Co-designing a future where you don’t need to own a car

by Greg Marsden

Where I grew up in Coventry we were taught to find a safe gap between parked cars before we crossed the road. That wasn’t so difficult in the late 70s. The cars that were around were often ‘out’ for the day at a place of work and so we played out on the street and rode round the main roads on our bikes.  

When I went back a couple of years ago the transition to a car dominated environment was incredibly stark. Every year in the UK households spend around £80bn (2022 figures) on just owning, insuring and maintaining cars. That is three times what is spent on moving them and twenty five times what is spent on public transport.  

We can’t say we weren’t warned. In the 1960s, Buchanan’s famous report on Traffic in Towns foresaw the shift to a car dominated environment. Leeds was one of the case studies and we still feel the effects of the adoption of some (but not all of the best bits) of Buchanan’s vision for how this might be managed. The Inner Ring Road is just one part of the ‘Motorway City of the 70s’ which still shapes the city today.  

An alternative future for Leeds

In the 21 years I have been at the University, the City Council has changed its position on transport significantly. The city centre is finally home to a series of really high-quality cycle routes, and this is beginning to spread – with the Headingley corridor getting a gold standard upgrade as I write.  

I remember the short shrift I got in discussing whether the inner ring road was really part of Leeds’s future, given the need to spend £150m on just maintaining it. Now, we have seen the closure of City Square to car traffic, breaking ‘the loop’. When we first moved to Leeds the loop was scary – it presumed prior knowledge of where you were going – and it almost certainly contained a percentage of drivers who simply couldn’t get off it. 

Leeds now has a vision to be a city where you don’t need to own a car. This is partly to try and get closer to our climate goals and partly to become a better and fairer city to live in. It has been a bold vision to have in the current political period where policies which reallocate roadspace or deprioritise car traffic can come under direct attack from Department for Transport Ministers as part of a culture war. Recent election results would suggest that holding firm and planning for a better future has been popular here as in Oxford and London and the other places singled out for criticism. 

Leeds city bikes and a Leeds bus
photo credit Victor de Jesus

A city where you don’t need to own a car

But what do we mean ‘a city where you don’t need to own a car?’. The public transport services we have do not fit the lifestyles people have adopted based around the car. Better cycling and walking is really important as most of our trips are short.  

But time and again, efforts to persuade people that there are better options fall short – because the options don’t go to the right places, are not good enough, or reliable enough or cheap enough, or feel unsafe, or don’t allow dogs or [complete as appropriate].  

We can’t just ask people not to own a car without thinking about how they live their lives and what will replace the system that so many people have got used to. 

I am proud to be leading a new five year £7.8m EPSRC funded research programme called INFUZE. INFUZE stands for Inspiring Futures for Zero Carbon Mobility and will bring together citizens, transport providers, governments, businesses, community groups, societies and anyone else with a stake in this and ask – “what would a city where you didn’t need to own a car look like”.  

Through a series of co-design processes we will build positive visions for the future, model and assess how they will meet what people say they need, and then trial and demonstrate whether they work.  

This is the most exciting collaboration of my career, involving colleagues from across the Institute for Transport Studies and the School of Geography working together with the Royal College of Art and Lancaster University to build those positive visions. We also have over 20 partners already committing £1.5m of further resource to help deliver some transformative programmes to stimulate and assess change.  

Our visions have to work not just for car drivers but for everyone

We are going to be led by the co-design process and so we don’t know what the answers will be. What we do know is that business as usual needs to be part of the discussion. If we do nothing then another 100,000 vehicles are forecast to be in Leeds by 2050, all needing a cable to charge.  

What will that look like? We also know that there are opportunities to act differently. We own a lot more cars than, from a purely operational perspective, we need. A third of cars don’t move on any given day. Cars are stationary 96% of the day. In a morning peak, only 14% of cars are on the move. 97% of journeys are less than 35 miles in length.  

artist's rendering of a possible future

We could radically rethink how we access cars which opens up the possibility of using smaller cars for most journeys or other new forms of powered light electric vehicles (from e-bikes and scooters to new concept vehicles). We could have more flexible forms of public transport. If we could remove a third of cars from our streets (we aren’t using them that day anyway!) imagine what we could do with the space?  

But it is not just about individuals and their street, but about what a city where you didn’t need to own a car would look like and how it would work. What would the University do differently? How would sports leagues be organised? What would Leeds Festival do differently? How would the tax system change? 

INFUZE is a great opportunity for Leeds to lead in this wider agenda. It is also a great opportunity for the University and its staff and students to get involved as residents of Leeds and as a major employer.

What do you think a city where you didn’t need to own a car would look like?