Cardiff pedestrian crossing with no barriers.

+ Small changes such as removing barriers near pedestrian crossings can add up to make a big difference for cities’ transport systems.

It might not seem like an obvious place for a transport planner to look for inspiration, but I think the Tour de France has something to teach cities about their transport systems: if you want to be the best in the world, you have to capitalise on every possible improvement.

This is the philosophy that drives Dave Brailsford, manager of Team Sky and former performance director of British Cycling. He talks about the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ – finding lots of tiny improvements that add up to a winning formula.

Incremental changes to improve transport may be as minor as removing pedestrian guardrails to help people cross the road more easily. But they may be major, such as replacing a roundabout with a junction that has facilities for pedestrians and cyclists (as has been done recently in Nottingham, in the UK).

A prime example of how a series of interventions can build a sustainable transport system is Freiburg in Germany. The city has spent 40 years making incremental changes that take it towards a long-term vision of a city that promotes walking, cycling and public transport use.

It has certainly worked. Research published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation has shown that over the last three decades, the number of bicycle trips in Freiburg has tripled, public transport ridership has doubled, while the proportion of trips made by car has declined.

What’s the key to Freiburg's success? The city has worked to a long-term vision, albeit one that has adapted to changes over time. And it’s implemented most of its policies in stages. If everyone in a street wanted something like traffic calming, the city implemented it for that street – and seeing it in action made people living in other streets want it too.

This is another advantage of a bit-by-bit approach: it can make it easier to win round public opinion. When Stockholm wanted to introduce road pricing, it didn’t try and enforce a citywide scheme immediately. Instead, it put a temporary scheme in place to let people try out the idea. Having seen road pricing in action, residents then voted to make it permanent.

This is one reason why New York’s transportation commissioner under the Bloomberg administration, Janette Sadik-Khan, espouses the benefits of temporary measures. She advocates doing bold experiments that are cheap to try out rather than trying to model and forecast every last detail. 

Small measures that can be implemented quickly on a street-by-street basis demonstrate to people that change is happening. In places like Freiberg this has produced cities where government and citizens are aligned behind a vision of sustainable transport.

In the UK, Arup is in the early stages of helping the town of Guildford develop a strategy for sustainable mobility based around the idea of making incremental improvements. It’s certainly an approach I think more cities would be wise to adopt.

As for the Tour de France, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brailsford’s philosophy pays off once again and we see a Team Sky rider on the podium in Paris this year.