How can Britain’s cities get commuters out of their cars?

Those were the days: a traffic jam on the Embankment during the General Strike of 1926. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Last month the government published the first part of its clear air plan, with a particular focus on reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (a second instalment targeting zero emissions for all road vehicles is due next year).

The government’s pledge to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 gained media headlines, but the plan also set out measures to address congestion pinch points on the roads, and to encourage greater use of public transport.

As such, the central issue for local government will be reducing car usage and its negative impact on air quality. But what is the relationship between car usage, other methods of transport and commuting patterns – and how does this play out across the country?

Analysis of the ONS data on distances and methods of transport chosen to travel to work in England and Wales shows that Milton Keynes is the car-use capital, with more than two thirds of commuters driving to work, reflecting the fact that the city was designed around car usage. Out of major cities (excluding London, which is an outlier because of its extensive public transport system), Birmingham has the highest car use, with 62 per cent of commuters driving to work. The lowest car commuting city is Brighton with only 39 per cent of commuters driving to work, 19 per cent using public transport and 23 per cent walking or cycling to work.

In trying to reduce car-use, targeting short journeys is likely to be more successful than longer ones. The ONS data shows that, in most cities, those commuting less than 5km distance still choose their car as their main method of transport. In Hull, for example, 54 per cent of people live less than 5km from their workplace, but 48 per cent of those take their car to go to work. In Cambridge, despite being the most popular place for cycling commuters, more than a third of those living in a 5 kilometres area still drive to work.

Looking even closer, it’s clear that only a very small share of commuters in cities who live 2km from their workplaces choose alternative forms of transport to driving. This trend is particularly strong in smaller cities such as Blackburn and Swansea, but is also an issue in major cities, where we might expect public transport provision to be more extensive. In Birmingham, for example, only 9 per cent of commuters living 2km away from work take public transport, while 44 per cent drive. In Bristol and Leeds, over a third of commuters in this group travel by car to work.

For most people, these distances could easily be walked or cycled, and in many cases using public transport would make their journeys faster. So how could cities begin to encourage people to make the switch from car use to alternatives for such short distances?

Improving public transport, by making it more attractive and reliable, is an obvious first step towards reducing private vehicle usage. In particular, targeting short car journeys that could easily be walked or cycled should be on top of the list for cities.

Introducing a congestion charge, modelled on London’s, should also be a consideration for the most congested cities. Not only would such a charge help to cut down car-use, it could also generate revenue to improve public transport, especially in less well-connected parts of cities (this was highlighted by the Centre as a priority for Greater Manchester’s mayor).

Of course different places will face different challenges. A clean air strategy in Cambridge, one of the most congested cities in the UK despite the popularity of cycling, won’t be the same as in Milton Keynes, where streets were built for expanding car usage. But it’s clear that for most cities, cutting down on car usage in the coming years and improving public transport should be important priorities.

Adeline Bailly is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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