Could our cities adapt to become carless in the next twenty years?

“The industrialised nations made a terrible mistake when they turned to the automobile as an instrument of improved urban mobility.”

- J.H. Crawford, author of Carfree Cities
Hamburg plans to phase cars out of its city centre by 2034. Vancouver wants to make 50% of its journeys non-car by 2020. Copenhagen intends to be the first carbon-neutral city by 2025.

Is the car falling out of favour in the cities of the 21st century? Is it right that we look for, and invest in, alternative modes of transport?

Would you be able to get by without your car?

The cost of the car

Pollution and congestion most readily spring to mind when we think of the problems caused by cars in urban areas. It is estimated that, depending on the area, between 6 and 9% of deaths in London are caused by airborne man-made particles, prompting Mike Kane – MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East – to state that “9% of my neighbours die early because of air pollution”.

Public Health England – an arm of the Department of Health – made an estimate of 28,416 deaths attributable to particulate air pollution in Great Britain in 2010; with 3,389 in London alone. That ranks pollution as a far bigger killer than traffic accidents. To put it into context, Department for Transport figures state that there were 1,713 road deaths in all of Great Britain in 2013.

“Cars are a wonderful invention and we should acknowledge the contribution they've made; but also recognise the damage they can do if misapplied.”

Andrew Davis, chief executive officer, ETA Trust

But many experts think our dependence on automobiles has just as significant a negative impact – albeit one that is harder to measure – on the way we live in towns and cities. J.H. Crawford, author of Carfree Cities, is one of many who argue that social cohesion has suffered as a result of the spread of cars.

“The damage that cars do to social systems is the worst problem they cause in our cities,” Crawford says. “No technical improvement to cars can restore the vital function of streets as community social spaces: when something as dangerous and intrusive as the car rules our streets, civic life vanishes from them.”

Andrew Davis, CEO of the ETA Trust – a charity which promotes sustainable transport – also believes that the proliferation of cars comes with a wider social price. “Studies have found that people who live on a road with lots of traffic in an urban environment, have much more significant social problems over people who live in, for example, a cul-de-sac. The studies show that living on a main road is not good for your health. We know beyond reasonable doubt that motoring in towns and cities is actually damaging for our health in a much wider way than is recognised in the media generally.

“Automobiles in cities are divisive to social engagement.”

- David Crawford

Andrew Davis talks about the social cost associated with urban car use

“Take Denmark: there's no town in Denmark which a main road goes through. No town. Zero. Here in Weybridge we’ve got an A road going through the town centre, and that simply wouldn’t happen in Denmark. They’d actually think it was slightly mad to have a main road going through a centre of town. They’ve been developing the concept over 30 years. Consequently, their culture is much happier than ours.

“Cars damage our happiness in a way that we find it very hard to understand directly, because they also help our happiness in our mobility. It’s that conundrum of having the mobility without the downside which is stretching us, I think, as a society.”

Dr Ian Walker, senior lecturer in psychology at Bath University, and specialist in traffic psychology, adds: “One of the big social costs is the way it disenfranchises people who cannot or will not drive a car. Around 25% of British households do not have a car or access to one. How are they meant to get around when we plan shopping centres, facilities and amenities on the assumption you’re going to drive to them? There's a huge social cost of cutting off people who can’t drive, and that particularly affects older people.”

“One of the biggest things though is the fact cars just make cities very unpleasant places to be.”

Dr Ian Walker, senior lecturer, University of Bath

Many hold the view that cars and high-density urban areas simply do not mix. Dr Walker says: “It’s illogical to use a five-seat vehicle or a seven-seat vehicle to move one person for a short distance in a crowded urban setting. That is just not a clever way to travel.”

Richard Aucock, motoring journalist and MD at Motoring Research, agrees. “Cars are not designed to be used in city centres, which are essentially grids of four to five miles of tightly-packed buildings, roads and pathways. The car was originally designed for city-to-city, longer-distance travel. And trying to use a modern 4.5-metre-long car in a place that was designed for horses is not the way to go.

“When I go into London, I’ll drive 125 miles down the M40 in a car – which is fantastic. And then, right at the end, jump on the tube, and let that do all the work; and not try to commute that final two miles through traffic-snarled-up hell.”

