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How do we create a sustainable model of urban transport? Furthermore, how are urban form and urban transportation related to one another? Does the form of a city determine how it is used in terms of transit and movement? 

This post covers my reflections from a lecture we received on Sustainable Urban Transport, as part of the Principles and Practice of Urban Design module, from Martin Podevyn, who is a Senior Urban Designer at Sustrans.

Traffic Jams in London: London ranked seventh worst city in the world for traffic jams (Picture: Getty Images)

The reality of many cities today is that they are crammed full of cars! Why? You may ask. The city is built for the car – or at least has been since the private automobile came onto the scene some 70 or so years ago. The car marked a significant change in direction in terms of how cities were designed and constructed. The human scale was once the only scale by which cities were built, and with the arrival of the private automobile came another scale, which according to Jan Gehl led to mass confusion over ‘scale’ amongst transport planners – what he calls the “Brasilia Syndrome”. The harsh reality is that it’s difficult to move around without the car today. The car has become the dominant mode of transport for all of humanity! This is illustrated well in this scene from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy (2005).

Car-reliance in cities and urban regions has led to the fragmentation of space, the creation of incoherent, flat, and meaningless, placeless space. The reality is that life exists to serve the car. You need the car to go to work, take your children to school, go shopping – almost everything! This is because cities have been designed for the car, infrastructure built for the car, society thus is reliant on the car. There are several scholars however, who argue that the reducing the car’s dominance isn’t such a complex challenge after all. The role of the urban designer is to view the city as a whole, not as a series of mono-functional zones and processes that are distinct from one another.

Walkable HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, West part of the harbour, © Fotofrizz

According to Jan Gehl, there are three types of outdoor activity that exist in the city. Firstly, there are necessary activities, which take place regardless of the urban form. Secondly, there are optional activities, which take place based on a wish to do so. Thirdly, there are social activities, which take place depending on the presence of others. Gehl calls for neighbourhoods that stimulate all of the above, because “when quality of outdoor areas is good, optional activities increase”, and “as this increases the number of social activities usually increases substantially” [LeGates and Stout, 2016, pp.533]. Gehl gives significant weight to the “critical role of urban structure” in that the strategic location of development, density, mix of use, and local neighbourhood layout all encourage more sustainable transport patterns. According to Gehl, urban structure is a critical element of the sustainable mobility vision.

Bo01 Masterplan Western Harbour, Malmo

Timothy Beatley further supports the idea of compact cities in that “urban form and land use patterns are primary determinants of urban sustainability” [pp.250]. Beatley argues that compactness and density are characteristics of the urban form that make many other dimensions of local sustainability more feasible (e.g. public transit, walkable places). Beatley observed the impressive integration of transit modes in European cities, and put this down to the traditional compact urban form that created the environment for integrated transport to flourish.

In their seminal work, Towards an Urban Design Manifesto [1987], Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard propose their five principle characteristics for an urban fabric for an urban life. There should be a minimum density – i.e. there is no need for excessively high structures; integration of activities – a mixture of residential, employment space and leisure facilities; buildings should define public space; and many separate, distinct buildings with complex arrangements and relationships. Again, we see an emphasis on the importance of mixed use developments that in turn create a city of short distances, where walking and cycling become realistic prospects [Jacobs and Appleyard, 1987].

Walking and Cycling in Hafencity, Hamburg

In their book, Transport, Climate Change and the City [2014], Robert Hickman and David Banister argue that merely focusing on reducing carbon emissions in cities is ‘reductionist’ and that paying attention to the built form will achieve much more with regards to urban sustainable transport. Similar to Gehl, Beatley, Hickman and Banister support the concept of creating a city of shorter distances. This can be achieved through a better urban environment, sustainable transport systems, and walking and cycling infrastructure. Furthermore, as the global urban population continues to grow, cities will be the centres of change in the future: “if travel can be made more sustainable at the city level – in all major cities internationally – then the impact on global emissions will be significant” [pp.333]. Hickman and Banister consider the car as having to adapt to the city in the future, rather than the city being planned around the car. Click here to see how the makers of the smartphone app ‘Human’ mapped users’ movement patterns in major urban centres around the world.

Planning, designing and building cities around the pedestrian – at the human scale – is perhaps the most efficient way of reducing car usage in cities. However, when looking at transportation as an individual part of the greater whole, it puts into perspective the size of the challenge at hand. A compact, multi-functional urban form creates ample opportunity for the pedestrian and the cyclist, whilst at the same time making large-scale, metropolitan-wide public transport infrastructure economically viable.


Beatley, T. (2009). “Planning for Sustainability in European Cities: A Review of Practice in Leading Cities”, from The Sustainable Urban Development Reader. 2nd ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.249-258.

Gehl, J. (2011). “Three Types of Outdoor Activity”, in Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space. 6th ed. Island Press.

Hickman, R. and Banister, D. (2014). Transport, climate change and the city. 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp.319-346.

Jacobs, A. and Appleyard, D. (1987). Toward an Urban Design Manifesto. Journal of the American Planning Association, 53(1), pp.112-120.

LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2016). The city reader. 5th ed. London: Routledge


Traffic Jams in London –

“Brasilia Syndrome” –

Scene – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

‘Human’ App maps users’ movement –


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