Transport and the City

Tom Hart. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. SAGE Publications. 2001.

Relationships between transport and cities have a long and complex history, yet the greatest intensity of change has been in the period since 1870. In this period, assisted by cultural and technical change, economic growth and population growth has been concentrated on cities and their regions—with the initial focus on the ‘Western’ world (Western Europe, North America and Australia) spreading to Japan by 1900 and more widely since 1960. The division between an ‘active’ and ‘responsive’ role for transport in an urbanizing and commercializing world remains a controversial issue (SACTRA, 1994, 1998, 1999), yet transport has clearly interacted with cities at three levels:

  • Long-distance (inter-regional/international) transport;
  • Intra-regional transport (including the rise of urbanized regions);
  • Transport within cities.

This chapter concentrates on transport within city regions, but no treatment of cities would be complete unless it examined the extent to which longer-distance transport and communication has been, and still is, capable of influencing their economic fortunes. After considering this topic, the chapter outlines the nature of movement within urbanized areas and relationships with urban form. It then examines the evidence relating to total urban movement and changes in modal share. The following section surveys public policy issues and places movement in the context of governance, individual preferences and cultures. Finally, there is a consideration of future prospects.

Long-Distance Transport and the City

In an influential publication, the geographer Christaller (1933) noted that significant parts of the world had already moved towards commercialized rather than subsistence lifestyles before 1800. This involved increased trade yet the constraints of land transport meant that only a few settlements—unless in exceptionally fertile areas—could exceed 10,000 inhabitants. The high cost and slow speed of transport meant that market towns were about 10 miles apart with most of their trade being with their immediate surroundings. The few higher-value items capable of being traded further afield—salt, silk, spice, precious metals—gave a boost to settlements on the relevant trade routes yet they remained of very moderate size. Using the crude definition of a city as a town of substantially larger size, the cities of 1800 were virtually confined to sites of low transport costs on navigable water or to the capitals of nation states and empires able to use state power, rather than the power of trade, to support a larger population (Chandler and Fox, 1974).

Since the seventeenth century, an enterprising Western world had been appreciating the advantages for existing, and potential, settlements of good access to navigable water and to a rapidly increasing range of roads capable of handling horse-drawn, as distinct from horseback, goods and passenger movement (Goodrich, 1961; Hart, 1983; Thirsk, 1978). River canalization and the creation of separate canals and expanding road networks were seen as a means of enhancing, and defending, the commercial status of cities -allowing them to import and export over wider areas while becoming greater centres for manufacturing and service concentration. Transportation improvements began to be used, not only to increase supplies to these cities, but to place them in a stronger position to become principal interchange hubs and specialist manufacturing centres. Inevitably, such cities could not all achieve the same level of commercial expansion. Some lagged in taking the steps necessary to place them on premier routes while others, though spending heavily on long-distance transport links, achieved lesser success than a few cities with highly favourable locations—for example New York, Chicago—or with the ability to develop manufacturing and service specialisms. Glasgow became a very successful manufacturing city before it had deep-water port facilities. Prior growth gave confidence to invest in improved links to deep water at Greenock and in a gradual deepening of the Clyde. The first Clyde dock in Glasgow did not open until as late as 1870, more than 120 years after a small west of Scotland town had begun to turn into a thriving commercial city.

This ‘chicken and egg’ relationship between cities and longer-distance transport has continued to feature in the rail, motorized road and airport eras which followed on from the early modern revival of interest in long-distance transportation as causes and facilitators of city development. Shipping changes have also been relevant as docks, steamship facilities and warehousing developed to meet trading requirements. Certain cities gained as key hubs for interchange between ocean shipping, rail and barge. Yet efforts to generate or divert demand by building expensive new facilities could have disappointing results. The Manchester economy gained from the commercially suspect Manchester Ship Canal but the net gain to the north-west of England was less (Farnie, 1980). The new 1890s canal moved activity from Liverpool to Manchester rather than boosting total activity in the region. Conversely, the much criticized Port of London remained the leading British port throughout the nineteenth century. However, sensitivity to the heavy involvement of continental cities in port improvement was a factor in the early twentieth century nationalization of the Port of London as part of a larger effort to ensure that Britain kept ahead of continental European rivals. Similar arguments on the importance of keeping ahead in airport provision are a feature of the present debate on the provision of a Fifth Terminal at London Heathrow and can also be found in the USA and Canada from the 1930s.

Such views on the importance of long-distance transport for city economies are replicated in the extensive literature concerning trunk roads and city development (Botham, 1983; Leitch, 1978) and a wider range of studies investigating cities, labour market opportunities, comparative advantage and international competitiveness (Aschauer, 1989; EU, 1993, 1997; McKinnon, 1996; SACTRA, 1998, 1999). Less prosperous cities have sometimes seen the early coming of dual carriageway or motorway links to other regions as an essential part of programmes for regeneration, yet such schemes invariably extend the ‘catchment areas’ and economic power of the already wealthy and well-located cities. Since the 1960s, the appearance of high-speed passenger trains able to average between 100 and 160 mph has produced parallel debates. Should such trains, usually requiring lengthy sections of new route, be provided on well-established inter-urban corridors offering good commercial returns or should route strategy be geared to help improve access to more peripheral cities and regions? Japanese and French high-speed rail policies both reflect this dilemma. Europe offers the added complication that the continuing strength of nation states and their nationalized rail undertakings has inhibited EU efforts to open up a unified and competitive single market for rail transport.

Long-distance rail freight, to a much greater degree than road trucking, has also been inhibited by national rail traditions within Europe. It is only in the past decade that detailed attention has started to be given to developing high-quality cross-border routes on principal international corridors. These are seen as more acceptable than further expansion of trunk motorway capacity. Though some motorway, port and airport proposals remain within the Trans-European Network (TEN) Strategies developed in the 1990s, there has been increased emphasis on major rail infrastructure projects linked with other measures to raise rail efficiency and promote competition and open access on the rail network. New requirements for extensive inputs of private capital and detailed appraisal of scheme costs have led to both a slowing down and longer timescales for the most expensive rail projects. Nevertheless, of the 14 TEN Priority Projects agreed at Essen in 1995,10 involve major improvements on key European rail corridors over the period to 2010. Plans now include cross-Alpine routes, expanded capacity from Germany and northern France to the Mediterranean via the Rhone Valley, new freight routes from Rotterdam and Antwerp into Germany and Eastern Europe and Scandinavian links. Work is also proceeding on the identification of further priority improvements into Eastern Europe and, though high-speed passenger route provision continues to have much greater priority than in North America, there has been recent up-rating of priorities for routes of importance for freight.

North America has seen more resilience in the expansion of high-capacity freight corridors, though rail working practices, a semi-monopoly position for many bulk traffics and the existence of strong road competition have hampered major rail inroads into the higher-value freight market. After years of planning and negotiation, it was only in 1997 that agreement was finally reached on a new freight corridor within Los Angeles allowing Pacific trade to be rail handled to and from US cities without the long delays to both road and rail traffic arising from single track access, with multiple level crossings, to the leading Pacific Coast US port.

This Los Angeles example is a particular instance of the ability of apparently congested cities to continue to grow in their world influence despite major transport problems. On balance, they have net advantages over competing and less congested cities. SACTRA has warned of the dangers and ineffectiveness of trying to use ill-considered transport mega-projects either to boost economies overall or to bring benefits to disadvantaged regions. In sharp contrast to the mega-project fascination of Aschauer (1989), the EU White Paper on Competitiveness (1993) and various national and city governments, SACTRA has raised the possibility that future economic growth and welfare may become more dependent on reducing, not increasing, the physical intensity of movement. This has important implications for future relationships between long-distance transport and competing world cities within a global strategy for sustainable development.

There is likely to be a shift of emphasis from increasing physical volumes of long-distance movement towards providing the quality of service needed to meet ‘value-added’ and environmental requirements—including a large increase in earnings from ‘invisible’ communication. Since the 1850s, longer-distance communication has included the telegraph, soon followed by the telephone and further transformed by the revolution in the quality and cost of longdistance electronic communications since the 1960s. Initially, cities were best placed to take advantage of these expanding networks but -though cities still have advantages—the widening quality networks of the 1990s have eroded some of the special communication advantages of city living and city working.

