The Walkmobile approach to understanding transport

One of the major challenges we face when it comes to sustainable transportation is not so much to identify useful policies, projects and approaches but rather, once we have done this, to find a way to sell them to the public. Images and stories are part of this process. And if we are to win the war of sustainable transportation it will be because we are not only technically strong but also that we have these critical didactic and communications skills. Here is a sweet example with Hermann Knoflacher’s memorable “Gehzeug” or “walkmobile”

“We are increasingly retreating into enclosed environments, more or less
out of our own choice, while isolating ourselves from an outside
world subjected to noise, pollution and dust created by cars”
– Knoflacher in Die Zeit-Interview of 13 September 2007

The “walkmobile” approach to understanding transport

The “walkmobile” is a high technology reflection project was invented by Hermann Knoflacher, Professor at the Institute of Transportation at Vienna University of Technology. It is a simple frame made of wood and has the size of a car. A belt makes it easy to walk around with this frame.

The idea of the “walkmobile” is to show how much space a car needs and how much city space we are willing to cut from public space and give it away to the group of car drivers. This results in streets where the whole width is reserved for cars and motorbikes, leaving almost no space to pedestrians – as seen on many streets in Pune. If all the pedestrians would walk around with a “walkmobile” occupying the same space as a car, our footpaths will be very fast as congested as streets are today.

This clearly demonstrates that a car oriented traffic policy will lead to nothing but a collapse of mobility in the city. There have been many visualization projects on space consumption of different traffic participants, like pedestrians, cyclists, bus users and car drivers. The result was everywhere the same: non-motorized traffic and public traffic manages with much less space than individual motorized traffic.

If traffic policy continues to concentrate mainly on car drivers, we would essentially lose the space for living and the city would only consist of streets and parking places to satisfy the needs of car drivers. To create a city with good living quality traffic policy has to focus on human beings and not vehicles.

Compared to European countries, the car ownership per thousand people in India is quite low. But the number is expected to grow very fast. Cheap cars are being introduced to get the drivers of two-wheelers to shift to cars (e.g., the Tata Nano). So, it is clear that this can only lead to congestion. But how many flyovers will have to be built over flyovers until it becomes obvious to our city planners that this only worsens the problem?

Instead of making the same mistakes as the West in the last century – a century of the automobile – decision makers in India should learn from their mistakes and look for a sustainable answer. Today’s traffic policy has to find solutions how to avoid the growth of traffic. Before people rethink their use of motorbikes and cars, they need a true alternative. A good working, affordable, clean, safe, reliable and well and maintained broad network of public transport as well as pedestrian zones, parking fares, bicycle lanes and pavements have helped many other cities to solve their traffic problems.

It is as Prof. Knoflacher points out with his “walkmobile”: the cities we are living in should be made for humans not for cars. The space in cities is precious, that is a fact of urbanization. We must not give away this precious space to vehicles but convert it to places with a high amenity value.

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About the Walkmobile’s inventor:
Hermann Knoflacher has completed degrees in civil engineering, geodesy, and mathematics. Since 1975 he has held the post of professor at the Vienna University of Technology. In 1985 he became head of the Institute for Transport Planning. His research focuses on spatial planning, urban planning, and transport planning. He is one of the key contributors to the sustainable transport movement (know as Sanfte Mobilität in German). Since 2004 he is the president of the Club of Vienna. He is also a member of the Club of Budapest and the global pedestrian representative of the United Nations. He has recently have published a book in German “Virus Auto”, which he is in the process of translating into English.

About the author:
Robert Obenaus studied Geography in Germany at Humboldt University Berlin and is now working for the civil society organization Parisar in Pune, India. Parisar undertakes various activities of different kinds to promote and advocate sustainable transport. For more information please visit the website

About Parisar:
This article first appeared in Parisar and is published here with their permission.Parisar is a Pune, India based civil society organization which focuses on sustainable development. Over the last decade or so, its main focus has been the snowballing issue of urban transport in Pune and other Indian cities, working closely with World Streets and other leading groups in the field.

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