Why the future of the city is congestion-free

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Fifty years ago, the Greater London Council was working on an ambitious new plan for London. It involved flattening Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus and much of the West End, as well as Islington and Kensington, and driving motorways through those districts.

That seems incredible now: if a city’s most architecturally interesting neighbourhoods were to be destroyed, where would everyone be driving to anyway?

The point, of course, was not the destination but the car. In the postwar period, cities across the world were being redesigned not for people but for automobiles. Even if little of the scheme finally materialised, it was a bizarre interlude from which, astonishingly, we haven’t entirely recovered.

The big brains of modernism — Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and others — were fixated on building homes surrounded by greenery and fresh air, disdaining the restrictions of historic cities full of dark alleys and small piazzas. Corbusier’s 1920s Ville Radieuse (“Radiant City”) envisaged a rebuilt Paris of slab blocks connected by multi-lane highways.

In 1932, Wright responded with a concept he called Broadacre City — endless low-rise suburban housing in a setting of natural prairie, an entire city devoted to the automobile. The planners Patrick Abercrombie and Robert Moses envisioned postwar London and New York respectively as networks of roads, with the slums in between demolished.

Those slums, from Notting Hill to SoHo, are now among the most desirable urban neighbourhoods in the world.

At the core of modernist plans like these were systems in which traffic would be separated from pedestrians via multi-layered flyovers and pedways. Fragments of this vision survive in many places, but just as zoning the city — separating out living, working, leisure and commerce — proved deadly to everyday life, so the apartheid of traffic and people never really took off. And, no matter how many flyovers a city built, traffic just kept increasing.

Recently there’s been a great deal of focus on shifts in mobility. We read about AVs or self-driving cars, the “15-minute city”, the game-changing impact of innovations in “micromobility” such as electric vehicles, hire bikes and scooters. We’re aware of the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Yet not that much seems to be shifting. The six bestselling cars in the US are all big beasts such as SUVs and pick-ups. In the US and the UK, most housing continues to be built on poorly connected developments with few facilities. For many people, driving remains the only option.

What might change, what should change and how might it affect our cities and their architecture?

The first thing to understand is that cars take up an enormous amount of room. In some cities, more than half of all public space is dedicated to private cars, whether moving or stationary, despite the fact that they are shockingly inefficient at moving people when compared with public transport. There are an estimated billion parking spots in the US — four for every car. Some studies put the figure at twice that.

© Davi Augusto

The arrival of AVs has been touted as one answer. Ride-sharing and hailing vehicles could, it’s said, drop passengers off and move on to the next journey without parking. But is that really the case? Might they not lead to more traffic on the roads? Why wait for a bus if you could be in a private Zoom meeting or watching a movie while you ride? And what would the effects then be on people who can’t afford such comfort and are stuck with less well-funded public transport? 

Another option, perhaps, lies in improving the network of mobility, increasing the efficiency of connections between public transport, bike and scooter hire, ride-sharing and whatever else may arrive. In many historic Italian cities, cars are confined to the edges and largely excluded from the walled centres. Drive into Florence, for instance, and you can drop off your car at a garage to be valet parked outside the city and returned when you need it.

The pandemic has exacerbated our reliance on home deliveries — which has, of course, added to traffic. Might robots take this on? Or drones? How might our homes change if we need docking stations or balconies for airborne deliveries? Will trundling robots become a menace on pavements? From food deliveries to flowers, an increasing amount of inner-city traffic now travels by cargo bike. Great, but this will call for bigger and better bike lanes. Will democratically elected councils dare to take even more space away from drivers?

For a while, Covid-19 gave us a glimpse of virtually car-free cities. It was haunting to gain a radical new perspective and walk in the middle of roads usually choked with traffic. The expansion of outdoor dining into former parking spaces revealed a very different and more leisurely kind of city. New York’s Open Restaurants programme gave restaurants rapid permission to set up tables and booths in the streets; London’s Soho was upended by new terraces. Both are being reviewed, but they have left a taste for street eating. In San Francisco, meanwhile, planners pioneered “parklets” in place of parking spots — pockets of green that might be used as mini-playgrounds, parks or pop-up cafés.

If self-driving vehicles do ever arrive, they could free up huge tracts of space. The average car is only driven 5 per cent of the time. It’s been estimated that in London the area given over to parking equates to the size of 10 new Hyde Parks. And if AVs succeed in making on-street parking at least partly obsolete, cities will gain huge amounts of extra space. 

© Davi Augusto

As for parking garages, rain-stained and empty most of the time, they might seem beyond redemption. But even they can be repurposed. One south London car park has been supplemented by a rooftop gallery, resident orchestra and studios, to become a Peckham institution. In Miami a decade ago, the architects Herzog & de Meuron created 1111 Lincoln Road, an airy piece of tropical modernism that accommodates in its dynamic concrete stack of a frame a boutique, an events space and some incredible views of the city — while functioning as a car park too.

For much of the past 70 years, urban planning was delegated to highway engineers and the city was understood as a mechanism for facilitating traffic flows. That age is waning and metro mayors have re-engaged with the public realm. Paris’s “15-minute city”, spearheaded by mayor Anne Hidalgo, is the best known of the decentralising projects and aims to reduce the distances people need to travel by ensuring that shops, schools, offices and municipal services are all locally accessible, subsidising businesses where necessary and using government-owned land to build them. Covid has given a boost to these ideas, too. If people are increasingly able to work from home, residential areas will become more important than ever. 

This move to improve outer neighbourhoods represents perhaps the most promising future — and the biggest challenge. The problem many of these places face is traffic. As vehicles have been excluded from city centres by congestion charging, traffic and parking restrictions, they have been pushed to the suburbs. Traffic-calming schemes, reduced speed limits, road closures and the replacement of parking with parks can do their bit — at least until they encounter vociferous local opposition.

It is precisely the suburbs and the exurbs, almost entirely car-dependent, where the real change will need to happen. Can they be densified and intensified? Or will they then lose their appeal? If next-day delivery is killing malls, might they — and their enormous parking lots — become something else? Something more social? Some US malls have been converted into retirement communities, others medical centres. If shared AVs and improved public transport, new trams, light rail and safe cycling make living on the outer edges of cities easier for poorer populations — people less likely to own cars — things might change fast. Ghost malls could become homes to workshops and businesses that struggle to get a foothold in cities. 

The problem, of course, is that impending climate catastrophe demands we give traditional cars up now — and no government seems to be countenancing this. The visionary new cities of the modernists a century ago did not materialise; the lesson should be that, if we want to make things happen, we need to adapt our existing built environment.

The answer is not to demolish centres, serviceable buildings or huge engineering projects, but to do what we might call urban acupuncture: creating more walkable, affordable cities and suburbs, in which the things we need can be local and the things we desire can be reached with efficient, cheap public transport. This place might look, indeed, a lot like a historic city. Architects are still designing new airports and fantasising about visionary green urban plans. They need to refocus their gaze on what is already there, while it’s still inhabitable.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

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