Whose city? Investigating modal equity and parallel realities of accessibility in urban environments with big data

It has been estimated that by 2050, 66% of world population will live in urban areas.

Cities across the globe are facing diverse challenges related to development but many strive for the shared goal of achieving environmental and social sustainability with compact urban form and high accessibility, lower segregation and better social equity. For this reason, there has been a long-standing interest in understanding how cities and societies function, how they form, and how their future growth and development can be modelled using systematic computational approaches.

Why accessibility? One of the most important and widely used conceptual and analytical tools to understand the functioning of cities and the wealth of issues related to developing our urban environments is the concept of accessibility. Accessibility binds together issues of land use, transportation and socio-economic aspects which all constitute factors that can either enable or hamper (planning of) a good and sustainable future. Accessibility has been widely used as a tool to understand the abilities of people to move in cities by different travel modes at different times of the day (i.e. How much time it takes to reach a destination?). Accessibility, as a measure of opportunity, plays a key role in assessing how equitable our urban or rural environments are for different groups of people. Hence, the notion of accessibility has long been an important tool for planning, as equity and social justice are acknowledged as basic human rights by United Nations.

Novel data fosters new insights. With the current ‘Big Data’ paradigm, new sources of data can be mobilized to produce a more in-depth understanding of cities, urban processes, and how people can move and access places. Developments in information and communication technologies (ICT) have dramatically improved our capability to analyze various social phenomena as vast amounts of data is continuously being gathered describing different processes in the society. These processes does not only make it possible to study the dynamics of our living environment in-depth from various perspectives including transportation, social and human–environment interactions, but also foster better planning in “smart cities”. For example, social media data can be used to understand the social realities and attitudes of the citizens in cities.

Putting modal equity on research agenda. The lack of information about how equitable cities are by different transport modes has been widely recognized. Scientists and planners are also missing generic and practical tools to analyze equity based on multiple travel modes. Understanding how equitable cities are for citizens having unequal access to different travel modes is crucial: it enables to evaluate the fairness of prevalent planning practices, and adjust them accordingly if needed. Comparative international studies can help to increase our understanding about the role of modal equity in the development of good and functional cities.

Aims of the project

  1. Develop robust centrality indices based on travel times, in order to understand the functioning of dynamic urban systems with different transport modes. These indices can help to understand how equitable cities are from the perspective of transportation, i.e. how easily one can move around a city depending on whether you own a car or rely on public transportation.
  2. Contribute to new theoretical understanding about multidimensional patterns and parallel realities of accessibility. Here the emphasis is on obtaining understanding about i) the spatio-temporal and parallel realities of accessibility in urban areas by different travel modes, and ii) the social perceptions in car-, public transport-, or cycle/walk –centric areas extracted via social media, and in iii) evaluating the aforementioned factors against prevalent urban theories that aim to understand the functioning of cities.
  3. Increase understanding about what kind of urban structures foster equitable and socially sustainable cities. This is achieved by conducting international comparisons across metropolitan regions using the developed accessibility and centrality indices, and by evaluating those against established development and sustainability indices.
  4. Apply novel open big data sources to advance and develop openly available GIS tools for studying aforementioned topics to facilitate the use of such tools in real life planning.