ISSN 1973-9702


Mobility as an urban value: Concerning road monofunctionally and urban regeneration

by Rafael Sousa Santos

Ph.D. candidate, Faculty of Architecture, University of Porto, Portugal


“Curieuse alliance: la froide impersonnalité de la technique et les flammes de l’extase.”

Milan Kundera, La lenteur, 1995

1. Process

There is a fundamental association between “life” and “movement”. Therehas always been the need for movement, one of the main factors determining the urban growth and its configuration (Sousa Santos 2016). François Ascher refers the essential status of the “movement”, or mobility[1], that forms with the “fixation” an inseparable pair “and which, in a way, alludes to the distinction between Hestia, goddess of the home, and Hermes, god of travel […] as one of the foundations of the Greek city ” (1995, p. 87). Moreover, it was the increase and generalization of mobility “speed” that allowed the development of the modern city and the revolutionary urban growth that followed. According to José Lamas (2010), the modern urban planning was divided into two periods:

– The first period was between the two World Wars, in which modern architects formulated the theoretical principles and the experiments of a new urban conception – structural and morphological -, assigning great importance to the technical progression. The Modern Movement emerged against the urban practices of that time, claiming their inability to respond to emerging challenges.

-The second period was between the end of World War II and the 1970s, when the fast and inexpensive reconstruction of cities was necessary. This context was conducive to the proliferation of modern principles and the generalization of its doctrine in (European) re-construction.

In Metapolis(1995) François Ascher relates the concept of “Fordism” to modern urbanistics – the “Fordist city” – underlining the functionalist paradigm postulated by Le Corbusier and his relationship with Henry Ford’s combined system of production and consumption of masses, marked by automobile and appliances. In opposition to the functional mix of the 18thand 19thcenturycities – considered by the “moderns” as inefficient -, modern urbanistics promoted the functional sectorization and the conception of independent urban systems, with their own and autonomous logics.

According to the Athens Charter(1933), the four keys to urbanism – dwelling, work, recreation and transport – should be referred to exclusive areas in order to achieve maximum effectiveness. Among these, two (key) functions were extolled: the “dwelling” as the main place of urbanism, and the “transport” as the urban organizational element. Like Henry Ford, the Corbusian ideals gave primacy to movement and speed, understanding the street (road) as a mere transporting element in a larger circulation system[2](Ascher 1995). This simplified way of understanding the urban had as a consequence the monothematic character of the new urban spaces and their relational fragmentation.

Modern urbanistics has subsequently undergone a vulgarization, by routine and monotony, in which the lack of design and architectural and urban quality was notorious. The sectorization of the urban elements would refer many decisions to administrative bodies or to engineering – in particular traffic engineering, which will become the engine of planning (Lamas 2010). This final incarnation of the Modern Movement, clearly distorted and “somnambulist”, laid aside all its plasticity in the mere functionalist exaltation, where the road system assumed enormous preponderance.

In the 1970s serious disputes arose against modern urban ideals, motivated by the generalization of “operational urban planning” and its consequences. Those who refused modern urbanistics condemned the formal and social poverty of recent urban productions, from which stand out the extensive and the scattered occupations (Fig. 1). Modern urbanistics, which was already fragile, would begin to disappear. The “postmodern” designation arose in the same decade, supported by different philosophical and aesthetic movements that opposed modern ideals. In addition to the recovery of the past, postmodernism sought “to recover the sensory pleasure of architecture and urban space, the reintroduction of figuration and the use of values ​​that had been banned, such as symmetry, color, ‘complexity and the contradiction’” (Lamas 2010, p. 388).

This reactive impulse, referred by José Lamas (2010) as “new urbanism”, sought to return to the path of pre-modern urban planning. However, what had begun as an invigorating opposition to the modern postulate would be(again) followed indiscriminately and unconsciously. The fascination for the old city and for the historical centres would be reflected in an alienation from the real urban condition. The tendency for “the sacralization of the historical centre” (Domingues, Cabral & Portas 2012, p. 24) has been running in parallel with the incomprehension of the new urban occupations (Fig. 2).


2. Condition

In the last decades, the demographic and extensive urban growth was provided by the generalization of the self-mobility, which allowed an increasingly scattered occupation of the territory. However, the constant improvement of road infrastructures tended to promote the increase of motorization rates and aspirations, making the automobile and its requirements “the producers and beneficiaries of this [dispersed] growth” (Graça Dias 2008, p. 34).

The constant expansion of infrastructures as a response to the progressive increase of the mechanical displacements, triggered the effect of “positive feedback” (Jacobs 1992), amplifying with the answer the original problem: the automobile congestion (Fig. 3). The road increase policies – with the proliferation of highways, bridges, viaducts and tunnels – were based on the conviction that individual transport was the universal solution for urban mobility. Thus, much of the investment of public and private actors has been focused on the feasibility of a utopian “mechanistic society” (Le Corbusier 1963), leaving behind the development of collective transport or any modal alternative.

