Why are some cities successful and others not with respect to transport and mobility?

During the 1990s I looked at a number of cities around the world, especially those held up as great transport examples and read around their history and characteristics. The result of this work, in terms of transport and land-use planning, is that I found there are seven key principles that are the foundation of their success. This led to the publishing of my book called “Making Cities Work” with Roger Parry of Clear Channel which then evolved into my “Seven Deadly Wins” for transport and mobility success.

There are three very important principles that drive the seven wins.

Firstly, transport is about moving people and goods, not vehicles. Secondly, road capacity is finite. One lane of road in open countryside with no junctions can move about 2,000 vehicles per hour – maximum. If you add factors like junctions this drops significantly. So, no matter what you do, you can’t squeeze more vehicles above the road capacity. If you do congestion ensues.

Thirdly, we need to stop talking about car drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, bus and train users as separate people vying against each other for road space.

In my research into the future of mobility over the past 12 years it is clear people want three things from future mobility. They want it to be:

  • Seamless, door-to-door service on one ticket using the best mode or modes of travel;
  • Designed to meet their needs – user focused;
  • Valued by them addressing their needs and desires.

Given these principles let me talk about the first two “Deadly Wins”:

Win one: Cities must maximise exchange space. Here I must pay tribute to a book by David Engwicht called “Developing an Eco-city”. Basically, in any city, or indeed town or village, in terms of transport and land-use, there are only two spaces. The first of these is exchange space. This is the space where activities happen – at work, in schools, colleges and universities, in entertainment venues, in offices, houses and in streets and squares. Exchange space is both private – your own home – or public. It is where we interact with others and is the life blood of the city.

Win two: Cities must minimise movement space. People need to move to engage in economic and social activities. So, we have to allocate movement space to allow people to do that. Where does this space come from – exchange space, the very space that makes the city work.

So, we need to minimise movement space to ensure maximum exchange and deliver the right balance to make the city work successfully. In the mid-20th century many cities across the world, especially in North America, designed their cities around the private car as it offers a personalised and fast service. However, as car traffic grew congestion grew and more space had to be given to movement, further reducing exchange space. The average occupancy of a private car on our roads is just over one person so the number of people you can move along a road using private cars is not a lot. However, they take up a lot of space.


In effect we move more empty seats than occupied seats along our roads. The effect of this downward spiral of reducing exchange space was that it killed the life of many city centres. These cities have been reclaiming that exchange space over the past 40 years. So, the only way to accommodate economic growth and keep the city vibrant is to use vehicles that can take more people in a much smaller space – ie trains, buses and trams. This not only frees space for exchange, hence increases the health and wealth of citizens, but creates road space for those who have to travel by private car and commercial vehicles.

Do roads have a future in our cities? Roads are key to successful cities. They are the arteries, but can also strangle the city if we get the balance wrong between exchange and movement space. People are the number one priority in any city; vehicles are second. They should not compete; they should complement each other.

How do we pay for roads in the future? One of the impacts of Covid-19 was a huge reduction in public transport use and an increase in private car use. This is understandable, but it has increased congestion and emissions and has had a devastating effect on income for public transport. One of the key objectives is to reduce emissions to help reduce global warming and rightly so. This is vital and the transition to EV and hydrogen powered vehicles will help us get there. However, there are two big issues related to this transition.

At present, the incentives to purchase an EV are very attractive. They include the ability to write off the capital cost against a business and hence reduce corporation tax, the available grants for interest free loans and charging points, the reduction in benefit in kind taxation, lower vehicle tax and reduced fuel cost. The effect of these incentives is to make running an EV cheaper that using public transport. So, there is a potential policy conflict which could end up with increasing private vehicles on our roads creating more congestion, albeit what I call “green congestion”. No doubt over time these incentives will reduce and that has already started, but it’s a difficult balance between two worthy objectives.

The second impact is that over time the UK Treasury will lose between £35-£40 billion per annum in fuel and vehicle duty. This may be alleviated through hybrid and other new technologies but the impact is significant. Given this situation, how is the Government going to pay for roads and road maintenance and indeed other forms of transport in a time when finances are under pressure? There is a lot of discussion on the options available to solve this problem. For example, charging costs could be raised significantly or do we move to a new system of paying per mile for road usage. The technology is available to do this, but would it be politically acceptable? What about people living in rural areas who have to travel longer distances? What about those people who have to use their car for work? One thing is clear we need to be discussing this issue now.

All of my career I have been hearing people say that transport and land-use planning need to be planned together and we‘re still talking about it. The reality on the ground is, however, sadly a tale of transport and planning not being planned together. There are many good examples but too often we see large housing developments not connected to public transport or with no local services. This has to change. There are examples around the world where cities have done this. Montreal, for example, enshrined a planning policy in their development plans to encourage development within one kilometre of a metro station.

My hope is that we can plan transport and future development creating sustainable, attractive communities with direct access to high quality public transport and local shops and services.

Dr George Hazel: Consultant and adviser and former chairman of the advisory board of Scotland’s largest and longest established transport research group, the Transport Research Institute