Healing the urban/rural divide, one hour at a time

Global cities expert Stephen Engblom explores the disintegration of the traditional hour radius of our cities’ economies and social fabric, and discusses how regional planning and cutting-edge transportation infrastructure may be the solution.

 Throughout history, cities’ development has been shaped by the length of time it takes a person to travel in a day, using the predominant transport mode of the time.  The concept of the ’Hour City‘ is based on Marchetti’s Constant — named after Italian systems analyst, Cesare Marchetti — which measured the average walking time (about one hour since Neolithic times) of people commuting from their village to the fields and back each day. When applied consistently, this timescale has resulted in eras with a unified sense of community and working economy.

While the invention of trains, and later automobiles, enabled people to travel greater distances, the average length of travel-time has remained the same. For centuries, this hour has been used to structure functioning societies — where jobs, housing and economic opportunity coexisted within easy reach.

The global economy has ushered in an era of enhanced trade, cultural exchange and economic expansion around the world. Yet, by some measures, it has also destabilized traditional local and regional economies. Disenfranchised urban populations and disparate areas, such as former manufacturing towns and rural communities, suffer when they lose their symbiotic/supportive relationship with their core city. Reduced access to well-paying jobs, along with extended commutes, the affordable housing crisis in urban areas, and resultant social fragmentation, all contribute and help fuel a divide between those who have benefited and those marginalized by globalization.

According to the U.S. Census 2015 American Community Survey, the number of workers who spent 90 minutes or more in their daily commute rose by 8 percent in 2015. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, the number of workers spending 90 minutes or more rose by 113 percent between 2005 and 2016. This is not unique to the U.S., London residents are now spending, on average, 81 minutes in their daily commute.

People who live closer to jobs are more likely to work. They also face shorter job searches and spells of joblessness; proximity to employment proves particularly important to certain kinds of workers and residents. For example, the duration of joblessness among black, female, and older workers (groups who also are more likely to be underserved by transport options) tends to be more sensitive to job accessibility than it is for other kinds of workers.

Lengthy travel times can have a devastating effect on the health and wellbeing of individuals and their families. Access to affordable housing disproportionately affects low-income communities and critical service workers, such as police officers, firefighters and teachers, who are forced into longer commutes.

To better deliver well-paying jobs, affordable housing, and reasonable commutes, cities need to reestablish the hour balance. New transportation technologies, such as high-speed rail, hyperloop, the transition from private vehicle ownership to Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), and the promise of connected and automated vehicles, enables us to imagine new patterns of mobility and ways to connect previously distinct regions into new mega-regions within a one-hour radius.

 We need regional planning to orchestrate transportation technologies

Innovations in transportation technologies can either be a part of the solution, or they can exacerbate the problem. For example, connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles with high-speed rail, or linking Sydney to Melbourne with a hyperloop may expand the range of jobs to which high-tech workers and investment bankers have access (as airports do now), but leave those outside urban areas as disconnected as ever from the global economy. Combining this macro-level system with lower levels of transit and on-demand mobility services is essential to ensure a new backbone system that will work for all.

We must find ways for these new systems, regardless of the mode, to be viewed and conceived of as access infrastructure, connecting residents at every income level to jobs. Strategic regional planning that brings together former manufacturing towns and under-invested areas of our cities with workforce education and supporting infrastructure investment can strengthen these communities and signal to the new economies of the world that they are fit for purpose.

Around the world, several current regional planning initiatives are creating possible solutions to tackle these challenges. This includes the initiatives featured here, the successes and growing pains of which offer valuable lessons for regional planning across the globe.

Greater London: Can alpha city translate to alpha nation?

The establishment of the Greater London Authority (GLA) in 2000 has helped London remain one of the world’s alpha cities. The GLA has jurisdiction over land planning in London as well as the Greater London region. Through the GLA’s leadership, the Greater London area will expand its hour radius with an ambitious high-speed national rail program, growing from a 10-million-person region to a 30 million-person region — attracting new talent and investment, as a result.

The GLA has been involved in developing high-speed rail to create these connections, including HS1, the high-speed rail line that opened in 2007 and connected London with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, alongside the region’s major towns and cities. Its successor, HS2, now under development, will link London with historic manufacturing centers, such as Birmingham and Manchester, that have in the past been negatively impacted by globalization —as well as Scotland.

Given the ongoing Brexit debate, a more strategic, holistic approach to regional planning could help a post-Brexit UK to succeed. If fragmented planning systems can be overcome, a global London could help drive the evolution of a fully functioning network of cities, within an hour’s reach of good jobs and affordable housing, across England.

Australian cities: Learning and leading

 The GLA’s model has already inspired a similar entity in Australia, the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC). This government agency has produced a regional plan for Sydney as it grows to 8 million people, setting a vision of equitable economic growth across the region by coordinating land-use, transportation and infrastructure planning.