So how best to persuade motorists to stop a few miles shy of city centres?

Changing behaviour:
Carrot v stick

The London Congestion Charge is a good example of an attempt to limit motor vehicles travelling into a busy city – although much can be learnt from its shortcomings. Motoring journalist Richard Aucock believes the charge is limited by technology. “It could be a lot smarter and a lot more forward-thinking if the technology allowed variable charging, selective charging, benefits for certain types of vehicle and certain types of road user…If it was, perhaps, weighted towards congestion itself in real time – so the worse congestion got, the more expensive the charge became.”

“I think you have to start with a charge. Because people are so enamoured of their cars, you need to shock the system.”

David Crawford, contributing editor of ITS International

Chas Ball of Carplus, a car-sharing NGO, also finds it wanting. “When it started, it was a blunt instrument but a bold move. We now see the prospect of the Ultra Low Emission Zone – which would impose extra charges on vehicles that generated more pollution – being laid on top of it. And we think that is a start, but it’s not being used as effectively as it could be. We need a zone in the future that penalises polluting cars in the areas where the air quality is really poor, and that’s a much bigger zone than the current congestion zone. You only have to look at the boroughs that have the worst air quality in Britain – like Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster – and you’ll see that parts of Westminster and almost all of Kensington and Chelsea are not in the zone. So we need some careful reconfiguring.”

But opinion varies on whether the best approach is to discourage motorists, with schemes such as congestion charging or road-space rationing. Richard Aucock is sceptical. “Ideally, policy should not involve the big stick. Solutions such as London Congestion Charge show that it can help, but only where there’s a viable alternative, such as the tube. If public transport options are available that are easier than driving, then the perceived pain of a congestion-reducing scheme will be much less.”

Transport planner Bob Pinkett also favours persuasion over dissuasion. “People are very clever at beating systems. So if you wanted to put quite draconian measures in, people will find a way of working around them…Whether it’s road charging, using certain days when you travel, or indeed just certain routes people can use – high-occupancy vehicle lanes, for example. People will abuse them unless they’re enforced. It’s better to have something where people feel that they’re going to make the change for their own reasons.”

Nik Pearson discusses the usefulness of the London Congestion Charge

Transport researcher Dr Ian Walker sees people as following the path of least resistance. “Although some people are very passionate about their cars and driving, for a lot of people it’s mostly just a way to get from A to B. All they’re really focussing on is the goal: getting to work, getting to the shops, getting to school.

“If people are presented with viable alternatives to driving, I suspect many will happily switch over without thinking about it too much. If a city started to provide a magnificent network of cycle routes, for example, I think a lot of people would switch over.”

To help make a switch, consensus is that public transport needs to be made more attractive. Chas Ball identifies a good example on the continent. “The right approach is Vienna’s, which is a relentless approach towards modal shift, by making public transport extremely popular. It costs you one euro a day to go anywhere within the city.”

“The slower you make the change, the more acceptable it is to people.

- Andrew Davis

Richard Aucock says: “There’s no real need to take a car into a main city centre and try to drive through, because in most cities public transport and on-foot and on-bike alternatives are so good. As people discover this, it should solve a lot of congestion problems naturally.

“But it has to get a lot, lot greener. London's hybrid buses are only the start. It's going to become much smarter too – cashless payments, on board Wi-Fi and so on. We don't necessarily need more of it – just greater tracking and predictability, which technology will provide. Hopping onto a bus or a train remains a very easy way of getting round. It's the uncertainty and unreliability that can put people off.”

Bob Pinkett suggests that the focus has been weighted too much on the supply side in the UK. “We’ve tried to understand ‘What shall we build? What infrastructure should we put in?’ And that’s important – we need to have capacity. But actually, we should be thinking more about the demand, and how we can encourage people to think differently about the way they travel.

“A lot of work we’re doing these days is about behavioural psychology. It’s understanding what would make people change the way they travel. And that’s really important, because all of the Smarter Choices projects – the government's sustainable transport investment in the UK – is predicated on nudging people into slightly better behaviour. After all, you only need one day a week for everyone to not drive and use a bus or a train, and you’ve got a 20% reduction in traffic. It’s that simple."

"The best way to reduce traffic congestion is to make public transport and green transport so much more attractive that people tend to think of it naturally, rather than cars.”

