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Better Access to Urban Opportunities: Accessibility Policy for Cities in the 2020s

A new urban reset in a decade of crisis

Governments have a unique opportunity to help cities recover from the global pandemic, prepare for the climate emergency and reduce poverty, by making cities more accessible, sustainable and inclusive.

A new paper by the Coalition, ‘Better Access to Urban Opportunities: Accessibility Policy for Cities in the 2020s’, analyses the policy choices made by governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and makes recommendations to national governments to boost recovery through policies that promote more compact, connected, clean and inclusive cities.

Opportunity to seize the moment to improve urban accessibility

The global pandemic has accelerated urban transformations at a pace and scale unprecedented in recent times.  With immediate effect, streets were closed to vehicles, dining moved outdoors, and busy rush hours all but disappeared as large populations were told to work from home. The changes have provided a glimpse of an alternative urban future.  Cities have been offered a testing ground for urban policy innovation at a pace never seen before, and government recovery strategies will determine how they look in a post-pandemic world.

The urgency to transform cities was present before the onset of COVID-19, with the climate emergency demanding rapid action to decarbonise society, alongside a pressing need to address the growing rise in poverty and inequality.  As concentrated hubs to connect people with opportunities, goods, and services, cities are disproportionally impacted by these three crises.  The cities that emerge in a post-pandemic world could be more accessible – clean, connected, compact and inclusive – or they could be worse off – more unequal, carbon intensive and sprawling – without careful choices by governments facing the triple crisis in the current decade.

The new study analysed pandemic recovery spending across nine countries – China, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States – and classified the actions in terms of their contribution to clean, connected, compact and inclusive cities.  The results showed that there were promising measures implemented across the transport sector in many of the countries, including support for rail networks, urban public transport systems, electric vehicles, walking and cycling infrastructure and low-traffic neighborhoods.  From repurposing streets to be vehicle free in Seattle, to new bike lane systems in Seoul, many of the changes offer potential to promote greater urban accessibility if continued beyond the pandemic. Major investments were also made in housing constructions and upgrades, with those measures that prioritise vulnerable people and neighbourhoods likely to promote greater inclusion. 

The new risk: losing important gains in urban accessibility

Many recovery strategies were focused on avoiding catastrophe by responding to the short term social and economic problems that emerged.  Government bailouts to avoid housing evictions, or the collapse of public transport and aviation industries were among the most common stimulus measures adopted across the nine countries.

Some of these short-term investments and policy choices could set countries back and foster weaker urban accessibility. Fear of transit continues to impact the number of people travelling on public transport and is compounded by ongoing incentives to purchase electric cars.  Trends of this kind could result in a long-term shift away from public transport usage.  Equally, massive house construction programmes, like those adopted in Mexico and South Africa during the pandemic, could exacerbate urban sprawl if they are not guided by careful land use planning.

These trends need urgent attention by governments during the policy window.  If spending is not prioritised, there is a risk that new behaviours, which don’t promote urban accessibility but exacerbate inequalities and increase fossil fuel dependency, will become embedded. At that point cities will likely be trapped on a trajectory which is even harder to reverse.

Taking action: policy recommendations for national governments 

The research is offered as a guide to focus recovery spending and provides six recommendations for national governments. They include 15-minute neighborhoods, where city needs can be delivered close to home; taking cars off the roads; and policy reforms to consider how land is used and planned. There is an urgent need to shift urban policy away from a focus on improving mobility, towards enhancing accessibility and the digital infrastructure that connects urban residents to the things they need to thrive.  Office buildings may never return to full occupancy but could be intentionally repurposed to provide alternative public amenities in line with a broader land-use policy.  

The full list of recommendations for national governments:

  • Realign national transport policies and budgets
  • Reform housing and land use policy
  • Support the trend towards hyper-localisation and the 15-minute neighbourhood
  • Facilitate the growth of new urban mobility options and last-mile connectivity
  • Encourage cities to reallocate road space and engage in tactical urbanism
  • Provide new finance for metropolitan-wide transport systems

In addition to these priorities, national policymakers need to address two policy blind spots – digital connectivity and urban freight – which are currently failing to be recognized for their potential to facilitate integrated transport, land-use and accessibility policies. 

It is not too late to act.  There is a strong desire to build back better and take bold and ambitious action to improve urban accessibility.  National governments should seize the opportunity to put the inclusive, compact, connected, and clean urban vision into national COVID-19 recovery strategies and rebuild better cities for the future.

This paper was created in partnership with the OECD and the Coalition for Urban Transitions.

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Publication date
October 2021

Philipp Rode, Catarina Heeckt, Oscar Huerta Melchor, Rebecca Flynn and Jonathan Liebenau