 Another good example of regional planning is the Victoria Planning Authority’s work on Plan Melbourne. Plan Melbourne calls for a hub-and-spoke strategy with rail infrastructure that would integrate new employment and innovation clusters to help the city attract investment globally and drive jobs locally, all interconnected with the city’s main transport systems. To guide this holistic approach, Victoria created the new Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions in early 2019 and has proposed a network of Employment and Innovation Clusters that correlate to this transportation network, envisioning a comprehensive approach to regional economic development.

For more information, read the VPA and AECOM’s Victorian Employment and Innovation report.

China: Connecting urban/rural

 To address the growing inequities between its urban and rural populations, China is now requiring all cities to develop long-range development plans every five years, inclusive of both urban and rural areas, through regular planning and strategy cycles. The central government has placed a premium on coordinated economic development to help bridge the disparity between economically prosperous cities and rural areas, where populations are registered separately according to the national hukou system. The most recent national five-year plan, the 13th, covers the years 2016 to 2020 and names 19 ’city clusters‘, designated to engage in regional coordination of development, including construction of high-speed rail, urban rail, intercity rail, and other transportation infrastructure. Additionally, China operates the world’s most extensive network of high-speed rail systems.

Although many countries are currently struggling with implementing such vast rail networks, the long-range regional planning methodology is a tool that could be easily customized and replicated to ensure that global cities plan for and integrate their hinterlands.

California: Evolving beyond the car

The automobile played a strong role in shaping California’s development, and it is deeply intertwined with the culture and lifestyle. However, the state’s largest metropolitan areas now suffer from serious traffic congestion and insufficient public transit capacity and coordination. Housing costs have skyrocketed in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and other major cities, pricing out lower- and moderate-income workers. To continue to compete in the global economy, California will need to redefine itself into a series of mega-regions linked by transportation infrastructure and economies that work for everyone.

California is aiming to be the first state in the U.S. to connect urban centers with high-speed rail. In 2008, the State Assembly passed a bill to establish a high-speed rail network that would connect Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, the Los Angeles area, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego, starting with a San Francisco to Los Angeles link. High-speed rail would help alleviate the housing affordability crisis in the Bay Area and other high-cost cities in California, enabling workers in these job centers to buy or rent in farther-out, more affordable communities while their daily commute becomes under an hour. Weaving this macro-level system with last mile and on-demand mobility services/options is essential to ensuring the new backbone system will work for all. Coordinated with new housing developments adjacent to stations, high-speed rail would boost the Central Valley’s economy in places that have had less success in attracting investment for the past several decades.

Unfortunately, fragmented priorities, cost overruns, NIMBYism, and the withdrawal of federal funds by the current administration have pushed the realization of high-speed rail much further into the future than originally planned. Additionally, slow environmental permitting and fragmented governance, as well as a lack of strong statewide ability to mandate these transport programs, have contributed to project overruns and delays.

However, there is progress. In July of this year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a request for qualifications for US$1.6 billion of design and construction work for the first leg of the system. In 2016, voters in Los Angeles County approved Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase to raise an expected US$120 billion for transportation infrastructure over 40 years, with most of the revenue targeted at expanding rail, subway, and bus systems.

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) will publish the SPUR Regional Strategy in 2021, a three-year initiative designed to provide guidance for regional land use, transportation, and economic planning and develop a vision for what the Bay Area can become by the year 2070. This plan advocates for a 90-minute commute from anywhere in the mega-region to key economic centers and a 60-minute commute within the current core on existing systems. Inspired by the passage of Measure M in Los Angeles County, SPUR is also involved in preparing a US$100 billion bond measure for expanding and coordinating public transportation in the Bay Area’s nine counties. These more modest approaches are incrementally in the right direction. However, to be truly competitive, California must be bold and implement the vision of San Francisco to Los Angeles as an hour-region.

 Re-setting the clock

 There are three core areas where city and planning authorities must focus their efforts:

1/ Governance

To reestablish the hour city, regional planning must coordinate development of transportation in tandem with housing, commercial, and social infrastructure development, as well as other crucial infrastructure, such as water and energy. It must also consider environmental enhancements. Effective regional planning requires cities and agencies to work across jurisdictions and identify co-benefits and cost savings.

2/ Mode-agnostic

In considering transportation innovations, change is constant. As such, it is important not to focus too much on any given type of technology, but to focus first on establishing the transportation corridors and obtaining rights-of-way that make the most sense for economic growth and development. It may be that some corridors would be well served by both high-speed rail and hyperloop while also able to accommodate drone traffic, for example.

3/ Popular Demand

Realizing this new future will require engaging and exciting the public — both those who are connected to the global economy and those who are currently marginalized. We need members of both the public and private sector to communicate effectively about how everyone benefits from investing in regional economic development strategies and the required infrastructure. We last did this 70 years ago at the 1939 World’s Fair where the idea of cars and cloverleaf highways were introduced as the infrastructure that promised the last century’s hour city of the suburbs. Today, we need to come together and rally around an exciting new vision of the future.

Cities that step up to the challenge and embrace regional planning and transportation infrastructure to reconnect marginalized populations and reenergize local economies will be able to reunify socially, economically, and environmentally and thrive in the next generation of the global economy.