Blog Post

City planners must learn from the mistakes of the past

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. How can we avoid falling into the traps 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 – motorways carving up communities,  streets dominated by dangerous vehicles. These decisions locked generations into car dependent lifestyles and have contributed to rising congestion and pollution levels while abetting the physical inactivity crisis.

This story has taught us an important lesson: 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.

Two forces could help London on its journey towards sustainable transport: building at density and technological innovations in transport. Making sure we respond to these forces in a considered way is crucial if we are to make the right choices.

Building at density to aid 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.

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 density and technological changes 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.

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. For example, 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, albeit, with reduced tailpipe emissions.

Making sure that we respond to the challenges and opportunities posed by technological change, population and traffic growth, pollution and the climate emergency is crucial if we are to move away from our reliance on private vehicles. This is why city planners need to learn from the past and adopt our principles for building for a New Urban Mobility.



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