What do we want the world to be like? This question has occupied philosophers, politicians, entrepreneurs and pretty much anyone with a deadline to avoid and a window to stare out of for as long as humans have pondered. It may seem an odd place to start in any discussion about transport: surely the questions we should be asking are about electric vehicle charging infrastructure and whether autonomous vehicles will increase or decrease congestion? Well we can get to those questions later, perhaps, but I think that if we don’t start with some thought about what all this transport is for then we are unlikely to ‘build back better’ or end up with a ‘new normal’ that is worth having. For it is a commonplace that transport is a ‘derived demand’. In other words, people don’t (at least most people, most of the time, don’t) travel for the sake of it: they travel to earn a living, or take their children to school. They travel to do the shopping, go to the pub and to visit their aged parents.

Travel is built into the way we live our lives, and the way we live our lives is built into the physical fabric of our world. (I must give a shout out here to a new book, ‘Conceptualising Demand’ by Greg Marsden et al, which thoroughly and rigorously lays this out.)

For example, if we build new homes, in a field far from schools, shops, offices or the nearest bus stop then we are requiring the people who live in them to go everywhere by car. And if this state of affairs is confirmed, approved, even exalted by advertising, journalism and society at large as ‘the good life’, and as an aspirational state, then house builders will not be inclined to do differently, car manufacturers will be happy to supply increasing demand for cars and we will have made any attempts to reduce congestion, pollution, road accidents, obesity or perceived inequality so much more difficult. This is just to describe the way we think about our world today: I am not criticising people who buy or live in these houses any more than I am criticising the house builders, car makers, advertising people or anyone else trying to make a living in the world as it is. But if we want a different world we have to accept that a car journey, or a bus ride or a flight for that matter, is the result of the way we go about building and living in our world, not something separate or distinct.

How could we go about imagining a different world? Well, as William Gibson famously said: ‘the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed’: where in the world are there places we can learn from?

Copenhagen is regularly placed in the top 10 best cities in the world to live. Now we can all argue with these lists, the criteria for which can seem contentious, not to say downright arbitrary. But leaving the ‘hit parade’ rankings aside there does seem to be general agreement that Copenhagen is a pleasant and humane place to live. Unlike the sort of places that we might treasure as day-dream destinations Copenhagen is not particularly remarkable for its setting or its historical legacy; Copenhagen is not Florence, Paris or Sydney. Copenhagen is a desirable place to be because of how lives can be lived there. Central Copenhagen is full of bikes and pedestrians. There is a small metro system but Copenhagen is cycling-central: Wikipedia says that it is the most bicycle friendly city in the world (more bicycles than people…although I don’t really understand how that works), and who am I to argue with Wikipedia?

So why is a UK city of about the same size: Leeds, not more like Copenhagen?

At first blush the answers seem obvious: Leeds is a long way north so surely it is too wet and cold to cycle? But Copenhagen is actually slightly further north so it can’t be that.

Alright then, Copenhagen is flat (only just above sea level) and Leeds is hilly? This is true but with e-bikes hills are easily flattened. The arguments that Leeds has a bigger problem with inequality and poverty and that Copenhagen has a better public transport network surely point in the opposite direction: cycling is a cheap and flexible transport solution for people who cannot afford a car and do not have access to good public transport.

What’s more, if you were able to transport yourself back to 1970, you'd find two fairly similar cities. At the time, both were highly industrialised with booming car industries. They seemed set to run a similar course, powered by capitalism and the drive to accumulate wealth. But then, in Copenhagen, something changed which altered the direction of the city forever.

Copenhagen’s conscious anarchy during the 1970s

On the 9 March 1969 the environmental organisation NOAH was established. Its formation was as contentious and anarchic - young women handing out apples which recipients later found to be covered in dangerous pesticides. The brutal mutilation of an oil-soaked duck drenched the guests of honour in the blood to highlight the issue of pollution – and that was just its first meeting (no, really).  

After this monumental meeting, the group of activists began to make their voices heard, influencing national environmental legislation and local cases of pollution. They were staunchly against the direction Copenhagen was travelling in. They objected to the high levels of pollution, poor public health and environmental destruction the car industry was having and they came together to lobby the Government for change. For example, pushing wind as a viable energy alternative into the mainstream. These anarchic 1960s beginnings started a process of thinking that began to imagine, and then to build a different future.

The legacy problem of the UKs town planners

Meanwhile, elsewhere, progress meant driving dual carriageways through the hearts of towns and cities. The greatest exemplar of this tendency was Robert Moses in New York but across the UK the automobility age arrived in a similar way and today our lives are shaped by the ideas of the post-war reconstruction. By prioritising car culture, some of our towns were reduced to a mix of car parks and shopping centres.

Copenhagen may have started earlier and it has certainly gone further but in Leeds, too, different approaches are taking hold. The Corn Exchange in Leeds has been re-purposed as a bustling shopping, eating, browsing, coffee-drinking place to spend time (on foot!) and several streets in the centre are pedestrianised.

Yorkshire has a proud history in cycling, of course, from famous professional cycling pioneers like Beryl Burton to Olympic heroes like Lizzie Armistead not to mention the Yorkshire leg of the Tour de France 2014 which started in Leeds. But this illustrates the problem that cycling has in the UK: too much lycra.

In places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam more women than men cycle reflecting the fact that it is a safe, cheap, efficient and healthy way to get around. In the UK the opposite is true: cycling has grown in popularity in recent years but there is a predominance of sport and leisure cycling and the roads near you may have similar levels of lycra-clad men of a weekend that mine do. Not that there is anything wrong with cycling as a sport – quite the opposite – but the rise in leisure cycling masks the fact that we have not made enough progress in cycling as a means of transport. Until our cities are designed to let everyone feel safe going to work (or shopping, or whatever) by cyclists wearing street clothes and that lycra, competition and showers are not compulsory parts of using a bicycle then we’ll have one fewer alternative to a car-based life.

Urban areas with an appetite for change

Copenhagen has put in place one of the most ambitious climate strategies as it aims to be carbon neutral by the middle of the decade. As a result of the action they've taken to date, they've benefitted from having some of the cleanest air in the world.  Sadly, a study in 2020 by The Cities Outlook suggests people in Leeds are 21 times more likely to die from factors related to poor air quality than in a road accident.

Leeds City Council is already responding to reverse the impacts of ‘car culture’. New ‘clean air zones’ will discourage HGVs, taxis and bus drivers from entering the city centre and can face severe fines if they flout the rules. All of this is designed to reduce the dangerous levels of pollutants. Very good! Now, what next?

Start by imagining a better life

It’s not all about cycling, of course, and the Copenhagen analogy is only one of the ways that we can think about how we want to live. But it is an instructive story in that it shows that dramatic change for the better is possible and that we need to be careful about the stories we tell ourselves (‘Leeds is too far north for people to cycle’) lest they constrain our thinking. But the fundamental point is surely that transport arises from, responds to and ultimately in its turn helps to shape the way we live our lives and the way the physical space we live in is formed and develops. Let’s start by asking ourselves ‘what could better look like’ and work back from there to establish what it would take to get there.

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