A new movement for The New City – Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture

This is a write up of Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture.

A brief (and over simplified) history of transport and the city

Cities have always been shaped by transport, while the planning and design of cities impacts on transport choices. The first cities were inherently walkable – the primary mode of transport was people’s feet and cities were necessarily compact in size and form as a result.

Public transport allowed cities to grow well beyond a size that would allow a person to comfortably walk from one side to the other. The expansion of train, tram, bus and tube lines helped suburbia spread, but the component parts of suburban growth remained walkable – homes needed to be within walking distance of train stations, tram stops, bus routes, shops and services. Today we’d say that cities were expanding through ‘transit orientated development’.

Mass private transport came in the form of the bicycle, which enabled people to travel further for journeys not served by public transport, bringing new personal freedom of movement that helped whet the appetite for the even greater freedoms promised by the car.

Aspirations towards car ownership were matched with aspirations towards home (and garden) ownership. After the Second World War rising car ownership freed developers from the need to provide easy access to public transport. Shops and services no longer needed to be within walking distance. Aggressive lobbying by car manufacturers, government investment in road building, and changes in planning policy and development economics all helped fuel the rise of the car as the transport mode of choice.

Now those who live in suburbia have little choice but to drive – trapped in a vicious cycle of car dependency as the separation of land uses continues to place jobs and services beyond the reach of those on foot, while low densities make the running of decent public transport nigh on impossible – and most people looking for a new home have little choice but to buy in suburbia.

Of course, it wasn’t just suburbia that was being shaped by the car. In existing urban areas perfectly functional buildings and even neighbourhoods disappeared under the wrecking ball to provide the road and parking space necessary to bring the car into the heart of the city.

The problem with cars

The negative impacts of our love affair with the car have long been acknowledged. As have the difficulties of trying to do anything meaningful to address them. In 1960 the Ministry of Transport commissioned a team led by Colin Buchanan to look at the problem, resulting in the publication of Traffic in Towns in 1963. 50 years on the project steering group’s famous acknowledgement that, “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great destructiveness. And yet we love him dearly…” still rings true.

Undoubtedly many people still aspire to car ownership, or view owning a car as essential to maintaining a high quality of life. And who are we to deny them? Engines keep getting more efficient and electric cars will help wean us off carbon dioxide emitting toxic fossil fuels. What about those self-driving cars we keep hearing so much about? Aren’t they going to use road space so efficiently that congestion will be a thing of the past, along with crashes? Perhaps, but what kind of city do we want to live in? One where everyone zooms about in their own metal box, completely removed from their fellow citizens? Ask anyone how they think their city can be improved and the answer is unlikely to be more cars – self-driving or otherwise.

Technology may soon address the problems of the internal combustion engine and the contribution that car travel makes to carbon emissions and air pollution; but technology alone can’t solve the myriad of other negative impacts of car dependency that are neatly summarised in the diagram below from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report The Urban Environment. Tackling carbon emissions and air pollution is an essential task, but it’s not the only task – the big villain isn’t the internal combustion engine, it’s the car. As Taras Grescoe argues in Straphanger, “The automobile was never an appropriate technology for [cities]. As a form of mass transit for the world, it is a disaster.”

RCEP Graphic

Part of the reason it is a disaster is that there is an inherent unfairness built into a car dominated transport system. This is an issue that I feel gets too little debate and I would urge everyone to read the Sustainable Development Commission’s excellent report Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society. The chart below, taken from the report, highlights how the better off travel the most. As the report notes, the widespread availability and affordability of car travel has brought many benefits, but these have been obtained at a substantial price, and one that falls most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, i.e. the ones that travel, and therefore benefit, the least.

SDC graph 1

Similarly, it is those too young or old to drive that are most likely to be killed or seriously injured on our roads (see chart below, again taken from Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society). To borrow a phrase from RoadPeace’s Director, Amy Aeron-Thomas, “We may share the road, but we don’t share the risk.” That risk is unacceptably skewed towards what transport professionals call ‘vulnerable road users’ and everyone else calls pedestrians and cyclists. Responsibility for minimising those risks must by extension fall on those who have the potential to do most harm – motorists, or what transport professionals should perhaps call ‘dangerous road users’.

SDC Graph 2

While no one is looking to restrict individual freedom of movement that freedom must, as the SDC argue, “be exercised without unduly compromising the rights of others to live free from the negative impacts that travel imposes.” Even when driven carefully and slowly cars dominate our streets and impose themselves on other users. They’re bulky and everyone knows their potential to harm. Add speed to the equation and they own the street completely. As Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards argue in The Energy Glut (another must read), “Possession combined with brute force make up ten-tenths of the law.”

