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“We no longer need assembly line cities” Viewpoint, Topos 110 Urban Planning

What do Manila and Rotterdam have in common? Nothing when it comes to people-friendly mobility: cycling in Manila is a dangerous undertaking, while cycling in the Dutch city is a pleasure. So how do we create mobile and walkable cities – in a word, active mobility – around the world? The secret could lie in the realization that mobility is not just a mobility challenge: it is also about public space, social programs, climate change, employment and housing. And get rid of the silo mentality. A plea.

A recent meeting was scheduled for a recent working visit to Manila, Philippines. “The taxi will pick you up from the hotel an hour in advance.” Drive a full hour? We were expecting a place outside of the city, hoping to have a nice view from the car. When we checked the destination, we were surprised that it took place in a nearby area that was only seven kilometers away. “That’s ridiculous!” we thought. “Why sit in a car for an hour when we can cycle to the place much faster?” At home in Rotterdam, a seven-kilometer journey is child’s play. 30 minutes of relaxed cycling are enough. This was one reason why we went to Manila with the Dutch bike message – to export the great quality of life that a bike town can create.

Unfortunately, the mapping of the route in Manila showed that taking a bike would be a dangerous expedition. There is hardly any bicycle infrastructure in Manila, and cycling on urban highways is a suicide mission. Hiking and public transportation weren’t options either: both would take an hour and a half. We were stuck in the car.

When we were sitting in the slow taxi in Manila, we didn’t see a nice view of the island of Luzon – instead we saw a dystopia, the traffic at a standstill. Towers and huge shopping centers have been built, but the public space is boring and uninviting. Roads, bridges and highways were built everywhere, but it is clear that they fill up quickly. The taxi driver told us that driving in Manila has gotten a lot worse in the past few years because so many people can afford to buy cars.

This is indeed an urban dystopia. People improve economically, but cannot buy themselves out of the crisis. Just like us this morning, they lack a sustainable choice to get around. The rich and the middle class will buy more cars and suffer less traffic every year. The poor will go for a walk or bike next to this disaster. A lot-less situation.


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View from the 32nd floor of the I’M Hotel to the street below, Manila, Philippines. Photo by Sua Truong on Unsplash

Mobility is not just A to B, it creates C, D and E.

Urban mobility work is generally divided into two lines. The first is, “How do you get there?” It is mainly about the planning and construction of the infrastructure (sidewalks, roads, bike paths) and the vehicles that use them (cars, buses, bicycles, e-scooters and of course our legs) so that people can travel from A to A B. We have seen progress towards this end. More and more cities understand that the car infrastructure takes up too much space. Cities around the world are introducing bicycle infrastructure, expanding sidewalks and removing cars from city centers. However, this is not enough as it is only part of the urban mobility challenge. We already know that building more streets, updating bus lanes, upgrading traffic lights or introducing e-scooters in the city won’t solve the problems of urban mobility. A city must work together on the other challenge of mobility: “How do you group all destinations close together?” Streets, neighborhoods and cities should make it possible to achieve a lot without having to travel far. If streets are places to play, meet, shop and work, driving is not necessary. Essentially, it is a dense, mixed-use urbanism that combines residential, business, cultural, institutional, and entertainment use on a small urban scale.

As some inspiring quotes on an Instagram page say:It is not the goal, it is the journey.“This is really the case in urban mobility. Transit via sustainable and active mobility will only be achieved if the goals are closer. This is why cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Tel Aviv have such a high percentage of walking and cycling compared to most of their colleagues in North America. The former enables people to accomplish a lot by simply turning the corner, which makes it useless to take the car out of the garage.

The complexity of planning such places is up to the experts how to get there. We are fascinated by new mobility programs and hope that they will save us from ourselves. We focus on the simpler question because the question “How do you bring all the goals together?” Is simply too complex. However, great urban mobility is only the result of both efforts. Let us focus on the journey rather than the destination. Condense neighborhoods, introduce new uses and work with residents and businesses to create better public spaces. It is much more complicated, but this is the only way we can save existing car-oriented cities.

The silo mentality is an auto mentality

In 1913 Henry Ford and his then young car company introduced the assembly line. The idea is simple but ingenious when it comes to efficiency and production: instead of making one employee responsible for building the entire car, you should specialize each employee in a specific task. In this way, making a car (or a phone, laptop, or desk) is a fairly simple process, in which the product is assembled step by step. Unfortunately, urban planning also seems to have become an assembly line. The municipalities are divided into departments, each of which is responsible for only one element of a city: infrastructure, housing, trade, mobility, social issues, education, etc. These all work in silos and rarely sit together (unless, of course, there is a dispute responsibility). How can we expect an organization in this direction to create a mixed-use, dense and vibrant city?

A mixed-use, dense city is anything but silly: there are different people from all walks of life who live together. There are many people in all their complexity who move in a small space and create harmony. It is a “complex order,” as Jane Jacobs described great streets:

This order is all made up of movement and change, and although it is life and not art, we can imaginatively describe it as an art form of the city and compare it with dance – not with a simple, precision dance that everyone opens at the same time they whirl in unison and bow massively, but to a complicated ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have different parts, which miraculously reinforce each other and form an orderly whole.
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Large American Cities

The silo mentality that our communities suffer from reinforces the further silo. And silo cities are best suited for cars. Cars are successful where there is separation: houses on one side of the city, offices on another. Pedestrians on sidewalks, cars on the street. Any possible surprise must be eliminated for the separation to be absolute. With these organizational strategies, we cannot reverse this paradigm. As Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve problems with the same mindset that we used to create them.”

This is probably the biggest challenge in urban design today and requires real leadership and mental strength. Dismantling silos means that we all have less ego and decision-making powers, but we will all benefit in the long term. During our own work, we see how difficult this is, but also how rewarding it is to get specialists from all over the city to work together.


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Space for cyclists, skaters and pedestrians in Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Photo by Mike van den Bos on Unsplash

We recently contributed to the bike vision for Rotterdam. The project, of course, dealt with bicycle infrastructure and funding, but beyond that the vision was to promote the quality of life in the city. We have recognized that the city has to invest more in infrastructure, while different areas have to become part of the narrative. The bike that touches so many aspects of life – mobility, health, public space and sustainability – can bring all of these areas together. All departments in the city should work to promote cycling and use a place built for active, sustainable mobility. It has been proposed to create local mobility centers that will be built in neighborhoods and act as a new type of neighborhood center. The hubs are places to meet neighbors, try new mobility options, park bicycles, get to know the neighborhood, develop professional and business skills related to bicycles, and much more. Imagine how many municipal departments, organizations, residents and companies could be affected by such a hub.

The best way to bring about urban change and promote active mobility is to break up silos. No mobility challenge is just a mobility problem: it also includes public space, social programs, climate change, employment and much more. We need to create a common vision within cities and bring departments together to work on those visions. No more assembly line cities.

Viewpoint in Topos 110.

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