Starters of urban change (7) Urban toll in London

Congestion Charge, London’s urban toll system, is among the rare cases in which a politician states his admiration before a measure that has worked better than forecasted (at least that’s what he said to the BBC).

Let us use here what some urban economy teachers say. Imagine an ET hovering over planet earth, and how he could be puzzled to see our behavior on car flows; you pay tolls to use motorways that seldom have any congestion, while in large cities, which can put to test anyone’s patience, moving by car is free. The scarcity of a good (fluidity) does not influence its price.

This first idea deserves some considerations: since the introduction of parameters and (especially in Europe) air quality control measures, moving your car in a central district remains relatively free, but the moment you decide to stop and park, you are in for a step bill. This helps improve air quality, but is felt by some as a social division between haves and have not’s in terms of accessibility to urban cores; I think that this is not necessarily the case, as in a reasonably designed public transportation system fares are always much more affordable than car ownership. Sure, you have all the right to feel better in your car, as you have no need to smell other people’s smells, but you have no need to organize your trip according to parking availability and you can do many useful things (even just thinking) while someone else focuses his/her attention on steering a vehicle. I think it’s rather an issue of what you want to do with commute times that can be very long for some, and feelings, but access times are not necessarily longer for the most (sure, if you make many stops things can change, but you need to factor in the parking hurdle).

It seems the system has worked rather well; tariffs have helped boost public transport, and reduce pollution with positive effects on public health. Citizens, as on almost any other issue, are divided between pros and cons. Traffic levels have gone down 10,2% in 10 years, but travel time remains the same for motorists.

An interesting thing in this measure is that it was approved by a Labor government and presented by some as a left wing interventionist policy, but later has been maintained by Conservatives (even if they scraped the western extension), and new restrictions are being planned for 2020.

But few cities have followed that path: more often than not, the fear of losing votes.

Starters of urban change (3) Horses, cars and rooms

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

At the dawn of the XXth century the car appears. Up until then people move around cities walking or by horse. Urban families with horses or other transportation animals, usually expensive, were a minority. The advent of mass car and its expansion through all the social layers implies a new dimensional problem; a horse is quite smaller than a car, and even a horse vehicle can be more flexible in dimension.

A horse box can be some 3×3 m, as the animal is seldom more than 2 m long. If you leave some horses temporarily tied to a post in the street, they occupy even smaller spaces; if you consider carts, things can be a little different. Alongside cars, bikes appear with an even more reduced footprint.

A current car can be some 4 to 5 meter long, with a total width of 2 m considering lateral mirrors. The biggest difference when compared to the horse in urban terms is that the animal usually belonged to a firm or a family with a firm, while automobiles are now in almost each family, and they feel the need to have them near their homes. So going from horses to cars is not so much a public space congestion due to moving elements, as you can see in historical photos from before the car that street where packed with all sort of contraptions; it is rather how to park a much higher number of vehicles in a distributed way through the city.

Around 1990 only the rich had a carriage; most homes had no space for vehicles. The first bylaws requiring a parking space associated with a home are usually from the 1960s-1970s, when cars became really massive in Europe and North America. And here comes architectural typology; in single home areas, with large lots, the garage finds easily its place as an ancillary building, or you park on streets that, due to the low density, have no great problem. The biggest problem comes with vertical homes. Using the block core is a solution, but one that comes at the cost of the demise of that core as a residual space. Burying the garage needs ramps of a certain length, and space is not always there. Adapting older buildings, mainly ones on small lots, is often impossible.

Today there are two visions, in a moment in which (at least in Europe or North America… and well, mostly nowhere…) horses are no longer an alternative. Some call to retain the current quotas defining a mandatory parking provision related to the number of homes, even if sometimes the same administration that enforces that rule later allows developers to sell to different buyers parking lots and apartments, so creating a pressure on on-street parking as some prefer to avoid the high cost of an in-building space. This option leads to a persistence in the creation of a car-centric infrastructure. Meanwhile, some demand the end of such mandatory quotas; this would not be a prohibition of in-building parking, but as it would no longer be a mandatory space, it would be added to the planning-allocated buildable floor area, so developers should choose between apartment space and parking lots, giving a different voluntary quota to different neighborhoods.

