Photo: Arthur Hidden via

As the urgency of addressing climate change intensifies, the ongoing shift towards a sustainable future has brought various sectors, including transportation, into the spotlight. Yet, this subject remains delicately sensitive, as it directly influences the daily choices of countless citizens. In many bustling metropolises, passionate debates have arisen about the equitable distribution of public space among different road users.

Numerous studies have underscored the undeniable benefits of active transport, revealing its potential to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also foster public health and elevate the overall quality of urban life. However, it is vital to acknowledge that the current research landscape can do much more to contribute to a truly sustainable and equitable transition. 

Significance of Active Transport

Active transport circumscribes activities like cycling, walking, skating, and similar. Unlike motorized transport, these forms of transportation are a sustainable and eco-friendly option. By opting for cycling and walking over cars for short-distance trips, individuals can substantially reduce their carbon footprint. 

Also, engaging in active transportation has been linked to a range of positive health outcomes for individuals. It improves cardiovascular fitness, reduces the risk of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and enhances mental well-being. Additionally, it decreases air and noise pollution, providing benefits to society as a whole. 

Challenges in Mobility Transition

Despite the many benefits of cycling and active transport, there are significant barriers to widespread adoption. Among them, inadequate infrastructure and safety concerns are consistently cited in surveys. However, cities that want to redistribute public space between different road users often encounter bitter conflicts. Such discussions have shaped the political picture in many metropolises. Copenhagen went through some serious debates back in the 1970s when expanding bicycle infrastructure. Currently, in Paris, opinions diverge largely on the rapid expansion of bicycle lanes. In Berlin, transportation was one of the biggest issues in the last election.

The Contribution of Research

Research can contribute to smoothing this transition: by providing data-based policy advice.  Currently, there is a large data gap in how much people are cycling. In Berlin, for example, bicycles are counted at 29, but motorized vehicles are at around 270 locations. However, these data are critical to inform the need for and extent, type, and location of new bicycle-friendly infrastructure. Facts about the need and necessity can and must be available. One promising approach to this is the estimation of cycling volume using already available data in combination with modern algorithms: machine learning methods. Instead of constructing more costly counting stations, cycling volumes can be estimated using crowdsourced-data from sporting apps (such as Strava), bike-sharing data, weather data as well as indicators on existing infrastructure. Within CATALYSE we are pursuing this idea.

Silke K. Kaiser | Ph.D. Student at Berlin School of Economics and Hertie School | Researcher on machine learning and sustainable transport.