As a multi-disciplinary design studio working within this field, we are discovering that more of our attention is focused on this issue. Based in Clerkenwell, within central London, we are constantly experiencing the social and environmental impact of overcrowding, congestion and high levels of pollution. These are only set to rise with global warming and the increasing migration within cities, widely predicted to be two thirds of the world population by 2030*.
The impact of this has already begun to affect us, earlier this year pollution in London rose to dangerous levels. For this brief period, it surpassed Beijing, a city known globally for having one of the worst pollution problems. This is a worrying pattern that is only set to become more widespread.
So how can we apply our creative thinking to these challenges, to help reduce this environmental impact and transform our towns and cities into safer more enjoyable places to be?
Our background in the automotive industry, working within the advanced design studios of the major car brands, developed our insight into people’s behaviours and what their emerging needs will be. This foundation now helps inform our existing urban mobility projects, from mass transit to personal transport, allowing us to recognise patterns and identify opportunities, which are then crafted into design directions. The ability to provide a positive impact across multiple sectors has proven rewarding and we continue to seek challenges that touch people in new ways.
A recent project focused on how to improve the average bus journey for the different users. How can this become a more pleasant experience? Understanding how these systems are used and maintained throughout the day, provided the foundational research into developing a more attractive and usable space. At its core was a flexible seating and storage solution that adapted its environment to a diverse range of passengers. Embedded technology provided information that aimed to support the journey, making the trip feel more enjoyable and reduce stress.
Making environments more attractive to encourage walking and cycling is another challenge we are focusing on. From designing more user-friendly electric bikes for commuters to creating urban infrastructure that facilitated more social interaction. These projects help form open collaboration and engage communities are also proving to be extremely good business. Taking influences from Denmark and Holland cycling schemes has enabled several districts within the city to transform congested streets into attractive neighbourhoods that encourage people to shop and hang out.
Designing street furniture that can encourage certain types of behaviour, from the seating arrangement to the planting, which combines to create a more pleasant environment within the urban landscape.
These designs play a part in answering the needs of transport in the city. Strong and resilient urban mobility solutions come from thoughtful (and plentiful) infrastructure offering multi-modal solutions to multi-modal needs.
By creating opportunities for human interaction, we can improve communications within the city and therefore make living and doing business there easier and more attractive. Increased interaction also improves sense of community and security, in turn improving desirability of area as a place to do business.
Urban Mobility design isn’t just about producing slick electric cars that look as if they’ve come from a sci-fi movie, it is about identifying as many opportunities as possible to make incremental change: making a stretch of road safer to cycle along, creating squares for people to meet and socialise, designing more comfortable and inviting trains and buses, building stations that are more easily navigable.
We help companies map these opportunities and develop them to their fullest potential. We help them make the city better for business, for pleasure, for life.
Firstly, multi modal provision is vital to urban transport and is an area where the UK arguably lies behind the continent. This shouldn’t mean blanket imposition of tram systems - as discovered in Manhattan, these can often be far more expensive and less effective than simple alterations to junction layouts and traffic priorities.
The heart of the challenge facing those designing urban mobility is effective use of space. At peak times in the morning rush hour, the cycle lane across Blackfriars bridge carries 70% of the entire traffic across the bridge.
Take segregated cycle lanes: danger CAN be designed out. The basic rule for a cycle provision (and indeed pedestrian spaces) is: would I be happy for my kids to use this? Cycling of course, provides a handy combination of helping people keep fit and active whilst getting them around and about. For the vast majority of journeys in London, cycling is a viable option. The distances in most town centres are well within the abilities of most and severe inclines are relatively few. Electric bikes can also make cycling a much more realistic option for many people and facilitate the carrying of heavy loads, making delivery by bicycle of many goods an option.
There is a growing body of evidence from around the world https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2015/03/the-complete-business-case-for... that increasing or improving not only pedestrian spaces but also separated cycle lines can have a beneficial effect on businesses in the surrounding area. Upon consideration, this should not be a surprise; consider: given the option of walking across a busy pedestrian street to look in a shop or trying to cross a road of two or more lanes of motorised traffic, who wouldn’t find the former the preferred option? Put simply: If it is hard work (and potentially dangerous or unpleasant) to get to your shop, many people won’t bother going.
So where does the car belong in all this? Autonomous and electric cars are coming, the latter are indeed already here in growing numbers. This means benefits in air quality for the majority in cities and potentially a reduction in the number of vehicles on our streets if shared mobility services take off. It is worth noting however, that it is only if autonomous mobility service become widespread that we will save space in our cities. If we perpetuate the model of one person per car at rush hour we will still end up using the majority of our shared space to accommodate the motor car.
It is also worth thinking about how easy it will be for autonomous vehicles to share the roads with illogical, irrational pedestrians, cyclists and well, normal people driving cars? Already city planners have declared that the cities of the future will need to have completely separate roads for autonomous vehicles. https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/07/will-autonomous-vehicles-...
Could this lead to car-centric city planning the like of which we haven’t seen since the 50s and 60s? How will these new autonomous car-only streets fit into our emotional maps of our home towns? As no-go ghettos? Or as hidden in plain sight arteries that we fail to notice as we traverse them each day, now that our attention is free to focus not on the road ahead but on our friends and family with whom we travel, the social media we are interacting with or (and this is the most unlikely and unwished-for scenario of all perhaps) the spreadsheet for work that we now have extra time to work on?
Cities are spaces where we come together to live and work because it benefits all of us. If our shared spaces are to function, they need to contain the potential to be a catalyst for all of these interactions, their planners need to recognise that this is what makes cities such inspiring places: all of those chance meetings and the conversations they lead to. From a distance, it might only be the skyscrapers that we see but up close, it’s the people that matter.
Clive Hartley, Nick Mannion, Jason Povlotski and Daniele Ceccomori.