Starting the clock on the 30-minute city

Arcadis Pty Ltd

By Stephen Taylor, City Executive – Sydney, Arcadis Global Cities Program
Tuesday, 10 April, 2018

Starting the clock on the 30-minute city

The ‘30-minute city’ concept — the idea that we can engineer our cities so that home, work and play are all accessible within 30 minutes — is gaining currency around the world. But is the idea of the 30-minute city, as some have argued, simply a catchy slogan — or worse, a mere ‘thought bubble’?

What we do know is that most cities are currently a long way from this ideal and will need innovation and the right ingredients to come even close to realising it, so perhaps a better question is: can we get there? And if we think we can, what are those ingredients?

Our recent Sustainable Cities Mobility Index, which ranked 100 cities globally, found that while the best cities focus on efficient and accessible integrated transport options, many — hampered by congestion, less-than-ideal modal share and long commuting times — are a far cry from a 30-minute city.

The answer to how we might address road congestion — a complex issue that can cost a given city billions of dollars per year in lost productivity and impact negatively on commuters’ physical and mental health — is multifold. It includes consideration of a range of personal mobility trends, from shared mobility and autonomous vehicles to point-to-point drones and flying cars, as well as strategies for getting some vehicles off roads, particularly at certain times of day.

Shared mobility — which encompasses crowdsourced car-sharing schemes (such as Uber), as well as membership-based car and bicycle sharing cooperatives — is on the rise and will undoubtedly continue to grow. In some dense urban centres, however, car-share options appear to be taking customers away from ageing and overcrowded public transit systems, thus putting more cars on the road, particularly at peak times. Nonetheless, point-to-point car- and bicycle-sharing options that get people to and from public transport hubs quickly and economically may be one key to tackling congestion.

In addition to shared mobility schemes and strategies, most commentators agree that growth in the accessibility and use of autonomous, self-driving vehicles (AVs) is not only inevitable, but just around the corner. Proponents argue that AVs have the potential to positively impact road congestion by reducing road accidents, while accessing real-time data feeds to redirect travel routes in accordance with traffic incidents and flows. However, they are still vehicles on roads; they will give many current non-drivers access to personal vehicles, putting even more vehicles on roads; and many AVs are likely to travel the same route not once but twice daily, as they ferry their owners to and from work, returning home in between. In short, I believe that AVs are poised to create the congestion of the future.

If AVs will soon be common on our roads, will urban air mobility — ie, flying cars — be the next dimension in personal transport technology? While personal air travel would seem to be a long way off, point-to-point drone technology for small-scale deliveries (which has obvious scope for taking cars off roads) is being widely tested and will undoubtedly be commonplace before long. Other strategies for getting some vehicles off roads, particularly at certain times of the day, include: congestion charges, which are aimed at discouraging personal car use in city centres; implementation of more and higher road tolls, along with demand management pricing; time restrictions on provision of road-intensive services, such as garbage collection; and time restrictions on goods deliveries requiring oversize vehicles.

Regardless of which new personal mobility trends or technologies (or vehicle restrictions) we wish to consider, one common thread is the absolute necessity for solid data — both about current transport behaviour and the impacts of new modes or measures — if governments and transport authorities are to make sustainable plans and policies that impact positively on both individuals and communities. What we most certainly do not want is increased inequality and stratification, with some people accessing new personal mobility options at the expense of public transport, others left to use ageing systems and governments left without the public will or means to invest in critical infrastructure.

However, road congestion and personal mobility considerations, while important, are only part of the picture. To get to the heart of our 30-minute puzzle, we also need to look at the reasons so many of us ‘choose’ to travel long distances from home to work. And when one considers the economic stratification present in nearly every large urban centre, it seems clear that most people get jobs where they can get them, but live where they can best afford to live — or at least where they can best afford to live while also accessing the things that are most important to them, such as good schools, health services and reasonable levels of public amenity.

Of course, better and faster road and public transit options along the right corridors, coupled with higher density housing and appropriate services along these corridors — as well as better access to transport hubs and better integration across transport modes — are a start. Ensuring availability of a variety of housing options at different price points close to employment hubs — including affordable housing options for essential workers — is also key.

Then there are the things people will endure longer commutes to access. Social infrastructure, such as good schools and health services, are essential, as is open green space. Places to enjoy an al fresco meal while children play nearby, along with festivals and sporting events — the things that make a neighbourhood a community — are also important. These types of amenities also need to be tailored to different areas within cities, so that inequalities, such as climatic and socioeconomic variation, are softened.

And when all is said and done, people don’t just need access to a job close to home, they need access to the next job and the one after that, with the average person in most countries changing jobs 10–15 times over the course of their working life. For this reason, more strategies aimed at creating employment clusters, or ‘centres of excellence’, so that the bulk of similar types of companies and jobs are co-located within a city, are also warranted.

That’s a lot of considerations and strategies that, even taken together, are probably just the tip of the iceberg. What is certain, though, is that better mobility — including integrated transit opportunities, seamless transport corridors, dynamic mobility hubs, and roads and regulations that will efficiently accommodate new technologies — are at the heart of the 30-minute city. In addition, cities must be ready to embed and capture digital data from a range of sources, including buildings, roads, vehicles, public transport facilities and smartphones, while building both public and private capacity to access, assess and act on this data to continually innovate and improve the way we live, work and commute.

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