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April 12, 2023

Interview Jean Marc Offner – When urban planning is on the menu of mobility

During this interview you will discover the singular vision of Mr. Jean-Marc Offner on the themes of mobility and urbanism.

Jean Marc Offner also reminds us of the importance of committing ourselves together to a mobility that is more respectful of the environment and of people.

Good morning Sir, could you quickly introduce yourself?

My name is Jean Marc Offner and I have been the director of the Bordeaux Aquitaine urban planning agency: A’Urba for the past twelve years. I am currently president of the Science Po Urban School, after a long career in teaching and research at the CNRS and the École des ponts. During my life, I have worked extensively on issues of metropolitan governance, mobility and spatial planning.

How do we get out of this all-car system for the suburbs? And how can we invent another model?

We have carried out interesting surveys on lifestyles and mobility in the peri-urban areas of Gironde, which confirm this dependence on the private car, which is a problem for individuals and for the community. When it comes to improving the daily life of inhabitants or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is not in the city centers that it happens. On the contrary, it is in the suburbs that it is most strategic to act. Then we can divide the problem into two parts, by considering short trips and long trips.

In the case of short trips, we are often dealing with urban fabrics and the organization of daily life that encourage people to take the car to get bread, to take their children to school, etc. To solve this, there is a lever that aims to organize these peri-urban spaces in a less fragmented way, with stronger polarities. Densifying the peri-urban area is obviously a way of making it easier to promote short trips on foot or by bicycle. I am one of those people who think that electric bicycles could be the future of the suburbs. But this implies having a tighter suburban layout and infrastructures that allow cyclists to travel on departmental roads. For this, there is no specific model, but it is necessary to favor less discontinuous, tighter territories that give more potential to the local travel mode.

And then there are the longer distance trips, which are often mainly home-work trips, and in this case, it is the massification of flows that should be favored. But massification in the suburbs does not mean the TGV (high-speed train) or the RER (Regional Express Train), it means shared cars or bicycle paths. And the massification of flows by the car, which is no longer a solitary car, is what I call “the alternative car”. We are beginning to understand that the future of mobility is to move to a dominant car system, but a car system that organizes the car as a collective public transport.

There are many reasons why this could work, but for this to happen, the departments, agglomerations and the region must feel responsible for the evolution of the automobile system. A large part of the work has already been done thanks to the law on the orientation of mobilities on carpooling, but now it is up to the communities to take it on.

Can we reconcile sustainable mobility with a continuous increase in the number of trips or will we have to go through demobility?

I would say that we have to make sure that this can be reconciled. I consider that mobility is a right and a duty that contributes to the reduction of socio-spatial inequalities. Mobility should be there to compensate for these disparities in resources between territories.

I don’t believe that the future of our societies is to have everything downstairs, because that often leads to a somewhat deleterious “entre-soi”. We have to find mobility models that allow a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while preserving the right to access. We realize that always going faster is not necessarily interesting, but that it is important to have reliable travel time. Hence the interest in setting up priorities on the road or reserved parking spaces, to manufacture and ensure stability.

What is your view of walking as a mode of transport and what place should be given to it in the territories?

It’s an obsession of mine and I despair every time when there’s a little breeze and it goes down. The problem is that there is no class consciousness. This pedestrian represents everyone since we are all pedestrians, so no one really feels concerned about defending his cause. Moreover, we often tend to synthesize cycling and walking by saying that they are soft modes of transport. But too often we forget about the pedestrian and we only talk about the bicycle. In my opinion, walking has nothing to do with cycling. A bicycle is a mode of transport like a bus, like a car. The pedestrian, to be a bit pompous, is the way to live in the world, that is to say to be in relation with the environment.

And then, as for the rest of the travel system, we often deal with walking in the city center, when it is not really in these spaces that there are problems. Moreover, we often tend to forget that when we deal with pedestrians in city centers, it is often not the pedestrian who moves, but rather the pedestrian who strolls down the pedestrian street or walks along the waterfront. In the suburbs, there is often a tendency to want to redo a nice little village square or revitalize a town center, but this amounts to once again not caring about the walker or the motorist who takes his car to go downtown.

The example of the limits is very instructive. Often in France when we talk about suburban areas, we have the image of Télérama with an often ugly landscape. On the other hand, if you look at some American films, there are some where the suburban landscape is very ugly, but there are also some where it is sublime because there are trees and landscapes as far as the eye can see, with no break between the gardens of private individuals. And yet, the peri-urban aspiration is a more peaceful life with a direct relationship to nature. When we consider the case of schools, we can see that there are sufficiently dense peri-urban fabrics for it not to be absurd to make the children walk 1/4 hour. Especially when we know that there are problems of sedentary lifestyle, which are becoming a major public health issue.

And then, as I briefly mentioned, there is also the idea that in peri-urban areas, there are people who walk and cycle on weekends to do sports or go for a walk. And perhaps this appetite for walking could be transformed so that these people also get it into their heads that they can walk for 20 minutes rather than drive for 5 minutes, as long as they are offered a nice path. In short, it will not be the animation of the stores in the city center, but it will be the landscape, the environment.

Article written by :

Anaïs Enrico, Karos Mobility

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