The city centre is an emblem of modern society. It is a microcosm of human activity and social cohesion, providing spaces in which we live, work, and play. Amidst rapidly changing shopping and working habits, regeneration, and cost of living pressures, transport will continue to play a vital role in the success of these vibrant spaces - whatever form they take. Aaron Hand, principal transport planner at Hexa Consulting explains.
We are witnessing a distinctive change to the very fabric of 'the city centre'. Vacant shops, increased residential living, and demand for office space were already becoming prevalent factors pre-pandemic, but have certainly accelerated over the past year. Generating up to 60% of the UK's economic output, it is essential that these spaces are nurtured to promote growth and support the prosperity of local people.
A bridge too far
While local issues vary, they compound wider concerns within increasingly uncertain city centre ecosystems. For example, discussions have recently been renewed on the limited crossing points over the River Trent to and from Nottingham after a traffic event caused the closure of a major road bridge.
The social and environmental consequences of congestion are evident - a diminished quality of life for those moving through the city by non-car modes because of noise pollution, air quality, and public amenity. The economic implications are also significant - an Inrix study of 2021 traffic in UK cities highlighted the cost of congestion in Nottingham alone was £65 million. This rises to a staggering £8 billion when considering the impact of congestion on the whole country.
Striking the balance
Another common concern is the attractiveness and consistency of urban public transport networks, particularly outside London, with numerous studies showing the negative impacts of poor connectivity on the socio-economic success of cities and surrounding regions. For example, think tank Centre for Cities found that 67% of commuters in European cities can access city centres in less than 30 minutes by public transport, compared with only 40% in the UK. This leads to diminished job access and productivity, costing the UK a further £23.1 billion each year.
Effective transport systems serving a diverse range of needs should be integrated with welcoming and safe spaces for people. Commuters, visitors, and residents will exert differing demands; therefore, transport infrastructure or policy interventions must be carefully considered.
The problem of how to deal with the balance of these concerns is complex. There is finite availability of space, limited public funding, and competing priorities among stakeholders that must be navigated. Perhaps the most important objective is offering a flexible transport network with genuine choice that enables cities to adapt to challenges they may continue to face. By focusing on non-car and sustainable travel modes, we can achieve more successful city centres and reduce traffic congestion while reinforcing the drive towards a more eco-conscious and sustainable society.
Policy will continue to play a significant role in guiding these improvements, and there are many examples of effective implementation to discourage car use and improve city centres. London's Congestion Charge Zone reduced traffic by nearly a quarter over the previous decade.
Other policy interventions should focus on land use and spatial planning. High-density living within the city centre has widespread benefits such as bringing residents closer to jobs, services, public transport nodes, and removing the need to travel by car, while also enabling greater social inclusion and economic growth.
Developers and their transport consultants need to consider a more detailed focus on pedestrian, cycle, and public transport links. More diverse parking facilities, including Electric Vehicle Charging Points (EVCPs) and high-quality cycle storage that serves a variety of different users can also support this approach.
Infrastructure intervention and prioritising public transport
Physical infrastructure is equally important, and the amount of road space required for single occupant car journey, compared with the number of journeys possible in the same area by public transport, walking, or cycling, paints a stark picture of how underused space can be.
While investment in bridges, car parks and wider roads is essential for city centres, exploring alternative, sustainable ways of achieving is crucial. This reallocation of road space is already successfully being achieved through the increasing popularity of Cycle Superhighways, dedicated bus lanes, and focus on providing attractive pedestrianised routes.
Access to the city centre from those living on the fringes and in surrounding areas needs to be a priority, particularly where commuters do not have access to a car. A long-term decline in public transport patronage has led to a reduction in local authority subsidies and combined with public perception issues, inconsistent service provision, and unreliability, many have been discouraged from favouring public transport.
The Manchester Metrolink is evidence of successfully managing existing infrastructure to promote regeneration across the city, converting former heavy rail lines to accommodate light rail passenger services.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the increasingly divergent needs of city centres. However, a combination of carefully considered policies and assessment of infrastructure reflecting local circumstances, could help to provide a robust, flexible transport network that can respond to the changing nature of these integral spaces.