The right to (escape) the city: why affordable rural mobility is important for cities.

It is summer. I regularly take my bike out of the city for long rides, and enjoy spending time walking in forests and swimming in rivers. I’ll soon be heading up the Saint-Lawrence to Charlevoix for a few days. Many other Quebecers are also enjoying the summer months to get out of town…

All this makes me dread the car-free city: sin of sins (for a planner … one who cycles year-round to boot!) I am very glad to have a car.

Compact cities: OK – but how do we get out?

In the urban planning community there is a tendency to laud the 15-minute city, a ‘city’ within which services, leisure and jobs are all available within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The idea is to encourage density and allow people to live car-free, returning public space to pedestrians, bikes and small shuttles. Getting cars out of the city will reduce emissions, congestion and accidents.

Critics of the 15-minute city concept (such as myself) point out that it isn’t credible to generate the advantages and diversity of metropolitan areas within such small ‘villages’: such critics argue that inter-neighbourhood mobility makes the city. To address congestion, public space, and pollution issues, metropolitan areas should be organised around public transport (walking and bikes do not usually allow metro areas to be traversed easily by everyone). Again, cars – electric or not – are not part of this solution, which, similarly to the 15-minute city, seeks to encourage density and to return public space to pedestrians, cyclists and shuttles1.

Both these visions for compact cities (premised on public and active mobility, either local or city-wide) tend to view urban areas as self-sufficient and contained: whilst some thought is given to mobility between cities, movement between cities and rural areas and movement within rural areas are ignored.

… should either of these [compact city] visions come to fruition, there is a danger that many people will be trapped in the urban realm […]

This is not a compelling vision: the car-free city risks being unequal (in terms of who can escape) and unattractive (to those trapped there).

In other words, should either of these visions come to fruition, there is a danger that many people will be trapped in the urban realm – of course, not those fortunate enough to have cars: but cars will become the preserve of the very well-off (since, by design, car ownership will have been put out of reach of most people). Car-sharing, at least in its current form, simply does not work for rural and remote destinations, and – should compact-cities become reality – will tend to disappear as walking, bikes, Uber-like shuttles and public transport take over.

This is not a compelling vision: the car-free city risks being unequal (in terms of who can escape) and unattractive (to those trapped there).

The right to escape the city

Compact-city solutions to urban mobility do not take seriously the need for urban residents to escape: they only address travel within cities. Yet, as summer wears on, and as many of us enjoy road trips, camping trips, or rural bike rides, we (and by ‘we’ I mean the planners writing and reading this!) take for granted our ability to get out of cities. These escapes are particularly important for people living in small apartments and dense 15-minute neighbourhoods.

The possibility of escaping the city should be a ‘right’: Lefebvre’s right to the city should be extended to include a right to escape the city.

Cities, for all their wonders, bike paths, curated green spaces, museums and public swimming pools are simply not designed to provide space for being alone, for getting away from noise and over-stimulation, or for simply diving into cool lakes, hiking, or riding bikes for long hours at high speeds.

Those who can try to spend time out of the city each year. Furthermore, it is those who least need to escape (i.e. who live in pleasant green urban neighbourhoods) who are most likely to have access to rural and remote areas: they own cars, have access to cottages, immerse themselves in creative retreats

A non-urban bike ride. Source: http://www.tourisme-megantic.com/fr/quoi-faire/la-region-de-megantic-a-velo

Avoiding the trap: integrating rural transport solutions into urban thinking

For compact-city planners to not inadvertently turn cities into traps, they need to think within a wider framework, one that includes transport provision towards and within rural and remote areas.

Escape is possible: three brief examples and one counter-example

I am more-or-less familiar with the public transport systems of four countries.

In Britain, in the 1980s, there were still many branch railway lines that allowed access to remote villages in unlikely places (I remember taking a train from London to a small village in Snowdonia – North Wales – for a hiking trip). These branch-lines have now been dismantled: although they gave great value to the overall rail network, they were not individually profitable.

In France the story is similar, except that energetic dismantling took place a few years later. The small branch-lines, often served by the yellow and red ‘Michelines’, allowed access to some tiny and remote places; they were also dismantled because they were not individually profitable.

