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City planners must learn from the mistakes of the past

For much of the 20th century, transport and urban planning were dominated by the car. Attempting to make sure that cars could move around the city smoothly was to blame for what we now recognise as some serious mistakes. But we now find ourselves on the brink of a “new age” of urban mobility, which could see the end of the dominance of the car.

Several forces are at work. First, London’s population is growing fast, putting unparalleled pressure on the city’s ever more congested and polluted roads and streets while also requiring new housing and neighbourhoods to be built. Second, technological changes in transport – namely connectivity, electrification and automation – and the pressing need to respond to climate change are interacting in a way that will profoundly change the way we design and build within the city.

But exactly what that change will actually look like is still undecided. The ways in which we will live and move around cities in the future will be determined to a large degree by the choices we make now. Where we locate shops, jobs and housing, how much space we dedicate to roads and streets, and what types of vehicles we allow on those streets, will all shape our travel behaviour. Making sure that we understand what the challenges and opportunities are, and that we respond to them in a considered and strategic way, is crucial if we are to make the right choices.

Population growth, density and sustainable travel choices

Despite the rate of growth slowing down in recent years, London is still forecast to add close to one million additional people to its population over the next 10 years. Accommodating this number of people will require a significant increase in the number of homes we have been building so far. Thanks to the green belt, London’s capacity to expand outwards is limited so accommodating population growth will mean densifying on the city’s existing footprint. While maximising density across most of the existing urban fabric of London is probably not realistic, density can support much more sustainable travel.

This is particularly true when it comes to sustainable transport. Evidence shows that there is a direct relationship between population density and sustainable travel choices. Smaller distances between housing, shops, jobs and public services mean you’re more likely to walk or cycle, and greater concentrations of people can support viable public transport provision, as more paying passengers means the level of subsidy required should be lower. Given that road vehicles are the second largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (after industrial and commercial energy use) in London, building new developments in a way which prioritises sustainable modes of transport is a formidable weapon in the fight against climate change.

Technological changes

At the same time as London requiring large amounts of new urban fabric, we are witnessing some technological developments which will also have a large impact on the way we move around the city. Three big new innovations are driving changes in mobility; connectivity, electrification and automation, and all have implications for how we plan and design new neighbourhoods.

Increasing connectivity between personal devices, vehicles and hard infrastructure in cities is already transforming the way we travel. From optimising route planning via user input, providing real-time data on bus arrivals or arranging peer-to-peer car sharing, connectivity is enabling more efficient travel, as well as changing attitudes towards sharing instead of private ownership of vehicles.

At the same time, advances in battery power and storage mean that more vehicles will be powered by electric propulsion. From e-bikes which can help less frequent cyclists or those in hilly areas, through to electric last-mile delivery vehicles powered by renewable energy, electrification has the potential to support a lower carbon future for London. Finally, while the prospect of self-driving cars has created a lot of hype and media attention, there is still a lot of caution around how long it will take for cars to become fully autonomous in a complex urban setting. However, it is likely that at some point in the not too distant future, they will arrive.

Why we need a strategic approach

The potential benefits of these innovations won’t necessarily be realised by just adopting them without a vision of how we can harness them for the kind of cities we want to see. For example, making the most of electrification could require charging to be provided for freight vehicles to allow for clean last-mile delivery. Similarly, autonomous vehicles could have a use as public transport on defined routes in segregated lanes, but the policy framework needs to have these kinds of sustainable aims at its core.

The risk of rushing to accommodate the latest technological advances without this clear vision is that we become locked into the same land-use patterns and harmful outcomes as the era of the motorcar.

Continuing to prioritise private vehicles, even if they are electric and autonomous will still mean a blighted public realm, fragmented communities and danger from cars, just with reduced tailpipe emissions. City planners need to learn from the past and avoid making the mistakes of the 20th century all over again when the private car took over the city.

To create the kinds of human-centered, sustainable, healthy cities we want to see requires a genuine public debate around new development and transport, and some principles to govern it.

Take a look at our contribution to the debate to see how Centre for London thinks it should happen, in our latest report Building for a New Urban Mobility.

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Joe Wills is a Senior Researcher at Centre for London. Read his previous blogs here. Follow him on Twitter.