How Can Deconstructing ‘Cities as a System’ Indicate a Roadmap to Decarbonised Urban Mass Movement?

by Danial Naqvi

Danial Naqvi


Tobler’s first law of Geography states that ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’1. Reconciling the need to decarbonise mass movement with existing relations, boundaries, perspectives and interests at stake requires a holistic approach2. Thinking geographically, the point of this essay is to bound the goal of decarbonised mass movement within the context of cities. While cities, otherwise referred to as the built environment, provide economic prosperity and cultural richness, they fundamentally exist in contradiction to the natural environment. Here, I want to pose the city as a system. Why? Cities are complex densities of people and things. They have deeply rooted infrastructures, institutions and ideals that significantly shape any prospect of a vibrant urban future. Seeing the city as a system allows the room to uncover the partnerships and interconnections required to deliver decarbonised urban mass movement3, within the current context of how Western cities operate and their future trajectories. To do this, first I’ll outline the history of urban transport governance. Next, I’ll introduce and explain four emerging concepts and ideas, which may support an agenda towards decarbonised mass movement. Finally, I’ll conclude by reiterating the partnerships and synergies required to make this goal a reality in cities and what a best practice scenario in cities could mean for elsewhere.

Past and Present Urban Transport Governance

To start, imagine stripping back the contemporary city to its fundamentals. What do you see? A plot of land purpose-built to drive investment to fund jobs, which brings people, culture and the beginnings of an urban society. While each city has its own political arrangement, the broad history follows that city governance shifted from a mode of universal service provision to selective and marketized access in the 1970s4. This change has seen urban governments become more entrepreneurial with their resources and competing across contexts, instead of focusing directly on serving residents. This led to the undoing of nationalising public transport such as trains and buses, creating competition through hiking prices and inequalities in service provision. Who was conditioning this change? The national state has always had a quiet hand in urban development5. The interconnections in institutions and politics that occur between the national and urban government levels is well-understood6; however, it makes ideas of integrated urban mass movement difficult to overcome without systems thinking. This mode of governing has opened the door to a raft of special interests who lobby city officials for favourable urban futures, such as for the building of roads to support unsustainable modes of travel. Currently, cities operate on the most efficient basis to enable relations between people, business and culture; however, environmental sustainability is only starting to become part of the political landscape. As such, the changing tide is bringing in new ideas for decarbonising urban mass movement, which will start to move the needle towards the future we need to enact.

Emerging Concepts and Ideas

In this section, I want to introduce and explain four emerging concepts and ideas: 15-minute city, hub and spoke city model, urban experimentation and platform-based mobility management, which, considered through systems thinking, may create avenues for sustainable future movement. 15-Minute City As places grow from villages to towns to cities, our ability to walk or bike from work or the shops to home becomes difficult. Cities grow at exponential rates and oftentimes the infrastructure cannot keep up7. Consequently, the premise behind the 15-minute city is to make amenities reachable by walking or cycling will significantly reduce reliance on road transport for long journeys across cities8. Examples of attempts to design 15-minute cities are visible in Barcelona with ‘superblocks’9 and recently the Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans to make some of the twenty arrondissements into trail 15-minute city venues10. Furthermore, Melbourne and Singapore have opted to include variations of the concept in future transport strategies11. An emphasis on active travel, as a zero-carbon transit mode, is undoubtedly a positive move for cities; however, given the post-war boom for motorways and road travel, most Western cities are not designed for the pedestrian. Does this mean building more places or retrofitting existing locations to suit? The former puts further short-term strain on the natural environment affecting climate resilience and species biodiversity whereas the latter will take considerable private investment, which affects the demographics of those who can benefit from this healthier style of urban living. These trade-offs recognise the contradictions we have dense human congregations and who benefits most from particular implementations. Nevertheless, the 15-minute city concept has an antecedence. Gated communities became a norm of suburbia after the intense period of highway development. While these communities appealed to a safer existence, they also sought to provide amenities within a local radius, allowing greater social cohesion within a smaller area12. Taking this concept forward to decarbonising mass movement leads to the next idea of the hub and spoke city model. Hub and Spoke City Model The history of urban transport governance shows a heavy reliance on national state support for decentralisation and connectivity. However, what the COVID-19 pandemic allowed was the acceleration of decentralisation as urban populations sought greater access to green space and nature during lockdowns13. The suburbanisation dynamic discussed above starts to take shape here; however, due to changing consumer values towards decarbonised living14, a new purpose can take form. This purpose could recognise the importance in supporting greater connectivity between urban-rural pathways and changes in education and governance required to undertake them. Looking at England, the economic cores of London, Birmingham and Manchester, control flows across different geographic regions of the country. The city-regions that surround them expand what is known as the city and create reliance on unsustainable modes of travel to get from one side to the other. Instead, focus on London as within the North and South Circular roads and create second-tier cities at strategic points in each compass direction, such as Maidstone, Crawley, Leatherhead, Reading, Watford, Harlow and Chelmsford. These second-tier cities can foster low-carbon infrastructural routes, which allow periphery populations to engage in specialised economies and community forms. Furthermore, to increase connectivity even more, third-tier cities can transform existing towns and villages into hubs for movement and connection, which may not otherwise occur. While what I have outlined above does already happen, the focus is often on the connections and relationship to the first-tier urban core. Here, what I’m proposing is while those connections are encouraged, there needs to be an emphasis in designing an internal lattice, which supports innovation and movement across smaller regions to support a decarbonised mass movement agenda. In turn, journeys to the bigger cities will be reduced, as we have seen over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. This evolution in the way cities operate, govern and manage population flows allows for new regional partnerships that rely on forecasted demand and supply.