In short, a technological evolution that has changed many things in cities, including typologies.

Maps 2014 (40) As I move


Chances are that what I’m going to disclose is already known by some of the makers of the electronic contraptions I carry ; so here is a map of the routes I use often (blue numbers are distances in meters).

I live in A, work in B and once a week I eat at C. some weeks I go to cinema at D. 1 and 2 are pedestrian daily routes, which are alternative depending on the day (and the hour); the distance between A and B is so reduced that the presence of an expressway in the middle makes these two the shortest pedestrian routes. 3 is mainly a bus route, an explanation for the 90º angle (by foot it could be shorter, but it would take too long). And 4 is a weekend route, to go to the cinema through the urban core (the return trip is often by underground or bus, or, when it is late at night, by cab). The remaining points are supermarkets, cinemas, restaurants and other interest points.

The city I live in is rather good for a pedestrian; but this doesn’t mean that walking routes are necessarily shorter than by other means. On the other side, they are highly predictable when it comes to time: I usually walk at 4 km/h (compared to the average 24 km/h for cars, which is subject to strong variations during daytime). By walking you always have alternatives (but for the case of obstacles such as expressways or rail lines), and as slopes are gentle I can predict my travel times. And yes, sometimes (with not such regular patterns, once or twice a week at most) I move in my car…

From Alps to Atlantic (2) Bologna, arcades, sidewalks and pedestrian areas

bologna- madera

In Bologna the arcades, a singular element in other cities, are a systematic feature. Not that they do not exist elsewhere, but here you have more than 40 km of them, and nearly any stroll in the historical core can be done through them. In many cities, they are an element complementing the sidewalk, but here they substitute it almost completely. This implies that sometimes a pedestrian does not see clearly the vehicles until he decides to do it (not necessarily a good thing), but also that anyone stopping a car must be more attentive. During winter, if ice appears, sunrays do not touch the pedestrian area, so there is a risk of slipping, but if there is just rain you are covered. Compared to other historical cities there are very few sidewalks, and even pedestrian streets, but when you walk you feel much more protected; even if they wished to do so, cars and trucks could not occupy the pedestrian space but through unusual means.

Bologna- pala

It seems the arcades appeared during the XIIth century, when streets were wider, as a solution to extend buildings to cope with a surge in the university population. In 1288 a municipal ordinance made brick or stone arcades mandatory for any building, even if today some wooden arcades remain. The key measure were 7 Bologna ft in height (2,66 m), enough to allow the passage of a man astride his horse. In law terms, it was a compulsory easement by which the public use of the arcade was guaranteed and it was to be kept in good use by the building owner, in exchange for the right to use the spaces in the floors above. As a compulsory architectural element in any building, it has taken varied shapes, in palaces and in humble homes, with a large diversity.

Central Bologna, using municipal open data. Red lines: sidewalks. Blue areas: pedestrian- only streets.

Central Bologna, using municipal open data. Red lines: sidewalks. Blue areas: pedestrian- only streets.

bologna- iglesia

The Bologna arcades (Portici Bolognesi) are candidates to enter the UNESCO world heritage list.

These arcades have also probably survived due to another factor: compared with other historical cities penalised by a position atop a hill, Bologna’s historical core and its surrounds are almost flat, so pedestrians have it easy.

Paris (18) Place de la Republique

A view from TVK’s site

I had read that the Place de la Republique had been renovated ; I saw it from a taxi and was underwhelmed, as it seemed just a renovation of the ground surface. The reason for that first impression is that I had never gone there before. A square that was in fact a giant roundabout has had its traffic concentrated on its southwest part, giving continuity to the pedestrian traffics towards the northeast, changing many things.