Musée ferroviaire, Confolens
The fate of small rural rail-lines. Source: “Musée ferroviaire, Confolens” by thierry llansades is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Switzerland, at least around 2010 when I spent some time there, there still seemed to be quite a few small rail lines leading out of cities. I was impressed when, early on a Sunday morning, I hopped on a train with my brother to ride up into the Bernese Oberland for a hike: the train was full of hikers, but since it stopped at many small places only a few got off with us and we enjoyed a day in the mountains essentially by ourselves. I was further impressed by the fact that, having walked up a col and down the other side, there was a rural bus (which arrived exactly on time) that returned us to the train station. Miracle of miracles (for a Canadian) the bus timetable was synchronised with the trains!

Widnau - Switzerland
Disused (?) rural railway… even in Switzerland. Source: “Widnau – Switzerland” by Kecko is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Finally, Canada. A country of open spaces and nature, almost completely inaccessible without a car. In Canada, compact-city ‘solutions’ to urban congestion, pollution and space constraints will turn cities into traps. There are only a few bus routes that allow travel to medium-sized cities (but it is virtually impossible to carry any equipment – especially not bikes – on them3). Rural and remote areas are out of reach to anyone without a car. It is easier to travel from Montreal to Vancouver (4500km) by public transport than from Montreal to Scotstown (200km), or, indeed, Farnham (60km).

Even in Canada, areas such as the Laurentians (a hilly, lake-filled, forested area about 60km north of Montreal) used to be accessible by train, as Mordechai Richler recounts in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (the railway-line Duddy takes to the camp has now become a long-distance touristic bike path). Likewise, the Eastern townships (including Farnham and Scotstown) used to be accessible without a car….

Rural trains are probably not the solution: why not ride and drive?

Of course, rural train networks may now be anachronistic (though maybe not…).

Bus-services that function partly on-demand, often with smaller vehicles, may be an alternative.

Car-sharing schemes specifically designed for rural areas could also work if affordable: this would be especially useful for car-free urban residents, but could also be of use to rural residents.

A major issue, though, would be how to make such schemes affordable when the low-density of rural areas means that cars risk being idle (for example, parked at a camp-site, trail head or cottage) for hours or days.

Another issue would be preventing these shared cars from entering cities: maybe ‘ride and drive’ (ride to the extremity of urban public transport lines, and drive to rural areas) would work…

To conclude: compact cities depend upon good rural transport

Unless our transport system allows meaningful escape2 from the compact city – i.e. connects and interconnects with a wide variety of rural places (maybe by interfacing with an affordable and flexible ‘ride and drive’ network) – then the private vehicle will remain attractive to urban residents, if only to escape cities when they want to.

Regulating or pricing urban cars out of existence, favouring car-free lifestyles, without also planning for escape, will turn cities into traps, particularly for the less well-off. I remain confident and optimistic that wealthier people will always find ways to enjoy both the city and the rural, as they have since ancient Roman times!

My main concern is that urban planners, in their understandable efforts to reduce car use and parking in cities, may yet transform access to forests, rivers, fields and lanes into unaffordable luxuries.

  1. Shuttles are important: I include them to make clear that some people – such as the elderly, parents of very young children, or those living with physical mobility impediments -cannot necessarily cycle or walk.
  2. Meaningful escape entails a transport system that provides regular links, is practical (not too many changes; coordinated timetables), has good connections, is affordable, provides capacity to transport equipment (such as bikes, large ruck-sacks, purchased items), has effective last-mile local solutions… This is a tall order for public transport! It explains the attraction and usefulness of individualised automobiles, and explains why rural car-sharing schemes – complex to administer because of the low density of rural areas – may be the way forward. Keeping such schemes affordable, so that everyone can escape the city, will be a real challenge: indeed, they should become a form of subsidised public transport, just like urban buses, trams and underground trains. Within cities, Uber-like solutions (generically referred to as ‘shuttles’ in the text) could be there for when public transport, walking and bikes aren’t practical.
  3. It is possible to book one’s bike onto a bus and get it delivered to any stop on the bus’s route. So transport is not impossible, but requires good advanced planning: no impromptu rural rides! Also, this just works along main highways: these inter-city buses rarely stray from them.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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