In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.  

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.