Alternative Trajectories for Successful Cities

Alternative Trajectories for Successful Cities


David Metz, Centre For Transport Studies, University College London


Car use in successful cities such as London is declining as mode share. The peak of car use has passed. Developing cities may be able to avoid this peak with suitable policies, attaining a sustainable outcome similar to that of developed cities.


Cities struggle to accommodate the car. Those with historic centres initially attempted to reconcile growing car ownership by means of new urban roads, often elevated, traffic schemes to improve flow, and off-street parking provision. More recently, it has been recognised that it is not possible to meet all demand for urban car use and policy has shifted to containing the car and improving facilities for public transport, walking and cycling.

London is an economically dynamic, culturally vibrant city whose population has been growing for over twenty years. Because no significant new road capacity has been added, the number of daily car trips and the total annual car v-km has remained broadly unchanged. But because the population has been growing, the share of all journeys that are made by car has declined, from a peak of 50% in about 1990 to 38% currently, with further decline to around 30% projected as the population continues to grow. Use of public transport has increased correspondingly, with walking plus cycling little changed.

The key to achieving such a substantial modal shift away from the car is the provision of speedy, reliable rail transport in all forms. This is able to attract business people out of their cars for work journeys. For example, the new financial centre at Canary Wharf in London’s former docks now accommodates approaching 100,000 well-paid employees who very largely use new rail routes to get to work. It is harder to get such people out of the comfort of their cars onto buses that are impeded by traffic and cannot offer journeys faster and more reliable than the car.

A successful city is characterised by a growing population, since people are attracted to success. Population density increases and the roads cannot cope with the resulting traffic. Investment in rail is needed to meet demand for work-related travel. Without such investment, congestion becomes widespread.

It is generally assumed that car ownership in the developing economies will increase as incomes rise, following a trajectory similar to that of the developed economies. However, globally, populations are both growing and urbanising. Higher density cities become more prevalent, where the car is less useful. There is therefore the possibility of avoiding the interim phase in which, as in London, there is a peak in car use, moving instead directly to a sustainable level of car use in which congestion can be handled adequately by traffic management techniques.

The policy requirements for such a sustainable trajectory include: investment in rail or Bus Rapid Transit – a rail analogue in terms of performance but at lower cost; low cost facilities for walking and cycling; and constraints on car use to avoid congestion that damages the performance of essential urban road freight delivery.


Association for European Transport