceived as hostile environments for anyone who is not inside a vehicle. Thankfully, the perception of streets as public space is starting to grow, which in turn is bringing forth an unwillingness to accept the status quo of car-dominated streets.
Because of this, municipalities all over the world are looking to draw inspiration from cities and countries that made significant progress in terms of reclaiming their city streets as public space and making them safer and more appealing for non-motorists.
This, of course, is where the Dutch approach to transportation planning comes in. This approach, which we practice at Mobycon, is often seen as the gold standard for transforming streets into places, and there is a decades-long history to support this.
Starting in the 1970s, Dutch communities began pushing back against the assumed role of the automobile and placing a greater emphasis on the safety and comfort of vulnerable road users—pedestrians and cyclists, and children in particular. Since then, a vast amount of research, funding, design efforts, and dare we say a healthy dose of political will and an openness to innovation, have gotten Dutch cities to where they are today. The Dutch approach, which emphasizes network-based planning and a focus on integrated mobility, is especially relevant as we work to reduce car-dependency around the world.
The lessons learned in the Netherlands can be used to inform and inspire others to make the changes necessary to bring life back to the streets of a city. Of course, this does not mean simply copying and pasting from Amsterdam to any city in the world, but there are core principles that can be adapted to different urban and political contexts.
Mobycon uses the Dutch approach to integrated mobility in all the work we do. This approach follows a structure consisting of four key elements that inform how a space should be designed:
1. People: We examine who currently uses the space in question, as well as who would like to use the space. People may avoid a specific location for a variety of reasons, and it is important to understand why this is, when the goal is to make it welcoming to all users.
2. Activities: Next, we examine what’s going on, what land uses are present, and how people are currently interacting with the given space. This helps determine what works and what doesn’t work.
It also informs the careful consideration of what uses and activities should become part of an early vision of how the space can be transformed. In this context, effective public engagement is key to identifying current and desired activities and ensuring that the perspective of real-world users is being taken into consideration.
3. Transport modes: Building on the observations of people and activities, the next step is to examine what modes of transportation would best serve the people using the space and support their activities.
We must thoroughly consider user preferences and why users choose certain modes—a step crucial to achieving an integrated mobility system where all modes are safe, convenient, and inviting.
4. Infrastructure: Finally, we examine the infrastructure and determine which facilities are needed to accommodate the travel modes identified in the previous step.
Safety is at the forefront of our work, and we utilize the Sustainable Safety approach—the Dutch approach to the global Vision Zero movement—to ensure a forgiving environment that aims to prevent serious crashes and eliminate the risk of serious injury or fatality.
This approach also ensures that safe and functional transportation systems are maintained, as it helps determine when to mix and when to separate vulnerable road users from higher-speed transport modes. Infrastructure solutions are tailored to the local context to further ensure safe spaces that both fit in with their surroundings and are comfortable and intuitive for people to use.
All this talk about the Dutch approach might have you wondering, does it live up to the hype? We might be biased, but as a firm that works with this approach first hand every day: yes it does.
But as the traditional way of planning cities is challenged by increasing urbanization and new and emerging modes of transportation, including e-scooters, cargo bikes, and shared mobility, we must continue to learn and develop new ways to adapt to these forms of mobility. The space we have on the street to accommodate more people and new modes is always limited, so we must innovate and work toward the next generation of safe systems planning.
At Mobycon, we are actively addressing this challenge in the Netherlands, where we are researching and piloting a new approach for how cities can optimize public spaces in a way that improves both traffic flow and daily function. The outcome of this research is a design methodology for urban traffic networks that creates an intuitive balance between spatial functions, the quality of public space and urban mobility, accessibility, and proximity—offering municipalities tools to create a smarter, safer city.