Changing the narrative: Medium-sized cities as potential frontrunners of mobility transition?


  • Maximilian Birk RWTH Aachen University


medium-sized cities, mobility transition, spatial potential, 15-minute city, local governance




While metropolises are regarded as epicentres of innovation and change, most Europeans do not live in large cities but in various small and medium-sized cities and settlement types.  An effective transport transition must therefore also develop solutions for the challenges of the transport system outside metropolitan areas. Focusing on the specific framework conditions and challenges of small and medium-sized cities can help to emphasize the specific transformation potential of small and medium-sized cities and can contribute to leveraging their potential.

 Small and medium-sized cities (20,000 - 50,000 inhabitants) in particular face distinct challenges when it comes to implementing a local mobility transition: On the one hand, as a particularly large group of communities, they are of great importance as a place to live and work and thus generate a high proportion of traffic volumes. On the other hand, due to their limited financial and human resources, they seem to have only a limited ability to independently establish goal-oriented transport planning in a dynamically changing mobility world.

Against this backdrop, the submitted article deals with the question of how small and medium-sized cities can independently shape the transformation towards an urban mobility turnaround and works out their potential for transformation in the area of mobility and transport transformation at the spatial, actor and governance levels.

Statistically, medium-sized cities have comparatively high car ownership and car use rates. This goes hand in hand with a perceived dependence on the car, which is both culturally and habitually conditioned. At the same time, however, medium-sized cities tend to have sufficient facilities for daily needs, education and health care within a limited spatial extent and thus good spatial conditions for non-motorized local mobility. In theory, they somewhat naturally fulfil a key characteristic of the concept of the 15-minute city.

At the level of actors and governance, there is an area of tension between the professional specialization and personnel strength of administrations in large cities for shaping change processes, and the supposed agility, rapid coordination and decision-making processes, and personal proximity of administrative units in smaller cities.

The two levels of investigation are empirically addressed by a GIS-based accessibility analysis of a total of 40 medium-sized cities based on the 15-minute city framework and by qualitative interviews with 36 local actors from the fields of local politics, administration and mobility services in 3 medium-sized cities with special focus on interactions at the local level with regard to transformation and change.

The aim of the contribution is to tear down the often-received dichotomy between urban and rural areas and to focus more on the many municipalities that are neither metropolitan nor rural. In this way, it seeks to reframe the narrative: Small and medium-sized cities are key players in a sustainable transformation and have great potential for transforming mobility themselves.