Highway to Hell

Highway to Hell

We’ve been designing cities to suit cars, rather than people, for almost a century now. But there’s another way, says Julian Moss.




Julian Moss

Cities are great. But not always healthy or pleasant, especially when dominated by cars.

As cars became a status symbol, associated with wealth, freedom and success, cities were increasingly built and rebuilt to accommodate them, especially in North America. Growing affluence meant ever-increasing numbers of cars, leading to congestion, air pollution, high numbers of casualties from accidents and sprawling suburbs. By prioritising the car, public transport becomes a last-resort service for those with no other choice and cycling and walking become dangerous and unpleasant. But the car-dominant model is unsustainable. Transport accounts for 27% of carbon emissions in the UK and 29% in the United States; exhaust fumes contribute to toxic air which kills thousands every year. Can our cities thrive without cars?

Surely technology will save us?

Electric cars are a useful step forward in working towards carbon net zero, at least as a way of doing the wrong thing better. Electric cars don’t eliminate all on-street pollution – you still get particulates from tyres and brake pads. Making electric cars still emits carbon. Two thirds of the cobalt for the batteries is currently mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in questionable human rights and environmental conditions – you can also read about the protests against planned lithium mining in Serbia on page 45. And an electric car takes up just as much space, creates the same amount of congestion and is just as likely to be in a collision as one with an internal combustion engine.

How about autonomous electric cars? They still take up road space, and they may actually increase total distance travelled as they buzz around empty from one assignment to the next. And being hit by one hurts as much as being hit by a car with a driver. How about autonomous electric vehicles underground? Still no: this simply moves the congestion into an expensive concrete pipe until they come up to the surface to take on or disgorge passengers. And don’t even start me on flying cars. Whatever the technology, cars are an inefficient use of scarce space in a city.

Brasilia’s original masterplan included walkable residential neighbourhoods, but connected them to each other and to the city centre with monumental 14-lane arterial roads...

Shouldn’t we just start from scratch?

It’s tempting and, as we continue to urbanise and migrate, we may well need to create entirely new cities. One third of the world’s population of 2.5 billion lived in cities in 1950. It’s now over half and the UN expects two thirds of us, around 6.4 billion people, to be urbanites by 2050.

We would need to take a different approach from previous planned cities. Canberra is beautiful, but its low-density suburbs and high-speed road network mean it’s no surprise that over 70% of residents get to work by car. Brasilia’s original masterplan included walkable residential neighbourhoods, but connected them to each other and to the city centre with monumental 14-lane arterial roads, designed to allow free-flowing traffic as a symbol of modernity. As the population grew beyond the original plan the roads filled up and the city sprawled. There is now a metro system and bus network, but the size and spread of the metropolis mean that the average time to commute by public transport is 96 minutes, with nearly a third of workers spending over two hours a day on the bus or metro.

The habit of designing around cars is persistent. EkoAtlantic, a new district of Lagos for 300,000 residents and 150,000 workers being built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic, will have energy efficient buildings and solar panels for electricity. But at the heart of its business district sprawls a 1.5km eight-lane highway. Songdo, 30km from Seoul is more sustainable than many new developments with green LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings – but it’s planned around wide streets and is almost entirely car-based. You can get to the South Korean capital on the metro, but it takes 90 minutes, with two changes.

Two huge developments either side of the Johor Strait, Forest City Malaysia and Tengah in Singapore, plan to house over 800,000 residents between them. Both talk a good game: smart, green new cities which will be compact and fully accessible by public transport. Singapore – from necessity given its constrained land area – has excellent public transport and has pioneered restraints on cars, including road charging. Since 1990 Singaporean residents must compete in an auction for a Certificate of Entitlement before they can buy a car. But both Tengah and Forest City Malaysia are missed opportunities, still built for cars, with visualisations showing subterranean parking levels and free-flowing streets.

But cities can’t work without cars, can they?

Cities generally work best when people can live close to the places they need to get to – for work, shopping, entertainment and education. They’re more efficient when it’s easy and safe to walk or cycle for a lot of your needs and to take cheap, efficient and reliable public transport for longer trips. This needs the urban fabric to be reasonably dense and not to separate out residential from retail and commercial uses too much. Accommodating lots of cars pushes in the other direction – cars take up a lot of space, both for moving them (streets and roads) and storing them (car parks).

If you need to move 50,000 people an hour in the same direction – and that’s not unusual in a large city – you could build a road 175m wide and have it filled with cars. Or you could build a 35m-wide road and have buses running on it nose to tail. Or you could build a tram track. And that would be only 9m wide. High volume public transport uses scare city centre space 20 times more efficiently than cars.

Car parking takes a huge amount of land. Data from a Berlin Regional Parliament Report which shows over 4,000 acres devoted to car parking there – an area five times larger than Central Park. The 18.6 million spaces in Los Angeles County use more land than housing. Canada – population 38 million – has around 80 million parking spaces for its 23 million cars.

Many retailers in car-dominated cities assume that, without the cars, their trade would suffer, when in fact we see the opposite. Retailers tend to underestimate how many people already access shops on foot or by bus, and when cars are taken out of city centres, footfall grows and trade increases.

 One final thing, and this one is really important: building roads generates more traffic. Adding an extra lane may ease congestion initially, but people see that there’s a wider road with less congestion and start to use it more and more. This ‘induced traffic’ is a universal fact of roads: build it and they will come. Fortunately the opposite is true: taking roads away doesn’t move the traffic to nearby streets – it reduces the amount of driving people do.

