Prof Nick Tyler, CBE FREng – Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering, University College London


As Professor of Civil Engineering at UCL since 2003, Nick’s work has centred on research and projects that focus on how people interact with the urban environment and how transport and the built environment can influence this both within the UK and globally.



In your 2018 TED talk you said that Cities are People and that social interactions in cities are a key part of this, how do you think cities can be best designed to meet the needs of their citizens? 

I think the starting point has to be understanding how people ‘tick’ in the social environment. Cities are often perceived as large objects – we talk about megalopolises and the like – but actually they interact with people at the level of the individual, so they need to be able to feel quite small. So instead of designing (or retrofitting, which is the more common case) a city to accommodate mass population and mass movement, we should be thinking about how individuals and small groups live and move around, then see how this works at a larger scale.

So think about how a person interacts individually with their immediate environment, then how a group works, then how a community works, then a neighbourhood – before getting into the more political scopes of areas such as Boroughs, Cities, Regions, or Countries. Successful social working of each of these entities depends on the successful interactions at the previous scales – so if a city does not work for a group – if it does not allow for people to stop and have a chat – it will not be able to function properly at the scale of a multi-million population. 

As the inventor of PAMELA, the revolutionary Pedestrian Accessibility and Movement Environment Laboratory at UCL a 1:1 scale multisensorial environment for testing people’s interactions with their surroundings. What have been some of the most important findings that have come out of the Lab? And how do you think the lab can contribute to making cities more sustainable?

I think the thing that speaks most powerfully to me about PAMELA is that it enables us to study social interactions between people at a variety of scales at the same time – which is the multisensorial & multiscalar way in which people interact with each other and the environment. This means that we can see just how a small difference in the design of a train makes it easier to board or alight, or how improvements in vision could enable someone to live a more fulfilling life, because they can see to go out on their own in the evening for example 

PAMELA enables us to look at these phenomena as they occur. Identifying acceleration rates in buses, and – perhaps more importantly as we change the vehicle technology – the preconscious signals that enable passengers to prepare for the movement to start so that they do not fall over – is a really important way that we could improve things for people. More understanding of how people with dementia see has helped us think through other potential issues that could enable us to design environments so that they can live in communities with a better sense of wellbeing just like everybody else. This is all about making the city better for people to live in, so yes PAMELA, by helping us to design cities for people rather than traffic, will be improving the sustainability of the city in all three aspects of the sustainability need: economy, sociality and environmentally – mainly by making it possible for people to carry out their daily lives without the need for recourse to expensive, polluting and socially isolating means of transport. This requires people-centric design, and PAMELA is a good resource to help us achieve that.

You’ve talked about using multi-dimensional approaches to improve quality of life in cities and incorporate people into transport systems through neurology. Can you explain a bit more about this approach and how you think it can be implemented with any existing examples? 

The brain is how we interact with everything, including our own bodies and mind, so we cannot improve cities without understanding how the brain processes stimuli or how the mind interprets the phenomena around us – this is neurology. Take walking as an example. This is a massively complex task which involves a huge amount of coordination and synchronization of muscles, multiple senses, understanding and control of balance, navigation and so on – yet we never think of it at all. Walking is a fantastic way to exercise the brain and to keep it functioning well – and better brain functioning would improve the life of everyone in a city. Yet we design for cars. 

So there is now an approach in neurology, which is called the ecological brain, and this can be coupled to a different perception of the mind, called the embodied mind. The combination of these two changes everything about how we see people in the city. For a start the embodied mind considers that everyone brings an understanding to every situation in which they find themselves, based on their life history of experiences, including their genetic code, and that this forms their approach to what to do now, and how to do it. 

Thus, for example, everyone arrives at a railway station, but everyone is on a completely different trajectory – not just physically in the sense that they have come from different places along different streets – but everyone had a different upbringing, has learnt different things, had experienced different events and experiences and so on. Assuming that they are all just ‘commuters’ simply does not do justice to the richness of what is actually happening, but that is what we do at the moment. This is why commuting feels like such an awful dehumanising experience – mainly because it is (probably unintentionally) what we make it to be, by treating them as an aggregated lump of passengers. By understanding better how each person interacts with their neighbours in the station, and designing to make that a more human experience, we could improve the situation of commuters so that their day is a whole lot better than it is now. 

How do we do that? Well, one of the strongest situations for improving the sense of wellbeing in a survey conducted in one of my projects in some cities in the UK was the event where someone passed someone else, who they did not know, on a street, waved to them with a simple greeting and received a similar response. This is a tiny thing, but yet it was the most significant. It has implications for design: making sure that the space is right – near enough that the person can be seen well enough to observe a smile, but not so close that physical interaction was unavoidable; near enough to be able to hear the greeting, but not so close that it was an interference; in terms of time, it needs to be quick enough that it does not interfere with walking, but long enough to register the interchange, and so on. We know from the neuroscience and psychology what those kinds of distance and time requirements are, so we should be designing our stations to permit that. Time is particularly important here – this kind of greeting is almost instantaneous – but we could learn a lot about the difference between this simple greeting and, for example, a longer greeting – perhaps exchanging a few words, but still not stopping. Longer interactions might require different environments – a longer chat could be a lot easier if there was an acoustically benign environment which is sheltered and maybe with a suitably designed seat (we are working on the neurology behind that!); whereas a conversation might need a more secluded environment – and so on. All of these could be incorporated into the design of our urban infrastructure if we so chose, and if we were to do that, we would have a much more sociable city for people.

