Opinion pieces

Why it’s time to swap car-centric urban design for pedestrian and cycle-friendly planning

One hundred years ago, Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, sketched out plans for his vision of the city of the future. He proposed reinventing the urban space by demolishing existing buildings and streets, and replacing them with skyscrapers and wide roads.  

Le Corbusier prided himself on architecture on a human scale, but his ideas for city planning were destructive and unashamedly put the car in prime position, with pedestrians subservient.

Such car-centric urban planning has become the norm over the intervening years, creating cities where air and noise pollution, emissions, and road accidents are considered normal, and green spaces and biodiversity considered rare.  

It’s time now for a move to people-centric urban planning that considers how the street, rather than being seen as simply a traffic artery, can better serve environmental, economic, and social functions.  

A people-centred approach to urban planning places the pedestrian at the top of the transport hierarchy, closely followed by the cyclist and then public transport users. It focuses on improving quality of life, and addresses environmental concerns, climate action, and social responsibility.  

It prioritises the needs of persons with reduced mobility and disabilities. It also brings together engineers, architects and transport planners to create neighbourhoods where people wish to linger rather than simply rush through or avoid because of traffic.  

Wondering what that looks like in practice? Think streets lined with trees that favour biodiversity and prevent overheating in summer. Shops and businesses that open on to the pavement, favouring pedestrians, rather than inward-facing shopping centres that are reliant on car users for trade.

Wider footpaths and walkways furnished with public benches to promote social interaction and activities. Low-emission zones and reduced speed limits to improve urban air quality and road safety.  

"Many cities are changing course in their transport policies to improve citizens’ lives and reach climate goals."

Specific approaches like Professor Carlos Moreno’s ‘15-minute city’ encourage mixed-use neighbourhoods that reduce car dependency and the need for travel by placing daily necessities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.  

Looking around Europe, cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam are well-known for transport policies that favour active travel. Vienna has also pioneered policies that favour inexpensive public transport and urban liveability.  

In Spain, Pontevedra has been recognised for its largely car-free city centre, and in Barcelona the “superblock” approach has restricted vehicular traffic to favour walking, cycling and urban greening. In Brussels, the Good Move plan is introducing low-traffic neighbourhoods for the same reasons.  

Unfortunately, opposition to these people-first policies remains; often arguing that business and mobility needs suffer from this approach. However, various studies have shown that fewer cars not only improve people’s wellbeing, but also benefit businesses and tourism because of increased footfall.  

What’s more, reallocating precious urban space to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport can increase mobility because these modes are far more space-efficient, not to mention cheaper, than car usage.  

Many cities are changing course in their transport policies to improve citizens’ lives and reach climate goals. For more than a century, car-centric urban design increased emissions, pollution and worsened road safety by putting cars above people and liveable cities.

Thankfully the tide is turning, and urban transport and planning policies are starting to put people first.


May 5, 2023

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