Social Transport Equity by Planning for Proximity.

Call “Recercaixa”, Caixabank. 

Urban proximity is undergoing a revival. Fuelled by the climate emergency and the COVID19 crisis, new precepts on short-distance travel, and active modes of transport are breaking long-held planning traditions in a ground-breaking paradigm shift. In recent years both urban and transport planning are experiencing a proximity turn that aims at resolving some of our current environmental, social and health problems by investing in geographic nearness, short-distance travelling and planning following basic chronourbanism principles.

Planning for proximity offers the promise of short-distance everyday mobility and a major shift towards active modes of transport. It is this combination of planning, for both spatial proximity and active modes of transport, which differentiates hyper-proximity policies from traditional compact city approaches, that would allow for a reduction of energy consumption and emissions, and would contribute heavily to transportation equity and justice, and create a healthier city. This triad of potential benefits holds such promise that in recent years cities have pushed for hyper-proximity policies under different labels, seeking to reap the benefits of proximity.

To date, however, only scant case study research in the body of literature – some of which has been authored by myself 1–5- has addressed the potential and the limitations of such an approach. More importantly, there has been no attempt to actually benchmark the real effects of proximity on daily mobility.

I propose to undertake such benchmarking by systematically analysing the nature and impact of hyper-proximity conditions and policies in 15 cities and by using tracking devices to test their efficacy in actual everyday changing mobility patterns. Additionally, I will provide the first scientific-based definition of what urban proximity is and what constitutes an urban proximity policy, thus opening up new opportunities for research. My main hypothesis (H1) is that concentrating the spatial layout of basic everyday destinations will have a positive impact on modal choice, travelled distances and time invested in travel. My secondary hypothesis (H2) is that these effects will be heavily mediated by socioeconomic, built environment and local cultural contexts. My third hypothesis (H3) is that proximity will prove to be especially beneficial for the inclusion and health of vulnerable population groups.

Summary of Research outcomes

  1. The development of an open-access inventory of urban proximity planning initiatives, with full details of each policy, its aims, key indicators and methodological reports. Harmonisation of existent proximity policies towards a unified concept of what proximity is and how it can be realised through planning.
  2. A new framework to measure proximity at the local level, based on the Urban Hyper-Proximity Index (UHPI), which is designed to measure local conditions in relation to walking/cycling distances to basic amenities that will be set up after an analysis of international policy and a review of the literature.
  3. A novel theory bringing together planning-for-proximity with research on short-distance sustainable travel determinants, presenting: (a) changes needed in the built environment to create real potential for proximity, (b) social and health benefits of switching to short-distance travel, (c) local readiness for proximity, expressed by the willingness to adapt travel habits to short distances, and the acceptance of potential restrictions to non-sustainable forms of travel, and (d) the policies and measures that best address barriers or threats to proximity creation, either at the built environment or the community level.
  4. A clear picture of what works, and what does not work, in our attempts to use the built environment to create sustainable travel; and a deeper understanding of the wide-encompassing effects of such changes.