The world's best cities for cycling

July 3, 2024

dutch family on bikes|cyclists in Copenhagen|Portland Sunday Parkways|

As the world grapples with a climate emergency, urban congestion, and declining public health, some cities have emerged as beacons of sustainable urban living by championing active travel.

These cities have transformed their streetscapes by fostering a culture of walking, cycling, and public transport. How did they do it? What hurdles did they overcome? And perhaps most importantly for us here in the UK, why are we falling behind?

Copenhagen, Denmark: A cycling utopia

Copenhagen is now synonymous with cycling. Nearly 62% of residents commute by bike, thanks to over 400km of dedicated cycle lanes. The Danes have introduced some clever tech, too. The city’s 'Green Wave' initiative synchronises traffic lights in favour of cyclists to ensures a smooth and swift commute.

Copenhagen cyclists

Copenhagen’s journey began during the oil crisis of the early 1970s that forced the city to rethink its dependence on cars.

Initially, there was resistance from car owners, who felt marginalised by the shift in focus. However, sustained public campaigns showcasing the health, environmental, and economic benefits of cycling won through.

The biggest challenge was reallocating road space from cars to bikes, which required a fundamental shift in urban planning. Overcoming political inertia and changing public perception were crucial steps.

Copenhagen implemented pilot projects to demonstrate the efficacy of bike lanes, gradually winning public support. The government also incentivised cycling through subsidies for bike purchases and maintenance, making cycling a practical and attractive option for everyone.


Amsterdam, Netherlands: A pioneer of active travel

Amsterdam is often regarded as the global leader in active travel, with the majority of trips within the city being made by bike. The city boasts over 500km of cycle paths and an integrated public transport system that complements the cycling network.

Amsterdam’s commitment to active travel dates back to the 1970s, driven largely by the Stop de Kindermoord protest movement against child road deaths. The city responded by pedestrianising large areas and implementing extensive bike paths. By serendipity, the demand for safer streets coincided with the oil crisis, which prompted to politicians to tackle car dependency.

When we spoke to Maartje van Putten - first president elect of the Stop de Kindermoord protest movement and former MEP - she explained how The Netherlands embarked on the transformation of its streets.


The shift was initially met with opposition due to a deeply ingrained car culture. As a result, transforming the infrastructure involved not only physical changes, but also altering a mindset that placed cars about people.

Amsterdam tackled this by promoting a cultural shift through educational campaigns and making active travel the most convenient choice. Today it would be impossible to disentangle cycling from the Dutch identity. Indeed, when the country's PM of 14 years left office this week, he did so by bike.

Portland, USA: An unexpected success story

Portland, Oregon, has become an unexpected leader in active travel in the land of the car. With over 600km of bike lanes and a 6.3% commuting rate by bicycle, Portland has set a benchmark for other American cities.

Portland’s transformation began in the 90s with the creation of the 'Bicycle Master Plan'. The city invested in cycling infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes and bike boulevards, which prioritise cycling on residential streets.

The shift towards active travel has generally been positive, with residents appreciating the reduction in traffic congestion and the increase in community interaction.

One of the main challenges was the city’s existing car-centric infrastructure. Changing the urban landscape to accommodate bikes and pedestrians required significant investment and a rethinking of urban space allocation.

Portland engaged the community through public consultations and pilot projects. The city demonstrated the benefits of active travel by showing how it could improve quality of life and reduce traffic congestion.


Barcelona, Spain: The 'superblock' revolution

Barcelona has pioneered the concept of 'superblocks', where car traffic is restricted within nine-block sections to allow central streets to be pedestrianised. This creates quieter, safer neighbourhoods with safe space for walking, cycling, and community activities.

Initially, there was resistance from residents and businesses concerned about access and convenience. However, the city introduced gradual rollouts and pilot projects to demonstrate the positive impacts, winning over sceptics.

Paris, France: The bold transformation

Paris has made bold strides in active travel under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The city has added over 1,000km of cycle lanes, pedestrianised major streets, and restricted car access in central areas .

Key initiatives include the Plan Vélo, which expanded cycling infrastructure, and the pedestrianisation of iconic areas like the Champs-Élysées on weekends. Paris has also introduced extensive bike-sharing schemes and incentives for businesses to invest in cargo bikes.

cyclists can run red lights

The transformation has been met with mixed reactions. While many Parisians welcome the reduced traffic and cleaner air, some motorists and businesses have pushed back against the loss of car access and parking.

Planners addressed these issues through a combination of strong political will, public consultation, and phased introduction. The city highlighted the long-term benefits of active travel, such as improved public health and reduced pollution, to gain public support.


The world’s leading cities for active travel have shown that creating liveable, sustainable urban environments is possible with the right vision, policies, and community engagement.

While each city faced its unique challenges, addressing car dependency, rethinking urban spaces, and prioritising people over cars have driven their successes.

Why does the UK falls behind in active travel?

The UK has a long history of prioritising cars in urban planning, leading to sprawling developments that are not conducive to walking or cycling. This car dependency makes it challenging to shift towards active travel without significant changes to infrastructure.

Unlike cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where political leaders now champion active travel, the UK has often lacked the political will to make bold changes. Short-term electoral cycles and a strong motoring lobby have side-lined long-term investments in cycling and walking infrastructure.

There is also a cultural resistance to reducing car use. Many people perceive cycling as unsafe or inconvenient, partly due to inadequate infrastructure and a notion that roads were built for cars. Overcoming this mindset requires substantial public education not to mention investment in safe and connected cycle lane networks.

It's worth noting that the radical changes to transport planning in the Netherlands were driven largely by an upswell of public protest, as opposed to being instigated by politicians.

Fragmented policies

Active travel initiatives in the UK are often fragmented and inconsistent, with varying levels of commitment and funding across regions.

By learning from the joined-up thinking and successes of cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Bogotá, the UK can create healthier, more sustainable cities.

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