“Why is no one here?” – Asking the right questions in mobility infrastructure

Have you ever heard someone reflect on a new, separate bike route, freshly painted pink but no one is using it yet? Or have you had someone see an empty bus pass by and complain to you “it’s not worth driving that bus around, there’s no one on it”? 

We have. And in this blog we would like to point out why this instinct is misguided and how we can put it to use for the better!

Build it and they will come

“Aerial picture of Katy Freeway” (Aliciak3yz) – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Katy-Freeway.jpg

“Build it and they will come” is a phrase often used to describe the effect of induced demand in transport. We know it ‘works’ for cars: building new roads or widening existing ones means that people will also drive more and the problem of congested roads starts all over again.

The same is true however for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users, carpoolers or often overlooked groups like women or people with a physical handicap. They too will come and use accessible walkways, cycle lanes, public transport offers or carpool services, if they exist.

Even though it’s logical, “build it and they will come” is easily forgotten when applied to other things than cars.

The mechanism behind this is the following: the people in need of infrastructure disappear from sight in public space because there is no infrastructure to support their needs. This results in, for example, an empty bus or the absence of wheelchair users on the sidewalks. Making it easy to overlook the importance of bus and accessibility infrastructure because no one seems to be using it anyway. When of course the opposite is true.

The disappearing groups

Public transport users, cyclists and other mobility modes also fall victim to the disappearing mechanism. But it is groups like people with a physical disability and women that are especially vulnerable to withdrawing from public space when their needs are not met.

The image of @pacingpixie perfectly captures the problem for people with a physical handicap. When sidewalks are uneven or too narrow, curbs are too high, or obstacles are in the way, people who use mobility aids cannot use this space. They then become invisible in public and in turn are treated as outliers. The cycle is concluded when mobility planners disregard them, creating even more inaccessible spaces.


People with a handicap will stay in their street or even in their home because the rest of the world is literally inaccessible to them. Women, on the other hand, will significantly adapt their travel (or not travel at all) when they don’t feel safe, for example when it’s dark outside or when they have to wait too long for their next bus at a deserted public transport stop.

The mechanism of “out of sight, out of mind” makes it easy to forget certain groups. New investments in infrastructure do not take them into account, and the cycle continues. How to break this vicious cycle, and how to maintain it? Let’s look at a good practice and a not so good practice.

Investing in bike infrastructure as a best practice

The biking infrastructure in Copenhagen (“It comes down to three important factors: Infrastructure, infrastructure, and infrastructure.”) is famous. Luckily in Belgium, and especially in densely built Brussels and Flanders, there have been plenty of infrastructural initiatives that helped increase the number of bike users as well. Examples are shared bike points (e.g. BlueBike) near railway stations, but also the addition of more separated bike lanes and the work done to connect city, suburb and rural areas with bicycle highways and pedestrian/bike bridges.

The Smart ways to Antwerp (Slim naar Antwerpen) project explicitly mentions building biking infrastructure made-to-measure for the users: “The city is now home to 578 kilometres of cycle paths, 20.7 kilometres of cycle boulevards and 764 kilometres of slow roads, where no motorised transport is permitted.” (Read more here (NL/EN/FR)

And Brussels’ Good Move plan notes ⅓ more bike users after just one year of changing the flow of traffic, amongst other changes.

Of course, these adjustments take a little time. People need to discover routes or upgrade to an electric bike. This leaves room for the haters. But the fact remains: build bike infrastructure and the cyclists will follow.

Not investing in public transport as a not so best practice

The same reasoning goes for that (half) empty bus or train. We say “Oh well, another empty bus, public transport will never work”. While we should ask ourselves: “How come no one is taking the bus?”. People cannot rely on a bus when it comes only once every few hours, when its route or stops are cut because of cost-cutting, when there is no bus to get back at night etc. Recent outrage at cuts made in the bus network in Flanders makes this very clear: Ghent, Malines, Bruges,…

When we provide frequent, comfortable and well-connected public transport, the people show up.  Despite the cuts, we are still blessed with some examples of the best public transport practices in Belgium, among which:

  • De Lijn’s bus-on-demand (“belbus”) in Flanders: In the preliminary research for SMEP, we found that Demand Responsive Transport services can be an adequate solution that lifts some groups out of transport poverty. A best practice at home is De Lijn’s Belbus (aka Hoppin Flex), of which 74% of users are women and 66% are above 45 years old (page 20 in this study here).
  • MIVB/STIB in Brussels manages to maintain a good score with its users, and keeps developing its infrastructure, also digitally.
  • The TEC’s express lines in Wallonia that were recently implemented and connect cities in Wallonia.

To conclude

In a way, “Build the infrastructure and the users will follow” has worked for cars. Year after year, traffic jams are getting longer. We think it is time to focus instead on infrastructure that attracts users and has a positive impact on society at the same time. We’ve shown cyclism and public transport are good examples of this, and there are others.

So, let’s radically shift priorities and invest in sustainable, shared and connected transport solutions to make the modal shift happen. And in doing so, include those groups that are otherwise excluded from the planning process.