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Cities must evolve to meet the demands of a carbon-constrained world

Image: Florent Hauchard

The Paris Agreement urges countries to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and while focus is being placed on transitioning the electricity sector to meet that target, there are also much-needed changes in urban planning and transport, according to a new paper.

Published in the Urban Planning journal, The City of the Future argues that a vastly different transport and urban paradigm must emerge for cities to meet their climate ambitions.

Written by the University of Technology Sydney’s associate professor Garry Glazebrook and Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute’s Professor Peter Newman, the paper argues that the new urban form must be a polycentric city linked by fast electric-powered rail, with local “last mile” accessibility provided by community-owned electric/autonomous cars and buses, as well as bikes, electric bikes and electric scooters. And, of course, all electricity must be supplied from renewables.

While the energy transformation is well underway, the authors said that carbon emissions from urban transport were still on the rise, which needed to be tackled in the context of meeting climate targets.

However, they also noted things were beginning to shift, with per-capita car use declining in many countries, and the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles promising to change the game. These trends could be used and strengthened to create cities that fit in with the world’s climate change goals, they argue.

How we integrate autonomous vehicles is key to future city liveability, the paper said.

“If we simply replace privately owned vehicles with privately owned driverless vehicles, this will do little to reduce road congestion or parking requirements, or to make our cities more liveable,” the report warns.

“However, if ‘communally’ owned, a driverless vehicle could replace eight or more private vehicles, particularly if operated in a ‘continuous multi-hire’ mode and if used to provide feeder services to rail and other mass transit systems or nearby activity centres.”

While this would necessitate a major increase in public transport provision, one of the benefits of such a system would be reduced space required for parking.

“Less space will be wasted on roads and parking, enabling higher accessibility yet more usable public open space.”

The paper said parking was a hidden cost of car dependency, and estimated that in Sydney parking took up 100 square kilometres of land worth in the order of $100 billion.

Key features of the “future city” include:

  • An increased concentration of jobs, residents and other activities in both the traditional CBD, along old transit corridors, and in satellite cities and sub-centres clustered around intensive rail systems
  • All transport modes will be electric and their power will be renewable
  • Increasing densities for housing in all parts of the city, especially around stations, with more open space and less sprawl
  • New and expanded mass transit systems
  • The replacement of many private automobile trips by the combination of local access modes, mass transit and shared-use autonomous vehicles
  • A marked reduction in overall traffic volumes on the road network
  • A significant reduction in parking
  • Improved accessibility, reducing the individual, social and environmental costs of travel, and leading to improved housing affordability

Using Sydney as a case study, the authors found that current public transport patronage was expected to double in the next 15 years. However, this would still lead to a relatively car-dependent city. The authors propose further investment in mass transit – including freight, high speed rail and a more extensive light rail network – together with intelligent use of autonomous vehicle technology, which could lead to “a very different city by 2056”.

“Under this scenario, total CO2 emissions from urban passenger transport could be almost eliminated, assuming by 2056 that 100 per cent of all electricity in the Eastern Australian Grid is generated from solar, wind, hydro, geothermal or other forms of renewable energy, and that 90 per cent of all cars, buses and taxis are electrically powered by then.”

Under their model total private car traffic would also level off after about 2030, “suggesting no need for additional urban freeways beyond those currently under construction.”

The authors said national governments needed to help accelerate local initiatives through creating the right policy settings and investing strategically.

Specific suggestions include:

  • Slowing or stop investment in urban motorways
  • Accelerating investment in mass transit systems
  • Encouraging integrated development around rail stations and other key transit nodes and discourage further development remote from rail corridors
  • Providing walkable town centres and safe cycleways for local travel
  • Encouraging the development of companies or non-profit community organisations that can be citizen utilities and own and operate fleets of shared local mobility services
  • Enabling the rapid general introduction of electric vehicles
  • Introducing road pricing and parking policies to discourage private car ownership and use the funds to help pay for infrastructure
  • Accelerating the transition from coal and gas-fired electricity to renewable energy

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