Longer-distance transport has had, and will continue to have, implications for city development yet the precise implications for particular cities depend on specific circumstances. On the one hand, improvements introduced ahead of demand can create financial/fiscal problems while damaging the economic prospects of cities with less competitive economies than others on the improved corridor unless improvements are part of policy packages that address the issue of relative competitiveness and examine the understated total costs and quality of life perceptions of large cities. (Hart, 1993) On the other hand, prospering cities have often been able to continue to expand with deteriorating quality in longer-distance transport and only moderate investment (relative to city wealth and population) in its improvement. Apart from special cases like the Berlin blockade and other city impacts related to political conditions, there are no examples of the costs and quality of long-distance transport becoming a severe constraint on city growth. Employment in the port areas of cities has suffered from revised labour practices, new shipping/port technology and the ability to shift considerable activity to ports on greenfield sites, but the result has been an overall improvement in distribution of benefit to city regions. Port losses have also been compensated by gains in other job sectors including airport and airport-related employment.

On a broader analysis, it is evident that ‘hub and spoke’ patterns have been working in favour of larger cities. Small cities cannot justify a wide range of direct links to other world cities; they must depend on interchange to international routes at recognized hubs. This applies particularly to containerized freight and to air travel, with a few international long-distance hubs becoming more prominent, for example, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Schipol (Randstad), Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles. Increasingly, airport hubs in regions of high population are being integrated with high-speed rail networks yet total growth in movement, plus regional aspirations for direct flights or status as intermediate hubs, are opening up opportunities for relative falls in the traffic share of existing major hubs (DETR Air Traffic Forecasts). City competition remains strong in seeking to gain the perceived benefits of direct services and credible hub status. One hundred years after the opening of the Ship Canal from Liverpool, Manchester—with a second runaway now open and a widening range of feeder rail services—is consolidating its position as the hub airport for northern England, leaving Liverpool Airport with the crumbs of charter flights and a handful of scheduled services. Similar jockeying for position will be a feature of the future history of ports and airports in the developing world.

The Nature of Movement in Urbanized Areas

The City Role in Transport Networks

While it is evident that long-distance transport had a role in city development both before and after 1870, the relationship between transport and movement within cities and within their regions began to change more rapidly from 1870. While long-distance commerce and contacts were important for the economic vitality of some cities, these activities account for a small proportion of total movement in such cities. The majority of cities were much more involved in trade with their immediate hinterlands or adjacent regions. ‘Home’ markets contributed far more to growth than the hype attached to international trade and, despite the emergence of a more integrated world economy since 1870, the majority of movement—measured by tonne, passenger and vehicle miles -remains internal to city regions. This is especially true of movement by road, as shipping, air and rail is geared to longer distances.

The scale of internality is affected by geography. In urban regions adjacent to other regions and on through routes, only 60 per cent of movement may be ‘internal’ but this can rise to 90 per cent in urban regions at least 200 miles from other urbanized zones. Even if the definition of longdistance is relaxed to include all trips over 25 miles, the great majority of urban area movement is internal. This reflects the historical tendency, backed by the realities of travel time and cost, for most trips to be over short distances with the number of trips falling rapidly as trip length increases (and with a greater proportion of these trips being beyond urban limits).

Smaller cities and towns that lie on major corridors of regional and long-distance movement have higher volumes of through traffic with trunk traffic growth (by both road and rail) causing major problems in addition to local traffic growth. Bypasses can ease these conflicts but, the larger the city, the less likely it is that a bypass can solve problems. In hub cities, too many trips are either internal to the city or involve transit traffic which requires to interchange at airports, ports, rail terminals and other warehousing. This distinction between through traffic (using the same vehicle when moving across cities) and transit traffic (involving at least one interchange) is an important one in the nature of movement. Larger cities are characterized both as transit hubs for longer-distance goods and passenger movement and also as hubs of attraction for substantial intra-regional movement arising from patterns of economic and social activity.

Before 1870, many cities were emerging as focal points of regional commercial networks but this did not yet involve substantial commuting. In Western Europe and North America, city populations were rising rapidly but only a handful had reached the million mark. Even in these, as well as in the burgeoning industrial towns and smaller cities, walking and living close to work were the dominant characteristics.

Transport and City Form

Transport is far from being the sole determinant of city form yet human preferences and available technologies have allowed cities to be influenced by the transport options available in their principal phases of development. Early nineteenth century cities were a mixture of congestion and spaciousness with conflicting tendencies for dispersal and concentration. The lure of available greenfield or riverside sites attracted segments of industry and commerce, as well as housing, away from the congested parts of older cities yet the concentration of jobs in, or close to, the more developed parts of cities encouraged rising working-class housing densities in inner cities. These were still walking and handcart cities apart from an affluent few able to travel by other means.

This situation was changing by the 1860s. Incomes were rising, as was security of employment, while technology was allowing cities—especially in North America and Western Europe—to spread more rapidly in physical area than the rate of growth in city population and city incomes. These cities were moving from populations under 100,000 to over 250,000 and into multi-million status (Chandler and Fox, 1974; Weber, 1899) in association with incomes well above the world average. Yet this spending power did not always translate into middle-class suburbanization at low densities. Anglo-America, helped by high incomes and cultural preferences, moved in this direction but continental Europe (and Scotland) produced many examples of higher density middle-class suburbs extending out from inner zones that remained predominantly middle class and resistant for long periods to downwards filtering to lower status occupation. Working-class suburbanization also expanded with the growth of city populations, again with North America having lower densities than in most of Europe. However, these developments often included substantial local employment on new industrial sites, rather than a marked bias towards commuting to city centres.

The coming of the rail commuter, the urban tram, elevated and underground railways and the twentieth century plethora of motorized road vehicles and specialist roads saw a continuation of the tensions between city concentration and dispersal. It has been argued that the period from the 1860s to the 1920s saw the rise of the star-shaped ‘mass transit’ city, with the city centre and its immediate surrounding becoming the dominant centre of employment and social activity. Residences dispersed, notably in Anglo-America, but city form and patterns of movement were visibly centralizing. The centre capitalized on its high and improving level of accessibility. Building tram and trolley lines ahead of demand was speeding up the spatial expansion of some cities by the late nineteenth century, yet the form of such cities was centralizing, with much development concentrated on what became the central business district (CBD). The fact that the first New York underground (like London’s Hamp-stead tube) had an outer terminal in a greenfield area in no way implied a decentralization of New York. Such routes, and expanding suburban railways, allowed the CBD to capitalize on a high and improving level of accessibility. Elevators and steel frames allowed shops and offices to move upwards, increasing turnover in alliance with the speed and frequency of access permitted by suburban and regional rail and electric tram and trolley networks. Smaller cities, notably in the USA, often had sufficient existing street capacity to avoid gridlock while large cities could keep inner city congestion at bay through elevated railways, undergrounds and some selective street construction, street widening and the provision of road bridges and tunnels. Except for some sacrosanct central parks, few areas of low density survived in central areas. The norm was to intensify site development.

The weight of the evidence on spatial change and patterns of movement does support city centralization but this process was also being helped by pronounced structural shifts in urban employment away from manufacturing towards services yielding high earnings per employee and requiring effective passenger movement rather than intense flows of goods. Shops did require to receive and deliver goods in even larger volumes, but this could be accommodated within a road network having relatively minor improvements.

Yet by no means all the evidence fits a centralizing interpretation. Dispersal of jobs as well as residences was also occurring for two reasons. First, the expansion requirements of buoyant industries and buoyant city economies meant that manufacturing and distribution were looking for new sites avoiding the inefficiency of city centre and port congestion. Belt railways (built beyond the main zone of urban development) meant that existing rail routes could be linked directly and access provided to new port areas. Goods traffic expansion could be handled away from the congestion of existing facilities and could take advantage of purpose-built marshalling yards and docks employing the latest technology. Large establishments, from manufacturing plant through to hospitals and gas and electricity works, could take advantage of direct rail sidings and of the spare land available in outer areas. Even before 1900, many new private sector industrial zones were appearing in the outer areas of larger cities like Berlin, London, Glasgow, Manchester, New York and Chicago. Goods-intensive industry was already moving away from city centres (Hall, 1962) or locating from the start on the outskirts.

The second reason for dispersal was the sheer size of larger cities and the impracticability of accommodating all services in the city centre. Most basic shopping was still done within walking distance and this also applied to schools, pubs, cinemas and other leisure activities (libraries, parks, swimming pools). There were therefore growing opportunities for local service clusters (often developed from previous town centres absorbed as cities grew) as residences spread outwards. Additionally, there were desires for access not only to local employment, but to new industrial areas. This involved significant reverse-commuting (for example, from working-class housing in Glasgow to new shipyards and the massive new Singer factory seven miles down the Clyde) and growing pressure for improved non-radial links. Examination of the tram networks of larger cities by 1914 shows that they fitted web or grid patterns rather than stars. The heaviest flows were still towards city centres but other appreciable flows had also appeared. The multi-centred city was still alive, though on a scale larger than the old multi-centre cities with focal points around their city wall gateways (portals) as well as in parts of their central area.

