Over 450 people from around the world – from Brazil to Finland, from Kenya to Thailand – attended the Urban Age Debate: Localising Transport on 20 May 2021 organised with the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft with support from SAP and knowledge partner Teralytics. Focusing on the profound changes that occurred to urban transport and mobility over the past year, the virtual event featured speculations and quickfire statements from prominent leaders in mobility and economics: Edward Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard University; Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail; and Yolisa Kani, Chief Business Development Officer of Transnet, South Africa. The event was co-chaired by LSE Cities Executive Director Philipp Rode and Global Transport Leader and Group Board Member of Arup, Isabel Dedring.
Key Takeaway 1: Over the next decade, mobility and urban transport will change dramatically, ‘For the first time in half a century’ (Edward Glaeser)
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how urban residents use transportation and mobility services to access the amenities of cities. All speakers emphasised that urban mobility will undergo structural changes, but what long-term effects of these changes endure remains to be seen.
Edward Glaeser pointed out that the changes to transportation technology have increasingly slowed down, “The transportation that I take now is not very different than the transportation I took 50 years ago, which was incredibly different than the transportation 50 years before that. It feels as if for the first time, perhaps in half a century, that we are having important changes in transportation technology.”
While transportation technology may dramatically change, Sir Peter Hendy focused on how mobility will change day-to-day, “People might access the centre of cities three days a week, not five days a week and not no days a week. What are the transport implications not of a system that's full of people at peak twice a day, for every day of the week, but one where actually the peak is maybe only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?”
Yolisa Kani built on and highlighted the need to experiment with mobility, “There have been valuable lessons for what we've gone through over the past year, but we also need to use our time to play catch up and see what new ways of adapting mobility we can learn.”
Key Takeaway 2: The 15-minute city is not a catch-all model that can be applied globally with ease, but it’s underlying concepts should be embraced
The 15-minute city is a model for urban development and mobility developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and widely popularised by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo during her recent re-election campaign. The 15-minute city is one in which daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute commute by bike or on foot.
Overall, none of the speakers were strong advocates of implementing the 15-minute city model, “I’m unconvinced about the 15-minute city and I haven’t seen many urban environments where it can be adapted in the near future,” stated Sir Peter Hendy.
Ed Glaeser took a stronger stance against the 15-minute city, “I am very worried that a focus on enabling upper-middle income people to walk around in their nice little 15-minute neighbourhood precludes the far larger issue, which is how do we make sure our cities once again become places of opportunity for everyone? I am only interested in urban planning concepts that fundamentally solve that and I cannot see how the 15-minute city does.”
Ed went on to explain that some of the underlying elements of the 15-minute city are valuable, “We should praise the good elements of the 15-minute city: accessibility, less driving, embracing congestion pricing, reducing on-street parking requirements. But ultimately, we should bury the idea of a city that is chopped up into 15-minute bits. We must embrace connection post-Covid, we must embrace a re-emergence of the whole city, of humanity that is connected not just with the people next to you, but with all of our metropole, of all of the world.”
Key Takeaway 3: Accessibility of cities for various opportunities remains of utmost importance, especially in rapidly urbanising global contexts
When discussing the value of mobility and transportation in and around cities, Yolisa Kani claimed that, “Accessing a city in South Africa is not a matter of choice. It’s a matter of survival, you have to be in the city centre.” She went on to stress that, “The 15-minute city is a very noble idea, but for me it’s an old target that we’ve been chasing as cities and is elusive for a developing South African city because of our context.” Yolisa continued by highlighting the challenge of dealing with unintegrated and multi-modal transportation systems across South Africa that would severely limit the application of the 15-minute city idea.
Ed Glaeser picked up on this idea expressing that, “We need to make sure that people can access the wonders of the city and can access the cornucopia of joys that exist throughout an urban area. We particularly need to make sure that we enable people who live in poorer parts of the city to access jobs in richer parts of the city, and there is nothing more important than that.”
These equity concerns underlined the discussion of urban accessibility, as speakers expressed how Covid-19 has drastically revealed the inequities of transportation systems and mobility.
