by Federico Parolotto and Francesca Arcuri
Realities of Today
The Car and the City
The impact of private vehicles on the urban fabric is undoubtedly a well-known issue. The space that through the years has been dedicated to the car has often modeled the new form of growing settlements or profoundly affected historic city centres.
During the first years since the appearance of the car, the social innovations introduced by Henry Ford—minimum wage, shorter working hours and affordable cars—made it possible for thousands of workers to become car owners and commuters.
Considering the generally poor living conditions of the overcrowded cities at the beginning of the century, especially in the United States and in the UK, the car offered the simplest—in that it is individual—solution towards moving away from these congested environments of bad housing. Hence the subsequent generation of the low density suburbs.
A Typical Example of Knowledge Silos—Traffic Engineering
Due to the incredibly steep growth of vehicle ownership early in the last century in the States and after the war in Europe, a car-centered urban vision grew and strengthened, flourishing in the 60s with the Modernist vision. Roads and buildings weren’t meant to communicate anymore, their relationship was broken and so was any inter-disciplinary approach to urban planning. What Marshall describes as the schism of Modernism, produced the consequent schism of professions.
Fig. 1a, b “The Scism of Modernism” (Marshall, 2005)
The identification of a “traffic flow” as a discipline led to the birth of a very specific professional figure to whom the study and design of the “movement channel” was entirely assigned: the traffic engineer.
The hyper-specialisation of this professional figure, together with an inward looking approach based on quantitative issues alone, generated detrimental urban interventions that are now dotted throughout cities around the world.
Traffic engineering is possibly the clearest example of a “knowledge silo”: the simplification of vehicular movement into mathematical simulations (often generating spectacular failures) and the inability to establish a dialogue with other disciplines has proven to be a major issue when facing complex problems typical of the contemporary world.
The growing importance of sustainability issues has brought up a set of problems of unprecedented complexity and interdependency (on this topic see this HDL link).
A Car-centred Approach
The approach that has characterised transport engineering since the 60s in Europe, as in the rest of the western world, has been centered on giving maximum capacity to the road network, in order to respond to the continuous growth of traffic. More and more urban space has been given to the automobile.
Moreover, because the car is a land-hungry transport system as well as being energy intensive and an emitter of pollutants, the “Faustian bargain” evoked by John Whitelegg—the willingness to give away urban quality in order to ensure as much vehicular movement as possible—is evident in most cities worldwide. Some western cities have witnessed the expansion of space dedicated to the car on the road network until very recently, as well as the construction of major urban motorways in dense city centers. The space given to the automobile in the new suburbs has generated diffuse urban patterns with a major role played by car movement and parking.
Without lingering on the issue of whether the car has determined the demise of urban public life or on the contrary the car has given a technological answer to desires already embedded within society, it appears clear that the overall result of the car-centred approach has proven disastrous to urban quality.
Towards Reducing Infrastructure
Peak Traffic in the Western World
Since the first Ford Model T, traffic and car ownership (and more precisely the mileage travelled by car) have constantly been growing in the western cities and are now expected to grow very steeply in the emerging countries, where the car industry is focusing most of its sales in the upcoming years.
Nevertheless, we are recently witnessing (or becoming aware of, since some first signals had already emerged in the 90s) a decrement in car usage. It has been shown that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) have finally peaked in the western world and the inversion of this trend is related to a complex combination of causes. The worldwide economic crisis with the associated rise in fuel prices is the unifying element underlying technological and social factors: limited travel time budget, diffusion of transit-centred policies and a re-urbanization bias both for young and older people who are less and less attracted by the car.
Fig. 4 Car use growth trends in developed cities from ’60 to ’05 using Global Cities Database (European cities included in the study are: Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Stockholm). (Newman and Kenworthy, 2011)
The Real-time Revolution
Changes in social habits that directly or indirectly influence car usage are already taking place.
The development of ICT as a general trend within our society now allows thinking of integrated management systems, where mobility-related data is collected in real time and analyzed in order to improve service efficiency (see IBM Smarter City site).
Examples could apply to the management of a public transport network, of a multimodal mobility network, of a car park management system at the city scale or the real-time update of a dynamic pricing policy.
The great potential of information technology as an instrument of optimisation is mostly due to the fact that the improvements are both to the managements’ and the users’ benefit.
Systems that are currently becoming more and more popular—especially among young generations—such us car sharing or bike sharing are supported by and based on this kind of technology. In the framework of the re-urbanisation that has been registered as one of the causes of the peak car phenomenon, these sharing habits can also be read as a progressive separation from the idea of the car as a symbol to posses, returning it to the realm of the instrument to be used.
New Policies for the Car in the City
As cars become tools to use and share rather than objects to desire and possess, it appears clear that a new awareness is emerging when it comes to understanding the impact of the automobile on the city fabric.
In this sense, traffic containment policies such as congestion charges or high hourly rates for car parks in city centres are becoming—in the western world—increasingly accepted by the population, which is therefore starting to internalise the externalities of the car that have traditionally not been associated with a cost.
The introduction of congestion charges, starting from Singapore some 25 years ago and following with Oslo in 1990 and London in 2003, has been shown to be a feasible route; the shift towards a different way of thinking about the presence of the car in the city has proved to be evident even in traditionally car-dominated environment, as shown in a recent referendum on the city in Milan.
A New Set of Tools
As new policies are being envisaged a progressive shift is happening in the realm of transport planning. One key element is the growing criticism of one of the pillars of the sector: the “predict and provide” methodology.
From back in the late 50s and up to the early 90s, transport planning was about forecasting traffic growth—the demand—and then building a road infrastructure wide enough to accommodate it.
This approach has proved to be—and is now widely recognized as—an unsuccessful strategy, causing a faster saturation of the new road, due to the temporary reduction in the level of congestion and consequent attraction of new users. This phenomenon has been largely investigated under the name of “induced traffic”.
During the 90s planning moved from providing for what was predicted, to preventing the prediction from becoming true.
The recognition of the fallacies of simply adding road infrastructure as the way out of congestion has determined a major slowdown in new road construction in certain parts of the western world.
In the same logic, there has been increasing criticism of what used to be the pillars of transport planning such as the level of service (LOS) approach.
The necessity for a holistic understanding of the relation between flows and space is again becoming a priority in the planning field.
A New Way of Doing Things—Towards Reducing Infrastructure
Looking at the road network from this perspective might open up different ways of thinking in long-term planning—do we really need all the major infrastructures that are still planned in cities throughout the world? Or it is maybe now time to stop the construction of new roads and conversely to start eating away at existing infrastructure?
The issue of peak traffic, new policies and real time data processing, as well as the progressive shift in the transport planning field discussed above, are setting the basis for a possible revision of the way we plan cities and road infrastructures, which in the past focused on making them grow constantly, following (and at the same time stimulating) the rise of car usage.
We are at a change of the tide: in the last decade (and up until very recently) cities have been experiencing a continuous growth in traffic, while it seems now that the use we make of cars has peaked. Therefore we might imagine a different future, a future in which we will progressively readjust and/or remove existing road infrastructure.
A new road network might emerge onto which a low-impact public transport network could be superimposed, along with mobility-on-demand systems to cover the last mile problem.
It is therefore possible to start shaping the image of a new city, an image different from what we have built and experienced in the last decades.
From Theory to Practice: a New City Looking to the Future
The planning concepts that have been introduced thus far find a practical application in a cutting-edge project in Saudi Arabia: a sustainable city with 180,000 residents based on renewable energy supplies and focused on a future of sustainable mobility. With Foster + Partners leading the group as the master planner, in this project our know-how summed up with that of many other players, creating a multi-disciplinary team that covered several areas of expertise.
[...] This article was written with support from Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund as part of their Low2No Project. Read more on www.low2no.org
Fig. 5 View of the masterplan (courtesy of Foster+Partners)