The tension between a centralized and multi-centred city is well illustrated by pressure group politics in Chicago before the car’s rise to dominance. While city centre business interests favoured upgrading of public transport with a focus on segregated rail access to the city centre, suburban interests were more concerned to improve trolley links to create a denser web (Barrett, 1983). The motor bus, the automobile and the car then proceeded to reshape these tensions in favour of the multi-centred, low density city associated with expressway/ motorway grids rather than stars. Expectedly, this shift was most evident in the USA and in those US cities having their principal growth within the motor vehicle era. Nevertheless, the majority, if not vitually all cities have moved in this direction since 1950. Los Angeles, though seeing much development of the city centre between 1880 and 1920, was widely perceived as the pioneer of a new and desirable city form permitting increasingly car-based lifestyles from the 1920s. Like Chicago and other leading US cities, Los Angeles did consider taking up the option of tram subways and undergrounds to reduce congestion around the city centre, but no finance was forthcoming. The popular view, from a city already well known for low residential densities, was that undergrounds would quickly create pressures for apartment development and higher densities along their route (Fogelson, 1967). Actual decisions therefore favoured expansion of a low density multi-centred city and it is only in the 1990s that Los Angeles has come round to the view that some underground routes may be required. From around 1950, airports have emerged as important new centres for cluster development in the multi-centred city.

In absolute terms, the city centres of the largest cities have continued to show considerable growth (including extensions into adjacent areas such as Canary Wharf in London, La Defense in Paris and the area around the Yamanote loop—originally a belt railway—in Tokyo) but, relatively, they have been losing their share of employment and shopping. Smaller cities, notably in the USA, have seen absolute contraction in their city centres with dereliction and deprivation in adjacent zones even though their city regions may be at least stable, or increasing, in population and economic activity. To mix metaphors, in these doughnut cities, the spider’s web has lost its centre. This brings home the intensity of a change of form away from the typical mass transit city and it has to be stressed that, even in larger cities with growing CBDs and substantial usage of mass transit, city form has also been changing away from a centralized pattern.

Definitions of Urban Areas and Intra-Urban Movement

Before 1870, the absence of commuting aided the distinction between town and country. The boundary between built-up zones and the countryside seemed self-evident even though, legally, city boundaries tended not to keep pace with physical expansion. Nevertheless, a blurring of town and country was beginning to appear with the rise of improved transport, urban sprawl and some signs of multi-centred tendencies within regions. As Weber (1899), Howard (1960) and Geddes (1915) pointed out, this blurring became a more prominent issue from 1890 as transport electrification and the subsequent expansion of the rubber-tyred petrol vehicle transformed the nature of city regions. By 1910, new patterns of conurbations and city regions accounted for some 70 per cent or more of populations in advanced economies with pronounced increases in regional mobility and wider labour market areas. The new pattern accelerated in the inter-war years and achieved even greater momentum from 1945. Conceptually, the city was replaced by metropolitan regions and travel-to-work areas covering huge physical areas compared to the compact cities of 1870. Are the cities of today to be defined on this basis or are they to be restricted to those areas having distinctly higher densities and more evident built-up features than the rest of their regions? Under the former definition, much regional movement (extending to 200 miles or more on urbanized corridors—including some cutting across national boundaries, for example, France/Germany/Switzerland; Belgium/Netherlands) becomes incorporated in urban movement (Hall, 1969); under the latter, cities would be the more compact areas within urbanized agglomerations. Even on this definition, several cities of 50 miles in width could qualify by 1990 compared to a maximum width of 10 miles in 1870.

City Movement and Modal Share

Despite problems relating to basic data and comparability between countries (see Appendix), there is no doubt that an explosion of urban movement has occurred since 1870. This process was well advanced by 1915 and was taken to new heights with the coming of mass motorization. Every statistic confirms that mobility was rising faster than city populations. In New York, fare-paying passengers on local transit rose from 40 million in 1860 to over 400 million in 1892 and 1,100 million by 1912. In the smaller city of Boston, the rise was from 25 million in 1869 to 320 million by 1912 (Cheape, 1980). Similar figures from Europe are recorded in McKay (1976). Buses and cars added to this pattern of growth between the wars with the recession of the 1930s slowing rather than reversing the rate of expansion. In Chicago, all trips (now mainly by car) rose by 87 per cent between 1956 and 1970 while Minneapolis saw a growth of 106.2 per cent between 1949 and 1956 (Meyer and Gomez-Ibanez, 1981). Total car miles in the USA rose by a further 60 per cent between 1970 and 1991 with Europe, from a lower base, attaining even higher growth (Pucher and Lefevre, 1996).

Tables 7.1 and 7.2 use the wide range of available data and some gap-filling assumptions to give a necessarily tentative view of the scale of the total growth in urban movement and shifts in modal share since 1870. The tables highlight differences between North America and Western Europe but no attempt was made to create tables for other world regions. Apart from Australasia and Japan, data for these areas is much less extensive, but regions such as India, China and most of Africa still had a very restricted involvement in mass urban movement by private car, even in 1990. These areas have been moving into mass transit but urban mobility is still far below the levels found in North America, Australasia, Western Europe and Japan and considerably behind levels found in Latin America, South East Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia. In preparing tabular information for 1930 and 1990, separate estimates are included for city travel (using the narrower definition of cities) and for travel within more widely defined urbanized zones. The tables reflect available knowledge of the lifestyles, cultures, real incomes, urban layouts, transport systems and travel patterns in Europe and North America in 1870, 1930 and 1990. The columns in italics estimate total movement by residents of cities and urbanized areas—an increasing proportion of which has been beyond such areas, as leisure and tourism horizons have widened. The other columns combine movement by urban residents in their urban areas with movement by visitors to these areas—also a rising proportion over the period since 1870.

These tables highlight the rise in movement in cities and urbanized regions and also the dramatic shifts in modal share. In North American cities, movement per head of population grew by 200 per cent between 1870 and 1930 and by 95 per cent between 1930 and 1990. The parallel estimates of Western European growth are 150 per cent for 1870-1930 and 80 per cent for 1930-90. In urbanized regions, movement per head doubled in North America between 1930 and 1990 while in Western Europe (from a lower base) growth averaged 140 per cent. Since the total population of urbanized regions was growing rapidly, absolute growth was even more spectacular and produced major investments in city and regional transport. The shift in modal share, boosted by the travel generation impact of the car, also brought large increases in car travel. For urbanized regions, travel per head by car rose 360 per cent in North America between 1930 and 1990 and by 1,400 per cent in Western Europe (reflecting the lower base of Western Europe).

This averaged data conceals large variations between cities. Within North America, the western and southern cities of the US were well ahead in the rise of car ownership and car-oriented regions. Several newer cities were already close to the 1990 American average by 1960. By 1990, cars accounted for some 95 per cent of all person movement in North America’s urbanized regions. In 1964, Meyer, Kain and Wohl were already claiming that very few US cities had any economic need for mass transit and were adapting to handling almost all personal movement in city regions by automobile. Commuting by car was the norm for most city dwellers, while survey after survey indicated that non-work travel had become the strongest sector in movement growth, with very high preferences for car use in urbanized regions. Longer shopping, leisure and other social trips were typical of residents moving into the phase of two and three vehicles per household. Department of Commerce data published for 1990 showed that, in most of the USA, 95-99 per cent of travel to work was by automobile. Between 1970 and 1991, the share of car travel in US personal movement (exclusive of walking and cycling) fell from 86.9 per cent to 80.7 per cent, but this is explained by the rise in domestic air travel from 10.1 per cent to 17.4 per cent. For urban travel, the automobile increased the dominance which it had already established by 1970. Lastly, within North America, Canadian cities tended to be less car-oriented than the US average, though still ahead of trends in Europe.