David Crawford, contributing editor of ITS International

“Sometimes I think we have to remind people that they do have choices. You don’t have to automatically grab your car keys when you leave the house in the morning. And I think behavioural psychology, social marketing and all the work we’re doing at the moment to encourage people to think differently about travel, is really starting to pay dividends.”

Dr Walker’s research at the University of Bath has included habit-forming – “people doing things automatically without really consciously thinking about it. We found that if you want to change the way people travel, you have to do it when their habits are naturally disrupted. For example when they move house, when they start new jobs or their children start school. Those are the points at which people are forced to rethink their travel, so you can tell them about alternatives and maybe see some change in their behaviour. That's the optimal day to help them travel sustainability and safely. The next day the routines have started to form. It becomes harder and harder to make any difference.”

Must it stop at leaving the car keys in the house in the morning? What if people could be persuaded to get rid of their cars altogether?

Private ownership v public transport

David Stevens, COO of insurance company Admiral Group, sees a possible future where individually-owned cars give way to rental on a use-by-use basis. “A lot of that is about the psychology of the motorist. I think drivers use their cars something like 10% of the time. So there's a huge under-utilisation of cars, and in this future world – which is a very rational world – you'll see a much smaller number of cars being used much more intensively.

“If you look at it super-rationally, you'll say what will happen is people will not own a car, they will summon a car on their iPad or whatever the equivalent is, and that car will vary depending on what their requirement is. Are they off for a couple of weeks camping and so they need a big car? Or are they just going on a short trip to the pub, so they need a small car? It'll arrive very quickly, it'll be driverless, they won't own that car, and it'll go back into the pool once it's dropped them back off at their house. It will be transformational in terms of how the world works.”

Automotive-focussed communications strategist Howard Moorey also sees a future where fewer people will want to own a car. “A car, even if you buy it now, is a depreciating investment. And you still have the disposal challenge at the end.”

However, David Stevens sees the argument that a pocket of people will always be attached to their cars. “They have a lot of personal investment in them. It's important to them what car they drive, what colour it is, what it's saying about them”.

“It’s about the demand to travel and to do things, rather than to actually own a car. That’s not the big issue – apart from for a few petrolheads.”

Bob Pinkett, partner at transport planners Peter Brett Associates

Transport planner Bob Pinkett believes that the car, in some form or other, will endure in cities for the foreseeable future. “If you look in cities like London in the 1990s, 50% of people drove to work. It’s gone down to about 38%. It’s probably going to be down to 30% over the next 20 years. But in truth, there’s always going to be a requirement for personal mobility.

“It may be that people actually rent a car when they need it. And that’s a sensible model for a lot of people who are doing very low mileage. If you’re doing the average of 7,000-10,000 miles a year, what’s the point of having a car sat on your drive?”

With the advent of car-sharing solutions, motoring journalist Richard Aucock thinks that the time when people start to truly abandon car ownership is upon us. “Certainly many people who live in London don’t own a car. As these schemes roll out to other cities, then a lot of people will discover they can quite easily get away with not owning a car.”

Dr Ian Walker talks about the decline in private car ownership

Chas Ball, chief executive of Carplus, explains that there are two arms to car sharing. One is car clubs, where members pool cars for short to medium journeys. And then there’s journey sharing, which works well in communities of people making the same trips regularly. He sees both as helpful in moving away from car dependency. “We do an annual survey of members – and there are over 180,000 in Britain at the moment – and we can show from this research that by deferring purchase and using them more sparingly, each car-club car replaces approximately 17 vehicles.”

“People will make far wider use of available car clubs, and these need to be built into new developments everywhere they can.”

David Crawford, contributing editor of ITS International

Richard Aucock envisions such solutions sitting in the public transport domain. “Transport can be joined up so car-sharing becomes part of a package that also includes train travel, bus travel, cycling and so on. Your 'travel card' would allow access to all, charging you accordingly, so you'd swipe your card and take a car when it suited, but swipe onto a bus where that made more sense. Die-hards will still own cars, certainly. But for those who aren't enthusiasts, car ownership would evolve into car sharing. But first we need the technology and infrastructure, and this won't happen overnight.”