The consequences of the abusive generalization are already symptomatic of the road solution failure. As Jane Jacobs (1992) points out, while on the one hand the “quantity” of machines is the source of the conflict between automobiles and pedestrians – since the needs of the latter are constantly sacrificed due to the needs of the former -, on the other hand it is also the “quantity” source of the greatest problems of efficiency of the own road primacy.

The consolidated centres, with limited “enlargement” capacities, quickly became congested; they have become inefficient for mechanical mobility and at the same time too cumbersome to live in. Simultaneously, the dispersed peripheries, by the amount of available space – at low cost -and by the good accessibility, seemed more attractive solutions for functions and populations.

The trivialization of the automobile use and the enormous investment in road infrastructure have caused significant changes in the ways of living. The notion of proximity and physical contiguity – founding elements of the primordial city – lose their importance for fluidity and accessibility. Road flexibility increased freedom of movement and choice, varied destinations and origins, as well as the unpredictability of social dynamics (Domingues, Cabral & Portas 2012).

This new (extensive) urban model is governed by the road routes and its main accesses; these are due to most of the locative choices, from public to private ventures. Its spontaneous character is the result of the accumulation of different logics and decisions, induced by a set of diverse institutions, whose sectoral policies andpractices are not articulated urbanistically, to which also the mismatch of the urban-territorial regulation instruments (Domingues, Cabral & Portas 2012). The dispersion and fragmentation that characterize this new urban model are obstacles to the structuring of collective transportation services, too rigid and inflexible when compared to the hypermobility that the automobile allows and stimulates. The impossibility of responding to the “door-to-door” capitalization of collective transport contributes to the strengthening of individual transport in a dispersed context.

In the Portuguese case, António Perez Babo (2006) emphasizes the continuous disinvestment in the railroad and intermodality that has occurred in the country due to the expansionism of the road network of the last decades. According to the author, although this trend seems to be changing, many decisions have been taken leaving aside the future importance of transportation alternatives.

The freedom associated with individual transportation and telecommunications allows less routine, more uncertain ways of life, allowing citizens to choose (individually) places and times for their activities. However, the “increasing autonomy of individuals is accompanied by an increase in their own dependence on increasingly elaborate and socialized technical systems” (Ascher 2001, p. 70). According to Edward Hall (1966), the exclusivity of self-mobility produces consequences such as:

– Social, by the rupture of the human contacts that the experience of the public space provides, in the limit, by mere visual contact. The relations that are created now take place within the very interior – these essentially familiar ones -, or between the various “boxes”, in more elementary relations “that often put competition, aggression and destructive instincts at stake” (Hall 1966, p. 200);

– Physics, by the reduction of muscular activity, of which “walking” represents a significant percentage. In addition to the functional unfeasibility, “dirt, noise, exaltations of gasoline, crowding of parked cars and smog also contribute to making the pedestrian situation intolerable” (Hall 1966, p. 198);

– Psychic, by the perspicacious alienation and the relation of the motorists with the space. Locked up in a “metal and glass nest”, the occupants are not only deprived of contact with the outside but also of the notion of displacement in space – the sensorial participation decreases according to the increase of speed, disassociates the kinesthetic space of the space visual, compromising the real experience and apprehension of the territory.


3. Hypothesis

Mobility and accessibility are essential urban concepts, which should be available to all (Ascher 2001). To achieve that, it is fundamental that there is no material, economic, social, cultural and legal barriers that deprive the population of their legitimate “right to the city”. Manuel Graça Dias (2008) argues that individual transport – as it is understood today – can never be the solution to 21stcentury mobility, at least the right solution. The problem of iniquity, beyond the economic dimension, will be at the limit of spatial order, that is, the physical impossibility of ensuring that each citizen can drive in their own automobile.

Thus, an essential measure for the feasibility of any regenerative hypothesis goes through the reduction of traffic presence due to the reduction of the number of automobiles (Ascher 2001). This measure is condition to give space to other and desired uses in urban context – increasing comfort, intensity and liveliness of the streets, as well as the functional mix -, against the monofunctional character imposed by the requirements of mechanical self-mobility.

A possible strategy, as Jane Jacobs refers, implies the establishment of conditions that are not favorable to the use of automobiles, exerting a certain “pressure” on its use (Jacobs 1992). The stance to be adopted should be rather subtle: on the one hand, not to promote the trend of automobile movements but also not condemn them; on the other hand, and at the same time stimulate the modal alternatives and the diversity of spaces’ uses. It is a question of suggesting to the population the multitude of choices and the benefits of these faces or in addition to the automobile. Jane Jacobs (1992) makes some caveats to this strategy:

First, “pressure” cannot (or should not) be arbitrary. When used indiscriminately, the “pressure” can result in a full migration of flows, not only of private automobiles but also of lorries and buses, with potentially harmful consequences – as the example of desertification of the centres and the condemnation of traditional trade.