So what can we do?

We’ve talked about the idea of the concept 15-minute city before, in Ethos 12: the idea popularised by Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris that residents should be able to access all of their daily needs within a quarter of an hour walk or bike ride from their front door. Mayor Hidalgo has supported this move with carrots – the rapid introduction of hundreds of kilometres of protected cycle lanes alongside the Metro and comprehensive bus network – and sticks: diesel cars will be banned in the city from 2024 and petrol cars from 2030. In Ethos 14 we read about new sustainable neighbourhoods around the world, often regeneration projects, designed to be car-free.

It’s more difficult to undo decades of car dominance in an existing city, of course, but not impossible.

Oslo set itself two targets in its 2016 car-free liveability programme: reduce cars in its historic downtown area and reduce road accident deaths to zero. It has converted parking spaces to bike lanes, parklets and gardens and people now walk, cycle and take public transport for most of their journeys. People who still drive into the city centre pay a toll for the privilege, and the city invests the proceeds in new transport projects. Retailers have reported a 10% increase in footfall – and it’s now safer to walk or bike: Oslo saw no pedestrian or cyclist deaths in 2019.

Seoul’s experience shows that traffic can be made to evaporate. The city government removed the Cheonggyecheon expressway in 2003 and replaced it with a restored stream and 1000-acre park, larger than New York’s Central Park. It’s become a major city attraction for half a million visitors a week. And the traffic got better on surrounding roads. Congestion didn’t shift – there’s now just less traffic on the city’s roads as people have switched to bus and metro. There were also significant environmental benefits, including cooler temperatures and the reappearance of long-absent species of fish, birds and insects in the city.

Jakarta, the largest city in South-East Asia and the second largest urban area in the world (after Tokyo) has huge congestion problems with the accompanying air pollution and noise. The city government is investing heavily in an underground metro, a bus rapid transit network and cycle lanes and plans to introduce road pricing. In the meantime it has introduced some shorter-term measures, including an odd/ even number plate scheme (so only half of the cars in the city are allowed on the roads each day) and a weekly car free day on the city’s main avenues. This serves as a practical demonstration of how the city could be different: quieter with cleaner air and space given over to informal markets, community events and civic campaigning. The odd/ even number plate idea has been introduced around the world, usually in response to chronic congestion or pollution emergencies, including in New Delhi, Athens and Beijing. Wealthier residents can, however, buy they way around the limits by simply buying a second (or third, or fourth) car.

Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, shows that size doesn’t require cars. In the push to rebuild after the Second World War the Japanese government’s focus was on economic growth. It chose to invest in public transport – nearly 7 million people now use the metro every day – and didn’t parcel the city up into distinct residential, commercial and industrial zones. The city redeveloped organically, without a dominant downtown city centre and remains a collection of neighbourhoods. Later measures included the requirement to prove you own a parking space or garage before buying a car. Car ownership is very low at 0.54 cars per household, around a third of the rate in Los Angeles.

Public transport and new and improved green spaces have been crucial elements of the reinvention of Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city and 30 years ago perhaps the most violent city in the world. The country’s only metro system, alongside trams and cable cars have been planned to integrate the city better, connecting poorer neighbourhoods, and now serve residents and increasing numbers of tourists. Successive mayors of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, have invested in busways (express buses running in their own lanes) and a huge cycle lane network, introduced number plate-based restrictions on cars and removed thousands of parking bays from the streets. Bogota’s former mayor Gustavo Petro summed up the ambition like this: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Moving away from car-dependence is typically difficult. Many cities who’ve moved in this direction saw a strong initial resistance to “anti-car” changes, but over time, through pilot schemes and temporary changes, that resistance turns to a disbelief that cars were ever given such priority.

When Stockholm’s experimental road charging scheme was stopped there were protests demanding its reinstatement – people preferred the 20% reduction in rush-hour traffic. The same happened when a new mayor in Madrid suspended an ultra-low emission zone which had banned most cars from the city core. Ghent ran over 300 public hearings to debate the issues.

Vienna has taken a slow and steady approach, not innovating, but adopting proven ideas from elsewhere and implementing them really well: one of the last major European cities to build a metro, its U-Bahn is one of the best. It has rolled out parking constraint measures one neighbourhood at a time over 30 years, building consensus along the way, and is now constructing a large network of protected cycle lanes.

As people see successful initiatives elsewhere, they look to localise the lessons. One of the most ambitious car-free zones currently under consideration covers an area of 34 square miles within Berlin’s Ringbahn – one and a half times the size of Manhattan island. The proposal was put forward by a local advocacy group, rather than being initiated by politicians or planners. In the same way that in the 1970s road safety was the issue that kick-started Amsterdam’s transformation into today’s bike-first city, maybe climate change activism will be the challenge that forces major change today: 50,000 Berliners have already signed a petition supporting the car-free plan.

Car-dominated cities are not the result of inevitable, irresistible forces of nature. They arise because of choices, political and personal, made and played out over decades. With community involvement, brave leadership and persistence, ideas for car-free cities really are possible.

One final thought. If you drive in cities but don’t like traffic, just remember: you are traffic.


Julian Moss is a transport planner and urbanist who works for WSP, the global engineering consultancy, in Liverpool, England.

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