Table 7.1 Percentage modal share of person movement in cities and urbanized regions 1870-1990

Cities Urbanized regions
North America Western Europe North America Western Europe
1870 1930 1990 1870 1930 1990 1930 1990 1930 1990
Walk/cycle 87 18 3 91 29 10 8 1 20 4
Other private 4 27 88 4 10 71 42 95 11 81
Public transit 9 55 9 5 61 19 50 4 69 15

In Europe and Japan, the conventional view is that urban public transport remained far stronger than in the USA. The statistical evidence supports this viewpoint for 1930 and also confirms a substantial role for walking and cycling. Subsequent evidence, however, points to worldwide involvement in rising per capita car use in urban areas as soon as economic and political circumstances allowed. In Western Europe, car use accounted for almost 80 per cent of all movement in urban regions by 1990. Communism kept car ownership and use in the Soviet Union below normal economic expectations, yet political restraints were being eased from the 1960s and much more rapidly by 1990. Similarly, Communism kept car use in East Germany below the levels of West Germany, yet both areas were moving towards higher use, with East Germany no more than 15 or so years behind the West. This common direction merits more emphasis than any divergences (Hart, 1993, 1994; Pucher and Lefevre, 1996; Simpson, 1987). Despite perceptions of anti-sprawl and pro-public transit attitudes in West European town planning and transport management, income growth, personal preferences and the totality of government decisions allowed the share of car use in urban movement to rise rapidly between 1950 and 1990. Shopping by car became the norm and was associated with multi-centred development of business and retail parks (often with associated leisure and fast food facilities), replicating the American dream. Japan was somewhat more constrained by high population density and limited availability of land for urban expansion, yet here too cars made large gains in their share of movement between 1960 and 1990. The other awakening tigers of South East Asia and a reviving Latin America have shown every inclination to follow these patterns, while India, China and parts of Africa are now experiencing high rates of growth (though still from a small base) in car ownership and usage expectations.

This process has seen many defensive reactions by city centres to protect their position through combinations of public transport and road access improvements, including relatively cheap facilities for short-term car parking. The Buchanan Report on Traffic in Towns, published by the British government in 1963, pointed in this direction but was soon beset by funding problems and community opposition to city motorways. Even at the time of publication, the Report was attacked for an outdated view of urban structure, seeking to perpetuate star cities when the multi-centred approach with spatial expansion and lower densities seemed preferable. Urban motorways and expressways have been built in all advanced countries, yet the costs of building in older cities and the attractions of greenfield sites ensured that most expansion of road capacity was related to the multi-centred urbanized regions.

It made little sense to build high capacity motorways into, and through, city centres when such routes would only be fully used at commuting peaks and when they could deflect lorries from preferred lines of goods movement free of city centre congestion. New alliances of business and government arose which saw greater advantages in more diffuse motorway and principal road improvements opening up greenfield and edge-of-town development prospects. This produced a new generation of beltways which intensified the change in urban structure and, in the end, brought congestion to extending suburbs. The Boston beltway (Route 28) and the M25 around London are among the best-known of these examples, but reshaped urban road strategies around the world were characterized by motorways avoiding city centres but forming part of national networks linking with other roads and with improved access to airports, key ports, greenfield manufacturing, leisure complexes and distribution parks. They became major carriers, and generators, of intra-regional movement by car and lorry.

Freight Movement in Cities and Urbanized Regions

Freight movement has followed a similar pattern to personal movement since 1870, with tonne miles per head of city region population rising and total 1990 volumes well above those of 1870 and 1930. Freight movement in urban areas has been under-researched but, as with person movement, there was some shift towards rail between 1870 and 1930. There was a considerable development of direct sidings into establishments (termed ‘private’ sidings since they were not available for general use by hauliers) and an expansion of public sidings—notably for coal—allowing local deliveries within urban areas. On the other hand, the inflexibility of rail and a low network density meant that the urban road network had still to bear most of the burden of collection and delivery in addition to handling the many goods trips generated entirely within urban areas. This was a factor in several road schemes, for example, the improvement of river crossings in urban areas and priorities for roads improving access to docks and major rail terminals and associated warehousing. It was significant that the inter-war Mersey Road Tunnel at Liverpool included dock branches.

By 1930, the motor truck was having the dual effect of increasing the attraction of industrial zones suited to lorry movement and of generating new opportunities to use lorries and vans for intra-city and regional movement. Rail was soon losing ground in its share of urban and regional freight movement. This became a rout from the 1960s. Local rail freight virtually disappeared, with extensive closure of both private and public sidings. More efficient and heavier lorries, assisted by improving national road networks, made deep inroads into longer-distance freight and generated their own additional flows to and from edge-of-town and out-of-town sites geared to lorry use and easy motorway access. Central congestion and the physical problems of accommodating larger and longer lorries in city lanes accentuated this process. The rundown of coal deliveries and of raw material-intensive industries (steel, heavy engineering) reduced flows in some cities, but these had been mainly by rail or water. The pressure of goods traffic on city roads therefore increased and became greater as trips lengthened, both for heavy lorries and for the lighter lorries and vans in high demand as city economies moved into higher-value added sectors. Much heavier lorries, arising from the 5-12 tonne range of 1930 to 38-50 tonnes by 1990, reduced the vehicle miles needed to carry any given volume of goods but this reduction was overwhelmed by the total increase in heavy lorry traffic, the rise of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) distribution and the buoyancy of the van/estate car sector. Larger boots and the shift to estate/hatchback cars also allowed private cars to become substantial goods carriers in their own right. It became impractical to carry larger volumes of packaged and frozen shopping on foot or by public transport; cars and a new generation of 4-wheel drive private carriers began to carry shopping and items as diverse as furniture, garden rubbish, bicycles and a multiplying range of sports, hi-fi and computing equipment—not to mention babies and their attached paraphernalia! The expanding road network, always important for localized goods movement, had become integral to the vast majority of urbanized area goods movement by the 1980s.

Urban Transport, Public Policy and Private Markets

Urban transport offers a unique interface between public policy and private markets. Interfaces exist between other aspects of public policy and markets, as in topics such as education, economic development, unemployment, housing, crime, social cohesion, health and quality of life, but transport impinges on all of these issues and has been a very visible and multi-faceted example of a subject attracting strong views from influential sections of society. The facts of the mushrooming growth of city movement and the emergence of multi-million urban agglomerations reinforced the importance of transport. In examining the resulting interface, a three-strand approach has been adopted. After an overview of shifting relationships between public policy and private markets, governmental structures for handling urban transport are considered and this is followed by categorization of current objectives, issues and responses.

The Relationship between Public Policy and Private Markets

Before 1870, there was already an extensive local government involvement in the provision and regulation of streets. In some cases, this extended to ports and contributions to rail development but it was the private sector and/or central and federal governments which had been more involved in provision of the capital for national rail and port infrastructure which was being superimposed on city transport networks. Central government interest was also extending into the sphere of railway safety and transport tariff regulation.

From 1870 onwards, however, urban governments sought a greater say as city expansion intensified transport needs and raised other issues of social concern. Just one example of the latter was the housing demolitions associated with the extension of major rail lines closer to city centres. This led to an expansion of pressures on central government, the extension of local regulation—for example, tram company franchises, bye-laws on street widths, a growing debate on housing, transit and planning—and direct involvement in tramway construction, tramway operation and improvement of the road and bridge network. Mixes of public and private finance were common but the tendency was towards stronger transport planning initiatives by local government and to a large increase in municipal ownership of local mass transit. From around 1900, the need for wider areas for transport planning became recognized and this was followed by considerable interest in regional land-use planning, further bolstered by the rise of road motorization. Prior local authority involvement in the provision or improvement of urban road arteries led to extensive and continuing involvement in road investment through to the 1980s apart from wartime gaps. Except for the USA, lower car ownership allowed extensive city public transit systems to stay viable into the 1950s and there was expansion of privately operated bus services in the outer parts of urban regions. Nevertheless, transit could not generate sufficient funds to finance investment in rail and subway systems. Operating and capital subsidies became a large element in urban transit finance from the 1950s. In the urban USA, large cuts occurred in urban services yet subsidy requirements rose. Many urbanized areas found themselves without any local transit other than school buses funded from separate sources. In continental Europe, service cuts were less extensive but support requirements rose to 70 per cent or more of total turnover. Britain occupied a middle position with some cuts, higher fares and comparatively modest levels of subsidy.

While income and expenditure accounts made increasing levels of financial support for public transit transparent, no similar accounts existed for road infrastructure. The near unanimous view was that spending on roads was beneficial and that there was no need to apply the accounting techniques used in public transit. Indeed, many local governments would have preferred to invest more in roads, being constrained only by central government rulings or insufficient sources of local income. In both North America and continental Europe, fares came to yield 40 per cent or less of the income required to maintain and improve urban public transit. For a time, there was wide political acceptance of such levels of support alongside high levels of road spending but attitudes began to change from the later 1960s. Set in the context of weakening economic growth and constraints on public spending, a more critical approach to all transport spending began to appear. Stronger proof was sought of the economic and social benefits arising from transit support while major road schemes began to be compared with alternative spending packages and/or reduced taxation. There was disenchantment with the impact of interventionist, high-spending government (both national and local) and new interest in economic deregulation, privatization, competition and a return to mixes of public and private finance with appreciable transfers of risk to the private sector. Transport has become a leading sector in this general shift of opinion, which has also been linked with the death of blueprint planning and the rise of the partnership approach and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). Additionally, parts of North America—notably California—became conscious of new types of auto-related air pollution while, by the 1970s, the oil price hikes and rising US imports of oil drew further attention to energy issues and transport.