“However, the challenge here is to understand who or what is governing transport in these areas. Who provides the funding? What does management look like? How do you integrate between places? The answer to these questions relies on understanding the perspectives of existing governments, businesses, investors and the public. Subsequently, plans to design movement patterns within these second- or third-tier cities will be contextual to their own environments; therefore, urban experiments have become popular instruments to test implementations before introducing them to the public domain.”

Urban Experiments Since the financial crisis in 2008, urban experiments allow companies, governments and interested parties to dry-run new technologies or solutions in a de-risked and regulatory-free environment15. In other words, cities become playgrounds and the collective brainpower of a number of organisations seek to shape the cities of tomorrow. The opportunity here is to understand, first individually and later together, how changing urban challenges can map to flexible multi modal technologies and solutions. Examples of this form of urban innovation are plentiful. The UK Government has invested heavily into the testing of connected and autonomous vehicles16. Other investments in Manchester at the Oxford Road Corridor have seen success through creating a ‘living laboratory’17 primed for experimentation. Even using Elon Musk’s hyperloop example shows the lengths that investment can go into taking leaps into a different type of transport future18. The point of urban experiments for decarbonised mass movement is to simultaneously test the economic viability while understanding if it contributes to notions of environmental sustainability. By operating in these special institutional arrangements, there is an element of shared learning and education that takes place, which can inform better transport decisions. Take Mobike, the dockless bike sharing platform company, that once operated in Manchester. They pulled out of the location due to vandalism19; however, succeeded elsewhere. Given that urban experiments can happen at any time and are contextual to the environment, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has recently announced a city-region led bike sharing platform called the ‘Bee Network’20. These docked bikes seek to encourage forms of active travel, which intend to have learned from the previous governance of the Mobike dockless bikes. Despite the failure of Mobike in Manchester, the local authority has understood the benefits for populations, rebranded and offered their own service. This idea of constant learning from experiments within and between cities allows for a continuous systems approach to decarbonised mass movement. The Manchester case provides an interesting segue to our final emerging concept in platform-based mobility management, which may provide the best approach to achieve the goal. Platform-Based Mobility Management Platform-based mobility management takes a step back and instead of the local authority as a mobility provider posits them as mobility managers. This shift can instil a different set of key performance indicators, such as decarbonising the urban environment, where the previous model would not allow. Furthermore, it could allow for more interactive and fruitful relationships between different modes of transport and service providers through utilising existing infrastructure and filling the gaps to ensure inclusion and opportunity. To illustrate, take a journey from suburban southeast London to Warner Bros Studio in Watford, northwest London. The usual route would be walking, taking a bus or driving to a local train station. Getting a train into central London, taking a tube, walking, another train, another bus and walking again. Overall, taking many modes and possibly paying different providers their set fee. Despite Transport for London’s zoning system, various service providers have to get paid in a number of different transactions. The proposal here is to create an integrated, platform-based system, which would transform the journey and would lead to a single consumer fee divided across the service providers in the backend. What this approach unlocks is the local transport authority as a mediator between movement across the network. For example, if the city wants to trial or understand what transport mix would be required to decarbonise mass movement, they could disincentivise road usage through variable tolling and incentivise public transport usage through discounting. This form of psychological nudging is contested21; however, would allow the city authority to manage, register and create flows for different purposes. This would also give an evidence, business and consumer case for future decarbonised infrastructural proposals as it promotes the relationships and partnerships required for action. While debates on urban platforms continue, the possibilities presented by this innovation reinforce an important point made by electric vehicle commentators. In thinking about ‘city as systems’, the ideal scenario is not to have everyone buy an electric car but to have a flexible mode of ownership scheme, which promotes interconnections between other modes22. This is because more electric cars on the road still leads to congestion and creates an over-reliance on road infrastructures to be built and maintained, at the expense of the environment. Set out through a mobility-managed platform, each city would receive a custom configuration to match the local governance structures. The closest integrated system that mimics this ambition, but for a different purpose, is the Hong Kong Octopus card which can be used across transport modes and in retail23. However, it does appear we are a long way from reaching this future, even if it is what we need to make decarbonised mass movement a reality.


In this essay, I have outlined the current state of affairs in urban transport governance as well as four new and exciting ways to decarbonise mass urban movement. First, I looked at the 15-minute city and discussed the trade-offs between inequality and promoting active travel. Second, I explored how the hub and spoke city model might disaggregate populations cramming into a dense urban core and allowing greater urban-rural connectivity through changing governance practices. Third, I outlined urban experiments and their utility in conducting tests on the existing built environments. Finally, I detailed the futuristic proposal of a platform-based mobility management system, which benefits from psychological nudges to encourage certain behaviours. Though contested, the development of this software should be democratic and include relevant regulatory constraints. The essay set out here bases on a different set of principles and priorities than today. In other words, moving away from neoliberal development to environmentally focused and healthy attitudes to urban mass movement. This, in itself, is an ambitious position to pose as it relies on changing institutional structures that are slow-moving. However, given the result of COP26 and the need to accelerate actions towards net-zero, there is an urgency to do something. Therefore, it is clear to me that we need methods to prove a business and political case, which stands the test of time. The principles of active travel between shops and homes, avoiding food deserts, relies on building meaningful relationships between retailers, residents and governments. These all consolidate within cities; however, mass movement beyond cities and between nations can adapt learnings from this smaller scale. If we can get it right in our cities, we have a much better chance of doing it elsewhere. Nevertheless, ultimately the changes necessary rely on the powers that be; however, posing questions like this essay answers and asks of readers are a fundamental step to move from an over-reliance on hydrocarbon transit and towards net-zero alternatives.

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