Spotlight: Is London already a 15-minute city?

The concept of the 15-minute city is gaining popularity within the built environment sector, particularly post-Covid as the pandemic saw many of us spending more time in our local area than ever before. Based on research by Monika Jain, Transport for London and Greater London Authority, and Shivani Bhatnagar, Transport for London, our latest Spotlight considers the value of the concept in a London context.

The concept of the 15-minute city (or 15-minute neighbourhood) is a model for planning and urban development that makes cities more sustainable and liveable for residents. At its heart is the idea that residents should be able to meet most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or cycle, with one of the key aims being to reduce car dependency in cities.

It’s being strongly promoted in Paris by Mayor Anne Hidalgo and also in Melbourne – although the size and sprawl of Melbourne means that the concept is known as the ‘20-minute’ neighbourhood there. And in London, LB Waltham Forest is looking at how to make the 15-minute neighbourhood a reality in the borough.

Using data from the London Travel Demand Survey (LTDS), Monika Jain and Shivani Bhatnagar explored the implications, and limitations, of the 15-minute city concept in London. Work, education, leisure and shopping are the main reasons why Londoners travel around the city (see figure 1).

Looking at the data from 2017 to 2019 on how and why Londoners travel, they concluded that, pre-pandemic, London was already a 15-minute city for many purposes – except work and, to a certain extent, leisure activities. (Post-covid, there have definitely been shifts in patterns but Transport for London is still relying on longer-term data to understand them.)

Graphic showing all the different things a typical Londoner does in an imaginary day
Figure 1: An imagined typical day in the life of a Londoner. Image courtesy of Monika Jain and Shivani Bhatnagar.

The 15-minute city: who benefits?

However, one of the key findings of Jain and Bhatnagar’s work is that people of different ethnicities and socio-economic status travel for different purposes and use different modes of transport.

Here are some examples:

  • For work trips, men make more trips overall, while women make a slightly higher number of local trips. When comparing ethnic groups, white people make a slightly higher number of local work trips in comparison to Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people. Those on the lowest incomes make a slightly higher number of local work trips.
  • For shopping, women make more trips in general and travel longer to get to their desired destinations. Individuals in BAME communities travel longer for shopping trips compared to white people. Although the majority of all income groups travel locally, the lowest income groups travel longer compared to higher income groups.
  • Rail use is higher for white people, those on higher incomes and men.

Grouping BAME people together is, the authors acknowledge, one of the limitations of the study and more data is needed to allow for more granular and nuanced insight into individual ethnic minority groups. However, these examples suggest that while the capital may already be a 15-minute city for some, it’s not experienced as such by all Londoners.

Pie chart showing the mode share of daily trips in London in 2019. Sustainable modes count for 63% of journeys. Within these trips, buses are the second most popular choice after walking.
Figure 2: The mode share of daily trips in London in 2019. Sustainable modes count for 63% of journeys. Within these trips, buses are the second most popular choice after walking. Source: LTDS.

For example, while investing in active travel infrastructure undoubtedly has its benefits, people may experience different barriers to walking and cycling. Jain and Bhatnagar point out that London’s bus network is disproportionately relied on by women, ethnic minority groups and low-income groups who may not feel as comfortable or safe walking or cycling.

It’s important that this is acknowledged when talking about London as a 15-minute city, and there’s a strong case for including buses, the second most popular sustainable transport choice after walking (see figure 2). There’s also, arguably, a need to promote active travel in a more sensitive and inclusive way.

The built environment sector must be mindful of this when investing in transport and infrastructure, and planning where local services and amenities should be located.

Jain and Bhatnagar also call for practitioners to collect data in a more inclusive way, which captures all Londoners. Knowing where people live, how they travel, where they travel to and why they exhibit such behaviours are all integral to developing a successful and equitable model for local living.

The limits of localism

Their research also highlights the limitations of applying the 15-minute city concept universally across the capital. London is, in fact, made up of lots of different types of town centres: including ‘international’ centres like the West End, ‘metropolitan centres’ such as Stratford in LB Newham and ‘district centres’ like Finsbury Park, Notting Hill Gate and Clapham High Street.

Stratford Bus Station, LB Newham. Source: FoL.

This mix of large centres in London, providing economies of scale for a variety of benefits, is often referred to as ‘agglomeration’. These centres have evolved through an interplay of many factors – history, culture, transport convenience – and attract diverse talent, businesses, innovation, tech and people from across the globe, for example the Central Activity Zone (CAZ) and the Isle of Dogs.

And individuals are happy to travel more than 15 minutes to have access to this mix, particularly with regards to job opportunities. In this sense, aiming for a city-wide 15-minute ambition would be both unrealistic and limiting for London.

The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on this mix of different centres. While the travel-pattern change due to the pandemic is still evolving, remote working, for example, seems here to stay. This may mean less people in and out of central London for work purposes.

And while this brings challenges, there are also opportunities: if office space in central London needs to be adapted then this may give way to other uses, such as life sciences, culture and arts. This kind of shift also provides opportunities for local high streets and town centres to accommodate co-working spaces that enable collaborations and support their local economy.

“Agglomeration makes cities resilient to drastic events such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the financial crisis of 2008. So although it’s useful to unravel the concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods for London, a unilateral focus on localism is limiting in providing diversity and opportunity for interactions, jobs, experiences, culture and much more.”

Monika Jain and Shivani Bhatnagar

Post-pandemic, as London looks to the future, tackling inequalities and addressing the impacts of climate change are key priorities for the built environment sector. The concept of the 15-minute city, or 15-minute neighbourhood, is a useful lens to look through when tackling questions of sustainability and liveability. But it’s clear that the principles have to be applied not only in an equitable way but also in a way that supports and complements all the different types of town centres and high streets that make the capital thrive.

If you have a new initiative or idea for a Spotlight, please get in touch with Hailey.