Space: the final frontier. To boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.

Posted on Dec 21, 2020 in What our fellows are thinking

John Whitelegg

When I was a student in the late 1960s studying economic geography as part of an excellent degree programme in the Department of Geography at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth we were told that land was a valuable commodity and also finite. It was also a factor of production and great care was needed to optimise its use and factor in land costs as part of a wider optimisation and the creation of an economic system that made best use of all inputs. The cost of land was an important consideration in public and private decision-taking.

Clearly something has gone wrong since those days. If we look at transport in Britain over the last two to three decades, it is very clear indeed that the cost of land and the need to avoid costly options when less costly options are available, has had no part in policy making or decision taking on how millions of us can be encouraged to move around. We could very reasonably conclude that land has zero value and should be ignored when thinking and planning about urban mobility, transport infrastructure and subsidy.

Mobility and transport choices make a large number of demands on land especially valuable land in and near city centres. Some graphics might help to understand the wastefulness of our current approach to land use in urban areas.

The empirical relationship between transport mode, speed and space requirements is clearly presented in this diagram:

Source:  Whitelegg, J (1993) Transport for a Sustainable Future:  the case for Europe, Belhaven

The most wasteful use of land is identified by the large red rectangle (one person in a car) and this transport choice requires 60 sq metres per person of valuable land.  It is 3 sq metres per person for a bike and 28 sq metres for a bus that is one third full.  A city like Lund in Sweden with 28% of trips every day by bike is clearly making much better use of land than an equivalent UK city with a 2% bike modal share.  

To make matters worse cars are not very good at moving large numbers of people around on a given amount of space. The empirical relationship between modes of transport and people that can be carried per hour is summarised in this diagram:

There is a link with carbon and climate change and a link that is ignored by the DfT when making decisions about transport investment and subsidy and discussing transport decarbonisation.  This link has been summarised in the diagram below:

Source:  Institute for Sensible Transport, Melbourne, Australia with thanks to Dr Elliot Fishman

The diagram is based on Australian data but very clearly shows that modes of transport taking up large amounts of space are also large carbon producers.

If we really want to decarbonise transport we must now re-configure space on a large scale.

A major system change from modes of transport that take up large amounts of space to alternatives that take up very little space is a transport  decarbonisation intervention and should be part of any planning to reach zero carbon transport as quickly as possible and a lot earlier than 2050.

We already know that providing high quality infrastructure for pedestrians, cycling and buses can transfer trips from the car to these alternatives and reduce carbon but a stronger emphasis on space efficiency has the potential to produce a much larger modal shift. We must take space away from cars and reallocate it to pedestrians, cyclists and bus users.  This will require a huge mind shift in planning, architecture and traffic engineering but if we really want to decarbonise transport we must now re-configure space on a large scale and here are some principles that could be adopted:

  • All roads in urban areas will be re-designed to conform to the rule of one quarter.  Taking the total highway space from property frontage on one side of the street to the opposite side we would have 25% of the space for pedestrians, 25% for cyclists, 25% for cars and 25% for buses.  This can be adjusted to the rule of one third if there are no bus routes with one third of the space for each of pedestrians, cycling and motorised vehicles.
  • All parking on residential streets would be banned with exceptions for residents (one car per address)
  • All parking on pedestrian pavements would be banned and if parking on the street would impede emergency vehicles and bin collection vehicles parking would be completely banned
  • Large surface car parks in urban areas and near town/city centres would be made available for affordable housing built to “Passiv Haus” standards
  • There would be a huge expansion of green space, car-free public spaces  and tree planting on all streets

And it can be done and is already in place in Vauban, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

Photo taken by Professor Jeff Kenworthy, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences

And this used to be a high capacity urban highway now demolished (Cheonggye Overpass) and replaced by a park, Seoul, South Korea.

Photo taken by Professor Jeff Kenworthy, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences