Urban Legends and Transformations

The way transport changes people and cities

Urban Legends and Transformations

How many times have we heard that people prefer to drive? Once, I was even told that it was ‘only right’ to cut down (value engineer?) on open spaces, as people will not notice when they drive!

Yet this is one of the great mistakes of urban development. And an expensive one, too. Billions are spent in fast roads and grade separated junctions every day, without consideration of the evidence in front of our eyes: that billions will soon be required to undo all this engineered infrastructure.

Cities in denial

Let’s start considering those cities in denial. These are the ones that believe that car transportation is necessary and a sign of modernisation. Most of European cities were indeed in denial 30-40 years ago, despite strong warnings of the impending crisis. But plenty of cities are still, amazingly, developing strategies for grade separations, innercity clover-leaf junctions or – the worst – expressways through historic districts. Roads initially seem an attractive way forward: they open land for development and are comparatively cheap. They fuel the economy by accelerating sprawl and encouraging families to buy cars, through clever changes to import taxes on vehicles and advertising.

But then comes the all too familiar choke! Congestion, pollution, accidents, restricted lifestyle. Under pressure from residents and investors, expensive programmes of upgrades are proposed, leading to expropriations, overwhelming infrastructure and so on. The collaterals are all too apparent: city centres are congested and start to decline, infrastructure budgets become a burden, driving is no longer fun.

Most of these cities struggle to end this spiral and change course.

Cities in preparation

These are the brave! As baffled and worried cities’ leaders keep their scepticism, somebody pushes for another course. Sometimes it is a project (a transit system), sometimes it is a belief that gradually captures the imagination. I want to quote my favourite examples – and if it works there … then it will work anywhere!

The first Nicosia in Cyprus - a city that has to fight usual and atypical problems: a city centre partitioned between two nations and patrolled by the UN, an economy in crisis, sprawling and competing developments at its periphery. The result? Congestion and insatiable needs for car parking, which in turn bring bad public spaces, many urban plots used for parking, the ancient walls and moat used by cars, expensive new developments because of immense underground parking… Yet, a small technical team managed to promote a strategy for comprehensive change: integrated public transport, minibuses for the ancient walled city, pedestrian priority and public space improvements. Very importantly – a very clear sense of direction for the future! (see Final Report Appendices). This document has already had strong impact on the way people look at the city centre. Plans are in preparation for the complete revival of the central commercial streets to put people and enjoyment of the public space at the heart of the future revitalisation of the area. Change on the ground will come soon!

Another great example is Dubai. There is no question that the Metro is gradually transforming the city and bringing people where they would not go before. Built as a sign of ‘coming of age’, the Metro is now at full capacity and has become a major locational advantage for all sorts of businesses. It also starts to fuel a new pedestrian economy and lifestyle: shopping malls are being retrofitted to accommodate entrance from the Metro stations, restaurants and cafes open along the walking routes, streets are getting busier… A few months ago, I worked with the metro authorities as they wanted to create spaces, squares and activities all around the stations. Our proposals were fun and sensible at the same time – but also a clear response to the transformation: a city to live and enjoy. This trend will accelerate of course, now that the new tram network is operational, that buses are frequent and easy to use, and that future Metro lines are in planning.

If a car orientated society, in a climate with extremes, can be so deeply and richly transformed in its habits and practices, this confirms the real power of transportation to form and shape urban life. Excuses and denial are quickly becoming lame.

Cities in evolution

Paris, London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo…. Wonderful buzzing cities – with vibrant streets, mixed communities and intense urban environment. Impossible to sustain without the accompanying variety and range of transportation systems.

London, my own city, is now pushing for cycling, with flagship projects that take away space from cars and formalise cycling priority at key locations. Paris has revolutionised its boulevards to give buses priority and provide informal and wide cycling space. Electric cars are (slowly) being introduced and facilitated.

But big change is coming! Some systems are not likely to survive the tide of new technologies that is about to come. Electric cars, like Personal Rapid Transit systems (the pods of Heathrow Airport) might not stand the wave and rapidly be overtaken by driverless solutions, mobile-enabled travel choices and other sharing or semi-personal systems. The changes will be significant, and as new options will be small, progressive and personal, the change will be really fast. Just like cars, bicycles and feet require personal initiative and relatively simple infrastructure, new technologies could be centred on personal choices and ingenuity. And they will change and enable new urban lifestyles and possibilities.

Cities can drive and encourage the change, and let people exercise their resourcefulness, while planning transportation in the normal way on the side. Or they may continue ‘business as usual’ and find themselves unprepared for the change: supplying infrastructure when the demand has shifted and morphed into something more agile and flexible. Other ‘brave’ cities may take the lead either because the authorities are faster and more experimental – less afraid of mistakes and corrections (Dubai of course, but also Shanghai and others), of just because they will leap-frog current supply driven system and allow the flexibility of demand driven change.

Could anyone imagine Beirut at the forefront of transport innovation? But why not?

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Director at URBAN Silence

URBAN Silence is friendly and fun, but committed to intelligent work

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