Moving cities: from transport to transaction

If the scope of urban policy makers can be widened from a fixation on transport to an appreciation of value-rich urban outcomes, built on the benefits of effective human transaction, then future cities are more likely to be places that meet the expectations of future citizens.

Trafalgar Square Steps

Cities are ultimately vessels for the concentrated production and sustenance of life. Yet this intrinsic aspect of urbanism – the human factor – is neglected in many future cities discussions, which are instead dominated by the subject of transport and the use of technology to manage existing traffic systems more efficiently.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the transportation-fixation. After all, transport concerns have led urban policymaking for over a century. But we should be aware of its risks. Today’s cities bear the scars of the “time is money” obsession for ever greater, faster means of transport, an approach that has been pursued at a massive social, economic and environmental cost: inner-urban highways that divide communities and patterns of inefficient, obesogenic traffic congestion. If these are the globally consistent, predictable products of urban policy, then that policy needs rethinking.

Be it past, present or future, transport must be seen as a means to an end not the end itself. Instead, the objective must be the creation of successful human interaction in pursuit of meaningful living. This requires people coming together in rooms, corridors, streets and public spaces, creating intense patterns of human interaction in pursuit of social and economic gain. The future city should certainly be resource-efficient but it must also be interaction-rich, for it is only in convivial transaction that real human value is derived in cities.

For this to happen, a radical shift in urban thinking is required: from overcoming congestion to enhancing conviviality; from thinking “transport” to thinking “transaction”. How can this happen? As a first step, the purpose of transport needs reconceptualising: from being “the facilitator of movement” to the “enhancer of interaction”. If not, if ever more effort is put in to creating ever greater capacity in physical and digital transportation, then history suggests only one outcome: more congestion.

The implications of such an approach for urban practice are radically straightforward: a focus on streets, not highways; on street networks and public spaces not single grand projects; a rebalancing of priorities towards slow modes of movement – walking and cycling – and away from high speed transit; towards effective interaction and not movement for the sake of it; towards the benefits of stopping in public space not simply speeding through cities; towards the acts of sitting, leaning, and relaxing as key aspects of transport policy; towards people not vehicles.

To see this transformation in action, contrast the slowed-down, pedestrian-friendly spaces of the City of London, central Manhattan or Copenhagen with the traffic-dominated, speed obsessed streets that they once were. Or, the steps of Trafalgar Square, where people linger over a business conversation instead of charging past as they did before that space was redesigned with the interaction of people in mind. Then consider the global wave of rapidly urbanising cities pursuing the car-first policy that London, New York, Copenhagen and many others have since abandoned. The future cost for such cities of doing so is massive and preventable.

What is the role of technology in helping to achieve the policy transformation from transport to transaction? In its power and pervasiveness, digital infrastructure creates a new urban utility and, as with electricity, water or gas, it is one for city leaders to manage to the benefit of citizens.

In line with a transport policy shift towards human interaction, digital infrastructure should be conceived principally in terms of its lifestyle benefits. Some would argue this is already the case but “lifestyle” is not only a case of people staying at home in front of plasma screens, communicating via teleconference. It involves people coming together in streets and public spaces as well, people being aware of each other, meeting, sharing information and ideas, making social and economic contact. This is how cities have always worked when they have worked well; it is the missing ingredient when cities fail; and it is how future cities will be able to thrive.

Far from retrogressive, this new urban paradigm will be forward-thinking and technologically enabled. It will, for example, require new social networking apps aimed at facilitating face-to-face interactions. Likewise, new forms of urban modelling will be needed to go beyond traditional transport models and capture the social, economic and environmental performance of great places, and therefore the intrinsic value of cities. These models will be needed to justify institutional investment in the public spaces, street cafes, parks and social spaces of cities: the “conviviality infrastructure” of the new transaction paradigm.

If the scope of urban policy makers can be widened from a fixation on transport to an appreciation of value-rich urban outcomes, built on the benefits of effective human transaction, then future cities are more likely to be places that meet the expectations of future citizens.

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