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Transformation of urban hubs: the changing faces of our cities


From Paris to Seoul, San Francisco to Barcelona, city centres the world over are trying to reduce space dedicated to cars and, in doing so, are changing the way we see mobility.

Cars account for only 13% of journeys made in Paris, but take up half of the city’s public space. In response, local authorities are on a mission to claim the space back. But this is no mean feat, as it calls into question 60 years of urban planning geared towards the automobile, a symbol of freedom and modernity.

In Seoul, the spectacular expansion of the South Korean economy resulted in the construction of huge suspended expressways. A six-lane motorway was built right on top of the river that ran through Seoul, carrying 160,000 cars every day – but it was too expensive to maintain, and the city authorities had it demolished. Now, after just two years, the water is flowing again and a vast stretch of parkland has been created.

Congestion charges

So how can cities encourage drivers to change their habits? One way is to tax individual car use. London, Dublin, Singapore, Stockholm and Oslo have all introduced congestion charges to reduce traffic, resulting in a 15%-20% decrease in vehicles circulating in city centres. Local authorities in Milan went one step further, limiting city centre access to low‑pollution cars, taxis and emergency service vehicles, with electronic gates and 185 cameras in place to monitor access to the restricted traffic area.

Alongside these measures, the city has developed and improved public transport networks…and this has come with a few surprises: “At first, it was thought that better public transport would change the modal split, with more people leaving their cars behind,” says Paul Lecroart, an urban planner at the Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme in the Île‑de‑France region. “But actually, it also provided a way for people who didn’t travel much or at all before to get around. It solved a mobility problem that nobody even knew was there.”

Surprising results

Another discovery, in the medium term, has been drivers’ adaptability. The elimination of certain fast roads means that people are travelling less and, therefore, optimising the way they get around. In San Francisco, 20% of people asked said they have travelled less since the Central Freeway came down. The motorway has been replaced by boulevards accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, encouraging drivers to take it slow.

A new relationship with cities

Taking down motorways with four, six or eight lanes frees up space for other uses, such as housing, landscaped gardens and shops. Paul Lecroart thinks that this new approach reflects a profound change in our relationships with cities: “Since the early 2000s, we’ve been seeing people reclaim city centres in a totally different way, increasing outdoor seating for cafés, using green spaces to sunbathe, and more.”

Focus on pedestrians

Often overlooked in mobility policies, pedestrians are once again the focus of urban planning. Last year, Paris municipal authorities launched a pedestrian plan, investing €90 million to put in place measures such as a pedestrianised “children’s road” with games in every arrondissement, wider, greener pavements, and “meeting areas” with a speed limit of 20 kilometres per hour and priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. Cars will even be banned in the first to fourth arrondissements one Sunday per month.

Positive economic impact

These new urban landscapes also have a positive impact on city-centre businesses. In New York City, the Department of Transportation calculated that installing a bus lane on a given street would lead to a threefold increase in business activity, with a knock-on effect for neighbouring streets. These findings even gave rise to a slogan: “Better streets, better business”.

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