Book review: Slow Cities – Conquering our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability

reviewed by Paulo Anciaes

7 Apr 2022, 10:51 a.m.
Paulo Anciaes

Slow Cities book cover

Slow Cities – Conquering our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability, 1st edn

by Paul Tranter & Rodney Tolley and reviewed by Paulo Anciaes

Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2020 (1st edn); 422 pp; ISBN 9780128153161, £97.99 (pbk)


This book explains a contradiction: how the increases in travel speed occurring since the beginning of the 20th Century have failed to save time for urban citizens. This contradiction has long been identified in essays by Illich (1974) and Gorz (1973)Slow Cities is the first book-length development of the topic. It updates the discussion and frames it alongside a discussion of the negative impacts of fast speed on aspects other than time (e.g., economy, society, environment). The book is split into three parts:

Part 1: Speed

Part 1 demystifies the benefits of fast travel in cities. The ideas of Illich (1974) permeate most of the discussion. The first idea is that travel time gains only happen as long as they accrue a few people only. As more people move by car, congestion reduces speeds – this explains why car travel speeds in the central areas of many cities are not much higher than walking speeds. An even more powerful idea is that people need to spend time to earn the resources required to use a private car (i.e., fuel, wear and tear, parking costs). If we account for this time, then moving by car is effectively slower than moving by walking or cycling. A third idea is that speed leads to urban sprawl and low densities, increasing travel distances and time spent travelling. At the same time, it eliminates the possibility of walking (due to long distances and the risk and unpleasantness posed by motorised traffic).

Despite these perverse effects of speed, increasing travel speeds has usually been seen as a solution to many urban problems (and not as the problem itself). One explanation, described in clear detail in the first chapters of this book, is that the increases in speed allowed for private cars were accompanied by a ‘culture of speed’ that emphasises freedom (and blames collisions not on speed but on reckless drivers and pedestrians). Even today, manufacturers still market new cars based on their high speeds, above the legal speed limits in all cities. The culture of speed also affects the work of planners. For example, the appraisal of transport projects relies heavily on accounting for travel time savings (which are substantial when aggregating the values to all travellers, but marginal to each individual traveller).

Part 2: Health

Even if it did not ‘steal’ time, fast travel speeds would still be undesirable because of the negative health impacts. The authors use a broad concept of health, applied to individuals, neighbourhoods and communities, and including economic and environmental aspects. The hypothesis is that slowing transport could improve these three types of health.

It is now well known that motorised modes are linked to obesity, stress, traffic collisions, poor air quality and noise. In contrast, walking and cycling are physical activities, encourage social interaction and contribute to physical and mental health. The dominance of motorised modes also leads to urban sprawl, reducing accessibility of green spaces, health facilities and social networks. The role of travel speed in leading to these negative effects is not always very clear in the book. It seemed that in many cases, the cause was high levels of private motorised vehicle use (versus public transport or non-motorised modes), rather than fast speed as such.

The chapter on environmental impacts of motorised modes covers all the familiar topics: consumption of energy and raw materials, heat island effects, local pollution, loss of natural and agricultural land, habitat disruption, water pollution, waste and greenhouse gas emissions. It also covers some more neglected topics, such as the negative visual impacts of transport infrastructure designed for fast modes. Again, the impacts of traffic are amplified through its effects on urban sprawl. Efficiencies due to free-flow speed (in terms of fuel consumption and pollution levels) are also neutralised by a related tendency to travel more and longer and to a higher modal share of cars.

The chapter on economic aspects presents evidence that walkable cities are linked to increased footfall and spending in shops, and attract residents, businesses and tourists. Fast travel modes require less public expenditure (on transport infrastructure and traffic control) and tend to lead to congestion, collisions and inactivity, all of which have economic costs.

Overall, the information provided in Part 2 is compelling and is a good synthesis of the growing research on interactions between transport, health and society. There are a few gaps, though. For example, barrier effects (the separation of neighbourhoods by transport infrastructure and traffic) are dealt with very briefly and only in the economics chapter, not in the human health one.