But such systems are already underway elsewhere, as Chas Ball points out. “I think Hamburg is a really good example of somewhere that has got a serious approach to integrating different modes. They have this thing called ‘switchh’, which makes it so much easier for you to use public transport for an element of your journey, and then switch into a hire car, a car club car, a taxi, or a shared bike.

“Most journeys involve more than one mode. So they all have to work seamlessly together, otherwise you resort to jumping in your car. If a really good alternative can be provided then you can roll back the private car from city centres.”

How can town planners and other bodies assist in rolling back motor vehicles from city centres?

Shaping the city

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.

“Transport is not a sector on its own… It is intimately interwoven with the whole fabric of city planning and city design.”

David Crawford, contributing editor of ITS International

“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.”

Bob Pinkett shares his thoughts on what a carless city should have

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.”

“You drive to the city, not through the city.”

Dr Ian Walker, senior lecturer, University of Bath

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?

Further into the future

With the internal combustion engine falling increasingly out of favour, how will we be getting around the cities of the future?

Motoring journalist Richard Aucock is keen on electric ‘pods’ – “little one-seat city-focussed creations many auto makers are showing as prototypes. There's huge potential here, I feel, to ensure private motorists can still have a ‘car’ in the future, but for it to be an urban-friendly one. They take up less space, are easy to park, easy to drive… They could be a viable alternative for those who still don't believe public transport fits their needs.”

“We'll see an increase in short-range electric vehicles. We'll see an increase in the proliferation of different fuel types, maybe hydrogen technology for public transport and for personal transport, and also the use of Big Data to try and predict and mitigate congestion patterns in big cities.”

Nik Pearson, Toyota spokesman

Toyota spokesman Nik Pearson explains the Toyota mobility roadmap. “For short range point-to-point we see electric vehicles playing a role, particularly for urban commuting. Then, in this mid-range we have a couple of technologies, one being hybrid technology where we have a normal petrol engine supplemented by an electric motor, which lowers the impact on the environment, and also plugin hybrid technology. We see those two as the mainstay for at least the next 10 or 15 years.

“For long-range distances we see hydrogen playing a role. Effectively, what hydrogen does is it gives you the convenience of a more conventional car – low refuelling times for example – but with the range that you don't get from a full electric vehicle. We see that as a technology for the future.”

A further question is the degree to which we’re likely to relinquish control of our vehicles in future. Despite seeing an opportunity to take human error out of driving, Pearson doesn’t think driverless technology will land any time soon.

“At this stage in time a driverless car needs a lot of infrastructure to be able to know where it is on the road, and know where other cars are on the road. We've got a lot of roads that would need to be retrofitted to be able to have a fully-working network for driverless cars.”

David Stevens, COO at Admiral Group, agrees that driverless technology won’t be available in the very near future. “Technologically, it's one thing to take a few demonstration models in specific areas and to drive them without accident. It's another thing to overcome the barriers to take-up from people. Will they feel comfortable in driverless cars? Will they appeal immediately? How do driverless cars and driven cars interact? Lots of work needs to be done on changes to the law and how we actually legislate for transport. Whose fault is it when a driverless car crashes?”

“A lot of people still might want to drive themselves – driving for pleasure out in the countryside… But no-one really enjoys driving around in the city. We expect the safety would be far greater, and the consideration shown to other road users would be much greater from a driverless car.”

Chris Peck, Former campaigns and policy director at CTC

Chris Peck, former campaigns and policy director with cycling charity CTC, thinks it’s possible that fully-driverless technology may eventually become standard. “It could be that the driverless car will actually supplant the taxi – it’ll become the standard mode of short trips by private motor transport in cities.”

David Stevens looks at how technology may change the future of motoring

Andrew Davis, CEO of the ETA Trust, is enthused by the prospect of driverless vehicles. “They're rather like being in your own train if you think about it. You're sitting in a vehicle that is just going where you want to go. You don't have to watch where you're going. It would be a great help for older people and those with poor eyesight, they can now drive again. At the moment we ban a whole class of people from driving, people below 17, and you could argue that is a problem. Imagine anyone can drive that car… They don't need to learn to drive, they don't have to worry about medical conditions – it will change our society!”

