Taking cars out of the urban planning equation

If cars are so detrimental to the health and wellbeing of our cities and their inhabitants, why haven’t we phased them out? We look at some of the issues involved, and how urban designers and architects can respond to the problem.

Over the past decade, research has suggested that designing more compact cities with a mixture of land uses is critical in the search for a more sustainable and livable city model. How we view cars could be one of the key factors in how that mixed land use is achieved – and with recent increases in concern about climate change, air quality, rising petrol prices, traffic congestion and social integration, it could be time to switch car parks for…well, actual parks.

Oliver Fenner, Graduate Architect at Hames Sharley believes enabling more accessible cities that provide a mixture of activities in closer proximity to each other will inevitably lessen the need for cars. A compact urban configuration supported by high-quality public transport, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, would simply lead to fewer personal vehicles being required. Unfortunately, for most people, the entire issue is something of a blindspot.

“Most of us are too close to the problem to even recognise it as a problem, let alone explore solutions,” he says. “You can’t offer someone better access to public transport if they see no problem with driving. Conversation and education around transport and connection gives people the opportunity to think about how they move around their own city – if we get the public thinking about the detrimental impact that cars have on the design of our cities, then maybe they will reconsider their means of transport.”

One of the areas of greatest detrimental impact is clearly the effect of cars on the environment: the transport sector accounts for nearly one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in metropolitan areas globally. Heightened awareness of ecological issues in general makes this a good place to start a conversation about adapting urban design to ease cars out of the loop.

“To stabilise our global climate, people are campaigning to create less car-dependent urban forms, reduce urban sprawl, promote public-transport-orientated growth and create compact, walkable neighbourhoods that reduce the need for vehicles,” says Hayley Edwards, an Urban Designer at Hames Sharley.

Hayley explains that cycling infrastructure, e-bikes and ride sharing are all working to reduce the need for car parking within the urban CBD and commercial developments, with design already accommodating this shift in transportation. “Basement car parks are being reduced, for example, and in some instances replaced with larger, better-serviced end-of-trip and wellness facilities that have independent entries away from vehicle access.”

“These facilities are also being lifted out of basement spaces, and instead are being used to link with outdoor and retail spaces,” says Hayley.

She highlights how rising end-of-trip facility provisions in buildings are reflecting an Australian push for developers to achieve higher sustainable building ratings and lower company carbon emission profiles.

Undoubtedly, building design and urban regeneration will be key to people driving less. “If housing is provided closer to the things we need daily, then perhaps we will spend less time in our cars and more time living,” says Oliver. Yet, if urban planning is to forge ahead with the idea of fewer cars in cities, there are still a number of pressing mobility and environmental issues presenting challenges for policy makers and developers.

“Research suggests that people are shying away from using public transport in urban environments because transport amenities are either unsafe, unaffordable or unreliable,” says Hayley. “We need to prioritise these three ‘u’s of issues by ensuing that cycling and public transport infrastructure is safe and supports equality of access to ensure all users can participate fully in community life.”

Hayley discusses design schemes that take this into account have already been seen to succeed in Spain and South Korea, both minimising cars and increasing amenity. In Barcelona, multi-lane roads are being converted into ‘superblocks,’ emphasising pedestrian pathways, playgrounds, trees, art, and street furniture to create more walkable, livable precincts. Single one-way traffic lanes remain but can only move at a slow pace and on the same level as pedestrians and cyclists.

Similarly, the city of Seoul converted a highway overpass into a High Line-style pedestrian pathway in 2017. In the first year after its completion, 10 million people used the path, and business improved in the area to the tune of a 42 per cent increase in sales. “Now, the city plans to add new pedestrian zones and convert some traffic lanes on
major streets to dedicated bike and bus lanes,” Hayley explains.

“There are plenty of examples all over the world where a reduction in the capacity of a city’s road network has led to more people walking and using alternative means of transport,” says Oliver. It’s a simple case of fewer cars needing fewer roads, meaning more space to dedicate to other uses.

However, it’s not enough to design streets with a focus on how people move through them. Urban designers and developers must incorporate elements that encourage pedestrians and cyclists to stay – better lighting, safer crosswalks, high-quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and increased shade and public amenity.

In turn, this will reap financial benefits for Australian cities. “There is the cost of traffic accidents and their impact on emergency services, the considerable negative effect driving has on our physical and mental wellbeing, and the flow-on effects that has on our healthcare system,” Oliver says. What’s more, the value of land offered over to cars in parking requirements and roads is vast and its often developers or government that pay the price.

With the benefits being so clear, informing and educating people about them is the next obvious step, and while not using your car in the city may be a hard concept for many, Australia’s cultural overlay of immigrants may assist in this. Many hail from international societies where driving isn’t necessarily the favourable choice of transport – or
even a viable option, thanks to expense or inadequate infrastructure. Indeed, more people are starting to ride their bike and catch public transport due to the high cost of car culture. There has even been a dip in the number of young adults gaining their driving licence.

And in Oliver’s opinion, the public is intelligent enough to make decisions in their best interests, if provided with the right information and knowledge. “With social media and the sophistication and accessibility of online advertising these days I think public opinion could be changed around cars. There just needs to be a political
and economic will to see the change.”

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Graduate Architect Oliver Fenner
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Urban Designer Hayley Edwards

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