Part 3: Strategies

Slowing down travel speeds can therefore solve many urban problems. This would involve, at first, reducing the speed of (existing) motorised traffic through speed limits and traffic calming. The merits of the various policy options (and combinations of options) are compared in this part of the book. A gap in this comparison is the absence of information on the disadvantages of one of the most controversial policy options: shared spaces.

Speeds can also be slowed down by indirect measures: increasing densities; balancing the distribution of amenities across the city; reducing road and car parking space; improving walking and cycling; and restricting car travel. The various options to restrict road capacity for motorised vehicles are presented, from small interventions reallocating roadspace, to road removal, with much information coming from the comprehensive Global Street Design Guide (NACTO and GDCI, 2016). A final idea in this part of the book is the need for shifting behaviour, not only of citizens but also of planners and politicians, towards slower modes of transport.

Further thoughts

The ideas developed in this book are timely and consistent with an emerging paradigm where cities are designed for people (not for vehicles), with the aim of improving health, wellbeing, sustainability, liveability and accessibility (rather than just mobility). This paradigm is linked to other social movements favouring slow speeds (e.g., slow food, slow travel). The book also provides useful directions for rethinking cities in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, many of the urban policies in response to the crisis (e.g., providing more space for pedestrians and outdoor cafés) have clearly shown the benefits of slow cities, with some temporary measures becoming permanent, given the positive response from the public.

The book is ambitious, as travel speed is interlinked with so many aspects of urban life. As such, it is inevitable that some topics are covered too quickly. For example, public transport is a component of slow cities, as it stimulates walking and cycling. This aspect is acknowledged but not developed in the book. There was scope for including it, removing some of the repetition in other chapters, especially those in Part 1. In fact, I found that a lot of the material in Part 1 was interchangeable: it could have been in any of the chapters.

On a more positive side, the book has an international perspective, including many examples from cities in countries with different income levels. Boxes show examples that support the ideas developed in the main text. Arguments are often illustrated with concrete examples even in the main text. It is also refreshing that the evidence compiled in the book draws not only from academic studies and reports but from many newspaper articles and blog posts.



Gorz, A (1973) The social ideology of the motorcar. Le Sauvage, September–October.
Google Scholar

Illich, I (1974) Energy and Equity. London: Calder and Boyers.
Google Scholar

NACTO and GDCI (2016) Global Street Design Guide. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Google Scholar


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Mobilising the dispositive: Exploring the role of dockless public bike sharing in transforming urban governance in Shanghai by Wen-I Lin and Justin Spinney

Lin and Spinney argue it is no longer possible to separate physical and virtual mobility when trying to understand the internal dynamics and external manifestations of mobility governance.

Towards a relational conception of the compact city by Kristin Kjærås

Advancing current compact city theory and practice requires an ontological shift in its theorisation, argues Kjærås.


The cities we need: Towards an urbanism guided by human needs satisfaction debates paper by Rodrigo Cardoso, Ali Sobhani and Evert Meijers

In this Debates paper, Cardoso et al ask whether cities deliver satisfiers that make them better able to cater for the full range of human needs to the same degree that they cater for economic needs.

From residence to movement: The nature of racial segregation in everyday urban mobility by Jennifer Candipan, Nolan Edward Phillips, Robert J Sampson and Mario Small

Candipan et al expand the possibilities for studying dynamic forms of racial segregation including their effects and shifts over time with their new Segregated Mobility Index in this special issue paper.


Cycling mode choice amongst US commuters: The role of climate and topography by Justin Tyndall

Tyndall finds that climate and topography play essentially no role in explaining cycling mode share across metros.

Neighbourhood accessibility and walkability of subsidised housing in shrinking US cities by Li Yin, Kelly Patterson, Robert Silverman, Laiyun Wu, Hao Zhang

Li et al advance the discussion of subsidised housing and walkable neighbourhoods by focusing on the characteristics of cities experiencing population decline.


Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category