Urbanism Reflections from a Trip to London 💭

Urban Systems Design for People and the Planet

Welcome to Fostering Our Earth, a space for untangling the complex systems needed for a sustainable future, from infrastructure and policies to lifestyles and cultures.

This week, we’re going on an adventure across the pond to the bustling metropolis of London. I couldn’t help but turn my recent birthday vacation into a field trip to learn more about sustainable urban systems in practice abroad. I am curious about paying attention to the systems that make our communities tick and exploring how we can improve that design for both people and the planet. What I found was a city that provides a glimpse into what one iteration of a sustainable future could look like. This informative reflection-turned-case study is a deep dive into how London is leading the way in sustainable urban design, with a particular focus on transportation. I shared several of my observations in this Twitter thread here so you can check it out for more!

Context 📌

London is the United Kingdom’s largest city, with a population similar to that of New York City (around 9 million) but a population density closer to Chicago (about 14,000 people per square mile). With millions of residents and a huge economic impact in the UK and worldwide, managing growth sustainably can be challenging. Nevertheless, London has set an ambitious goal of achieving net zero carbon by 2030. This means that the city's emissions must be offset by taking the same amount out of the atmosphere, essentially canceling them out. To achieve this, London aims to reduce emissions from buildings, energy systems, and transportation. In particular, London aims to encourage behavioral changes towards more active, shared, and public transportation options (do these sound familiar?). During my trip, my observations aligned mostly with transportation and how the city works to achieve its goals.

London’s Public Transit System 🚆

I previously defined a sustainable mobility system as accessible, reliable, comfortable, affordable, and efficient, and London's public transit system checks most of those boxes.

Its public transit system, comprised of the London Underground (subway) and bus network, is complete. These get you almost everywhere you need to go, but they are easy and mainly comfortable to use. For example, you can pay for all transit with mobile pay, removing the barrier of keeping track of a transport card. This might seem tiny, but it makes a big difference. But, of course, you can still use a regular transport card.

Additionally, every bus shelter I encountered had a real-time tracker for the incoming buses, providing much-needed reliability (see below).

Bus shelter with real-time bus tracking

I never worried about missing a specific bus or train because there was always another less than 10 minutes away. While the bus and underground systems can get you almost anywhere in the city, there is still room for improvement, particularly for buses. Because buses share lanes with cars, they are subject to traffic, and efficiency could be improved. Regarding affordability, transport is relatively inexpensive, with fare caps if you're traveling within or across different zones.

Non-Transit Mobility 🚘

Not all trips are made on public transit, and like several cities in the US, cars are ever-present. London uses practices such as congestion charges and ultra-low emission zone charges to minimize transport emissions and encourage EV use while supporting cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit. The c-charge is a fee for driving within the congestion charge zone in Central London at certain times. The ULEZ charge is a fee for driving a vehicle that doesn’t meet emissions standards. What’s really cool is the revenue from these charges is even used to fund transport infrastructure.

Congestion Charge Sign

Transit Zone (outer to inner): Low-Emissions Zone (green), Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (blue), Congestion Charge (red),

This could look like more protected bike lanes. Of course, London’s no Copenhagen, but biking infrastructure like this below (with stripped demarcation) at intersections makes it safer for riding.

Bike lane demarcation across the intersection

Mobility, Stadiums, Housing, and Community Design 🗺️

Designing destinations with sustainable mobility in mind is critical for improving urban systems; take stadiums, for example. Instead of prioritizing parking lots, stadiums like the Emirates and Stamford Bridge are integrated into the surrounding communities, emphasizing accessible public transit stations and housing. This encourages the use of public transportation and promotes community engagement.

In contrast, many stadiums in the US are surrounded by vast parking lots, which perpetuate car-dependent systems and isolate fans' experiences. The game day experience in the US often involves navigating through parking lots and finding one's car afterward, which is inconvenient and takes up a lot of valuable space! This is especially concerning given that several cities struggle with providing affordable housing, and "no state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters," according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Imagine we take these vast parking lots for malls, stadiums, etc., turn them into housing, and build transit around them so people can reach them. This is transit-oriented development and a much better use of space while providing housing options. Of course, this has more nuances, but this is the gist! When you’re out and about, pay attention to how much space we devote to parking lots.

Conclusion 🔚

London’s urban systems are not perfect, but they offer valuable insights into what a step toward a more sustainable future could look like. Its principles of congestion pricing, mixed-use commercial areas, and investing in active infrastructure can be applied to demand more and better from our built environment, no matter where we live. Crucially, they can take us a step towards reducing our emissions and protecting our planet. I implore you to continually engage with the world around you and ask how it can be made better for ourselves and our planet. If you have any comments or feedback, either leave them below or respond in the form here!

Now that I’m back from a short break, I’ll return to regular, bi-weekly newsletters exploring sustainable urban systems. I’ve also been interviewing tons of incredible folks for the podcast — check out the trailer here!

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