by Morwen Johnson
These questions were at the front of my mind after I saw a lot of social media coverage of Helsinki wanting to go car-free by 2025. Reading beyond the headlines of the Helsinki story, it seems that the city actually plans to test whether it could integrate public and shared transport options to such a degree that owning a car would be unnecessary for its residents. But the story revealed strong opinions on how cars impact our quality of life in urban areas and the dominance of car-centred urban planning.
This talk, given by Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, looked at examples of medium-sized cities which had found practical solutions to handling traffic within the context of enhancing place quality.
Some general themes which jumped out at me were:
Traffic management must be seen as a holistic issue which takes account of the needs of public transport users and pedestrians. In many towns and cities, traffic control aims to achieve a ‘green wave’ – where lights are coordinated to allow continuous traffic flow of cars/road traffic over several junctions in one main direction. In contrast, Zurich introduced short traffic light cycles (e.g. 55 seconds). This meant less waiting and shorter journey times for all, not just car users.
Taking a new approach to traffic management requires political will and a long-term approach. The initial regeneration and vision for Bilbao stretched over twenty years. Copenhagen has been rolling out pedestrianisation and the regeneration of waterways across the city centre since the 1960s. Making small, incremental changes which all contribute to a wider, consistent vision can be just as effective (and in many places, more practical) than masterplans which take a knock down and rebuild approach.
Creating quality places to live often depends on value creation. High density housing and commercial development can contribute to liveable cities if the financial returns are invested in infrastructure, public realm improvements and public transport. In Bilbao for example, tramlines were built from the proceeds of increased land value.
Increasing public transport use is a mind game. If an individual is committed to the idea that cars are the quickest, cheapest and most convenient form of transport then they won’t consider alternatives. Initiatives such as Southend-on-Sea’s award-winning Ideas in Motion behaviour change project try to tackle this.
Planning for linear development is an approach that can more easily adapt to fast or slow growth. Copenhagen has used public transport routes as arteries for urban growth, as did the Brussels suburban new town of Louvain-la-Neuve. In America, Portland is a poster-child for transit-oriented development with light rail, commuter rail and streetcar systems all supporting urban regeneration and development.
It seems that the question of whether towns and cities can come to a compromise where cars and people successfully co-exist is a challenge that everyone responsible for designing, maintaining and governing our urban spaces needs to face.
Note about the event:
This blog was prompted by a lecture organised by Architecture and Design Scotland and Glasgow City Heritage Trust and held in The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture, on 16 Jun 2014. Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, spoke on traffic management in historic cities.
Further reading (you may need to be a member to access some material):