September 7, 2010 6:33 pm

Policy shift: cities invest in public transport

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Sky train: Dubai, which has little history of public transport, opened its metro system last year

When Foster + Partners, the international architecture practice, was asked to design one of the world’s most modern and futuristic cities, its architects started from a surprising point. Set the challenge of building a city on the edge of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, that would produce neither carbon emissions nor waste, they started by studying how Arabia’s centuries-old traditional cities allowed residents to cope with their environment’s intense heat without air conditioning or cars.

The transport systems envisaged for Masdar, as the city will be known, draw as heavily on the past as on the designs of the buildings. The shade provided by its narrow streets and short distances are designed to encourage walking and cycling.

The inspiration behind Masdar is representative of wider trends in thinking about how to organise future transport in cities. The starting point is the view that, as energy becomes more expensive, cities will have to be much more compact, easier to navigate by bike and on foot, and much less reliant on cars. Public transport also works better in more closely packed cities.

“If you want to design a sustainable city, you really have to look back at the past, when cities were not designed and influenced by the motor vehicle [and] far more influenced by the pedestrian,” says Gerard Evenden, Foster + Partners’ design director.

This view is not universal. Alan Pisarski, author of the long-running Commuting in America series of books, believes that increasing prosperity and the growing specialisation of many jobs will lead commuters to travel still further. And only the car, he argues, will have the range and flexibility necessary.

“The notion that people can get around on bikes and walking presumes that the daily orbit of a person’s life is going to be confined into a one- or two-mile radius,” he says. “Everything I see contradicts that.”

However, Pisarski and those in favour of a move away from motor vehicles both agree that new technologies will be crucial. Enthusiasts for public transport believe signalling systems that know precisely where trains are and let them run faster and closer together will boost public transport’s competitiveness and capacity.

Similarly, pedestrians and cars will co-exist in the narrow streets of Masdar because vehicles will use new guidance systems that limit the potential for accidents.

Pisarski, meanwhile, believes this same guidance technology will increase the hegemony of the car.

“Cars could very well become smaller, and they are certainly going to be much more efficient in a global-warming sense and in their operating costs,” he says. “That, it seems to me, is going to make the automobile even more attractive and more efficient a competitor with transit or anything else.”

The scale of the transport challenge is clear in Dubai, the emirate next to Abu Dhabi. Allowed to grow fast and with little clear planning for public transport, sprawling Dubai City forces its residents to rely almost entirely on cars for transport. As a result, the road network becomes severely congested at busy times, turning simple journeys into arduous, hour-long treks.

Efforts to tackle the problem, including a 37-mile metro line that has been built parallel to Dubai City’s main Sheikh Zayed Road, are complicated because the vast tracts of land given over to roads block other forms of movement.

Andy Southern, managing director for the planning division of Atkins, the design and engineering consultancy, says it will be hard for car-centric cities such as Dubai to move towards more human-scale development.

“If you already have a city that has a large sprawl and massive highways built for car dependency and long commuting trips,” he says, “it is going to take a long time to change that, not just from a transport point of view but also from an urban form and planning point of view.”

Southern believes, however, that most people would prefer a city designed to facilitate walking, cycling and public transport – if given a choice. The simple act of encouraging commuters on to buses, metros, trams or other non-car modes of transport can reverse urban sprawl. Retail outlets, coffee shops and other amenities, clustered around public transport stops, help create small-scale town centres.

“If you’re choosing a city you want to live in, is it a Barcelona or a Houston, a Singapore or a Tokyo?” Southern says.

Indeed, in Paris, efforts to try to make the city work more like compact and well-connected Barcelona have been spearheaded by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the UK architectural practice founded by Lord Rogers.

The problem for Paris, according to Stephen Barrett, an associate at the firm, is that it will be impossible to remodel the city’s existing infrastructure comprehensively.

“I think we have a tendency to forget that, even in 100 years’ time, most of the buildings that surround us will be the same buildings that surround us today,” he says.

Paris’s problem – one shared by many other large cities around the world – is that its transport network has failed to keep up with its outward growth. “The centre [of Paris] is very well served by public transport, while the suburbs are not,” Barrett says.

The Paris Métro and its other transport networks were designed to ferry commuters between the city’s inner suburbs and its historic centre. Today, however, almost three-quarters of journeys in Paris are between suburbs.

“As the territories of cities become ever more vast, it becomes harder and harder to provide a traditional, interconnected public transport system that serves the whole population,” Barrett says.

Nevertheless, Paris’s orbital tram routes and other new systems linking peripheral parts of the existing network are designed to do just this.

“One of the things we were looking to do was to link the existing systems in a way that reflected the growth of the city,” Barrett says.

A similar desire to adjust existing networks to address unmet needs lies behind the drive to create orbital rail links around central London.

Conversely, Pisarski predicts that, as urban centres become increasingly crowded with cars, commuters will simply continue to move further out, to where cars are still effective – although he does expect clusters of specialist jobs to create some denser areas.

“I don’t disagree that people will be clustering into somewhat more dense units – call it ‘sprawl with lumps’, if you like,” Pisarski says. “But these communities are going to be well spaced from each other.”

Any new, smarter transport policies will invariably require additional resources. And although the increasing complexity of transport systems

could drive up costs, there is little doubt about the huge potential for driving systems with more intelligent control software.

Indeed, the long-running debate about the need for a new orbital rail route in Paris has been transformed by the possibility that new technology could allow existing routes to be used more intensively and intelligently.

The technology also holds out the possibility that cars could in future play a more positive, less intrusive, role.

“I think there is a role for the car, but I think it has to be – at a fundamental level – a different kind of car,” Barrett says.

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