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 active mobility. TUMI campaigns in cities across South Africa, Kenya, and Latin America showcased this.
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 implement the lessons learned on the path towards meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 (which strives to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), then we can move away from individual automotive transport. Thereby, we can shift our focus towards shared common spaces that make other means of transport not only possible but more attractive and affordable.
So what has been holding planners back? Let us 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 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, interchanges, and thoroughfares. While getting from A to B may have become faster, the results of this development are cities covered in concrete, higher traffic fatalities, and greater levels of air pollution. None of these aspects are person-friendly nor conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
2. Since so few people cycle, it is not necessary to add further infrastructure.
Although cycling as a mode of transport is not popular in all major cities, the lack of dedicated cycle lanes could mean that people who would otherwise cycle to work do not have the opportunity to do so. As explained by urban planner Brent Toderian, “It’s hard to justify a bridge by the number of people swimming across a raging, crocodile-filled river.” In cities, people may use bicycles less often than cars because cycling continues to be unsafe due to non-existent or underdeveloped infrastructures. As one study in Karlsruhe, Germany, demonstrated, “building new cycling connections and reallocating road space for cycling infrastructure leads to an increase in cyclists.”
3. There is not enough space.
One thing that pandemic-related shutdowns have shown us is that we can create more space for pedestrians and the public if the space reserved for cars is reallocated. In Barcelona, busy intersections went car-free. Additionally, they were converted into common areas used for outdoor concerts or café seats. They also 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 we would lose by converting streets into pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly thoroughfares, we should think about how to use the freed-up spaces on the road to create room for complementary means of transportation.
4. Reducing the number of vehicle lanes will automatically lead to congestion.
Cities are more densely populated than ever in history. Over the course of this living generation, we have gone from just two mega-cities (with a population of over 10 million people) to 34 mega-cities. Such growth cannot 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 does not lead to the alleviation of car traffic but only to more traffic and more traffic jams. Creating dedicated bus lanes can ease gridlocks. The same goes for incorporating bicycle infrastructure in existing roadways: Once safety issues are mitigated, more people may opt for a faster commute without their car.
5. Public transport will not work in my city.
A lack of public transport or limited options in the past should not serve as hindrances 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- and car-sharing can be implemented. This reduces congestion and greenhouse gases.
6. People prefer the ease of driving personal cars.
The premise of individual freedom that automotive manufacturers have campaigned on 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. Due to improvements to public transportation’s first- and last-mile connectivity, it can be even cheaper and easier to view individual trips as door-to-door transport — and not just when you are driving yourself. Is the narrative of the car as a symbol of freedom still valid today when there are other, more affordable options? Likewise, studies have shown that there is a health cost for commuting by car because 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 a car costs to maintain and fill up, is it really worth the stress? In the end, it is rather cyclists and scooter riders who pass motorists in traffic jams, is it not?
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. Furthermore, men more frequently commute in a personal car. 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. As a result, they 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 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. A lack of access to transit can entrench existing inequalities. Therefore, reconsidering the layout of cities to include 15-minute neighborhoods — where everything one needs for daily life is within a short distance — can ensure that there are opportunities for everyone.
In Bogotá, 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. By expanding the range of travel open to everyone, the city improved job opportunities for those outside the city center.
9. It is expensive.
Change does not come without a price. But when it comes to rethinking urban planning, its costs should be considered as long-term investments. According to UN-Habitat, the costs of making a city sustainable to meet SDG 11 by 2030 vary based not only on the region but also on existing infrastructure. UN-Habit explains:
“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. In the long run, however, these costs are likely to be less prohibitive than the price of inaction.
10. If you build it, they will come.
Investments in better cycling infrastructure, more accessible public transport, and more pedestrian areas will increase liveability in urban areas. Still, promoting awareness is also essential for ensuring that urban 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 processes that center on “equality in urban development and management.”
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