Howard Moorey, founder of hojomo Group, sees that connectivity between vehicles will have a wide impact. “You’re going to find that connected cars, connected trucks, connected buses and everything else leads to far more data being available on how they’re being used, who’s using them and when… From an insurance point of view, there will be telematics readings available that have never been available before. If that’s the case then you’ll find that the whole insurance industry will change its model from an annual premium based on a range of users to individual pricing menus that will be tailored around your particular lifestyle and the use you make of your car.”

David Stevens thinks telematics technology could be effectively plugged into city infrastructure. “There are opportunities for cars to ultimately talk to each other, to fully understand where they are, and to tie into a system so that you could route vehicles more sensibly to try to minimise the negative costs of congestion. Ultimately, there could be linkage between the connected car and the traffic lights, the bus lanes – so you can use the bus lanes when no buses are using them, but the cars get out of the way when the buses are using them.”

“Transport for London is considering installing lockers at railway stations, where people can pick up supermarket deliveries. In Philadelphia, the local public transport operator there – which is called SEPTA – links its commuter rail stations with farmers’ markets. It makes the station a bit more fun!”

David Crawford, contributing editor of ITS International

It’s more than merely the designated transport spaces that are likely to change as we switch to different modes. According to Howard Moorey: “Fewer will work in cities and in offices nine-to-five. In the future it will be far more flexible: co-working, longer working lifetimes – all these factors will change the way people use cities. We find that businesses and commercial enterprises have to work 24/7 – or have to think about working close to 24/7 – so working patterns will change. A lot more working from home can occur because of the internet, that will enable teams to work from a distance and therefore not have to commute, so that may well ease congestion.”

And to bring it right to our very doorsteps, these shifts may also impact on the way our homes are designed. Transport writer and researcher David Crawford says: “Another thing that planning authorities can do is insist that all new homes have in-house travel schemes giving up-to-date information on everything that's going on - bus, train, car, plane, so on. The system is already installed in hundreds of houses in Dartford, Kent. It's a display screen which goes into the hallway or kitchen. The idea is that, as your estate agent is whisking you around, you start to think, ‘Ah, what's that? What's it for?’ And ‘I think perhaps we don't need a car.’ Or again, ‘Perhaps we don't need a second car.’”

“In some parts of the Netherlands, they have designed new houses so the bicycle is the thing you take from your house,” says Andrew Davis. “In Britain, our bicycles are often kept in our garden shed, and we have to bring them through the house to get to the street. Whereas the car is out in the street, or on the drive, so which one are you going to get? You're going to go in the car and drive.” So perhaps the ebb of the car will affect not just how we get around and how our towns and cities are planned, but also the way our homes look.

In summary

In his book Peak Car, David Metz argues that car use in developed economies has reached its zenith, and is in decline in large, dynamic cities. “In London and other big cities, people are falling out of love with the car. Use is falling and the numbers using public transport are rising, with more frequent trains and buses. Indeed, many people find they don’t need to own a car, with all the costs involved. What matters much more for modern city living are the digital technologies – quite a shift of preferences.”

Though there are many options as to how the alternatives will manifest themselves, it’s generally agreed that they need to be made increasingly attractive to those travelling within the city. Motoring journalist Richard Aucock sees the cost of investment as being the chief obstacle here. “There are lots of space-age solutions out there, but where will the money come from? Public transport has had such potential for years, but it’s never been realised because it costs so much money. Visionaries can carry on making today’s motorists feel as guilty as they like by comparing it to this radical vision of the future, but such visions cost money. And if it’s not there, it will never happen.

“That's why I feel the solution to a carless city could actually lie with drivers themselves – and thus, with automotive companies and transport providers. Car firms can make changes by launching new products. Authorities can make it all work by integrating these products into today’s transport grid. It’s far better for car companies – and, by default, their customers – to have a say in the future, rather than being dictated to by some overriding corporate vision of a 22nd century future that will never work because the money and will isn’t there.”

According to environmentalist Andrew Davis, one thing is certain: change is afoot. “If you consider 20 years ago, we didn't have Amazon, we didn't have Facebook, we didn't have Twitter… The change in the last 20 years has been unbelievable. The change in the next 20 years is going to be that squared. Cubed. How we'll live in 20 years’ time is just mind boggling. I just think it’s going to be a great adventure!”