Key Takeaway 4: Public transportation networks must adapt to uncertain financial conditions as, ‘Mobility creates economic value and wealth’ (Sir Peter Hendy)
Co-chair Isabel Dedring asked the speakers, “Does Covid-19 create an opportunity for us to accelerate the re-thinking of how we finance public transport?”
Yolisa Kani responded that, “There’s been a radical reduction in commuting and a big increase in people moving locally. That’s a threat in some ways for public transport networks, because they’ve been built up around the idea of pumping the heart of the city. If this reduction is sustained, then there needs to be a fundamental rethink of the design of public transport networks and their business models to reflect this permanent shift.”
Sir Peter Hendy highlighted the value of urban transportation networks regardless of usership, “Mobility creates economic value and wealth. In Britain, the government has spent an enormous amount of public money keeping networks running with very few people as they’ve recognised that maintaining the movement of the relatively small proportion of the population was so valuable to the economy and society.”
Speakers also discussed Hong Kong’s MTR ‘Rail plus Property’ business model as a way that public transport could reinvent itself, “Transport doesn’t exist on its own, and the consequence of transport infrastructure and services is that property values are affected. If you look at Hong Kong’s MTR or Japanese Railways and other transport companies that make money, they’re not transport companies at all. They’re property companies with a transport arm,” highlighted Sir Peter Hendy.
Key Takeaway 5: Urban residents will increasingly commute for leisure and social connection rather than work
Yolisa Kani explained that the shift away from commuting to work will be pervasive due to cost in the South African context, “Even though people are yearning to go back to the office, travelling in South Africa is costly, people are spending anything from 25% to 40% of their disposable income on public transport.”
The rise of remote work may shift people away from using their income on public transport to access cities, but Ed Glaeser emphasised the need to maintain accessibility as, “Cities give us the ability to share, to connect, to learn from one another. They've been enabling chains of creativity since Plato and Socrates bickered on an Athenian street corner.”
Rather than commuting for work, Sir Peter Hendy believes that, “The city centre and the activities in the central business district, while they’re going to change, are not redundant. People will pack into public transport and go where they want to go to enjoy themselves, and as far as I’m concerned we are going to have to think again about the use of national public transport networks for leisure.”
Isabel Dedring concluded, “Thousands of years of human history tell us that people don't start moving less [during crises]. The idea that people are going to move less because they're going to do things virtually has not been proven, so we shouldn't be planning for that. We should be planning for mobility continuing as a key part of being human.”
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Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1992. He teaches microeconomics theory, and urban and public economics. He has served as Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and Director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. He has published dozens of books and papers on cities, economic growth, law and economics.
Sir Peter Hendy has been the Chair of Network Rail since July 2015, and Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation since July 2017. Sir Peter was previously Commissioner of Transport for London for nearly 10 years. He started his transport career in 1975 as a London Transport graduate trainee. He is a trustee of London’s Transport Museum and of the Science Museum Group. He was knighted in the 2013 New Year's Honours List, having been made CBE in 2006.
Yolisa Kani is the Chief Business Development Officer (CBDO) of Transnet, a state-owned company which owns and operates South Africa’s rail network, ports, and pipelines. Yolisa has over 22 years’ experience in transport engineering, planning and operations. She previously served as Head of Public Policy in Southern Africa at Uber Technologies. Prior to that, Yolisa held senior government positions in the Ekurhuleni Metro, the Cross-Border Road and Transportation Agency as well as the City of Johannesburg.
Philipp Rode is Executive Director of LSE Cities and Associate Professorial Research Fellow at LSE. He is co-Director of the LSE Executive MSc in Cities and Executive Director of the Urban Age Programme. As researcher, consultant and advisor he has been directing interdisciplinary projects comprising urban governance, transport, city planning and urban design at LSE since 2003. His current work focuses on institutional structures and governance capacities of cities and on sustainable urban development, transport and mobility.
Isabel Dedring is a Global Transport Leader and Group Board Member at Arup where she is responsible for Arup’s global transport agenda and cementing the firms integrated approach to transport and urban development. She was London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport from 2011-2016 where her major projects included a £1bn cycling programme, a £4bn progressive roads investment programme, and leading on major transport construction projects such as extensions to the underground and devolution of rail services.
Note: quotes have been edited for clarity and cohesion.