Susan Claris – ARUP
Associate Director in the Transport Consulting Group ARUP and Trustee of Living Streets: A transport planner and anthropologist with significant public sector experience and a particular interest in walkability creating more liveable, vibrant, safe, inclusive and healthy streets and communities.
With extensive experience over the past 25 years working as a transport planner to make the world’s urban areas more sustainable what initiatives do you think can have the biggest impact on improving the sustainability of our cities?
I think making our towns and cities more walkable is the single most important thing that we should be doing. We need to return to a walking world – which is how most of our urban areas originated.
This will require transformative change, as many of our towns and cities suffer from a legacy of being dominated by car design in recent decades. We need to place walkability at the heart of our urban areas. Walking needs to be at the top of the modal hierarchy.
We need to act to achieve safe and efficient transport systems, such as improving walkable connectivity, pedestrianisation, better integration with public transport, reducing vehicle speeds, improving crossings and signage. We need to create more liveable environments, re-using redundant infrastructure, improving street design and furniture, creating parklets and pocket parks, improving micro-climates and having active facades.
We can help to create a sense of place and community through open-street events, public art, street fairs and inclusive design. And we can take actions for smart and responsive cities, creating playful interactive environments, providing wayfinding systems, monitoring the city and using digital evaluation tools.
You worked on the urbanisation research as part of Arup’s ‘Drivers for Change programme’ – a planning tool to assist organisations to explore leading factors which will affect our world in the future. With that in mind, what do you see as some of the biggest factors affecting urbanisation and cities in say the next 30 years?
Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 55 % of the world’s
population residing in urban areas in 2018. But many interpret this as being in cities – and the images are often of megacities. However, close to half of the world’s urban dwellers reside in settlements with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, while around one in eight live in 33 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. We must be wary of letting a big city approach dominate our thinking.
There is clear evidence that urbanisation can play a positive role in social and economic development. By concentrating half the world’s population on less than 3% of its land area, urban settlements give sustainability a better chance. However, cities also draw together many of the world’s major environmental problems. It is important to understand the negatives associated with urbanisation and see these in terms of opportunities and chances to do things differently in the future.
To ensure that the benefits of urbanisation are shared and that no one is left behind,policies to manage urban growth need to ensure access to infrastructure and social services for all, focusing on the needs of the urban poor and other vulnerable groups for housing, education, health care, decent work and a safe environment.
Your background is an interesting mix of transport planning and anthropology – potentially giving you a deeper understanding of behaviours that affect transport choices. What insights have you gained from this perspective on cities, people and mobility?
When I chose Planning and Anthropology for my Combined Studies degree at the then Oxford Polytechnic, my lecturers were surprised as no-one had ever chosen that combination before. But it made perfect sense to me – planning is all about people and anthropology is about seeing something from the insider’s perspective. So if you are planning for people, you should do your best to see what are you planning from the perspective of the people you are planning for. This was thirty years ago, when transport planning was more to do with traffic engineering – I am glad to say the profession has changed a lot since then and now embraces a wide range of disciplines.
It does however have a long way to go in terms of improving diversity. The transport sector is not diverse – it is some 80% male and it does not reflect other aspects of diversity either. The risk is that we tend to design in our own image – so we have the legacy of a transport system that has been designed by a narrow demographic for that narrow demographic – the so-called Reference Man. To have more inclusive transport, we need more diversity in our profession.
What I hope my anthropology brings to my transport planning work is that my starting point is always the people and how they might experience something. I am working on a piece of work at the moment to look at how the principles of nudge can bring about changes to more active transport.
You have worked to advise and support the C40 group of global megacities that are committed to addressing climate change, which cities do you think are leading the way as innovative examples in addressing climate change?
Cities such as New York City, Barcelona, London, Oslo and Paris have been leading the way in publishing detailed routemaps for how they will significantly reduce emissions and build strong low carbon economies, consistent with constraining global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. Different cities are leading in different ways, with Chicago and Copenhagen leading on energy, New York City and Dar es Salaam on transport, and Phoenix and Auckland on waste.
But it is not just big cities that can show good practice. A favourite of mine is Pontevedra – a small city in Spain with a population of just 80,000 that started on the path to pedestrianization twenty years ago and as a result has lowered its carbon emissions and had no traffic fatalities in ten years. And it has attracted new people to live there, whilst other towns in the Galicia region have been shrinking.
You previously advised the UK government on Low Emission Vehicles, what do you think is the future of low carbon urban transportation? And what role do you envisage private vehicles playing in this?
I think too many people think that as long as we are all driving electric cars in the future all will be fine. Recent media coverage of the Committee on Climate Change report Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming stated: “The report says we won’t need to overhaul our motoring habits, but eventually we will be driving electric cars.” But I think this is wrong – we do need to change our driving habits.
The take up of electric vehicles has been slower than was forecast. Early estimates were that, by 2020, there could be anything from 270,000 to 3.1 million EVs on the road, with a figure of around 1.55 million regarded the most probable. However, current figures indicate that they are now only some 210,000 EVs on the road. And research shows that there is consumer reluctance to have such vehicles, as only one in four people would consider buying a fully electric car in the next five years.
And they are not the solution to air pollution. Electric vehicles are often referred to as “zero emission vehicles”, whereas they are only zero emission at the tailpipe. While electric vehicles do not emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2), they do produce small particle pollution from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads. A recent European commission research paper found that about half of all particulate matter comes from these sources and the government already accepts there is no safe limit. Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has noted that while governments currently do not pay much attention to particulate matter, it is in fact highly polluting, with strong links to cardiopulmonary toxicity.
And electric vehicles can have other adverse impacts. The recharging infrastructure associated with electric vehicles has, in some areas, been taking over pavements and reducing space for walking. And an electric vehicle is still a vehicle – contributing to congestion and needing space to park.
Linking into the previous question, you are an avid everyday walker and a pedestrian rights campaigner, as a trustee of Living Streets, what role do you see walkability playing in cities of the future?
I believe that a walkable city is a better city and that the more we walk the better the city in every respect.
However, most people seem to prefer to talk about driverless cars in the cities of the future – seeing this as a rosy future. But I think that the potential impacts are very uncertain. Whilst some believe that the advent of fully autonomous vehicles on our streets is imminent, my view is that it will take a lot longer – and any transition period is likely to be problematic. And as for their impact, a recent study has estimated that the introduction of driverless cars to Leeds could potentially cause a 50 per cent increase in overall car travel by 2050 and a possible 30 to 40 per cent increase in the average distance that people travel. With the currently available data, the models also predicted a possible significant drop in public transportation use, potentially as much as 18 per cent, with walking and cycling is estimated to fall by 13 per cent.
We should not let the promise of a tech-fix future distract us or stop us from doing what we can do now to improve our cities. And that is, very simply, two things.
Firstly, we need to enable and encourage more walking, cycling and public transport. Most trips that we undertake are short: 24% are under 1 mile and 68% under 5 miles. Many of these trips currently undertaken by car could be made by active modes, but these modes need to be made more attractive. We need better footways and crossings, improved cycle facilities, better interchange with improved public transport services etc.
Secondly, we need to restrain car trips – particularly short ones. Nearly a third of all car trips are shorter than two miles. So there is potential for change. But at the moment, if you own a car, it is all too easy and inexpensive to use it for every trip that you make. We need more control over parking (availability and cost) and the introduction of road user charging.
You have talked previously about the need for creating more flexible and smarter streets, so cities can adapt to future needs and prioritise sustainable mobility. Can you explain a bit more about the benefits of this approach, where it has worked and how it can utilise smart technologies?
I think it is important for streets to be seen as things that evolve over time. If I take my own street in North London, the houses were built in the 1870s after the North London Railway was laid in 1848 – so the street was then largely a walking street. Over the years, the street evolved to be used more by cars and this then led to the management of traffic and parking, with one way operation, traffic calming with road humps, resident parking controls, including matchday parking. Household car ownership in the Borough is now 33% and I would like to see the street evolve further with car space being allocated to walking and cycling.
Streets do not have to be fixed entities. We have static flexibility at the moment – with parking restrictions at certain times of the day. I think streets can evolve to have more dynamic flexibility, so that at times of peak travel to and from work they have a stronger movement function, but at weekends and in the evening they could have a stronger place function. We did a piece of work to look at this in more detail for the National Infrastructure Commission. Our idea, called Flex Kerbs, looked at future management of the side-of-the-road through the introduction of flexible kerb space. Driven by local policy and real-time data, FlexKerbs intelligently adjust the allocation of kerb space uses throughout the day and week to ensure that streets achieve local transport goals by accommodating or managing demand from all street users. Over the course of a day, for instance, a single FlexKerb segment could function as an extra-wide cycle lane in the morning peak, a pedestrian plaza at lunchtime and a loading zone overnight. And then perhaps be closed to traffic at weekends for a street event.
These are early ideas and the concept needs further work – how dynamic change is conveyed to users, how it is enforced and managed etc, but we are starting to see streets being used more flexibly now with school streets and play streets. Most importantly we need to focus on how streets can work best for all people. Using streets to park private cars is a waste of valuable space – and cars spend most of their time parked, anything up to 95 per cent.
What in your opinion is the biggest challenge and solution facing cities in becoming more sustainable?
I think the biggest challenge is the global growth in car ownership and use. Whilst there is discussion about peak car in some parts of the world, the overall trend is growth, with some predicting that the number of cars worldwide is set to double by 2040, to some two billion cars. I think this forecast growth in car use needs to be restrained.
And the solution – we need to move towards a walking world.
Pictures: Susan Claris & ARUP