Governing Structures and Urban Transport

The discussion above reveals tensions between local government and higher tiers. Two of these require elaboration. The first is the tension over finance and control of total public spending. By and large, central government aspired to a larger role in influencing the finance available to local government and actual patterns of spending. In Europe, local government became more dependent on higher proportions of revenue and capital spend coming from central government and financed from national taxation and central borrowing.

Particular urban transport projects and policies therefore became more dependent on the attitudes of national (and federal) governments. While continental European governments have been supportive of spending on all transport modes, the UK government has been less supportive and especially keen to reduce public funding for public transit and to shift major investments—as in airports, ports and the Channel Tunnel—into the private sector. There was a brief British experiment from 1909 with road taxation earmarked for road spending but the Road Fund was soon raided by the Treasury and abolished within 20 years. Following the UK, continental Europe has been moving towards tighter control over both capital and revenue subsidies for transport with a major growth of interest in opportunities for direct road pricing and other transport-related taxation (EU, 1995, 1998; A New Deal for Transport, 1998).

In North America, political philosophies allowed a greater role for local taxation and local referenda on borrowing and related tax increases to finance transport projects (Dunn, 1981). The US and Canadian federal governments helped some urban road schemes, treating them as part of interstate highway systems, while the US government gave limited finance towards urban public transport from the 1960s (Meyer and Gomez-Ibanez, 1981). However, most public funding for urban transport has come from state and local government gasoline and sales taxes, often with direct links to the funding of public bonds related to specific schemes.

Though several US state boundaries cut across urbanized areas, states were generally able to take wider views of transport needs than the increasingly fragmented urban government which became typical of twentieth century North America. Lesser problems of fragmentation appeared in Europe but could be eased by central government funding strategies. Even so, led by London and New York, demand increased for structures that could take an overview of transport needs in metropolitan regions. Advisory Regional Plans multiplied in the inter-war period and were sometimes associated with Executive Authorities for Public Transit. The innovative London Passenger Transport Board was created in 1933 but as an instrument of central government, not the existing London County Council. The LPTB covered a larger area than the LCC but the issues of whether such Boards should be off-shoots of central government or responsible to regionally elected councils or representative joint boards has been a recurrent theme (Smith, 1974). A less discussed, but more important, theme now appearing in urban transport debates is whether Regional Boards covering all strategic aspects of land use planning, road provision, road management and public transit are now required. Despite criticisms of planning and the dismantling of upper-tier local government in Britain, there is widespread recognition that, for transport and land use issues, a strong case exists for a strategic approach to encourage regional efficiency and confidence in partnership development (RCEP). The new consensus is that such Boards should not be directly involved as owners of operating companies but views are divided on whether they should be non-elected or imbued with democratic accountability and given direct responsibility for transport charging. Very recently, the UK has become a convert to the regional hypothecation of tax revenues and road pricing for transport purposes. In a significant policy change, Gordon Brown, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in 1999 that automatic ‘escalator’ increases in road fuel taxation would be replaced by increases earmarked for transport spending. Enabling powers for local road pricing have also been included in UK legislation.

Changes in structures, boundaries and financing arrangements have played a part in the competency—or lack of it—in the tactical and strategic administration of transport in urbanized regions. None the less, theoretically attractive structures cannot be seen in isolation from the vested interests of established groups; nor can they guarantee political leadership, competent staff and freedom from corruption. In any final analysis, the relationship between structures and actual performance has to be taken into account. This cannot be done without examination of policy objectives in urban transport, the effectiveness of their implementation and monitoring and their relationship with the reality of urban aspirations.

Policy Issues and Urban Transport

The policy issues affecting contemporary urban transport, and possible responses, can be summarized under the broad headings of social issues, economic issues and issues related to integration, policy-making, application and monitoring. With Europe and North America as pioneers, there has clearly been a shift from objectives primarily concerned with economic growth and equating it with increased mobility to a more penetrating assessment of the economic role of urban accessibility and its linkages with social objectives and desires for improvement in the local, regional and global environment. Within this chapter, it is only possible to give a flavour of these shifts in policy priorities and in instruments of implementation.

Economic Issues

Objective Ensure efficient movement covering costs and catering for present and future requirements.


  • Leave to private competitive market.
  • Adjust imperfect market by regulation (including possible support for monopoly or protected franchises/partnerships in urban transit operation), by fiscal and charging reforms and by compensating subsidy to cancel out market distortions.
  • Adjust boundaries and powers of public bodies to improve quality of decision-taking on urban/regional transport and related issues, e.g. land use policies.
  • Develop modelling techniques (covering all movement, not just road traffic) to test future options.
  • Improve management of existing urban networks and trunk interfaces, e.g. clearways, parking regulations, priority lanes for buses/lorries/high occupancy cars, controlled entry/exit points, traffic calming, supplementary licences, congestion pricing; intensify rail and airport runway use (with extra terminal capacity where needed); improve peak-period car occupancy and encourage shifts to off-peak periods.

Objective Use transport policies to promote development or to lessen threats to established cities or CBDs.


  • Research/lobbying to decide whether main economic benefit lies in using transport to give boost to region as a whole or to give priority to CBD.
  • Compare transport options with other options for aiding growth or regeneration.
  • Construct transport facilities and/or raise quality of service ‘ahead of demand’ in order to boost local/regional economy relative to competing areas.
  • Examine partnerships to share costs and risk; compare benefits/costs of ‘mega-projects’ with larger numbers of smaller projects and promotional activities/training in sectors other than transport.

Objective Integrated transport, land use, fiscal and pricing policies to promote sustainable cities, that is, with long-term economic viability, a high quality of life and reduced emissions.


  • National/international guidelines and research on patterns of urban settlement, transport pricing and taxation most likely to promote sustainable regional economies, environmental quality and increased reliance on renewable and recycled resources (contributing to targets for absolute cuts in local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions).

Social Issues

Objective To reduce transport fatalities and injuries per head of population.


  • To provide segregated routes and target blackspots.
  • To reduce speeds and influence awareness.
  • To improve quality of regulations and improve enforcement.
  • To extend pedestrian priorities, ‘safe routes to school’.

Objective To reduce transport crime, intimidation and vandalism.


  • To improve lighting and encourage higher pedestrian presence.
  • To eliminate blackspots and improve policing, surveillance, awareness.
  • To adapt building design and street/path layouts.
  • Rapid removal of evidence of vandalism and other ‘zero tolerance’ approaches.
Local Environment and Health

Objective To prevent and reverse, deterioration in environmental and health standards due to increasing and more intrusive movement and reduced levels of physical exercise in normal daily routines.


  • Reduce noise at source and at points of hearing, for example, altered surfaces, noise baffles, double-glazing, quieter roads and rail vehicles, quieter engines and revised takeoff/landing procedures; bans on night flights, regulation of lorry routes and heavy lorry bans from designated streets; extended use of urban-area tunnels.
  • Expand traffic segregation and/or reduce traffic levels and speeds.
  • Reduce localized air pollution through changes in vehicle design (reducing emissions from oil-based engines and shifting to vehicles either free of emissions or free at the point of use); supplementary measures to remove gross polluters already in the fleet; effective enforcement of emission regulations; reductions in localized traffic levels (by reducing total traffic or by creation of alternative smooth-flow routes away from pollution blackspots); reduce levels of congestion.
  • Reduce stress through the extension of pedestrianization, traffic-calming, park and ride.
  • Avoidance of further major road construction generating extra traffic in association with creation of substantially improved conditions for the use of public transit, walking and cycling.
  • Reversing health deterioration arising from the combined effects of transport-related stress/noise/air pollution and reductions in regular physical activity arising from car-based lifestyles by educational and travel awareness programmes seeking to include increased levels of walking, cycling and public transport use within daily routines for travel for work, school, shopping and leisure purposes.
  • Carrot-and-stick measures to improve the relative quality and lower the perceived costs of public transit, walking and cycling.
The Global Environment

Objective Increasing the contribution of urban transport and planning to reducing global damage arising from greenhouse gas emissions and other wasteful (and habitat-destroying) uses of scarce resources.


