The Future of City Mobility
For a few weeks in 2020, we were given a taste of what our cities could be like without the car. It was a quieter, more reflective city where the hum of traffic was replaced with the sound of birds, children playing and conversation.
News reports showing animals reclaiming urban spaces seemed novel, but briefly demonstrated that we weren’t the only ones thriving without the traffic, danger, pollution and noise of the personal combustion engine car. This is before we even start considering the gargantuan elephant in the room – climate change.
Fortunately, as a result of this realisation, city planners across the world have decided to do something about it. Some of these plans have been more radical than others (Paris aims to reduce traffic in the centre by 55% by 2022), but all have the same goal in mind - cities of the future will need to become more about the movement of people, rather than the movement of cars. Westminster City Council and the Crown Estate’s June announcement that Oxford Circus would be partly pedestrianised and remodelled to form two new piazzas, is both radical and exciting. Could we see more of London’s busiest places follow suit and put people first? An essential narrative within the future of mobility is the provision of a range of alternatives to the car. Cleaner and greener methods of transport must be preferred over dirtier.
The government’s radical new climate commitment, to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, should act as a catalyst for more progressive thinking within the conversation around mobility, especially within urban spaces. There is a vast amount of room for change - the fact is, very few of us actually choose to use greener methods of transportation for our daily commutes, with only around 10% of commuters walking and cycling to work.
In cities, how we get around will increasingly be split around existing public transport networks and varying formats of “micromobility”, the rise of which has been notable over the past year. Micromobility refers to either human powered or electric personal transportation, which are used to travel relatively short distances. Think (e)bikes, (e)scooters, roller blades, skateboards etc.
TFL’s May announcement that rental e-scooters would be trialled for 12 months in London from June 2021 (Lime, Dott and Tier were selected), was a positive move towards encouraging micromobility in the capital. The move has not come without criticism however, with safety for pedestrians/users and blocked pavements cited already.
So what has this got to do with the built environment and what are the implications for owners, developers and tenants?
We’ve seen a wave of slow streets, low traffic neighbourhoods (LTN’s) and cycling lanes pop up in London over the course of the past year. Whilst many of these initiatives have been labelled as temporary, many of the schemes will become permanent. Most importantly, they will enable the growth of all forms of micromobility and begin to shift behaviours of the population who ultimately will choose how they will travel around the city. There are several opportunity areas.
Firstly, cars take up an awful lot of space. In London, private car parking takes up just under 7,900 acres. From a placemaking perspective, reducing the space taken up in cities by parked private cars opens up huge possibilities and opportunities to enhance the public realm and embed more equitable uses, such as green spaces, cycle paths and play areas for children. Barcelona’s “Super Blocks” will see 1 in 3 streets in the central Eixample district converted into micro parks and public squares, where pedestrians will be given priority, equating to around 83 acres of public realm.
Secondly, there is a clear link between LTN’s and direct commercial benefit. Evidence from a low traffic initiative in Brooklyn, New York, showed that retail sales doubled in the three years following installation of bicycle lanes and enhanced public realm, significantly outperforming both the borough and city level sales trends. LTN’s have also been proven to have a positive effect on house prices. Walthamstow, one of London’s best performing housing markets over the past decade, introduced car free zones in 2014.
Thirdly, there is a clear opportunity to design our spaces and places to be more reliant on green mobility options in order to promote health outcomes. With ESG rising up the agenda for landlords and developers, enabling healthy transport for the residents or visitors to their buildings is an absolute imperative. Asset level change could manifest significant environmental and social impact.
For landlords, change within buildings can be split into two categories when thinking about enabling mobility for residents: “hardware” and “software”.
The hardware within many newer buildings is very standard – facilities such as bike racks, charging points and shared bikes/scooters. The software looks at changing the perception of certain methods of transport and changing people’s behaviour - this is the biggest challenge. How can we “nudge” behaviour of employees? Cycle training for staff? Providing free-to-use scooters or bikes for employees to travel to and from meetings on? If the healthier and more environmentally friendly option was incentivised, could we begin to see immediate benefits to companies such as a more motivated and healthy workforce?
The conversation around the future of mobility within cities is far-reaching and multi-faceted. It is however, an area of the sometimes intimidatingly vast ESG agenda which we can all participate in and effect lasting and positive change. It is clear that the status quo must be challenged if we want to make our urban spaces healthier and more sustainable for everyone.