Secondly, “pressure” must be practiced by positive arguments, that is, by providing understandable and, if possible, desired improvements by the population. A policy aimed at the mere exclusion of vehicles, by the creation of a kind of roadblock, without being sustained by the increase of diversity and vitality would be doomed to failure. The urban void “is not better than excessive traffic, and the population is right to suspect programs that do not give anything in return” (Jacobs 1992, p. 412).

Thirdly, while the cumulative effects may be enormous and revolutionary, it must be considered that these policies will not produce immediate results on a large scale. The relevance of this type of action, due to the change of already established habits (ways of life) and urban uses, requires that the process develops gradually and evolutionarily.

As previously mentioned, the development of public transport hasn’t been correlated with the development of individual mobility, and to that extent, it must be reinvented in its comfort, accuracy, reliability, rationality and economy (Graça Dias 2008) (Fig.4). One of the alleged factors for disinvestment in collective transport has been the financial unfeasibility. This is due, on the one hand, to the fact that investment in collective mobility is not associated with, or even compared to, road infrastructure spending; on the other hand, collective mobility projects tend to adopt pharaonic and megalomaniac solutions (Graça Dias 2008).

However, the investment in collective mobility not only contributes to improving road functioning, but is also an opportunity for urban planning and regenerative operations. As François Ascher (2001) points out, the tramways allowed deep urban renovations in several cities, in which its urban effect was at least as important as its effect in mobility. The creation of automobile alternatives will necessarily lead to a modal shift, however, it is necessary to take into account its limited effect – “it is not easy to propose a competitive transport offer at the individual level, in such a way that the automobile has a good performance in cities” (Ascher 2001, p. 146).

Multimodality must necessarily be associated with intermodality – that is, the complementarity between means and networks. By itself, collective transport is not able to respond to the total displacement needs, because there are areas that are not covered by transport networks, especially in scattered urban occupations. Thus, collective transport should be associated and complemented by individual transport.

The hypothesis, or the “reform”, should not go through the suppression of the automobile, because at the present moment, due to the unpredictability of social dynamics, the dispersion of new occupations and the underdevelopment of collective transport, there are no efficient alternatives capable of responding to urban mobility (Fig. 5). On the other hand, it is necessary to consider that “any urban problem that involves the automobile in the near future […] tends to motivate debates on much broader societal issues, with the risk of these debates triggering major political and ideological oppositions and make action much more difficult” (Ascher 2001, p. 139).


The “reform” should rather be developed according to multimodal policies, taking into account the benefits of individual and collective transport and their articulation possibilities. The multiplicity of choices is in the city a fundamental question, however “it is impossible to take advantage of this multiplicity without being able to move easily […] and the multiplicity of choices would not exist if it could not be stimulated by combined uses” (Jacobs 1992, p. 378-379).

In this sense, it seems that mobility – or “movement” – is the element that makes urban regeneration possible. The paradigm is inverted: if on the one hand it was the “movement” eagerness- a monothematic and individualized movement – that determined the urban contemporary condition, it is on the other hand the revision of this same “movement” the regenerative hypothesis.



[1]Mobility of goods, information and people (Ascher 2001).

[2]This technicist logic equated the planning of the circulation system with the plans of infrastructure networks – following the same model used for the planning of sewers, water, gas and electricity distribution (Ascher 2001).



Ascher F. 1995, Metapolis, ou, l’Avenir des villes, Odile Jacob, Paris.

Ascher F. 2001, Les nouveaux príncipes de l’urbanisme, Éditions de l’Aube, Paris.

Domingues Á., Cabral J. & Portas N. 2012, Políticas urbanas II: Transformações, regulação e projectos, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon.

Graça Dias M. 2008, Depois da cidade viária, FAUP, Porto [Ph.D. thesis].

Hall ET. 1966, The hidden dimension, Anchor Books, New York.

Jacobs J. 1992, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books, New York.

Lamas J. 2010, Morfologia urbana e desenho da cidade, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon.

Le Corbusier. 1963, Manière de penser l’urbanisme, Gonthier, Paris.

Sousa Santos R. 2016, Vida e Movimento: Hipóteses de regeneração urbana a propósito da Estrada da Circunvalação do Porto, FAUP, Porto [MSc thesis].



cover image: Mitch Epstein “Cocoa Beach I [Florida]” 1983 – Source: i9844862

fig.1: Francisco Ontañón “La actual M-30 [Madrid]” 1963 – Source:

fig.2: Francisco Ontañón “Sans Titre [Madrid]” 1964 – Source:

fig.3: René Burri “Voitures 1” s.d. – Source: in Burri R. 2015, Mouvement, STEIDL, Gottingen

fig.4: George Georgiou “Fault lines: Turkey/East/West [collection]” 2010 – Source: t/gallery.php?ProjectID=148

fig.5: George Georgiou “Fault lines: Turkey/East/West [collection]” 2010 – Source: /gallery.php?ProjectID=148