By Marcos Paulo Schlickmann. Originally published in Portuguese at Caos Planejado on January 18, 2021

Accessibility is a concept that can be defined as the number of destinations that someone can reach – or access – in a given period of time. These destinations can be jobs, health services, education, leisure, and consumption. In the book “Order Without Design”, Alain Bertaud emphasizes the importance of this concept and presents ways to make it operational in the day-to-day management of urban mobility. He considers that reducing travel times for all people, in order to increase potential accessibility, mainly to jobs, should be one of the main indicators of mobility management.

Bertaud shows that the great advantage of the metropolises for rural migrants was to offer a potential supply of jobs and, consequently, various services in a small territorial area, which can be accessed in a short time. Although we associate traffic jams with big cities, it is still in those places where you can get to destinations faster when compared to rural and low-density areas.

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One of the researchers with relevant work in this area is Professor David Levinson of the University of Sydney, founder of the “Accessibility Observatory”, an observatory where maps and accessibility reports are produced for several metropolises such as the maps below.

On the maps, we can see that, in Miami, the potential accessibility to jobs in a private car is much greater than in public transport: in 30 minutes by car, an average worker can access more than 500 thousand jobs, while on public transport, just over 15 thousand jobs!

Operationalizing the concept of accessibility: urban planning vs. urban management

This uneven pattern of access to opportunities through transport is common to many cities. However, inequality in access is not limited to the means of transport, but also the location of origins and destinations. Cities with a greater mix of land uses in the periphery bring together diverse origins and destinations. There will invariably be a concentration of jobs in the center, but if we have more leisure, health services, education, commerce and services on the peripheries, accessibility levels will increase, without the need for significant investments in transport infrastructure. For this, a possible option is to make the zoning laws and master plans more flexible, thus allowing the mixing of land uses in a more balanced way throughout the municipal territory.

One of the arguments we often raised is how city halls do not effectively measure the performance of master plans. As already mentioned, the incorporation of this metric in urban planning would imply changes at a strategic level, such as the relaxation of zoning laws, in order to allow densification and mixtures of uses in the periphery, and transport planning aimed at reducing times average travel times for all users of the transport system (not only for private car drivers) and also for all travel reasons (not only for commuting to work or home to school).

To paraphrase Enrique Peñalosa, the big difference between rich and poor is not noticeable in access to work, but to leisure. The transportation system is organized so that everyone can get to work, on average, quickly. But what about leisure at the end of the day or weekends? A resident of a housing complex under the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program has almost no access to leisure in a timely manner. It is isolated in your house. Not even children can play on the street, so what’s left is television. In short, the mania of politicians to build large parks and gardens should be left out: they are expensive and encourage travel by car. They should build – and maintain! – small parks in the neighborhoods.


‘Minha Casa Minha Vida’ housing program. Image: Palácio do Planalto/Isac Nóbrega.

In the context of urban management, accessibility can be monitored by travel times. Nowadays, with the abundant location information collected by Google, it is possible to monitor the travel times of the population on a daily basis. On this indicator, the local government can act to try to reduce these times, both through urban planning at the strategic level, and through small changes to the road network at the operational level.

The path to operationalize this indicator is promising. In Brazil, IPEA is developing the “Project Access to Opportunities”, which aims to “understand the conditions of transportation and inequalities in access to opportunities in Brazilian cities.” The first results (2019) present data on the 20 largest cities in the country for the modes of transport: Public Transport + Active and Active Transport. Two indicators are presented for opportunities such as « Work », « Health » and « Education »: Percentage of Accessible Opportunities and Minutes to the nearest opportunity.

Access map to opportunities in Recife.

Rafael Pereira, coordinator of this project, has an extensive curriculum in the area. He also collaborated in the production of the “Transport Access Manual: A Guide for Measuring Connection between People and Places”, a guide that assists in quantifying and assessing accessibility and helps transport and urban planning professionals to get a more comprehensive view of their city or region. A recent example of the attempt to operationalize this concept comes from Paris. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has advanced with the idea of the 15 minute city, which seeks to bring together origins and destinations within a 15-minute walk or bicycle.

When David Levinson says that the city is an accessibility machine and the car is a mobility machine, he tries to explain that the city center is a place that allows someone to reach several destinations in a short time. This pattern of land occupation combined with a good transport system should be extended to other areas of the city, thereby reducing travel times and increasing access to opportunities for all citizens.

Caos Planejado is a Brazilian portal of urbanism and cities. Our multidisciplinary team of collaborators includes architects, urban planners, economists, traffic engineers, students, activists, real estate entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and journalists. We cover topics such as public space, mobility, housing and work, heritage, density, environment, academic theory and practical actions, from public policies to tactical urbanism.