Active travel in the city of the future

By Phil Insall,
City cyclist

We are stuck in the past: our cities have been dominated by car traffic since only the rich had carriages, and they could do as they liked.  Foresight, the government’s horizon-scanning think tank, is now looking at how cities might develop in the future.

Governments are often accused of short termism, and for Sustrans this can be a problem.  We are therefore particularly keen on the Foresight programme of long-term, horizon-scanning studies.

Previously, we have worked with Foresight on the ground-breaking ‘Tackling obesities’ report, published in 2007, which forms the basis of the first real cross-government approach to the obesity epidemic.

And now in 2014 we are most impressed by the Foresight ‘Future of cities’ project, in which government is developing a solid long term foundation for urban policy in a very, very different world of the future. 

At the suggestion of the Foresight team, Sustrans has created a short paper, ‘Active travel in the city of the future’ to prompt discussion about how urban transport can develop.  We are inviting Foresight experts and others to consider what a city might be like if designed around people rather than traffic.

We know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. Nobody has taken an interest . . . So, what happened was that the eye level stuff was handled by the traffic engineers.

- Jan Gehl

As Professor Kevin Fenton of Public Health England has shown, the built environment is key in helping people to be active.  The city of the future should enable the citizens of the future to be active and healthy, or the health system of the future will break under the strain.

Will we continue on a path of accelerating consumerism and climate change, until cities are underwater?  

Is ‘peak car’ – the apparent move of younger people away from their parents’ car-dependency – a beneficial social change or just a blip?  As driverless cars become the norm will the thrill go out of motoring, and motor vehicles become less dominant?

One thing we know is that cities will be locked in ever more direct competition for inward investment, tourism, economic activity and employment, with ever more up to date information about each and every city flying around the world.  As our report for Foresight puts it:

“If a city – naming no names – is packed with noisy, polluting traffic, if it is being pursued through the European courts for its failure to address toxic air pollution, and if a leitmotiv of its media identity is a succession of cyclist killings by heavy goods vehicles, it may need to think about its image."

"If the global perception of a city is that children scoot or cycle safely to school along quiet, tree‑lined back streets – and if a CEO considering inward investment can visualise his or her children doing so – it may have a critical competitive advantage."

None of this is new.

Ten years ago the Health Select Committee reported that:

“If the Government were to achieve its target of trebling cycling in the period 2000–2010 (and there are very few signs that it will) that might achieve more in the fight against obesity than any individual measure we recommend within this report.”

The importance of active travel, regularly overlooked in the past, must be central in future urban policy.

Find out more about how Sustrans influences policy making.

Find out more here about how Sustrans bring communities together in innovative ways, to redesign their streets to make them safer and more attractive places to live and play.

More blog posts by Phil Insall