We have always been impressed by how much our interns have gained from their foreign travels, and this month’s guest blog from Ewan Caldwell is another great example of that. Ewan is currently studying for an MSc in Urban Planning at Dundee University and took a well-earned break this summer interrailing across Europe. As well as enjoying varied cityscapes, Ewan appreciated the high quality of public transport and active travel options available in European cities, which led him to reflect on the importance of those to delivering 20-minute neighbourhoods in Scotland, his thoughts on which are set out below.
Are We on The Right Track?
As reported in Aurora Planning’s blog Can 20 be plenty? the draft Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) champions the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods as a means of making places more resilient and sustainable, with that blog suggesting what planning can do to deliver the benefits expected of these. But, as Maggie and Pippa have often stressed, planning doesn’t exist in isolation, and NPF4 also emphasises the role public transport has to play in decarbonisation and creating strong linkages between towns, cities and other smaller communities. That is something that I also came to appreciate whilst interrailing across Europe this summer, when the contribution that good public transport makes to placemaking was highlighted to me, including its potential contribution to achieving some of the anticipated outcomes of 20-minute neighbourhoods, such as making places more people focussed, reducing the reliance on cars, and facilitating sustainable and healthy lifestyles.
While architecture and planning varied from Paris to Budapest (and was clearly of interest to me as a planner), one notable feature of each city that I visited was the quality of public transport. Each city hosted a variety of travel options including trains, trams, buses, subways and even waterbuses in Venice. And the availability of a range of transport options, combined with the reliability of services, and clear communication if there were any issues (even when that was in a foreign language!) meant that public transport was an attractive choice for both residents and visitors, particularly when cost is also taken into account. While cities like Paris and Amsterdam had somewhat expensive subway prices, in general the cost of public transport was relatively low, again making it a viable travel option. One service which for me exemplifies the quality of such services is the tram service in Krakow, which stands out due to its simplicity, cost and directness. For example, when visiting a visitor’s attraction on the outskirts of the city, it proved effortless and cheap to jump onto a tram which took you directly back into the city centre in under 10-minutes. Again, highlighting how easy it was to move around these cities and the role such transport systems could play in delivering 20-minute neighbourhoods.
As well as public transport, active travel methods also appeared to be well supported in European cities, with well-designed pedestrian routes, cycle paths and city bike schemes, such as the MOL Bubi scheme in Budapest, being widely available, allowing you to travel cheaply within the city without difficulty.
And the linkage between planning and good public transport was epitomised to me in Budapest where city rehabilitation projects have focussed on pedestrianisation, cyclist infrastructure and public transport. That appears to have been driven by Hungary’s National Development Strategy for 2030 which includes development policies to improve the conditions, accessibility and comfort of public transport and cycling infrastructure, making those a reliable way of daily commuting in Hungary, and more specifically, in Budapest. These policies were introduced after an upsurge in private vehicle purchases between 2001 and 2012 which in turn, saw a decline in the number of passengers on public transport and those walking and cycling. As a result, Hungarian development projects have created walkable and liveable neighbourhoods that facilitate a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for both locals and visitors, like myself.
The combination of good public transport and active travel options in the cities I visited, and the ease with which they allowed to me explore the cities and access the services and facilities that I needed, led me to reflect on how effective sustainable and active transport options might be in supporting the delivery of 20-minute neighbourhoods in Scotland?
Scotland is home to a variety of local public transport options, from Glasgow’s subway network to Edinburgh’s tram system, as well as regular bus services, and there are also examples of bike schemes in some towns and cities. However, the quality and cost of these services varies significantly across the country and so it is perhaps questionable as to whether or not Scotland has a strong and efficient transport network that can tackle climate change, facilitate a sustainable lifestyle, and reduce inequalities, as aspired to by 20-minute neighbourhoods. So, whilst Policy 7: Local Living of NPF4 aims to support 20-minute neighbourhoods and create “…walkable, liveable and thriving places that provide and encourage sustainable travel options”, what else has been put in place at the national level to ensure that our transport system will support the delivery of those?
As well as topic specific policies, NPF4 includes a number of national developments, which are described as significant developments of national importance that will help deliver the Scottish Government’s spatial strategy, with National Development 2: National Walking, Cycling and Wheeling Networks specifically aimed at facilitating the shift from vehicles to walking, cycling and wheeling for everyday journeys though the upgrading and provision of additional active travel infrastructure throughout Scotland.
But again, it is recognised that planning cannot achieve 20-minute neighbourhoods alone, with transport policy also being key. So, the National Transport Strategy 2 (NTS2) is significant, with the vision of that being to have “…a sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system, helping deliver a healthier, fairer and more prosperous Scotland for communities, businesses and visitors.” The NTS2 then includes a range of policies to act as drivers of change, with specific interventions set out in the associated Delivery Plan. Of most significance in terms of the relationship between transport and planning is the commitment in the Delivery Plan 2020-2022, and the subsequent Delivery Plan 2022-2023 launched this June, to exploring how to build on the place-based approach, including the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods. The Delivery Plan sets out 70 actions being carried out by the Scottish Government to address each of the NTS2’s four main priorities. However, time will need to be given in order to discover how effective these measures will be in forming a transport system that can support 20-minute neighbourhoods.
In looking at how best transport interventions can support 20-minute neighbourhoods, my experience from my travels in Europe suggests that they should not focus only on infrastructure, but equally important is the need to encourage people to change their behaviours and lifestyle choices in order for walking and cycling to become an everyday travel method. This lifestyle choice is perhaps why sustainable and active travel has become so popular in Europe. For example, in Amsterdam, cycling was the main mode of transport and made cars look out of place.
While it is clear that the Scottish Government is working to improve sustainable and active travel options, in my view there is still work to do in order for those to compare favourably with the travel options found in European cities such as Berlin and Bratislava, with work needed at all levels of government and with other delivery partners to achieve that. I believe we can learn something from Europe in terms of accessibility, reliability and inclusivity of public transport, and the extent to which active travel options in European cities also provide simple, cheap and healthy methods of travelling around them, and it is clear how such options could contribute significantly to the establishment of successful 20-minute neighbourhoods. Importantly though, the goal is not to discourage travelling by car altogether, but instead it’s about finding the right balance between car-based travel and other travel methods, a balance that European cities appear to have been successful at finding. In Scotland we might now at least be on the right track, but I think that we still have some way to go.
Thanks for reading!
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