  • Raise fuel efficiency in transport, expand use of renewable fuels, increase recycling and adopt policy shifts to encourage sustainable lifestyles and settlement patterns with reduced demand for intrusive movement.
  • Examine trade-offs where reduced energy demand in sectors other than transport may lessen the need for reduced energy use in transport with investigation of similar tradeoffs within transport (main outcome is likely to be use of absolute cuts in car and trucking use to facilitate higher energy consumption in the air sector).

Objective Ensure that transport policies promote equity and social inclusion.


  • Adjust policies to ensure that neither low income, age, sex, location (e.g. in urban pockets difficult to serve by conventional public transit) nor physical disability is an excessive deterrent to access to facilities.
  • Ensure that above groups are not disadvan-taged in policies to enhance safety and environmental quality.
  • Adjust vehicle, building and interchange design to ensure easy access and high standards with those having hearing and eyesight impairment.
  • Adjust policies to give greater support to the provision of local facilities within easy walking distance and offering goods and services at reasonable prices.
  • Adjust policies to ensure that the terms and conditions of workers in urban transport compare not unfavourably with other urban workers.
  • Adjust policies to ensure that richer urban regions contribute more to programmes for national and global equity.

The listing of these policy areas and potential responses demonstrates that reactions to the problems and opportunities of increased urban movement can contain large elements of partial or ‘ad hoc’ responses and conflict between objectives, for example, increasing transport speeds and capacity can increase the severity of accidents while often generating so much extra use of road space that congestion reappears with traffic speeds falling at peak periods. One example from the numerous cases of the traffic generation phenomenon was the reappearance of congestion on Paris streets within 20 years of the early twentieth-century construction of the Metro system. This example was repeated on the M25 around London and the Paris Périphique in the 1990s. Other recent conflicts have included those between safety, improved air quality and energy conservation cutting CO2 emissions from transport. In-car safety demands (and improved in-car equipment) have tended to increase car weights while catalytic convertors have reduced energy efficiency (and also have a poor performance in reducing health-threatening pollutants in those first few miles which form the majority of urban trips). Though some progress has been made in cutting units of noxious pollution per vehicle mile in urban areas, the stop-start nature of urban traffic, its continuing increase and only moderate gains in fuel efficiency have resulted in higher CO2 emissions from urban transport. The ‘simple’ solution of encouraging a shift from petrol to more fuel-efficient diesel vehicles has produced its own problem of unacceptable increases from particulates damaging health.

On the whole, such conflicts were not serious public policy issues between 1870 and a varied selection of twentieth-century dates depending on the city under study. Between 1870 and the 1950s, there was both conscious and tacit consensus that the economic gains of spatially expanding urbanized areas with improving transport also brought immense social gains and desired lifestyles. Apart from safety and tendencies to congestion, city transport created few social problems. Underpinned by rising incomes, the lower residential densities and improving diet found in the expanding city regions of advanced economies greatly reduced the intensity of former health problems and offered many desirable areas of new housing. As higher-income residents moved outwards, most other residents gained from the trickle-down factor despite pockets of poor housing. In some cities, these ‘pockets’ were more extensive with several urban and national governments adopting more interventionist policies to provide greenfield working-class housing and accelerating the demolition and renewal of inner city slums. In certain cities, poor links between greenfield housing, ancillary facilities and city transport caused social problems but the dominant trend was to integrate transport and land use developments (Gallion and Eisner, 1963). More mobile urban residents and commercial firms released from the constraints of horse-drawn transport were the integrated expression of both economic and social gains.

With respect to safety, there was initial deterioration caused by unfamiliarity with higher speeds and the mixing of pedestrians with faster-moving vehicles which could also collide with each other. In larger cities, the ability to segregate higher speed traffic, firstly on reserved route railways and, increasingly from the 1930s, also on special purpose roads, worked to reduce accidents per mile of urban movement. But the most spectacular achievement was the marked reduction of accident rates per miles travelled on multipurpose urban roads. This reflected the adjustment of walking standards and driver behaviour to the new conditions of higher speeds plus the impact of an extended range of research and policy measures directed towards improving safety. Despite the huge increase in the volume of urban road movement since 1930, many cities have achieved—not only cuts in accident rates per miles moved—but absolute reductions in urban road deaths and injuries. The record of North American, UK and Scandinavian cities has been particularly impressive. Remaining debates affect issues such as ‘could do even better’ and concerns at inequity in the distribution of accident savings. Advocates of the health benefits of walking and cycling have noted that the fall in casualties for these modes has reflected a collapse in the relative attraction of walking and cycling rather than large cuts in accident rates per urban mile walked or cycled.

Safety improvement was evident by the end of the 1930s and became yet more prominent from the 1960s. Other social gains evident by 1930 included the disappearance of horse droppings from urban streets, the spread of asphalt in place of noisy and uneven stone sets and the apparently fume-free and quiet nature of motorized and rubber-tyred road traffic. Cross-subsidy also allowed regulated urban tram, rail and bus services to meet equitable objectives without need for direct subsidy.

This fortunate coincidence of economic and social objectives was to come under greater threat as car and lorry traffic intensified after the Second World War. Extensive and low-cost public transit became less feasible without direct subsidy while vocal claims were made that the apparent economic benefits of increasing mobility in urbanized regions were eroded or eradicated if proper allowance was made for the full costs of movement. The anti-car camp argued, not only for full evaluation of total costs and benefits, but also for a higher political weighting for equity and for costs and benefits not readily converted to a monetary basis. Their preference was for compact cities rather than sprawling urban regions (Sherlock, 1991). Professional support for this line of argument came in the wake of the massive oil price hike of the mid-1970s, more cautious views of the ability to apply ‘technical fix’ and rising national and city treasury concerns that public funding for transport was becoming unsupport-able. Even where there was an apparent surplus from urban transport taxation, it did not follow that city and national economies would achieve their greatest gains from ploughback of this funding into major roads. A green/gold alliance (Goodwin, 1992 and 1993) of environmentalists and economists meant that other policy options, including lower taxation and public borrowing, as well as redirected taxation, gained in attraction (Mulgan and Murray, 1993). Though oil prices fell back in the 1980s, the momentum for reassessment of the role of transport in urban areas was maintained by strengthened concerns about localized pollution, global warming, threats to biodiversity and the medium- to long-term economic threats to a sustainable world economy from failure to reduce population growth and raise efficiency and recycling in the use of finite physical resources (Rio Earth Summit, 1992). Traffic degeneration (reducing the need for intrusive movement) made its appearance as an issue (Adams, 1992) while some governments and businesses began to find political and economic benefits in being more supportive of green agendas. In 1990, an advisory report to the Dutch government (Netherlands Travelling Clean, 1990) urged joint improvement of the environment through absolute cuts in car use while actual changes of direction, rather than talk, began to enter transport programmes in Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the UK.

The issue of whether such developments had produced radical new trends in urban transport by 1990 is much more open to debate. Driven by popular sentiment and aspirations for economic growth, developing countries seek higher mobility while North Americans have been reluctant to move from car-dependent urban lifestyles. Though some absolute revival in North American urban transit has taken place since the 1970s, the automobile continued to increase its already high share of urban movements during the 1980s. After a slight fall in the 1970s, in the USA the average annual kilometres per car rose from 14,080 in 1980 to 17,100, by 1991, while total car ownership also continued to grow. The bulk of this growth was in sprawling and decentralized urbanized regions. With increased total populations in such regions and problems in expanding expressway capacity on some corridors, US urban transport commentators became a little more optimistic about prospects for public transit growth but were highly critical of the possibility of any significant shift from cars to public transit (Meyer and Gomez-Ibanez, 1981). In particular, there was strong criticism of the ability of both revived urban rail investment and operating subsidies to have any marked influence on urban modal share. Measures to expand bus and rail usage attracted rather less criticism yet were seen as peripheral to the main urban agenda. Equity has never been a prominent consideration in US policy and the perceived central issues of tackling air pollution and congestion were seen as being made tolerable through emission legislation and pushes towards car sharing and reserved lanes for buses and high occupancy cars at peak periods. The road system continued to have ample capacity for accommodating off-peak traffic and it was such traffic which was exhibiting the highest rates of growth in car use. Proposals to hike gasoline taxes to European levels or to move towards electronic pricing on congested roads were so unpopular that they received little attention. A small revival of toll roads became apparent in the USA during the 1980s but principally in the sphere of inter-urban traffic. Substantial proportions of ‘gas’ taxes continued to finance road improvement and longer-term concerns over oil costs and global warming were seen as containable through big increases in automobile fuel efficiency, the development of alternative fuels and some substitution of movement by information technology.