The possession of road space by cars, and the actual and perceived danger that comes with it, means that many people are discouraged from walking unless absolutely necessary and would never contemplate cycling. Statistically walking and cycling may be low risk activities – and the health benefits certainly far out way the risks – but no amount of statistics can change the often unpleasant and at times frightening experience of trying to negotiate a street network that has been engineered around the needs of the motorist.

Given this situation it should come as little surprise that the majority of people are failing to meet the minimum recommended amount of physical activity required to maintain a healthy weight – at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five times a week. The costs to the NHS of the UK becoming an increasingly obese nation are widely reported, but the health benefits of being physically active go much further, for example helping to prevent some cancers, improving recovery rates and contributing to our mental wellbeing. As Liam Donaldson when Chief Medical Officer stated, “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.”

Humans have evolved as mobile animals and it’s unlikely we’ll ever evolve into sedentary animals. We’ve also evolved to love energy dense fatty and sugary food. Policy all too often focuses on trying to get people to consume fewer calories while neglecting the huge potential benefits of creating a built environment that makes it easy and attractive for people to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine through the way they travel. Yet only by doing that will it be possible to get the whole population active, something that can’t be achieved by exhorting people to join the gym and hoping that Olympic and Paralympic success in 2012 will inspire mass take up of organised sport.

Of course, humans have also evolved as social animals, but as Appleyard and Lintell discovered in 1972 the car can limit our social lives. Their classic study looked at the correlation between the traffic volume on a street and the relationships between neighbours on that street. The result was perhaps unsurprising; those streets with the heaviest traffic were also the ones where least people interacted with their neighbours.

The social life of cities is about more than being on first name terms with your neighbours or even nodding terms with those you meet when you pop to the shops. As Jane Jacobs noted in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth may grow.” Cities exist to allow people to socialise – people love to be around and to watch other people – how then can we make sure our streets are places where people want to spend their time and our cities are great places to live, work and play?

So what’s to be done?

We need to begin by redefining the car’s relationship with the city – shaping cars and driver behaviour to suit cities, not cities to suit cars. As Jeff Speck argues in The Walkable City, “The automobile is a servant that has become a master… Relegating the car to its proper role is essential to reclaiming our cities for pedestrians.” This doesn’t mean banning cars outright, although that may be appropriate in some instances, but rather reminding people that when they drive into the city they and their car enter it as guests.

Research by Sustrans and Social Data in 2004 estimated that a car is essential for approximately a third of journeys, such as those that involve moving heavy and bulky loads or travelling beyond cycling distance on a journey that’s not served by public transport. I suspect that figure could come down in time as people adjust their lifestyles and habits, but the fact remains that the convenience and flexibility that the car can provide means it will always be around in one form or another.

We must, however, begin to address some of the inherent inefficiencies built into a car dominated transport system. Cars take up a lot of space – a precious resource in any city – and most of the time they’re occupying that space without even moving. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in Traffic, cars spend 95% of their time parked. They’re also expensive to own – even before you put any petrol in the tank you have to buy a car and pay Vehicle Excise Duty and insurance. If a car is only essential for a third of your journeys, why would you need or want to own one?

Wouldn’t it be better to use a shared car and in the process have access to a range of vehicles suited to the job in hand – a van for moving furniture, a people carrier for kids birthday parties and a convertible sports car for that romantic weekend in the country? Of course it would, and it’s no surprise that car clubs and pay-as-you-drive schemes are a growth industry. At Beyond Green we call it ‘car freedom’ – freedom from car dependency and the costs of car ownership, but freedom to access a car when you need one.

If the private car’s time is up, the age of the bicycle is just beginning. Bikes, the ultimate form of private urban transport, are space efficient, genuinely zero emissions, healthy, sociable, affordable and fun. They can reach the parts of the city that public transport can’t and many urban journeys are of less than five miles – a distance that can be covered by any reasonably fit person on a bike in about 30 minutes.

If cities are to realise the potential of the bike as a form of mass transit then they must be welcoming to cyclists of all ages and abilities. As New York’s transport commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Kahn notes, “You can wish people onto bikes, but you won’t get them onto bikes unless you provide a safe network.” Creating that network demands reducing traffic speeds and volumes on all streets and building segregated cycle lanes where traffic speeds and/or volumes remain high enough to require them.

As noted above, space in cities is a precious commodity and a highly contested one too, but capacity must to be found to allow the reallocation of road space to bikes and buses. Congestion charging in London and elsewhere has been proven to be very effective at reducing traffic volumes. Price differentials can be used to incentivise switching to smaller, cleaner cars, but to be as effective as possible a charge should apply to all vehicles. Schemes must also be actively managed to remain effective through expansions, fee increases and changes to incentives.

Spare road capacity created by reduced traffic volumes can be reallocated to create improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and improve the reliability of public transport. That reallocation is essential to prevent traffic levels rising again after initial falls as motorists consider driving on less congested roads to be convenient enough to warrant the cost of paying the congestion charge – a version of induced demand.

The reallocation of space away from the car will help restore city streets to their proper function as places for people and activity as well as traffic. Streets are complex places, where the conflicting demands of many users must be balanced. On many streets the balance is currently tipped in favour of keeping motor vehicles moving at the expense of other users. Temporary street closures of all varieties, from the wonderful Playing Out Project in Bristol to Bogota’s much imitated Ciclovia, have an important role to play in helping people imagine a different future; one where the balance is tipped in the other direction, putting the needs of residents, shoppers and workers above the needs of the passing motorist.

Temporary closures can become permanent over time. Each summer for the last ten years Paris has closed a section of the expressway on the banks of the Seine so that it can be turned into an urban beach, the Paris Plage. 2.5km of that expressway is now set to be permanently converted into a pedestrian boulevard. New York, meanwhile, has been piloting much quicker conversions, most famously at Times Square and along Broadway. Paint, planters and bollards are used to mark out new public spaces and trial potentially controversial schemes that may otherwise never get off the drawing board – sometimes it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

A similarly light touch approach may also be the most effective way of improving a city’s public transport network. Talk of improving public transport often turns to discussion of light rail, subways, trams and other infrastructure heavy solutions. The costs associated with such schemes can mean they’re never delivered, while the potential of improving relatively cheap bus services is often overlooked, wrongly in my opinion. As Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota between 1998 and 2001, and the man responsible for delivering that city’s impressive TransMilenio bus rapid transit network, argues, “Bus-based systems are the only public transport which can reach all areas of a [city], regardless if a few subway lines are built.”

Whatever the eventual public transport mix, the system needs to be as easy to use as possible, preferably with an integrated ticketing system. Deutsche Bahn’s BahnCard 25 is perhaps one of the best examples, allowing users to travel at discounted rates on national rail services, to switch seamlessly between all modes of public transport in Berlin and to access bike and car share schemes. Smart phone apps are also making planning journeys even easier, removing much of the uncertainty that can put people off travelling by public transport.

If public transport is to effectively serve suburbia then we must begin to think about how suburbs might be remodelled to break the cycle of car dependency. Post-war suburbs will need to go through a gradual process of densification, particularly around new neighbourhood centres and along routes that might become public transport corridors, and suburban streets need to once again become great places to walk and cycle. Any new development on the fringes of our cities must be built upon the principles of walkable neighbourhoods, safe and enjoyable cycling for all, good public transport and ‘car freedom’.

Back to the future

All of the above ideas and initiatives (and the rest that there hasn’t been time to mention), must be brought together in an integrated sustainable transport strategy. Too often transport policy leaps from project to project, many of them capital intensive big infrastructure projects, without being informed by a coherent vision of how a city’s transport system should serve the city into the future.

Cities must look backwards as well as forwards when setting that vision. In Makeshift Metropolis Witold Rybczynski argues that while history does not have all the answers, we must to keep one eye on the past as we move into the future, “The next city will include much that is new, but to succeed it cannot ignore what came before. Linking the past with the present, and seeing the old anew, has always been part of our improvised urban condition.” It’s easy to fall under the spell of new technology or twiddle our thumbs while we wait for a technological silver bullet like self-driving cars to solve our problems, but much of what is required to establish a sustainable urban transport system and move cities away from car dependency has been around for a long time.

In 1950 fewer than two million private cars were licensed in Britain – 1 car to 20 people. Is that an appropriate level to be aiming for in the not too distant future? I think it probably is, with many of those cars being shared rather than privately owned. That doesn’t mean turning the clock back to 1950, today’s technology means that reduced car ownership doesn’t have to limit accessibility to jobs, services or leisure activities.

As you may have noticed the brief history of transport and the city that I started this lecture with was incomplete. Since the 60s and 70s many cities have been redefining their relationship with the car – particularly in the Netherlands and elsewhere in northern Europe. Cities in the UK and the US are starting to catch up, albeit slowly and through the delivery of individual projects and initiatives rather than as part of a comprehensive strategy.

So a ‘new movement’ has already started, but given the urgent need to address the social, economic and environmental impacts of car dependency it needs to quickly gather momentum. Copenhagen has been in the process of transforming itself for 50 years, it still has some way to go and other cities that are just beginning the process don’t have the luxury of time.

We must move as quickly as possible towards achieving the ultimate goal – a liveable city that is served by a resilient transport network. A network that will help the city respond to the challenges of climate change and peak cheap oil while improving quality of life and reducing inequalities. To paraphrase that great observer of city life William H Whyte, urban transport systems must help cities assert themselves as good places to live.

Exhibition Rd

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