Covid-19 has shown one down­side of high-den­sity liv­ing. How much town should plan­ners plan for, asks Harry de Quet­teville

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

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.

Now what?

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 UK

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?

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