In contrast, policy rhetoric in Europe saw greater scope for integrating all policies affecting transport in ways which could reduce the demand and need for intrusive movement while attaching greater weight to the importance of social inclusion (EU Citizens Network, 1995; UK Consultation on Integrated Transport, 1997; Transport White Paper, 1998; SACTRA, 1999; UK Consultation on Climate Change Programme, 2000; RCEP Report, 2000; Transport 2010, 2000). These views can be traced to the more interventionist traditions of Europe, higher population densities, more constrained expansion opportunities around cities and the seminal thinking of Ebenezeer Howard and other writers from the 1890s. Offended at lengthening trips to work and the social and economic inefficiency of the monster city of London, Howard argued in his Garden Cities of Tomorrow, that planned satellite towns for resident, work and leisure could produce a better urban region with less need for movement. In reality, his concept was hijacked and became the automobile-based vision of a multi-centred urban utopia with the relative self-sufficiency of satellite towns being replaced by extensive cross-commuting throughout urban regions. Yet the essence of his idea was to accommodate urban growth and social improvement by arranging transport and land uses to reduce the need for movement. This concept resurfaced in the 1930s when London Passenger Transport Board’s plans for a general outwards expansion of commuting into London came in conflict with the notion of a Greenbelt which, as part of other objectives, would restrict the growth of trip lengths.

Post 1945, the continued desires for city expansion either involved rejection of city greenbelts or a leapfrogging of greenbelt boundaries. In both cases, the pro-mobility ethos prevailed and it was not until the 1970s oil crises that there was a revival of the view that land use and transport planning could be redirected to reduce the need and demand for movement (Transport Policy, British Transport White Paper, 1977). Nevertheless, pro-mobility views were soon in the ascendant again in Europe with acceleration of fringe-of-town and out-of-town developments and with Britain and France taking the lead. Not till the 1990s was the topic of helping the economy and society by reducing the need for urban movement revisited. Since the Rio and Kyoto Earth Summit, there has been a greater emphasis in Europe on establishing practical guidelines for transport and land use planning, reducing the need for movement and reinforced by measures to change fiscal and pricing strategies to reflect commitments to sustainable economic expansion and enhancements in urban quality of life. There has been a hardening of attitudes towards greenfield encroachment while, at the same time, attention has been given to positive measures to enhance existing city and suburban centres, bring brown-field sites back into use and encourage greater reliance on public transit, walking and cycling. The legacy of many European developments in the American direction, business attitudes supportive of space (including parking space) and many continuing incentives for individual use of cars have diluted the strength of changing policies. Nevertheless, compared to US urbanized regions with as little as 5 per cent of movement by green modes, Europe retains many cities and relatively compact regions where green modes account for 20 per cent of all person movement with higher shares in the inner areas of compact cities and higher still shares for peak travel to and from city centres. Despite considerable convergence, real differences remain in the movement patterns of North American and European cities and regions.


The principal conclusion from this study of urban transport since 1870 is the emergence of the feature of urban movement increasing faster than rates of growth in regional incomes in a period when cities themselves (including their surrounding zones) were forming a rising proportion of total national populations in Europe, North America and Australasia i.e. a growth of transport intensity within such cities and in their external links, especially in relation to personal movement. Five subsidiary conclusions can also be drawn. These are:

  • The linking of consumer preferences and technology to give an unparalleled increase in total movement, average trip lengths and in movement per head with related spatial expansion and market intensity within integrated urbanized regions of far greater scale than in 1870.
  • The continuing importance for cities and regions of an ability to ‘trade’ with the wider world, including a growing emphasis on trade in tourism, other services and electronic communication.
  • The movement generation impact of the ability of several relatively backward regions of 1870 to begin to emulate, and sometimes outpace, those cities and regions already economically advanced.
  • The need to balance the evidence of city centralization (and growth of CBDs) against the substantial data, becoming more telling in the age of the auto and truck, revealing dispersal of activities within urbanized regions.
  • A shift in the balance of governmental concerns towards regional structures and away from a narrowly defined growth agenda to greater involvement in regional competitiveness and in social and environmental issues—of which many have a transport dimension.

These apparently clear conclusions conceal considerable variety within, and between, urbanized regions and considerable disputes on future trends and on the relationships between urbanization and transport of urbanization. The data on urban movement and modal share confirms substantial variation by broadly-defined world regions with peaks of car use in North America and Australasia compared with lesser levels of car intensity in Western Europe and Japan down to very low levels of car use in many African, Indian and Chinese cities. Table 7.3 indicates varied patterns in Europe and North America.

While geography and variations in real income influence Table 7.3, it also points to the importance of other factors—such as the precise nature of urban forms, culture and fiscal/pricing arrangements—in producing variations between countries. For example, Germany—with higher average incomes and higher car ownership than Britain—has appreciably lower use of cars and higher use of public transport. Higher income, but lower density Sweden also emerges with lower car use than Britain, slightly higher rail use and substantially higher bus use. Though not apparent in Table 7.3, other evidence (Pucher and Lefevre, 1996) confirms that North American cities are far from homogenous. Greater levels of public transport use, walking and cycling exist in Canadian cities and in selected US cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and the Pacific North West.

Further research on these topics is needed to improve understanding of how policies might be adapted to encourage less movement and a decoupling of traffic growth from economic growth. SACTRA (1998) has described this issue as that of reducing transport intensity (that is, movement relative to GDP), while Adams calls it a process of trip degeneration (that is, a reduction in average trip lengths within, and to and from, urban areas). This thinking also has connections with reappraisals of national accounting practices to reflect resource inputs and quality of life considerations. The literature is this area has become extensive (Atkinson, 1997; Banister, 1998; Pearce and Warford, 1993; Whitelegg, 1993), with conclusions that present practices make insufficient allowance for resource depletion and quality of life evaluations. This new research agenda is receiving attention in North America as well as in other world regions. The SACTRA Final Report (1999) was more cautious about the value of the concept of ‘transport intensity’, but did conclude that city and city region economies (and their environmental quality) could gain from policy measures to reduce road traffic at congested times. The UK government has accepted this view (Transport 2010, 2000).

Table 7.3 Estimated annual passenger kilometres per person, North America and selected European countries, 1992-1995

Car 18,130 17,032 10,088 11,311 8,666 9,202 10,729
Bus 122 681 757 736 829 1,258 814
Rail 51 38 505 1,017 753 663 1,728
Population per km2 3 28 247 106 228 20 169
Cars/1000 people 486 513 374 430 489 404 452

Note: These figures are for total movement by car, bus and train in each country but, since air has become the main means of longer-distance movement, they can be used as broad proxies for urbanized zone movement subject to some deductions to reflect rural travel.

Source: M. Bunting, ‘Developments in Canadian passenger transport’, Transport Economist, 25, Spring 1998

Concepts and Future Trends

While local factors will continue to offer variety in urban forms and urban movement, this new research is part of an evolving debate on the nature of world urbanization and the global economy. For some, there is a new logic and morality requiring a shift towards denser and less energy-intensive urban areas in the ‘advanced world’ bringing an equitable convergence in the transport patterns and lifestyles of sustainable world cities. Others see such a process, if taking place at all, occurring over a protracted time period with many continuing divergences between Europe, North America and the rest of the world. There is no consensus on the pace of urban transport trends within a globalization of economic, environmental and political issues.

North America

North America stands out as an area with a strong attachment to political systems, attitudes and uses of technology allowing continued high levels of urban car use. The modified American dream, to which many in Europe and the rest of the world also aspire, is of an ability of technology and open markets to respond to the challenge of sustainable development in ways allowing further spatial expansion of urbanized and commercialized zones so that the vast majority of national populations could be accommodated in decentralized, auto-based, low density urban forms far removed from the typical town and city of 1870. The ‘market’ would be influenced by strong doses of environmental regulation, bringing absolute reductions in emissions in America without any need to reduce movement but also including trade-off permits allowing the USA to meet international targets by helping to accelerate reductions in other countries.

