Tuesday, August 29, 2023
For decades, when it came to imagining the cities of the future, the most common scenario was a dystopian one, along the lines of the smoky Los Angeles of Blade Runner. However, for some time now, visions of green spaces, children playing and people riding bicycles and scooters have become increasingly common. This ideal has been baptized with different names: 15-minute cities, Cities on two wheels... But they are all based on the concept of a circular and sustainable city, which successfully combines the advantages of the level of services and the bustle of cities with the leisure and healthy lifestyle of rural environments.
Defeating pollution is an essential principle in all these visions. Removing internal combustion vehicles from the streets and urban arterials is one of the obsessions of today's urban planners. As a result, Low Emission Zones (LEZs) are now a reality and are yielding interesting results in places like London. In Spain, the Climate Change Law requires municipalities with a population greater than 50,000 to have these exclusion zones as of 2023. Together with urban transport, electric vehicles, and micro-mobility solutions, these LEZs are one of the main tools available to cities to halt the escalation of polluting emissions.
Bicycles leading the way
The bicycle has become a powerful symbol of this new green metropolis that is trying to break through. What are the advantages of these vehicles? They do not pollute, are inexpensive, do not cause traffic jams, and improve the health of their users thanks to the physical activity they need.
Within a short period of time we have seen how bike lanes are no longer an extravagance in a handful of cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and Copenhagen, but have begun to redesign the urban fabric of large cities throughout Europe. In fact, the number of users of this mode of transport is growing steadily. According to the Bicycle Barometer 2022 in Spain, 32.5% of people between 14 and 70 years of age (about 11 million people), use bicycles on a weekly basis (not counting those who only use them on weekends).
Electric bicycles are also a valid option for cities, such as Madrid, that are steep enough to make it especially difficult for traditional bicycles, while maintaining the advantages of sustainable travel.
A city a stone's throw away
Micromobility is closely linked to a concept that was created in Paris by Carlos Moreno, professor at the University of Paris IAE-Pantheon Sorbonne and advisor to the City Council: the 15-Minute City. The primary principle of this urban concept is to ensure that residents can accomplish all their work, leisure, and caregiving activities within a maximum 15-minute walking or biking distance. In other words, schools, hospitals, supermarkets, cultural centers, parks, administration offices ,and work spaces should be a stone's throw away for all residents and all neighborhoods. This approach seeks the multifunctionality of districts—as opposed to gentrification—to bring the concept of community back to the streets.
But, in addition to opening the doors of neighborhoods to all residents, this approach aims to drastically reduce emissions, since cars would be restricted to very specific areas or times. An example of this new urbanism can be found in the city of Barcelona, where the Superillas (groups of car-free blocks) restrict traffic to the main arterials and recover the streets for pedestrians and micro-mobility.
Examples are becoming more and more numerous and are sprouting up in all corners of the world, always adapted to local situations. For example, in Sweden they are testing the 1-minute cities and Street Moves, a concept that seeks to turn each street into a flexible space where residents decide on their functions. Or in Bogota, where the Barrios Vitales project seeks to recover connections between neighbors by moving vehicular traffic out of urban centers. Melbourne, Portland, and Shanghai are just a few more examples.
Problems on two wheels
Although all these approaches are theoretically plausible, when it comes to putting them into practice, their promoters are still encountering considerable difficulties, challenges for which, on many occasions, the solution still seems distant.
One of these barriers lies in the complexity of accommodating the thousands of bicyclists and scooter riders who have joined the already congested urban traffic as if they had come out of nowhere. Their interaction with traditional vehicles—which they are supposed to replace but must still coexist with—is not going as smoothly as we would like. This is evidenced by the accident rate figures for this type of means of transport. In the urban area of Madrid alone, accidents involving cyclists increased by 270% in the decade between 2010 and 2020, according to data from the Madrid City Council.
Nor are scooters free from danger. According to a study by Hellosafe although in 2022 accidents related to electric scooters decreased by 22% compared to the previous year, in Spain there were 299 (one every 27 hours) accidents that left a tragic toll of 12 deaths. The vulnerability of this vehicle type or the poor observance of traffic regulations by its users (no license or accreditation is required to ride them), could explain the accidents, crashes, and falls involving electric scooters.
So much so that in Paris, the birthplace of the 15-minute city and one of the European cities that is most committed to sustainable mobility, its residents decided this spring through a referendum to veto the use of rental electric scooters on their streets. This measure was already adopted in Spain a few years ago by Valencia due to the problems caused by the unrestricted parking of these vehicles by users when they arrived at their destination.
With demographic forecasts anticipating that 70% of the world's population will be living in large cities by 2050, finding ways to accommodate and serve these large numbers of people without dramatically affecting their quality of life is imperative. And micromobility or the "15-minute city" seem to be well on the way to achieving this goal.
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