Urban transport: a dirty business

Director of External Relations, Toby Poston talks about the challenges of urban transport and sustainable planning from horses to modern day mobility services.

Urban transport has always been a dirty, crowded and dangerous business.

Back in the 1898, the world’s first international urban planning conference was debating ‘The Great Manure Crisis’ - the increasing threat of city streets being buried under mountains of horse manure. As well as having their journeys hindered by heaps of impassable excrement, city-dwellers faced additional public health risks as a result of the numerous horse carcasses that littered almost every roadway. 

Fast forward more than 120 years and while transport methods have changed dramatically, urbanites are still suffering. In central London today’s buses or Uber cabs are travelling no faster than their horse-drawn counterparts did back in Queen Victoria’s day. Residents are no longer at risk of horseflies spreading typhoid fever, but they are at risk from tailpipes spewing NOx and particulates.  

Henry Ford led the mass-produced motorised transport revolution that solved the manure crisis, bringing electric trams and motor buses to city streets. The good news is that similar breakthroughs in connected, autonomous and electric vehicles are already pointing to a brighter future for today’s dirty, crowded and dangerous streets. 

The problem is not so much whether transport technology has an answer, but whether it is the long-term solution.

Recent years have seen a distinct change in the language and perspectives of most of today’s urban policymakers. Previously, many discussions with transport planners seemed to revolve around numbers, focusing on each mode’s cost, capacity and convenience.

These days, whether you are speaking to policymakers in London, Manchester, Glasgow or Bristol, there is much more focus on the impact that these different modes have on the people and areas surrounding them.

As one leading urban transport thinker recently told me, we are seeing a major shift in the balance of priorities, from ‘movement’ to ‘places’. As city populations continue to grow and our increasingly polluted road space doesn’t, it is not surprising that city leaders are targeting a big reduction in car and van use. Today’s congestion and Clean Air Zones are just the start of a shift in urban transport that will be increasingly active, electric or shared.

The vehicle leasing, rental and car club industry is ideally placed to deliver this transition, and BVRLA members are having some very exciting discussions with urban policymakers and customers.  

In many cases the mobility services they are offering are not only about providing access to clean, affordable and flexible road transport or the latest technology. They also recognise the need for transport behaviour change, and the need to deliver services that encourage people to travel less, and by more sustainable modes.

Even if a car is zero-emission, packed with the latest safety technology and comes with a sexy mobility-as-a-service app, it will never be more beautiful than a bus or bike in the eyes of an urban transport policymaker.  

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Toby Poston

Director of Corporate Affairs, BVRLA

Toby joined the BVRLA in March 2008.