Despite present US (and Australian) reservations about accepting steeper targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, it seems probable that, at some stage, the US will accept that its own economic advancement and world competitiveness will depend on greater advances in energy efficiency, the development of alternative fuels and resource conservation. This may involve new measures to prevent gains from fuel efficiency being lost by further growth in movement, yet such measures need not imply radical change in a US urban pattern that is already well established and can only be changed incrementally. Following the 1970s oil crises, the US did use legislation to cut oil consumption in surface transport by introducing higher standards of fuel efficiency for new cars and by enforcing 55 mph speed limits. This led to an improvement in average mpg from 13.5 in 1970 to 21.7 by 1991. Weaker policies in the 1990s and further urban sprawl eroded these gains, yet new research to expand alternative fuels and to achieve an average of 60 mph with conventional fuels has been seen as removing the need for radical action to restructure urban areas towards greener modes and less movement (Rocky Mountain Institute research quoted in OECD, 1996).

Coupled with extended car-sharing, market-based public transport improvements, IT developments reducing the need for movement, stabilized populations and some shifts to shorter work and other trips within decentralized conurbations, this scenario suggests a near stabilization of road traffic levels in most North American urbanized areas within the next 20 years but no great change in present urban forms. In any case, car ownership and use is already so high that there is no scope and no economic justification for repeating the level of North American car growth achieved between 1930 and 1990. Under the modified American dream, average modal share for cars in urbanized North American regions may fall from 95 per cent in 1990 to around 80-85 per cent by 2020, though with total urban car miles being higher than in 1990. This, however, is still a substantial change from 1930-90 trends, reinforced by a stabilizing population. Air miles, between cities and to tourism areas, would continue to rise.


In Europe, prospects for larger shifts away from urban car miles and car use seem more likely for a variety of reasons, including resurgence of a European ‘urban’ tradition and legacy which has remained despite the attraction of car-dominated American lifestyles. Unlike America, there is now greater interest in reducing urban vehicle miles and in reshaping land use policies to encourage shorter trips and higher shares of movement on foot, by cycle and by public transport.

While the Netherlands Travelling Clean target of a 75 per cent cut in car use over 25 years (1985 to 2010) looks unattainable and lacking in a dynamic view of technology, other research has confirmed the feasibility of helping city economies and raising their quality of life through 20 per cent cuts in car vehicle miles over 12 years (Sustainable Transport Study for Aberdeen, 1998). The Interim and Final Report of SACTRA (1998,1999) to the UK government has stressed the economic and social advantages of quick action to reduce congestion by raising the marginal cost of road use. There has also been clear evidence of a new impetus within Europe to introduce higher charges for urban road use, with most of the proceeds becoming locally available for projects other than increases in road capacity. Heavy emphasis has been placed on public transport improvement, on green travel plans, brownfield development (raising urban densities) and on careful links between transport networks and greenfield development to ensure higher reliance on public transport, walking and cycling than in many developments typical of the 1960-95 period. Home delivery services and the rise of Internet shopping are also likely to affect the volume of shopping movement by car.

Lastly, the value-added rather than resource-quarrying base of the European economy and the much higher population density than in North America has created greater awareness of environmental issues and of the possibility of growth via business and government strategies stressing value-added, resource conservation (including steeper cuts in greenhouse gases) and recycling. The ‘Knowledge Age’, with a huge expansion of electronic communication, is eroding the pattern of ever-increasing physical movement which characterized the period from 1870 to 1990.

As in North America, urbanized regions are likely to increase their share of a stabilizing total population to around 90 per cent, but in the European case, these urban regions will account for 90 per cent or more of the land area of many countries. Yet the character of these urbanized regions seems likely to diverge, rather than converge, with North America. The regions will continue to include commuting, shopping and leisure hinterlands around the built-up areas but with a higher proportion of ‘urban region’ populations in relatively compact settlements and considerably greater reliance than in America on improved and expanded public transport for trips to and from the hinterlands and between overlapping urban regions. Within built-up areas, urban design and transport networks will also be much more favourable to walking, cycling and public transport use with an expected development of relatively self-contained ‘city villages’ (with housing, employment, shopping and leisure) within larger cities. Some expansion of ‘car-free’ and ‘car-reduced’ housing is already evident.

The extensive research conducted for the UK Climate Change Programme (2000) and the latest RCEP Report (2000) have concluded that transport is a sector of major importance in cutting CO2 emissions. The RCEP stresses the need for cuts of around 60 per cent by 2050 but avoids specifying what this might mean for passenger miles. Further research on alternative fuels and energy efficiency will affect outcomes but indications are that it will prove easier to stabilize air travel and cut longer-distance car trips than trips within urban areas. Car mile growth in Western Europe has fallen to around one per cent a year but growth in several urbanized areas has been higher, exclusive of city centres. Even with direct road pricing applied, the car retains powerful attractions for many shorter trips with reduced car use being influenced by the quality (and perceived cost) of urban alternatives. Even so, the differing character of European and American city regions makes it more probable that the former may achieve 15 to 20 per cent cuts in car use by 2020.

While urban air quality and global commitment to greenhouse gas reductions will be significant considerations in European policies, the prime motivation in West European change is likely to be a consumer preference for a higher quality of urban life with less intrusive road traffic and an ability to deploy both private and public funding away from car (and, to a lesser extent, lorry) movement towards spending, giving greater economic and social benefits. With major new urban roads largely removed from the political agenda, measures to control and reduce existing levels of urban and inter-urban road congestion seem certain to gain more attention. Working and shopping close to home (or in the home using electronic technology) is likely to become more important as a travel substitute than in the American case while, helped by higher population densities and political attitudes, there are better prospects for attaining the quality of innovative public transport which will both generate extra usage and attract car users. Similarly, the prospects for reversing the decline in walking and cycling are better than in America.

On the other hand, Europe is already far closer to American levels of car use than most of the rest of the world. A modified car (see OECD, 1996) will retain many important advantages within towns as well as a much larger role in rural areas. Given the sustained application of policies now being applied in Western Europe, the balance of probabilities—with a favourable wind from public opinion—is that urban vehicle miles by car will stop rising within the next ten years and then begin to fall. With a shift to shorter trips and greater reliance on walking, cycling and public transport, car modal share in urban regions could fall from a West European average of 80 per cent in 1990 to around 60-65 per cent by 2020. As in North America, particular cities and their inner areas are likely to have lesser levels of car model share.


The complexity and variety of factors affecting urban movement make it impossible to come to precise conclusions about future trends. Differences will remain within, and between, Europe and North America while considerable increase in car use seems inevitable in the substantial parts of the urban world still having low levels of ownership. However, the great explosion of total movement, of car use and of total urbanized populations which has characterized Europe and North America since the 1870s is now over, at least in the more developed world. The future cities of the advanced world will see lesser levels of growth in urban car miles with an increasing possibility that some cities, notably in Europe, may have less car movement by 2020 than they had in 1990.

Appendix: Data on Urban Movement and Modal Share

The amount of data relating to movement is both immense and frustrating. As with movement itself, the volume of statistical information increases rapidly from 1870, covering public transport trips and some sample surveys of road flows. Information on road vehicle ownership has also expanded since the 1920s while computerization and automatic road counts have led to a huge multiplication of data on road vehicle flows since the 1960s. However, there are major difficulties in isolating the volume and nature of movement within urban areas. These are of seven types:

  • Public transport data is often for trips and, due to the complications of flat fares and season tickets, it can be difficult to identify particular flows. Direct information on motivations behind movement is lacking or restricted by commercial confidentiality.
  • In general, data on the volume and purposes of cycling and walking has been very poor (with exceptions in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark).
  • Road data has been concentrated on road flows (with some distinction between cars, buses and goods vehicles) with no information on load factors or journey purpose.
  • Sample surveys of origins and destinations have produced more detailed corridor results but have not been geared to provide data on movement within and beyond urban areas; samples relying on travel diaries kept by household residents also omit travel by visitors/tourists and tend to understate business travel.
  • Differences in data collection and in definitions as between countries create problems in comparisons.
  • Within countries, data do not lend themselves to adjustment to encompass total movement within different definitions of urban areas, for example, city, urban region.
  • There are considerable shortfalls in research seeking to probe the motivations for movement and assessing the possible impact of policy changes and changing public preferences on the length of trips, trip timings and modes selected.

Since the early 1990s, the bias of research and surveys has been shifting to motivational and policy issues with a related increase in advance evaluation and subsequent monitoring of the impact of policy changes. This has led to downward revisions of overall forecasts of road traffic growth with conclusions contrasting prospects for stabilizing and reducing road traffic levels in ‘traditional’ towns and cities with the much greater difficulties faced in areas of recent suburbanization.

Despite these difficulties, sensitive interpretation of existing aggregate and particularized data does enable a reasonably accurate impression of changing trends in urban movement to be presented. The changing directions of research and data collection are likely to improve the quality and value of the future information base on city, regional and trunk movement.