Urban Walking – where are we going?

12.03.2021 / Rasmus Guldborg and Henrik Grell

It is about cities. About experiences, design and sustainable urban development. Because what actually determines where someone walks? And what can get us to change direction? This is now being examined in a research project financed by COWIfonden and carried out in collaboration with RUC and Arkitema Urban.

The basis for the funding application to COWIfonden was a smaller study of pedestrian behaviour in Venice conducted five years ago. This project looked at the high volumes of tourists that are known to pack the city’s old streets and historic squares. The problem of over-tourism has now changed because of Covid-19, but city spaces are still under heavy strain in many places and will continue to be so in the future.

For this very reason, there is a need to know more about what directs our behaviour and about how to best plan the layout of cities so that infrastructure, experiences and citizens’ needs can be combined in the best possible way," says COWI’s Rasmus Guldborg, founder of the project.

Municipal strategies in Denmark place more and more emphasis on foot traffic. There has simply been a complete shift in focus towards the green transition and the fact that we will not have as many cars in cities in the future. Metros, tramways and BRT networks mean that more people are moving on foot through certain areas of major Danish cities than previously. At the same time, cities also need solutions to handle issues such as over-tourism, climate, safety and anti-terrorism measures," says Guldborg.


Detailed studies in three select cities – Copenhagen, Oslo and Gothenburg – serve as the starting point of the COWIfonden project. But walking is the primary means of transport to and from public transport in most parts of the world, and most people go for occasional walks, visit shops along the street and accompany children to school. In central sections of the city, this pertains to both citizens and the many visiting tourists, both domestic and international, who are likely to return. The results of the research study are expected to have a major impact on the planning of our cities.

Roskilde University (RUC) is a partner in this project. Professor of Mobility and Urban Studies Jonas Larsen says: “Although a lot of research has already been done on the walkability of cities, this project provides a unique opportunity to build on and share research-based knowledge on walking as a form of mobility in three select cities and to take part in the development of innovative interdisciplinary methods of understanding and designing for walking as a means of mobility.”

The project looks closely at how good design in the urban space affects the choices we make as pedestrians. For example, the decision of whether to walk on one side of the pavement versus another, where to park a bicycle, which route to take and where to stop. We are also looking at what characterises walking as a form of mobility and where pedestrians interact with one another and the city.

“The layout of our cities is an area that is becoming increasingly important and getting more attention, not only here but also around the world. It is about both developing sustainable cities and incorporating concerns such as security, overpopulation, and environmental and social sustainability,” says Guldborg.


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In recent years, COWI has contributed to work involving a walking strategy in Oslo. As a part of this undertaking, COWI developed an analytical method that can encompass an entire city. Based on this, a ‘walkability score’ can be calculated and used to identify problems and areas of investment for more detailed studies.

Ultimately, it is about developing more sustainable cities that people want to spend time in. It is similar in this regard to public transportation planning, where infrastructure also comes into the picture as a lever for social development, such as by creating tramway stations in certain areas. Rasmus Guldborg says:

“In fact, we know that good public transportation planning plays a role when it comes to transforming a somewhat gloomy area into a more accessible and popular place. In Copenhagen, we have seen this in Ydre Nørrebro and in Sydhavnen. The same applies for Odense Tramway, which stops in the vulnerable neighbourhood of Vollsmose. Establishment of good walking routes to stations and stops can serve as the finishing touch.”


One of the challenges of the research project is that walking is a relatively diffuse form of transportation. No two people walk in exactly the same way, at the same pace or in the same pattern. We have different purposes for moving through urban space. Is it purely transport, or could someone be there for a particular experience or because of a specific need? And to what extent is there a difference in walking as a means of transport in various cities?

‘In that sense it is much more difficult to predict and control than motor vehicle traffic, for example. But we also know that urban design can actually affect whether people have a positive experience and directly influence more people to walk to and from work and school as a part of their routine,’ continues Guldborg.

‘That’s precisely why we have put such a high level of focus on how behaviour-regulating design can affect experience. For example, over-density of tourists in Nyhavn is an increasing problem that Copenhagen residents have started to complain about. Minor concrete adjustments can potentially be made here, such as placing benches in a specific location or in a specific manner. Or by dividing the street and providing information in a manner that more effectively guides tourists towards behaviour that locals find less bothersome.’


Preliminary data in Copenhagen has been gathered on Istedgade and at its intersection with Enghave Plads. This area was selected because Istedgade is situated in central Copenhagen and is heavily trafficked by cars, bicycles and pedestrians who are both visitors and locals going to the street’s many shops and cafes, among other things.

There is also local bicycle and foot traffic to schools and childcare centres in this district. Finally, Enghave Plads offers the possibility to stop and rest, and it has a relatively new metro station. Copenhagen Municipality has worked on improvements to Istedgade and hopes to continue this work and to find out how the accessibility works for the new metro station.

In the summer of 2020, an extensive series of qualitative street interviews were conducted, along with experiments involving various types of observation, photos and video recordings. These are, among other things, quantitatively processed through “Data from Sky”. One observation is that cyclists move at walking speed on Enghave Plads, but at a normal bicycle speed on the dedicated bicycle paths at the edge of the square.



There are extensive assumptions and knowledge behind the development of urban design, but there is still a need for more knowledge on the concrete effects of different local solutions and what characterises walking as a form of mobility. The project will help meet this need. The project uses a detailed interdisciplinary analysis method with collection and use of both quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate new design solutions. Patterns of movement and behaviour are recorded using smart video recordings and other tools.

Combined with qualitative data collection and ongoing interaction with pedestrians, a Street Living Lab is established, with new knowledge of the various design solutions that are predominantly based on empirical data. For each new city and each new case, the empirical evidence becomes stronger and can support a completely new method to analyse and identify solutions that can make our cities more walker-friendly.


Walking is analysed through an interdisciplinary approach, where both synergistic quantitative and qualitative methods are used. The first analyses were carried out in Copenhagen employing the interdisciplinary approach. The exciting interdisciplinary results include knowledge on the interaction between pedestrians and cyclists on Enghave Plads. The qualitative observations showed no signs of conflicts, and none of those interviewed expressed having experienced any insecurity or other problems with cyclists crossing the square. This is despite the fact that video recordings showed a considerable number of them. Smart video processing showed a probable cause: namely that cyclists on the square moved at a pedestrian pace or rode slowly, while those in the bicycle lane at the edge of the square rode at a normal bicycling speed.

FACTS: About Street Living Lab

The project adopts a ‘Street Living Lab’ approach, which it continuously builds on from city to city. The term encompasses a method that actively involves local actors and users of the street, tests prototype solutions and evaluates the results. The objective is to develop a platform for analysis, testing and evaluation that can also be used in other city areas. The platform can be both a physical workstation and digital solutions with analytical tools and results. The hope is that this platform can then also be used to share experience and thereby boost its relevance.


  • London has announced its first Walking Action Plan in order to “become the world’s most walkable city” and create an extra million walking trips a day.
  • Copenhagen is focusing heavily on walking as a mode of transport in its upcoming Mobility Plan 2025.
  • “Walking for life”, the Norwegian Walking Strategy, was launched by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration in 2021. Several Norwegian cities have conducted local walking strategies. COWI in Denmark and Norway have recently worked on a strategy to promote walking as a mode of transport and everyday activity for the City of Oslo.
  • COWI in Denmark has done research and tested prototypes of design elements in relation to tourists and walking in Venice to help the municipality cope with 100,000 visitors a day.
  • For people over 60, walking just 15 minutes a day can reduce the risk of dying by 22 per cent.
  • Biking and walking provide an estimated return on investment of USD 11.80 for every USD 1 invested.
  • In London, Trafalgar Square saw a 300 per cent increase in visitors after pedestrianising the area.
  • On a single car-free day in 2015, Paris cut smog by 40 per cent in parts of the city.
  • Melbourne experienced a boom in residents ever since the city centre was re-designed for pedestrians.
  • Pedestrians may spend as much as 65 per cent more than drivers.


Budget: COWIfonden has granted DKK 4 million.

Period: 2020-2022

Partnership: The project is being led by a steering committee comprised of COWI in Denmark, COWI in Norway, the Institute for Urban Design at RUC and Arkitema Urban. A number of internal and external experts are also signed on.

Get in contact

Rasmus Guldborg Jensen
Vice President
Urban Planning and Transport, Denmark

Tel: +45 56401988

Meet the expert

I'm a traffic planner specializing in capacity analyses. I have co-authored the proposal to COWIFonden and was the project manager on a similar pilot-project regarding walkablity in Venice. Today, I act as part of the steering committee for the project.

I'm interested in walkability because it will be an increasing part of our future mobility in urban areas. New technology and access to relevant data allow for a wide range of interesting physical and digital solutions to increase mobility in society.

My ambition is to ensure that COWI is at the forefront of the development of smart solutions to increase walkability in our future sustainable cities.

Get in contact

Henrik Grell
Chef specialist
Urban Planning and Transport, Denmark

Tel: +45 56402490


I have worked in urban mobility and planning for more than 30 years, especially on supporting green, sustainable and non-motorized transport. I enjoy multi-disciplinary projects, creating synergy by combining broad expertise with a user-centric focus. It is therefore a pleasure and a privilege to be project manager on this project, which will include both natural and social science considerations. Our hope is that this project provides useful new knowledge and tools, for planning and designing the promotion of walking in an urban landscape.