Book review (my first ever written)

Update. Published 9 March 2016 here

Mobility Patterns and Urban Structure by Paulo Pinho and Cecília Silva

Review published here
Journal URBAN DESIGN International, 21(3), 276-277
DOI 10.1057/udi.2016.4

Spatial planning has been a core tool and element for preparing and realising sustainable low carbon transport systems and their effective usage. This book not just highlights the importance of the role of spatial planning, but also adds further evidence and narrative for the efficacy of land-use planning to that effect. It is achieved by using tested scientific analyses: the application of two methods (quantitative and mixed-methods) firstly by relating them to each other and secondly through a comparison of two European cities.

The early chapters offer the reader a systematic and pragmatic summary of recent research history on transport and land-use planning. Chapters 1 to 4 hence inform as well as provide a contextual setting for the subsequent chapters. The authors set out the importance of research and its outcomes to affect policy formulation and implementation. The chapters incidentally also lament a certain lack of policy implementation appropriately happening in reality to date. In addition, there are hints and mentions of provision for equality and justice in transport – gender being one factor described here.

The first three chapters make an enjoyably informative, theoretically and practically engaging, read on the background and history of the sustainable travel discipline. Chapter 1 describes the aim and purpose of the book, defined as attempting to further evidence the linkage strength between urban structure and mobility patterns. The authors’ motivation is to inform policy by amassing further evidence and by strengthening the narrative for decision-makers. The second chapter summarises the influence of socio-demographics on travel choices and its connection to city design and structure particularly viewed from the city planning perspective. Chapter 3 looks at the interaction between personal characteristics and decision-making within city transport networks. A recurring aspect in this chapter is centrality of structure: mono-centres and polycentric shapes.

The two cities comparatively analysed are Copenhagen and Oporto (Porto). These are adequately and usefully outlined as much in numbers as in descriptive text in chapter 4. For example, their differing mode share is listed and discussed. It is noted, not surprisingly to the reader, that Copenhagen varies from Oporto by its high use of cycles and its lower use of public transport. Further, Oporto’s structure shows a poly-centric nature, compared to a more mono-centric layout of Copenhagen, effecting different travel patterns.

The book dutifully proceeds with introducing the reader to the methods, employed for the comparative analysis, in chapters 5 and 6 – with the quantitative method ‘Structural Assessment Layer’ and the ‘Explanatory Qualitative-Quantitative Method’, respectively. Both use macro elements of urban structure, and are not concerned with any micro-scale factors of the urban environment to be precise. Since the research question was to further evidence the links between urban structure and travel, as well as to promote, verify and consolidate the methods, both methods are drawing on macro-scale factors such as population density and their centrality to destinations. Moving on, the following two chapters, 7 and 8, practically apply these methods to the two cities (Copenhagen and Oporto). The book structure continues to be flawlessly logical assisting the reader in seeing its arguments and case developed and leading, seamlessly, to the concluding thoughts.

The combined discussion, results and conclusions can be found in a rather short last chapter. Clear and unequivocal results from both analyses show that the urban macro structure creates mobility patterns and the layout of a city shapes its travel patterns. These results can be used for land-use and transport planning policy, and hold wider implications for related policies such as climate change, energy, public health and environment protection. An argument that is emphatically reiterated in the book is the tremendous influence that Copenhagen’s land-use policy, the ‘Finger Plan’, exerted on its shape that it showcases today. Copenhagen’s structure and the related transport landscape has not happened by chance, it was planned and laid out. This is in contrast to Oporto’s more liberal approach to spatial planning resulting in an overall looser urban form limiting opportunity for low carbon travel.

It is left open, to quite a degree, who the intended target audience for this book is. This makes sense in many ways, as the interested readers should come from many fields and subject areas such as engineers, planners, social and communication specialists, policy formulators to name a few. On the other hand, if influencing policy was one of the book’s core intents, then an opportunity may have been missed to address and engage policy makers more directly. It remains an academically written and expressed content which necessitates translation to other, less theoretically motivated, fields outside academia.

If a reader obtained the book with the intention to find out more about gender aspects of urban structure and transport, they will be disappointed. There is very little that delivers on that aspect – perhaps quite an important and timely demographic angle to leave out of the discussion. There are some hints in earlier chapters and general summaries on gender travel behaviour, but this interest does not translate through to the end; the gender thread fades. The methods employed may not have made possible a gender-distinct analysis; and so it remains a shortfall, perhaps an omission even, in the book’s otherwise rather holistic context.

The authors make no excuses for solely looking at the macro elements of urban planning rather than micro scales of street layouts and networks, and neither would that be expected of them. It would be interesting, although beyond the scope of the analytical methods employed in this book, to further drill down into finer elements. Current research, for a while now, has seemed to concentrate on finding these relevant micro elements that influence travel choice and behaviour. The element definition is often simply motivated by availability of data or technical means. However transport manifests itself to us in inter-connected networks and these can be hard to describe and define – the quest may be ongoing still, for yet a while to come. The task may even prove impossible ultimately or possibly even a futile, especially in any absence of a strong spatial planning policy which may well function as the bedrock for successful transport policy and implementation.

A notable exclusion in the book is the mention of ‘culture’. Its exclusion seems very ample and just. Advocates of sustainable travel can get stuck on discussing cultural norms and traditions when these evidently pale into insignificance when pitched against the policy, environmental and structural constraints that are presented to the city user by urban patterns and plans. Furthermore, the comparison of two European or Western major cities, Copenhagen and Oporto, could also make cultural differences to be less starkly pronounced in the first instance, giving further approval to a marginal influence of culture.

The book, by providing further evidence, makes important contributions to the debate on structured regulation and policy making. If urban patterns make and break an individual’s travel options, then controls like land-use planning policies are vital to provide better and healthier travel choices to people. Spatial policy works as a pre-requisite gate-keeper to effective transport planning. It is a clear notion of the authors that both cities, Copenhagen and Oporto, remain car-centric in their general travel behaviour. These two cities, put under the macro-element microscope by the analyses presented in this book, set significant signals for the decades ahead, projecting future choices for our cities.


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