The square is 280×120 m, one of the largest in Paris. The project is launched in 2008, and Trevelo & Viger-Kohler (TVK) win the architectural competition. Cars are moved and the square becomes a single platform including also a first section of the rue du Faubourg du temple. The statue of the Republic has been integrated on the pedestrian platform, which has been paved with large stone slabs. Some have complained about the removal of some urban art elements from the XIXth century, but overall the square seems to be work well as a public space (some kind of meadow could have been an idea…)

The project, completed in 2013, is available at

Modified square

Modified square

Initial square. Curbs layout. 100 m grid

Initial square. Curbs layout. 100 m grid

París (17) Autolib


The image is that of yet one more car dealership. But it is something else. After having developed a bike location scheme (velib), the City of Paris has begun a pioneer project: electric car renting. The idea has some attractive elements: for many Paris residents car ownership is not so practical, but rather a chore, having to pay high parking prices and car maintenance for something you finally use just some days. A number of parking spots on the streets have been reserved for this system, in which you take your car at one station and can leave it at any other in the network. Besides, the high initial cost of acquiring an electric car is balanced, favouring a technological evolution that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

When you see these cars on the street, they see prematurely old and not that well-tended, but they seem rather useful for their public, that could be more important than you could think at first sight. It seems Indianapolis has been convinced…


Back of the envelope calculations (4) An hour, six months, food and cars


Sometimes I’ve heard girls complaining that sweets are like “ a minute in your mouth and a lifetime in your waist”. CO2 is a bit like that, but on the other side.
Some years ago we produced a technical paper for the Basque Government on climate change and urban planning. A fast calculation showed that in the current climate context of the Basque Country a hybrid car’s worth in CO2 emissions running at 110 km/h was equivalent to six months of carbon capture by a mature European beech. This back of the envelope figure was in fact more sophisticated, and based on several science documents including specific studies on the growth behaviour of different species and other factors. On the whole of the Basque Country (both a well forested and highly developed area by Spanish standards) forests were worth 2,9 million tonnes of CO2 capture by year, while the global regional emissions were some 20 million.
Back of the envelope calculations must be handled with care in climate change terms, as there are many confuse data, not always based on good will. Concisely, trees absorb CO2 to grow, and this CO2 goes to wood mass and in part to the soil; the metabolism of the plant defines how fast that plant grows, so a given species could have quite different behaviours as CO2 sink in Maine compared to Madrid or to Manila, as climate and soil qualities matter. In the end, buying car enticed by the fact that a tree will be planted to absorb that CO2 seems quite untrue; you could choose to drive just a few minutes a year, but I’m not sure this is the case. In the end, we are not that far from the kind of ad strategy also used for… cakes.

Biblio (85) Stockholm Vision 2030

Stockholm 2030

Vision 2030 is a visioning exercise on the urban future of Stockholm, developed in 2006-2007. Beyond the clear IKEA influence on the catalogue (sorry, the publication…), with kids that seem to have had their daily meatballs, there are interesting things. Themes are standard for many cities, as public transportation or clean vehicles, but also new beltways. As in Nordic crime novels, the original thing here is not to have people killed (which is the usual thing in a criminal novel, I’m not talking about urban planning…), but what is around that killing, and in that sense, Sweden has different bases when compared to others… which incidentally also happens in urban planning and sustainable development.

Consulting the urban planning maps, some projects in the Vision 2030 are not entirely there, as the new western beltway, the Förbifart Stockholm (with works to start this year). The project will have one of the longest urban tunnels, and has been, as could be expected, controversial, confronting those thinking it will reduce congestion to those thinking it will simply increase car use. So Sweden, so advanced as it is in environmental awareness/quality and public transportion (I’m not joking here) is also dragged into the main debates.

Rules and variations (2)

Each appartment has its own conditions...

Each appartment has its own conditions…

Rules are not just established by planning, but also by building codes or the demands of the market and the technology of the everyday products. Nearly every car is created with similar dimensions, but each home has particular conditions.

... but car slots are about all the same in the underground garage

… but car slots are about all the same in the underground garage

Biblio (81) Syracuse urban freeway


The article published on the Atlantic Cities magazine (which I read thanks to its reference at salvolomas) shows the antagonic interests at play when it comes to the future of an urban freeway. The balance between impacts and benefits of an infrastructure project, again a central issue in the planning of urban space.