updated on 03 September 2019
QuestionAre current city layouts futureproof?
While the political climate around the world, not least the United Kingdom, is in a state of flux, one thing is certain – the urban environment is changing; space is becoming scarce in cities and air pollution is at an all-time high. This raises the question as to whether the current layout of cities is futureproof. The short answer is no.
Future mobility trends
As any planning aficionado will know, planning policies and local strategies are formulated with an eye on the future because a flawed planning policy has a much larger detrimental impact on future inhabitants than current inhabitants. Planning policies and local strategies have to take into account future mobility trends, but there are a number of issues to consider.
Electric vehicle infrastructure
Air pollution in London is falling but recent data shows that London inhabitants are still living with illegal levels of air pollution. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who aims to transform London into a zero-carbon city by 2050, has recently established a taskforce tackling electric vehicle infrastructure.
Launched just last month, the London EV Infrastructure Delivery Plan sets out the mayor's plan, while bringing together the private and public sectors to deliver the necessary infrastructure to support expansion of London's electric vehicle charging network. This Delivery Plan recognises that one of the barriers to the switch to electric vehicles is the lack of charging points within London itself.
Accordingly, the Delivery Plan acknowledges the concerns of the suitability of London's energy grid to keep up with such expansion and subsequently allays such concerns by setting out two 'enablers' – first, to identify energy grid constraints and, second, to explore alternative and smart power supply options. The mayor has reiterated that in order for this Delivery Plan to be a reality, the public and private sectors have to come together and drive this forward.
Autonomous electric vehicles
In the realm of automobile technology, companies such as Tesla, Volkswagen and BMW are likely to be the first few names that come to mind as they successfully produce electric vehicles for daily usage. The next step for them would therefore be autonomous electric vehicles (AEV). AEVs have been seen as a solution for people with reduced mobility and will allow commuters to reduce the time spent in congested traffic.
Where disruptive technology is involved, you can be sure that Apple and Amazon will not be too far away. While Apple and Amazon are not companies which have extensive experience in automobiles, their financial might and eye for acquiring exciting start-ups mean that they are likely to be able to capitalise on this opportunity make significant strides in the market.
Uber, having provided commuters with an alternative form of transportation, is looking at adding other forms of transportation into the mix, the most ambitious of which is the flying taxi. Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne have been selected as cities where test flights are slated to take place next year, with commercial flights to start in 2023. According to the Uber website:
"Uber is building the future of aerial ridesharing. In 2023, Uber plans to give riders the option of an affordable shared flight. Uber is working closely with federal and local policymakers to develop an aerial offering that's safe, quiet, and environmentally conscious, and that extends the reach of existing transportation options."
Should this come to fruition, a network of landing ports will be needed to enable these flying taxis to pick up and drop off high volumes of passengers safely and efficiently.
Ride-hailing has often been seen as a way to plug the gaps in modern transportation systems. The rise in ride-hailing companies such as Uber, Lyft and Grab is a win-win for commuters. Applying simple economics, an increase in competitors can result in cheaper fares for commuters and a variety of options.
However, the rise in ride-hailing can also be attributed to planning policies and local strategies. Due to the intense competition for land, many new developments in London that have been granted planning permission tend to have minimal car parking spaces, which act as a deterrent to car ownership.
In addition, local councils often include car-sharing membership as a planning obligation for the developers. With such planning policies in place, it positions ride-hailing/car-sharing as the better option over owning a car.
Once autonomous driving and electric vehicles become economically viable, the ride-hailing/car-sharing industry is likely to be positively disrupted since driver-related costs tend to form the bulk of fares.
Planning policy impacts
With concerns over 'urban sprawl', modern planning policies have been formulated to encourage densification and mixed-use developments resulting in compact cities. London is a prime example – the densification of London is strongly linked to the London Plan and supplementary planning guidance.
Policy E7 of the draft London Plan specifically provides for intensification and co-location to support London's economic function. This policy explicitly encourages efficient use of land by allowing higher plot ratios and for light industrial activities to be co-located or mixed with residential uses.
Compact cities also mean that residential buildings are integrated with amenities such as transport infrastructure, supermarkets, offices and shopping centres. It is a common sight these days to find residential apartments located above a shopping centre with a tube station below or to find a parcel collection 'store' on the ground floor of a mixed-use development of offices and residential apartments. In time, we may see landing ports on the rooftops of most buildings and charging points for electric vehicles integrated with the usual amenities.
Population growth, compact cities and housing density
The convergence of population growth, compact cities and increasing housing density leads to traffic congestion. There are already measures in place to ease the congestion such as the London Congestion Charge, limited numbers of car parking spaces allowed in developments and obligations to include car-sharing memberships in residential developments.
In light of these future mobility trends, specific measures will have to be tailored to target the influx of electric vehicles and air traffic congestion (especially once Uber Air becomes a reality).
Politicians around the world are acutely aware of the environmental impacts of cities. Planning policies and strategies have therefore been formulated to reduce car use, promote green spaces, foster healthy living through cycling infrastructure and the public realm, and encourage pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.
While autonomous electric cars and car-sharing will be environmentally friendly, questions of air and noise pollution remain around the impact of high volumes of flying vehicles such as drones in the airspace.
With fixing air pollution high up on the mayor of London's agenda, we could see new policies and/or strategies being put in place to promote car-sharing/ride-hailing.
However, these initiatives could be met with some resistance – car owners may prefer owning cars for a multitude of reasons including status, comfort, convenience and freedom, and the black cabs remain a powerful lobby against ride-hailing and competitor transport solutions.
With many mobility trends still emerging, it is difficult to ascertain definitively what changes will take place in city planning. It is, however, certain that future planning policies and strategies will be focused on creating cities that will reduce environmental impact and promote healthy living.
An essential part of this will be fostering new mobility solutions. Whether such changes will create cities that are futureproof is anyone's guess.
Gabriel Goh and Alistair Watson are, respectively, a newly qualified associate and real estate partner and head of planning & environment at Taylor Wessing.