THE FUTURE OF URBAN TRAVEL
Covid-19 has shown one downside of high-density living. How much town should planners plan for, asks Harry de Quetteville
Ayear ago, the future of urban mobility seemed clear. Forecasts showed that both global population and the proportion of it living in cities were growing fast. Of 9.8bn people expected to live on Earth by 2050, 68pc of them – 6.6bn – would be urbanites. To put that into context, the entire population of the planet only hit 6.6bn in 2005. The world was undergoing a profound and shockingly new migration towards urban centres. Dozens of new “megacities” of more than 10m citizens were being created. And yet, just 200 years ago, 93pc of the world’s population lived in the countryside.
Such cascading urbanisation, which has gone hand in hand with rising economic prosperity, appeared sure to have inescapable consequences for transport in wealthy cities: declining car-use and the prioritisation of micro-mobility alternatives such as bike and e-scooter hire linking highly coordinated webs of public transport – from suburban commuter trains to tubes, trams and buses.
Ride-hailing and sharing would help fill the gaps, and subscription payment would give users seamless access to some or all of these options. Cities would be greener, smarter, more automated. The air would be breathable. The noise would be hushed. Quality of life would be higher, despite the crowds. A modern miracle.
The question for town planners now is how much town to plan for. Will the pandemic reverse global urbanisation, or slow it, and for how long? And among urban residents will it slow or reverse the move away from the private car towards public transport and micro-mobility?
On the first issue, the answer seems clear. There is no reason that Covid-19 should interrupt future densification of cities. “Urban density has been widely blamed for the severity of the pandemic in places like New York City,” Creighton Connolly, an urban geographer at the University of Lincoln, told a conference at the London School of Economics in June.
Asian cities, among the densest in the world, have suffered less than the West. And 90pc of future urbanisation is expected in Asia and Africa. Still, Connolly admitted that some urban designers are now arguing for a so-called “Goldilocks” density – sufficient to make good use of precious space, but “not so high that you have people living in 30-storey apartment blocks which rely on extensive uses of public spaces like elevators.”
On the second issue, urban transport, Covid seems certain to have an impact. In the last few months, we have clearly wanted to travel on our own – in cars, on bikes and using e-scooters. To have private, not public transport. The latter has nosedived. Tube operator Transport for London (TFL) recorded 170m London bus journeys a month at the beginning of the year, falling to 29m in lockdown and only recovering to 46m in June. Some 106m January Tube journeys fell to 6m in April, up to just 13.3m in June.
A report for the Boston Consulting Group noted that city authorities such as TFL may need to accept that passengers are less dependent on their services and diversify.
The consultant Deloitte has gamed several future scenarios including:
‘Urban density has been widely blamed for the severity of the pandemic in places like New York’
1. A return to the status quo ante;
2. The tech takeover of many facets of public transport by private, on-demand companies, with increased harvesting of personal data, and;
3. Asian success in Covid management leading to dominance of the state-managed city model, with Silicon Valley overshadowed.
Who governs city transport is up for grabs. But three trends seem with us to stay: more working from home; greater reliance on e-commerce and home delivery; and heightened safety meaning not just avoidance of accidents on journeys but sanitisation of every stage of a trip.
The most immediate upshot of the pandemic in Britain has been the announcement of a £2bn package to put cycling and walking “at the heart of ” post-Covid transport. In prepandemic London, 37pc of trips were made by car, 29pc by public transport, 29pc walking and 3pc by bike. Drivers spend 73 hours per year spent in jams.
In cities, among the biggest victims is space. According to the Department for Transport (DfT), there are six cars for every 10 people in the UK, but the average car is unused 96pc of the time. Parking spaces occupy between 15pc and 30pc of a typical urban area.
Change is coming
Change, the government recognises, is already under way due to advances in data and connectivity. Half of new cars are internet enabled.
Greater connectivity allows a melding of public and private transport in services such as
‘There are six cars for every 10 people in the UK, but the average car remains unused 96pc of the time’
ArrivaClick – a minibus that passengers can order like an Uber.
The dream remains one in which smart cities, larded with sensors and highly connected vehicles, are able to create seamless journeys across road, rail, train, tube, tram, bike, boat, scooter – you name it – from both state and private sector providers. The nightmare is a barely-managed mess.
Britain’s biggest city is still regarded as a “global model” in the real-time use of data, transport start-up investment and pollution reduction targets. It must now fight to retain that crown. Tomorrow: Part Three in our series. One way to beat the jams is to take to the air. From city hoppers to electric jets, what’s the future in the skies?