Slowdowns in traffic and travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed many local governments to rethink their city planning and urban infrastructure. Fewer people went out on the streets and shutdowns in cities around the world gave many people a new perspective on short-distance living and on active mobility, as challenges in cities across South Africa, Kenya, or Latin America showcased.
Though things are shifting back into high gear in many places, the ideas behind sustainable or low carbon cities can, when implemented, help retain the lifestyle benefits that come with short commutes and less vehicular traffic. If city planners were to implement the lessons learned on the path toward meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 — make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable — we can move away from individual automotive transport and towards shared common spaces that make other means of transport not only possible, but more attractive and affordable.
So what’s been holding planners back? Let’s look at a few myths about people-friendly cities:
1. Car-centric planning is person-friendly.
The notion that people need a car to get around is one that stems from the 20th century, when automotive manufacturers worked with transport planners to build cities for automobiles. As the number of cars on the road has increased, however, so have the space requirements for parking spaces and lots, highways and interchanges, and thoroughfares. While getting from A to B may be faster, the result is cities covered in concrete, higher traffic fatalities, and greater levels of air pollution — none of which are entirely person-friendly nor conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
2. So few people bicycle, it’s not necessary to add infrastructure.
While cycling as a means of transport may not be popular in every major city, without unique infrastructure for bicycles, such as dedicated bike lanes like those found in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, people who might otherwise choose to pedal to work or school are left without the option to do so. As urban planner Brent Toderian mentioned, “It’s hard to justify a bridge by the number of people swimming across a raging, crocodile-filled river.” People may cycle less than they use their cars within cities because cycling continues to be unsafe due to non-existent or underdeveloped infrastructures. As one study in Karlsruhe, Germany evidenced, “building new cycling connections and reallocating road space for cycling infrastructure leads to an increase in cyclists.”
3. There isn’t enough space.
One of the things that pandemic-related shutdowns have shown us is that there truly is more space for pedestrians and the public if the space reserved for cars were reallocated. In Barcelona, busy intersections went car-free and were converted into common areas used for outdoor concerts, café seating, and served as ad hoc community gathering spaces. In Paris, roadways along the Seine were reconfigured to prioritize bicycling — and the number of cyclists on the road grew. Instead of considering what will be eliminated by converting streets into pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly thoroughfares, we can use the space freed up by fewer vehicles on the road to create room for complementary means of transportation.
4. Fewer vehicle lanes will automatically lead to congestion.
Cities are more densely populated than ever in history. Within the living generation, we’ve gone from just two mega-cities (with a population of over 10 million people) to 34. Such growth can’t sustain a linear increase in individual vehicle transport, which is why an expansion of public transport initiatives should follow population growth. As studies about induced traffic have shown, further expansion of roadways leads not to an alleviation of car traffic but to more traffic and more traffic jams. Creating dedicated bus lanes can ease gridlock, as can incorporating bicycle infrastructure onto existing roadways; with safety issues decreased, more people may opt for the faster commute outside their car.
5. Public transport won’t work in my city.
A lack of public transport in a city or limited options in the past shouldn’t serve as a hindrance to future possibilities. With numerous modes of transportation available today, from e-buses to light rail, there are more means of travel than ever before. And even in instances where a city lacks the proper infrastructure for mass transit, options like bike sharing and car sharing can be implemented, reducing congestion and greenhouse gases.
6. People prefer the ease of driving personal cars.
The promise of individual freedom that automotive manufacturers have campaigned on is one that has to be seen in balance. As the cost of vehicle upkeep and fossil fuels increases, reliance on a personal vehicle can be exclusionary in its expense. With enhanced first and last mile connectivity on public transportation, it can be even cheaper and easier to view individual trips as door-to-door — and not just when you’re driving yourself. Is the narrative of the car as a symbol of freedom still valid today when there are other, more affordable options?
Studies have likewise shown that there is a health cost for commuting by car, as those who commute more than 10 miles each day report higher driving-related stress and increased blood pressure. Considering how much time one spends looking for a parking space and how much money the car costs to maintain and fill up, is it worth the stress? In the end, it is rather cyclists and scooter riders who pass motorists in traffic jams, isn't it?
7. A move away from roadways will lead to longer commutes.
Inclusive planning is key to understanding why this is a myth. We know that even in countries with more developed public transport networks, men more frequently own cars than women; commutes undertaken in a personal auto thus tend to affect men more. Yet studies have shown a gender imbalance in the layout of public transportation networks; whereas men who use public transit most often do so as a direct commute between work and home, the gender-typical division of household work leads women to run more errands and as a result, travel longer distances and spend more time commuting. Expanding public transport networks and creating short distance communities within major cities can not only close this gap for women, but it can also ease the transition away from roadways and long commutes for others.
8. Inclusive cities can enhance existing inequalities.
Inequality is one of the most pressing social issues of the modern day. Though the presumption exists that a lack of access to transit can entrench existing inequality, reconsidering the layout of cities to include 15-minute neighborhoods — where everything one needs for their daily life is within a short distance — can ensure that there are opportunities for everyone.
In other instances, such as was the case in Bogota, Colombia, a city with a high class discrepancy, public transport worked to further close a gap in affordability and access through dedicated bus lanes and free feeder buses from lower income communities on the city’s outskirts. In expanding the range of travel open to everyone, the city broadened work opportunities for those outside the city center.
9. It’s expensive.
Change doesn’t come without a price. But when it comes to rethinking urban planning, the calculations need to be considered as an investment over the long-term. According to UN Habitat, the cost of making a city sustainable in order to meet SDG 11 by 2030 varies based not only on region but also on existing infrastructure. They write:
“Cost estimates from the four sampled countries show that the total average annual cost for small cities to achieve SDG 11 ranges from USD 18 million in Malaysia to USD 54 million in Bolivia. For medium-sized cities, the total average annual cost ranges from USD 144 million in India to USD 516 million in Malaysia and for larger cities the total annual averages range from USD 645 million in Bolivia to nearly USD 5.3 billion in Malaysia.”
Understanding locally specific baseline costs is vital to estimating the price of investing in people-friendly governance and infrastructure. Yet distributed over the long-term, those costs should be seen as less prohibitive than the price of inaction.
10. If you build it, they will come.
Although investing in better cycling infrastructure, more accessible public transport, and pedestrian areas will increase livability in an urban area, promoting awareness is also key to ensuring the planning meets the needs of the community. An urban planning checklist released by Stanford University highlights the importance of including diverse opinions from the get-go to enable decision-making that is “about equality in urban development and management.”
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