The future of transport and cities


A BRT stop




The city and the car

The car is undoubtedly still the superstar of capitalist cities; with solid growth in personal income all societies have witnessed a steep growth in car ownership.

The arrival of the car swept aside public transit on the West Coast of the United States early in the twentieth century, the same happened later on the East Coast and then in Europe in the 60s and 70s.

Similar patterns have developed in Russia after the fall of the Communist regime, where prior to 1989 the modal share of the car was only 4%, and even more recently in China, where the car has progressively replaced the bicycle in the city fabric.

This model is now proving to be fundamentally wrong, since it generates profoundly anti-urban environments. Currently, the Western world is looking to find an alternative solution to an energy intensive and anti-urban transport system focused on the automobile.


graph illustrating the continuous growth of car ownership between 1998 and 2008



Retrofitting and automobile landscapes

Since the beginning of human settlements, historic cities were built around walking distances. In the second half of the nineteenth century, cities first expanded around public transit systems and later around the capillary access provided by a private vehicle.

The advent of the car therefore forced a “retrofitting” of the existing European cities. The process was even more aggressive in the United States, where a system of freeways and urban viaducts was introduced to allow express movement within the city, and suburban environments were planned around car access, yielding “automobile landscapes”.

It is now clear that this model has proven very wrong for the city.


City road network

The progressive increase in vehicular traffic has resulted in a sort of inversion of the traditional urban patterns, where urban structure responded to the densities of movement flows traditionally located at the crossings of key roads. The presence of the car and the need to allow high-speed movement has introduced a system of urban bypasses and ring roads, where the city has been changed to accommodate the geometries of efficient express movement. This points to what John Whitelegg has defined a “Faustian bargain” in which the city renounces urban quality in favour of fast vehicular flows.


Streets and Patterns – Stephen Marshall – Spoon Press 2005

Streets and Patterns – Stephen Marshall – Spoon Press 2005


Radical visions

New ideas are surfacing, such as MVRDV’s futuristic vision of flying cars, which envisions a typology of buildings already described in science fiction films such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. Other radical visions range from Bill Mitchell’s proposals in “Reinventing the Automobile” to the solutions proposed by BIG and J.Maier in the recent “Audi urban future award” competition.

The technical feasibility of assisted guidance systems for cars is constantly increasing and they may become a reality within the near future. This solution would open up the possibility for a revision of road geometries when cars’ current stop-and-go movement is replaced by a continuous flow.


The path to change

It is clear that regardless of the implementation of these radical visions, the current level of car ownership will have to be drastically reduced – there are simply too many vehicles per inhabitant, and the automobile is a land-hungry transportation system: a car moving at 40 km/hr occupied by 1 person “consumes” approximately 60 m2 of land, compared to a pedestrian requirement of 1 m2.


Equivalent urban space occupancy for different modes of transport




Traffic growth and peak traffic

A lot of attention has been given to the recent shift whereby over 50% of the world’s population is living in cities, although other important data has also recently emerged.

Traffic seems to have peaked in several Western cities: after decades of constant growth (so solid that it is defined “physiological” in lots of traffic impact studies when defining future traffic conditions), car use actually seems to be decreasing.

These trends are evident in the Unites States, the UK, and Australia, and were observed in the years 2004-2008 which were prior to the credit crunch that has further reduced vehicle miles travelled (VMT) per capita.


Reshaping streets

An incremental process has already started; it will progressively address cars and cities through the reshaping of the road network, starting from major urban roads down to local thoroughfares.

The future will witness a progressive “internalization” of the car’s externalities, ranging from energy consumption to space occupancy and pollution (for the entire range of emissions, including micro particulates which do not derive from the combustion engine but to the friction of mechanical parts).

The city of the future will therefore have LESS infrastructure; the process of defossilisation of cities has already started. After a century of car movement, the city of 2050 will possibly move back to being more like the urban settlements that characterised the period between 1800 and the arrival of the automobile.

Removing freeways

Freeways will progressively be removed, and transport patterns will no longer be analysed from the perspective of travel time alone.  Isochrone accessibility, capacity, and traffic volumes will no longer be used as the key elements for the evaluation of transport solutions,  and the urban quality generated by proposals will be a fundamental factor alongside the functional aspect.

The freeway system, and more generally all road infrastructure that allows express movement within the city, will be phased out to give space to a set of smaller cross-connected rights of way.




Estimated car passenger km per capita (FY1990-2008) (Newman and Kenworthy, 2011)



A new public transport generation

A new breed of transport will be available to bridge the gap between public and private transport. Thanks to digital technologies and real-time communication, public transport will allow movement within the city through a wide range of possibilities and costs.

Transit systems will evolve to provide a better match between demand and supply through a suite of mobility solutions ranging from vehicle sharing (car, bicycle, etc.) to fixed routes providing key regional connections.

Public transport hubs located at the heart of pedestrian zones will minimise vehicular movement.




A new public life in cities

As recently pointed out by Bernardo Secchi, the arrival of the car fulfilled a desire for privacy and separation embedded in society. The last 30 years have witnessed the progressive decline of public man as people were drawn in to the sense of seclusion ensured by detached housing.

Contemporary society is witnessing new trends, such as the willingness of young couples to move back into the urban environment and the progressive split of families into smaller units.

Moreover, the ageing of the population will generate a new need for communal life than can be fulfilled by an urban framework.


image courtesy of AUDI URBAN FUTURE AWARD/ BIG


The future of the city is in its past

The progressive decline in the car’s presence, the reshaping of the road network and the freeing up of urban space for new activities will allow the transformation of our city, paradoxically bringing it back to the city we knew before the 60s.

The new/old city will allow to generates space for people, landscaping to control the micro environment and create better spaces.

These new spaces could then be populated by new typologies of objects, including sensors, energy generators and information interfaces as well as moving objects such as  bicycles and electric vehicles (with radically reduced densities) as well as “eco-machine” generating better micro-climate as well as local energy production, like the many envised by Ecologic Studio


STEMcloud_A parametric furniture system able to generate spatial atmospheres_Imange courtesy of EcologicStudio


Maybe the city of the future will be very similar to the city we used to know before the arrival of the car in the 60s- the real change will be in the objects that will populate it. Objects in which we will move around, objects we will carry with us to communicate, objects that might be dwelling in our body.



Federico Parolotto, published on the magazine l’Arca on February 2012


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