This article was written by Jennifer Dungs, EIT InnoEnergy Thematic Leader, Energy for Transport and Mobility, and was initially published on Forbes.com.
Admittedly, it sounds a bit like Lalaland.
Living in a city without the hassle of long, daily commutes, often including several stops to pick up groceries, dry cleaning, books from the library, the kids, etc. Each separate stop adding more wasted time – be it from sitting in traffic or searching for parking. And let’s not forget the exposure to air pollution and constant noise.
The idea of a city composed of neighbourhoods, in which all locations and amenities for people’s essential daily needs are only a 15-minute walk or bike ride away – including workplaces, schools and childcare, shops and restaurants, clinics, cultural institutions and parks. Even more, public spaces are used for a wide variety of purposes, and enough people live there to support a diversity of businesses, and, very importantly, housing and other costs of living remain affordable.
Those are the key principles of the “15-minute city”.
Carlos Moreno, professor at Paris’ Sorbonne university, and the mastermind behind the “15-minute city” proposes with his concept an incredible re-imagination and, ultimately, a re-design of our urban areas: cities, in which all neighbourhoods are fundamentally built around the basic human needs – living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying.
This is in stark contrast to many modern cities, where the needs of (combustion engine) cars and their drivers are often front and center.
Unfortunately, in reality, today’s urban areas are far from what Moreno has envisioned.
When thought about rationally it seems absurd how much precious urban space is dedicated to roads and parking. ‘The Arrogance of Space’, a term coined by Mikael Colville-Andersen describes the extreme focus of planning our cities around cars. In Copenhagen, one of the most advanced cities globally when it comes to sustainable transport, more than 90% of the citizens do not use a car to drive in the city. On the other hand, almost two thirds, 62%, cycle. Nonetheless, 64% of the transport space in Copenhagen is allocated for cars and parking and only 26% and 7% for sidewalks and bikes, respectively.
This enormous focus on cars has to do with the fact that, for many decades, urban planning, and consequently, the planning of transport infrastructures, has taken quite the opposite direction to what Professor Moreno and others have in mind. In metropolises around the world, the categorization of districts was the name of the game, creating industrial zones, finance centres, shopping districts, cultural hubs etc. Those different zones have been connected through an ever-growing, dense network of multi-lane and even multi-level streets and city highways, as well as public transport. The guarantor for citizens to get from A to B in an acceptable amount of time was mainly one thing: speed.
However, this car-centric transport system has reached, or perhaps even surpassed its limits.
Take Germany’s third largest city, Munich: in 2018, a prognosis by the city’s planning department, projected that, by 2030, the morning and evening rush hours on Munich’s streets will have turned into a permanent gridlock from 6 am to 9 pm. This could be the reality if in-migration levels to Munich stay as they had been for the past years and no radical turn in transport infrastructure planning take place. Just think about this: stop-and-go traffic from early morning to late evening every working day of the week.
In 2016, PTV Group Traffic did a simulation to show how long it takes to move 200 people past the same line using different means of transportation. Crossing the line by car, or rather 133 cars with on average 1.5 people per car, took over 4 minutes. In comparison, the same trip took 2 minutes for people taking a bike, and 38 seconds for people walking. While this will change as distances become larger, the concept of the “15-minute city” would encourage people to walk or bike – if for no other reason than to save time!
Considering a continued population growth combined with high urbanization rates and the impacts of climate change, it is safe to say that there will be even more pressure on cities and their transport systems in the near future. More and more city officials and political decision-makers at all levels have realized that and are taking action against those serious threats to the quality and sustainability of urban life.
Moreover, the pandemic has caused a shift, at least temporarily – reducing travel, normalizing working from home, and promoting hyperlocal mobility. It has also highlighted a need for more localized medical access and has put a renewed focus on bringing more activities outside as well as freeing up time so that people can engage in more meaningful relationships.
But, is it possible to build upon this and transform neighbourhoods around the globe (and their mobility systems) to a “15-minute city”?
One of the most talked-about cities implementing this idea is Paris. Supported by Carlos Moreno, Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo in early 2020 introduced – as a central part of her re-election campaign – a comprehensive set of policies to create self-sufficient communities, including a €350 million investment program to create bike lanes on every street by 2024 while removing 60,000 spaces for private car parking.
Other cities such as London, Barcelona, Portland, and even Detroit (my hometown) are putting their own spin on the concept.
London’s “Mini-Hollands” is an ambitious program whereby three boroughs were awarded £30 million to transform the neighbourhoods to enable safer and more convenient cycling. Although the initiative is still underway, positive changes have been noticed. 24% of people are more likely to have cycled in the past week – in addition, people are walking or cycling 41 minutes per week more compared to before.
Barcelona is working on a concept called “superblocks” – which are around 400 x 400 metres with all interior roads closed to open traffic (but open to residents, emergency vehicles, etc). The citizens play an active role in planning the vision and implementing the re-design and re-imagined usage of space. The city believes 70% of the current space dedicated to roads can be freed up.
Both Portland and Detroit are defining 20-minute neighbourhoods. The objective is that by 2030, 90% of Portland residents can easily walk or bike to meet all basic and non-work-related needs, including retail, transit, and parks. A big part of this will be the expansion of sidewalks, street connectivity and general pedestrian access. Detroit has been moving back toward its roots as a vibrant city centre and would be a comeback story close to my heart. In 2007, there was only 13 miles of bike lanes in Detroit, now it is more than 240.
Dan Luscher is a San Francisco based urbanist who has launched “The 15-Minute City Project”, which aims to share best practices and inspiration from around the world to create “15-minute cities”. The project helps drive home the point that mobility is primarily a means to an end – it is intended to help get from A to B (and also C and D, in most cases these days). Luscher also concedes that the time it takes to travel remains a primary consideration. However, if access related to people’s needs is the primary consideration then completely new planning decisions can be made.
In these cities, mobility should become ambient, meaning, it would be everywhere and available all the time, like water out of a tap. Your day does not start with planning when and where you will need to travel and how to optimize stops in order to save time. Just like water out of the tap, ‘you would simply have it where and when you need it, exactly how you need it’. The freedom of focusing on one’s daily needs and the option of walking or biking to fill them, blurs mobility into the background and ensures that these needs are accessible for everyone.
And the good news, is that with the convergence of electric mobility, digitalization, autonomous driving, and sharing – new innovations are continuously being developed which would support the concept of the “15-minute city”. German startup ONO, for example, has developed what they call a “pedal-assisted transporter” (PAT), which is fundamentally an e-cargo bike able to replace existing parcel/package delivery vans. In the future, ONO’s PAT will also be able to be used as a food truck, transportation for people, or even a ‘library on wheels’. Another exciting solution provider is Get Henry, who is offering e-bikes, scooters, or mopeds – and a flexible business model, to residents in housing districts, hotels, or for express delivery. These alternative mobility options which are ‘at your door’, available, and easy to use will all help to create a full design which reduces traffic, saves time, and allows people to focus on the reason for their trip, not how to get there and where to park.
The pandemic has been global, and one silver lining is that it has led cities around the world to re-imagine and reset – putting an emphasis on bike and pedestrian lanes, creating hyperlocal mobility, and changing how people work. These changing times are an opportunity to create greener, healthier, and more inclusive cities – designed for everyone to fulfil their basic daily needs. In the end, it is not out of reach or reality, aka Lalaland but a new role for mobility to become as simple and accessible as water out of a tap.
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