Slaves to speed: why we would all profit from “ slow cities ”
- Slowing transport in cities could have huge health benefits for people, economies and the planet.
- The idea that faster travel will save time and improve everyone’s situation is seen as a myth rather than a reality, write two academics.
- Speed can take a toll on our lives, with high speeds in the city leading to increased road fatalities and increased energy demand.
- The 21st Century Slow Cities Manifesto is intended to guide progressive politicians, practitioners and citizens in their efforts to end speed in the city.
The slowdown in transport in cities huge health benefits for people, economies and the planet, so why are we always obsessed with speed?
As Mahatma Gandhi observed: “There’s more to life than increasing your speed.”
It concerns our own physical and mental well-being, as well as the health of cities in the broadest sense. Over the past century, we have been told, and widely accepted, a story that “faster travel will save time and make everyone a better place.” It is a myth rather than a reality.
How do people behave when faster travel becomes possible in cities? We assume that they get to their destination faster and “save” time. But the sprawl that comes with speed means more time is spent traveling, and people have to work longer hours to pay for all the speed costs.
A great paradox of modern times is that the the faster we go, the less time we have. It is possible to save more time by slowing down urban transport than by speeding it up.
Speed takes a a heavy toll on our lives. City speed increase road fatalities and injuries, air pollution, physical inactivity, infrastructure costs, energy demand and impacts of climate emergencies. As long as models, policies, investments, attitudes and behaviors are based on the belief that “faster is always better”, urban planning will be unable to resolve current climatic and ecological crises.
How to overcome our addiction to speed
An alternative to try to go faster is to “slow down the city”, as we explain in our book, Slow Cities: Conquering our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability. Instead of “mobility” (how far you can go in a given time), the goal of the “slow city” is accessibility (how far you can go at that time).
Speed and mobility planning focuses on saving time, which is rarely achieved in practice. Accessibility planning focuses on time well spent.
In places rich in accessibility, you do not need to move quickly. Therefore, walking, cycling and public transport are preferred means of transport. These slow and active modes are also the healthiest and most sustainable fashions.
A “slow city” strategy builds on many aspects of planning policy, including:
- lowering speed limits as part of holistic approaches such as Vision zero– which aims to prevent road deaths or serious injuries.
- Land use planning to shorten distances to destinations.
- Reorganization of streets to promote “slower” modes of travel and create slow spaces.
Adopt the vision of the “ slow city ”
Achieving these goals requires a new vision of the city. As Carlos Pardo asked his presentation at UN Habitat in 2017: “Why don’t we start to see speed as a problem rather than a solution?”
Many cities do just that.
Elements of Slow Cities have been successfully implemented around the world. Examples include Oslo and Helsinki, Paris and Bogota. These cities, and many others, have reduced the speed of motorized traffic and increased active travel.
Pontevedra in Spain demonstrates how slowing transport throughout a city benefits all types of health. After the city reduced speed limits to 30 km / h, physical activity and social connection improved as more people walked. From 2011 to 2018, there was not a single road death.
Does this mean that we all have to live in higher density “European” inner city environments, with narrow streets and close destinations, to reap the rewards of slowness? No, this is not the case. There are already suburbs – in Japan, for example – which operate in a “slow city”, with abundant walking, cycling and public transport, and relatively low traffic speeds.
Slowing down cities does not mean turning your back on the suburbs. “Spread repair“,”play in the streets“and”slow streetsCan produce benefits even in auto-dominated cities such as North America and Australasia.
In the 21st century, various “slow movements” – “slow food”, “slow parenting”, “slow tourism” – have gained ground. Therefore, “slowing down the city” may be a more feasible and attractive concept for planners and city dwellers than “encouraging active travel” or “reducing car use”.
Already COVID-19 has helped us think alternative street uses in the city. Local, slow-moving, park-like spaces were created from redistributed traffic lanes, create a safe space for people rather than for speed.
While our cultural obsession with speed may make some question or even ridicule “slowness,” it’s worth considering the city’s slow dividend. Slow cities have less inequality, less air pollution, less road trauma and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. They are more competitive in the global economy, with higher tax returns and GDP.
Our new Manifesto for the Slow Cities of the 21st Century is intended to guide politicians, practitioners and progressive citizens in their efforts to end the damaging culture of speed in the city. Slowing down the city can be an effective treatment for many debilitating urban conditions. If you want your city to be healthier, happier, safer, richer, less unequal and more child-friendly and resilient, slow it down.