Many view cities as competitive entities. Around the world, cities compete for skilled workers: so urban areas need to be as attractive as possible. Tom Platt of pedestrian charity Living Streets explains: “The debate now in the global economy is that people can move between places. And they choose to live and work in cities that are good, attractive places to be, with good shops and services, nice cafés, and nice public spaces and parks. For example, the City of London is now looking at how they can make the space more attractive than, say, New York – or even Canary Wharf – because businesses want to attract the very best.
“If cities want to create attractive places and be competitive, they can’t continue to design around the car.”
And there’s little doubt that, in the UK at least, many town planning decisions have been made favouring the automobile over the course of the last century, and the legacy endures. Dr Ian Walker, senior lecturer in psychology at Bath University, believes the evidence for this bias is hidden in plain sight. “The fact that towns are designed for vehicles is so endemic and so engrained from decades of vehicles coming first, that people don’t actually see it anymore.
“I like to take people on a walk around town and show them how everything is designed for vehicles first. At a pedestrian crossing, why is the green man not on by default? Why is red man on by default and you have to press a button to ask for permission to cross the road if you’re on foot? Why not have the red traffic light on by default and the cars have to stop and get permission to cross? Why is it that at every side road, every junction, the pedestrian has to stop and check it’s safe? Why not: at every single junction the motorist stops?
“And this brings us back to a really critical point: most people are not terribly attached to their cars. Most people are not diehard drivers. They just want to get to work or go to the shops. If you make it easy to drive, which we've spent decades doing, of course people are going to drive. If you made it easy to walk, if you made it safe to cycle, that's what people would do.
“If you look at countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, which have made it easy, normal, and safe to travel on foot or by bicycle, people do it. They don't think of themselves as a nation of cyclists, they're just doing what is easy, normal, and safe. And those three words should be the basis of all these decisions.”
Bob Pinkett, a partner at transport planners Peter Brett Associates, believes that change is already underway. “Town planning has changed immensely in the last 10 or 15 years, just to accommodate a changing attitude to cars in cities. I think, as transport planners, we’re helping cities up and down the country to deliver those changes. And the interesting thing is that the days of saying ‘We’ll put the road through, and we’ll listen to the road lobby’ have gone. They’ll listen and have a balance of views, from cyclists and pedestrians, as well as public transport users and motorists. And the key thing is that everyone’s voices are then heard. You can plan a city that’s nice and pleasant for everyone to live in, to work in, to shop in.”
Andrew Davis, CEO of the ETA Trust, believes that good town planning will lead to motorists steering clear of city centres voluntarily. “You can make it so that people won't even use a car, which is far more desirable than having a ‘no entry’ or ‘cars prohibited’ sign when people patently want to go there. You design the city so that people ask ‘Why would you want to drive a car around here?’
“Our problem in this country is: as a motorist you think you're the most important thing everywhere you go. Our roads are designed for motorists. But we know from studies and from other countries that you can design a street to tell a motorist, without a traffic sign saying: ‘Oh by the way, you're a guest on this road, this road is for pedestrians, cyclists and people shopping; you're allowed to be here, but be very respectful, slow down’. You don't need a traffic sign for that. It's down to the way you design where the trees go, the cobbles, the paving or whatever, to make people slow down.”
It’s not only town planners who can reduce the volume of polluting motor vehicles travelling into the city. By locating freight consolidation centres outside of cities and near motorways, large delivery vehicles can be steered clear of urban areas. Bob Pinkett explains that “the retailers all work together, and they have single deliveries with electric vans, bringing deliveries in before the start of the day. And that means you don’t have 20 or 30 stores all having separate deliveries. So if it’s planned and managed – as it’s been done in Bristol with their award-winning freight-consolidation scheme– I think there’s an opportunity to have that impact in every other city.”
What other schemes and technologies are likely to grow in popularity in the next few decades?