How accessible is your local neighbourhood? - by Carey Curtis

In advance of the publication of her book 'Planning, Transport and Accessibility' later this month, Carey Curtis considers the spotlight on transport and accessibility that has resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic... she asks: 

How accessible is your local neighbourhood?


In the past year we’ve all had experience of some form of ‘lock-down’ as governments have required us to stay home in response to the pandemic. This has meant doing many of our daily activities from home, including work and education. Trips outside the home have been limited, generally to the local neighbourhood, or restricted by distance. This, and the desire to avoid using public transport for health fears, has seen our transport choices transform – to those undertaken on foot or by bicycle. But what has been our experience of getting around the neighbourhood?


Many have appreciated the significant reduction in cars on our streets – not only because it is quieter and less polluted, but also because it has improved the quality, safety and enjoyment of walking and cycling. For me, I have never seen so many people out walking – taking time to enjoy the environment and socialising with the neighbours along the route – albeit at a distance! Children scooted and cycled, babies were pushed in prams, adults took daily exercise by walking and running. The family dog was lucky to get so many walks, as a passport for the human need to get out of the house.


Houten, Netherlands: showing a dedicated cycle network serving the neighbourhood. Photograph by Carey Curtis.


The experience of active travel in the neighbourhood has seen a significant growth in bicycle ownership – with many shops running out of stock as demand was so high. For many this was their first experience, as adults, of riding around, since in many places around the world this has been a rarity for decades.


The experiences of active travel also exposed the shortcomings in our neighbourhoods. Not every street is pleasant to walk along – some have no footpaths, or only poor-quality footpaths for example. Decent cycle access is not prevalent. Neighbourhoods do not necessarily have local shops and services, or local parks and places to exercise. Why do these shortcomings exist, and how can planning decisions improve a neighbourhood’s accessibility?


Planning, Transport and Accessibility’ provides keen insights into why our neighbourhoods, town centres, and the city as a whole have been designed the way they have been. The book highlights the planning ideas of different eras, based on assumptions made by planners about how different people in our communities would manage their day-to-day activities and the transport mode they would take. The book shows how these ideas in the last two or three decades have moved towards the idea of ‘sustainable accessibility’. That is by (re-)designing urban areas in such a way that our activities can be undertaken closer to home – and preferably by walking or cycling, with public transport (instead of the private car) to offer transport choice for those longer distance trips beyond the neighbourhood. Accessibility tools provide ways of understanding and portraying how easy (or difficult) it is to get to places by different modes of transport.


Utrecht Woonerf. Photograph by Carey Curtis.


In many ways the pandemic has accelerated the progression towards the policy ideals set out in this book – as people have experienced and embraced more sustainable modes of transport and used shops, services and undertaken activities closer to home. This changed behaviour is critical given that we are also facing a climate emergency, where we need to rapidly de-carbonise our travel by switching to low carbon modes and by travelling less, and shorter distances. Indeed, we are witnessing some major changes in government actions – the introduction of ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ (LTN’s) in the UK, is one example, where access by through-traffic is reduced and the environment enhanced for walking and cycling. In many countries more cycle lanes have been quickly retrofitted in existing streets by claiming the space previously given over to private cars. Streets have been modified to provide nicer environments to walk, cycle and also for outdoor cafes.


Maps comparing walkability between two neighbourhoods. Images by Carey Curtis.



With such changes come challenges – not everyone wants the transformation. City mayors, property owners and small businesses are resistant to the newly adopted necessity/trend for many to work from home. They are concerned about loss of rates, rent and business in town and, especially, central business districts. Residents in areas adjoining LTN’s are concerned that they will experience high volumes of motorised traffic. But should we go backwards to satisfy these groups and so sacrifice the progress towards sustainable accessibility? Or is there another way? These are conversations that planners now need to turn their attention to – how we as a whole community (with all its disparate groups) want our urban areas to be, to function. We need to discuss how we can shed the negative outcomes of past designs and planning practices and embrace a future where accessibility to everyday activities is sustainable, and also equitable – serving all within our community. Planning, Transport and Accessibility’ provides insights into how these challenges can be deliberated and actions agreed by looking through a governance lens.


-- Carey Curtis, January 2021


Carey Curtis is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Guest Professor at the K2/University of Lund, Sweden, and Guest Researcher at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
She has published extensively in the areas of travel behaviour, transport and land-use planning, accessibility planning, and institutional barriers to sustainable urban development.


Planning, Transport and Accessibility is available to order from our website HERE.

And in eBook formats. Find out more HERE.