Although smart technologies, such as automation and electric mobility have been heralded as answers to future sustainable transport; there are concerns about replicating car-like dominated transport systems rather than people-oriented transport and urban design. How do you think these issues can be reconciled to ensure cities become smarter but also people oriented?

We have to design vehicles out of the city. This is not going to be instantaneous because we have designed cities around vehicles for the past couple of centuries – especially in the last 100 or so years. But vehicles are bad. They kill us through collisions, through pollution, both from the use of fossil-fuelled engines and other vehicle-based systems, such as the brakes and tyres, they act to make us much more socially isolated and they distort the sense of sociality that means that we understand how to respond to people in social situations. It is hard to conceive of a motorised city – whatever the energy source for the motion – that could be good for people. 

To change this, we need to make sure that the city offers what people need according to when they need it and make those things that are felt to be daily needs available within a walkable distance. Buying bread should not need a car, simply because the baker should be near enough that you could pop in to buy it. The local community can work out easily enough what things are desired at what level of proximity and a suitable transport system – walking, cycling, various forms of public transport etc, can be devised to enable that. But it should not include a private car, because the health and environmental consequences of that mode of transport are just too harmful. 

Newer communications technology is changing how we work and how we buy things – but it should not change the basic human ways of communication: social media is not social as such because it does not encourage actual communication between people, even though it gives the impression of doing just that. So new communications are a real way of moving forward – as long as people are at the core of the shifts in behaviour.

As founder of the Accessibility Research Group that has worked on accessibility and public transport, what are the key elements of successful accessible public transport networks?

They must be equitably accessible to everyone. They must serve the activities that people wish to do – simply being an accessible transport system without enabling people to do what they wish to do is not good enough. This means thinking a lot more about the whole door-to-door network, not just the bus or metro system, and making that completely accessible. This will make it much better for everyone else of course, but we need to make sure that nobody in society is excluded because of poor design of the public transport system. So having lots of options is important – many accessibility needs conflict with each other, so it is essential to make sure that everyone can have as good a system as possible for them. Then by recognising that sometimes compromises are inevitable we can think about how best to resolve them.

You are part of the UK’s involvement in the ‘Chinese Low Carbon Cities Development project’ that aims to assist Chinese Cities with peaking their carbon emissions as early as possible and at least by 2030. Can you explain a bit about your involvement with this collaboration and how you think cities can peak their emissions in light of recent climate change projections?

In terms of “peaking emissions”, I would say that we need to reduce them forthwith. Climate change in the modern era started/happened 250 years ago with the start of the Industrial Revolution. We are not experiencing Climate Change now, but we are experiencing the results of that in the form of an intense, ongoing and worsening climate emergency. There is no room for polite changes that everyone will like: we need to make the world survivable in a way that currently it is not. 

To deal with this we have to think about the whole question of energy – even though China has a huge programme of investment in renewable energy, its cities are still burning huge amounts of brown coal and suffer massive pollution episodes. Nothing is really being done about the demand for energy and simply trying to meet the increasing demands of an increasing economy will inevitably fall to fossil fuels in the short and medium term. We have to change the desire – and need – for energy, including in relation to movement before we can begin to make a move on the emissions problems.

One of the main aims of Cities Forum is promoting and inspiring best practice in city sustainability, which cities around the world do you think are currently leading the way and should be inspiring others?

I guess I would have to say places like Copenhagen, but others are doing well. Paris has, of late, been doing some exciting things around changing people’s perceptions of emissions and the link to their use of energy.

What in your opinion is the most important challenge facing cities in becoming more sustainable, and a corresponding solution?

London is trying to solve its air pollution problem, but is stuck on the impact of being a highly centralised economy (1.5 million people cross the Circle Underground Line every day, mostly between 8am and 9am) – distributing the economy around the city would make a big difference to the amount of movement required to serve it, and thus the amount of energy consumed and emissions produced. This would mean encouraging businesses to operate throughout the city rather than mainly in the core, making it easier to move around the outer boroughs; an outer orbital railway line would be really beneficial for this. This would also scale the interactions back to a much more human scale so that people can greet each other informally in the street on their way to having a great day.

What do you think cities in the future will look and feel like to live and move in, in say 2050?

If we do nothing now, they will cease to exist. If we respond to the challenge, I think they might look more like coalesced communities which are self-sufficient for some things and able to obtain others easily from neighbouring communities. I think making energy sharable would attach people much more to their use of energy and thus the emissions that result. A street could have every house with a photovoltaic system, and a local distributor system to distribute it between the houses on a basis agreed by the community. I see a much more walkable place and people stopping and lingering rather than moving and rushing. But that might be just too idealistic!

Richard Lambert

About Richard Lambert

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Richard Lambert, Coordinator of Liveable Ciiies Prorgam. He has been working for 11 years creating sustainable urban communities in London, UK and Internationally. Specialising in the development of urban green infrastructure and pedestrian walking related improvement projects, policies and strategies.