Moving Cities: From Transport to Transaction

Thought Piece from Tim Stonor of Space Syntax  that furthers the debate on activity streets and how mixed mode transport enhances city space and the transactions that underlie a cities dynamics from UBM’s Future Cities

Tim Stonor

Cities are ultimately vessels for the concentrated production and sustenance of life. Yet this intrinsic aspect of urbanism — the human factor — is neglected in many future cities discussions.


Rather, these discussions are often dominated by talks of transport and using technology to manage existing traffic systems.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the transportation fixation. After all, transport concerns have led urban policymaking for over a century. But we should be aware of its risks. Today’s cities bear the scars of the “time is money” obsession for ever greater, faster means of transport — an approach that has been pursued at a massive social, economic, and environmental cost: leading to inner-urban highways that divide communities, and patterns of inefficient,obesogenic traffic congestion. These are the globally consistent, predictable products of urban policy, and that policy needs rethinking.

Transport must be seen as a means to an end, not the end itself. The objective must be the creation of successful human interaction in pursuit of meaningful living. This requires people coming together in rooms, corridors, streets, and public spaces, creating patterns of human interaction in pursuit of social and economic gain.

For this to happen, a radical shift in urban thinking is required, from “transport” to “transaction.” How do we do this?

As a first step, the purpose of transport needs to be re-conceptualized: from being “the facilitator of movement” to becoming the “enhancer of interaction.”

The implications of such an approach for urban practice are radically straightforward: a focus on streets, not highways; on street networks and public spaces, not single grand projects; a rebalancing of priorities toward slow modes of movement — walking and cycling — and away from high-speed transit; toward effective interaction and not movement for the sake of it; toward the benefits of stopping in public space, not simply speeding through cities; toward sitting, leaning, and relaxing as key aspects of transport policy; toward people, not vehicles.

‘Pedestrian activity in London’s Trafalgar Square’

To see this transformation in action, contrast the slowed-down, pedestrian-friendly spaces of the City of London, Midtown Manhattan, or Copenhagen with the traffic-dominated, speed-obsessed streets they once were. Or, consider the steps of Trafalgar Square, where people linger over a business conversation instead of charging past as they did before that space was redesigned with interaction in mind. Then consider the global wave of rapidly urbanizing cities pursuing the car-first policy that London, New York, Copenhagen, and many others have since abandoned. The future cost for doing so is massive and preventable.

What is the role of technology in helping to achieve the policy transformation from transport to transaction? In its power and pervasiveness, digital infrastructure creates a new urban utility, and, as with electricity, water, or gas, it is incumbent upon city leaders to manage it for the benefit of citizens.

In line with a transport policy shift toward human interaction, digital infrastructure should be conceived principally in terms of its lifestyle benefits. Some would argue this is already the case, but the “lifestyle” I refer to is not one in which people stay at home in front of plasma screens, communicating via teleconference. Instead, it involves people coming together in streets and public spaces as well, being aware of each other, sharing information and ideas, making social and economic contact. Far from retrogressive, this new urban paradigm will be forward-thinking and technologically enabled. It will, for example, require new social networking apps aimed at facilitating face-to-face interactions.

This is how prosperous cities have always worked; it is the missing ingredient when cities fail; and it is how future cities will be able to thrive. If the scope of urban policy makers can be widened from a fixation on transport to an appreciation of value-rich urban outcomes, built on the benefits of effective human interaction, then future cities are more likely to be places that meet the expectations of future citizens.

— Tim Stonor, Architect & Urban Planner, Managing Director, Space Syntax

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