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There are many answers to this question, depending upon the preferences of the person who’s asked. Some people like to live in densely packed cities, with lots going on. Others prefer exactly the opposite, enjoying the tranquillity of the countryside in a small village.

Generally speaking, wherever people live, they like to think they’ll have relatively easy access to the things that are important to them – shops, leisure facilities, their place of work, the hospital, etc. So the transport network is often an important factor in dictating where we live, because we need to know we’ll be able to move around the city, town or village, as well as reach places outside of it, whether in the region, country or, increasingly, around the world. What’s perhaps less acknowledged is quite how important that transport network is to making and shaping the characteristics of that place we choose to live in. It is as integral as the buildings, facilities, planning regimes, services, people, natural landscape and weather, to name but a few, and we overlook it at our peril. 

Let’s consider our home city of Plymouth. A number of transport schemes are under way at the moment or have recently been completed: the Charles Cross junction improvement; the Eastern Corridor improvement; the Northern Corridor improvement; and the new Forder Valley link road to provide better access to Derriford from the A38. All of these schemes are about making it easier for people – motorists, bus users and cyclists, mainly – to get around more easily.

But another important project, Millbay Boulevard, has a rather different purpose. Certainly it will still provide a link – in this case from the city centre to the docks. But the boulevard is primarily designed as ‘a highly attractive walking and cycling route’ with a new public square to be flanked by new houses, shops and restaurants, in effect, creating a new leisure and residential quarter for the city. 

So in this case, Plymouth City Council is using a transport scheme to improve the public realm, taking a road – primarily designed for cars to move along on their way to other places – and turning it into a street – somewhere people can amble around and interact without worrying about encountering cars and the adverse environmental impact they can create. This idea of turning roads into streets is not new. Jane Jacobs famously wrote about the loss of local community spaces because of redevelopment designed, among other things, to accommodate more cars, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Closer to home, the city of Copenhagen has been transformed in recent decades, from somewhere that relied heavily on cars – and had traffic-choked roads as a result – to a much more ‘liveable’ city characterised by an extremely high quality public realm serviced by equally good public transport and cycling facilities. And anyone travelling to Nice over the last few years will have noticed a fundamental recasting of the city, again from one dominated by the car to one whose urban core has been radically repurposed to put the pedestrian first. This has all been possible through the construction of two new tramlines that have enabled people to get around the city without using their cars.

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In Britain, we have tended to be much more cautious about using transport to make places, instead tending to view it more as a means of getting between places. Beyond some pedestrianisation in town centres, we’ve been coy about taking away road space from cars for fear of upsetting motorists. In Plymouth, for example, we have long passed over the opportunity of making Royal Parade bus-only, despite the significant urban realm improvements this would bring about, in addition to making the whole of the bus network much more reliable. Bus lanes elsewhere in the city would make the network more reliable still, and the more that people use public transport (and walk and cycle), the less the need for city centre roads and the more streets we can create. The same could be said about other important areas in need of revitalisation, such as Mutley Plain. Vibrant, liveable streets in which people can fulfil a whole raft of different social and economic transactions are all the more important given the potential for online shopping to lead to more and more shops closing in traditional retail areas.

As colleagues and I argue in our new book, Transport Matters, high quality and efficient transport in fact underpins all manner of public policy goals. While the car is of course important, it needn’t be the default means of getting around for most people (especially in our cities). Investing in better bus, cycle and pedestrian facilities frees up road space, which, with creative planning and investment, can be used to make better public places that encourage public interaction, the rebuilding of community spirit and economic revitalisation. In all but a very small number of cases, pedestrianisation is good news for local businesses. Such investment can also be good for people’s health and wellbeing since it plays an important preventative role in the national battle against obesity. Environmentally, local air pollution causes health difficulties for many people, and transport – primarily the car – is now the country’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Millbay Boulevard is one small example of how we can take a different path. Bigger prizes and much more liveable places await those cities bold enough to follow in the footsteps of Copenhagen and Nice.

Jon Shaw is Professor of Transport Geography and Associate Head of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences