Building Challenges: Urban Transportation
Urban Crossroads #103

                                        Stacked CityCars designed by Franco Vairani (courtesy of Franco Vairani / MIT Smart Cities).

This is my third article on the challenges that face how we build, whether on the scale of the house or the city. The February article dealt with energy efficiency; the March article discussed housing affordability; this article addresses the city, particularly the challenge of urban transportation.

As with the other two challenges, this challenge is universal in scope, affecting cities throughout the world, both rich and poor. Many urban challenges may be resolved if the necessary financial and human resources are available. This applies to basic urban services such as delivering water and electricity, discharging sewage, keeping streets clean, and collecting garbage. The cities of industrialized economies usually have sufficient resources to address these needs, while poorer ones don’t. In the case of urban transportation, although a differentiation between the two worlds exists, it is not as distinct as in other areas of urban management, and it is common for both wealthy and poorer cities to suffer from problems of traffic congestion and inadequate public transportation.

The main enemy to good-quality urban transportation is the private automobile, which ironically is intended as a transportation solution. It seems that almost anybody who has the financial and physical ability to own a car is inclined to do so. As incomes increase, as city populations grow, and as city areas expand, so does the number of private automobiles in them. One of the problems that automobiles pose is that they take too much space; a good part of the city needs to be set aside for their movement and parking, but there are only so many cars that a city can handle. The average car occupies about 1.8 by 4 meters (or 7.2 square meters), but very often is occupied by only one person, the driver.

Increased automobile use creates a self-perpetuating problem. Cars allow people to travel longer distances, which allows the city to further spread out and sprawl instead of increasing its density. As the city sprawls, more cars are needed, and those cars have to cover additional distances to get people from one part of the city to the other. The result is increased congestion, and the same car trip that used to take fifteen minutes now takes a couple of hours.

The automobile has made the large congested city more common everywhere. Movement in such cities is a serious challenge, whether during the rush hour commute, or when people go out for shopping or recreation in the evening and during weekends. Although large cities in lower-income countries are certain to suffer from traffic congestion, higher-income cities are not immune from it. Congestion is not only endemic to Cairo, Lagos, and Manila, but also to Dubai, Los Angeles, and Seoul.

European cities have been the most successful in facilitating urban transportation. One particularly thinks of Switzerland and The Netherlands. They have achieved this by developing high-quality public transportation systems and also keeping the cost of owning and parking a car in the city very high. Moreover, the populations and areas of their cities are kept small, with the result that these countries include smaller cities located in relative proximity and easy access to each other (usually through rail service) rather than a single dominating mega-city. Their experiences have positive lessons to offer.

There is a need to completely rethink movement in most cities and to prevent them from becoming victims of their success and growth. Giving priority to pubic transportation is a must, but this cannot be achieved without relatively high urban densities. Public transportation needs urban density to be cost effective. A public transportation system that serves a relatively small number of people dispersed across a wide area does not make economic sense.

Higher densities allow people to be close to the services they need and to easily walk to them, supporting the phenomenon of “living, working, and playing” in the same place. When residents of a city district need to reach parts of the city further out, they would use public transportation. When they want the increased flexibility offered by the private automobile, a good option would be to rent - rather than own - one. A few car rental companies are making this more convenient through self-service arrangements where cars would be located in designated parking spaces spread throughout the city instead of central rental offices. Customers can rent those cars for as short a period as an hour, picking up the car from the designated parking space and returning it there when done.

Highly creative solutions also are being put forward. These include the CityCar project being led by William Mitchell’s Smart Cities Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The project is developing a transportation concept based on small shared two-person electric vehicles designed by project member Franco Vairani. These vehicles may be stacked together - like shopping carts in a supermarket - in locations throughout the city to save space and for recharging. If one needs to use a car, one simply would borrow one of the stacked vehicles (for a fee, of course) and drop it off when done at the stacking / recharging station closest to their destination, where somebody else would be able to use it. Mitchell has written a book on the project entitled Reinventing the Automobile, which just came out this month. The CityCar is still in the experimental stage, but may become a reality that will revolutionize how we move in the city.

Also, the more activities we can carry out online, i.e., move information rather than people, the fewer trips we would need to make in the city. To some extent, this is happening, but there is tremendous room for improvement in a city such as Amman. Not only should it be possible to pay all bills online, but e-government services should be expanded and people should be able to do more work at home and communicate with co-workers and clients electronically.

I even have come across the suggestion that it may be time to give up the age-old dream of home ownership, and to encourage renting instead. This would allow people to more easily relocate and live closer to where they work when changing jobs, rather than having to make lengthy commutes that consume a good part of their day.

There is no magic solution for the challenge of urban transportation. It involves many variables. What is clear is that the larger the city, the more difficult it is to move through it. Cities simply cannot continue to grow and expand indefinitely, for they will cease to function adequately, and eventually will collapse under their own weight. Such unstoppable urban growth unfortunately is taking place throughout the world as people congregate in large numbers to cities with active economies. Economic activity simply attracts more activity. It is a vicious circle that is difficult to break.

The challenge of urban transportation requires the active intervention of various governmental authorities and the skills of a diverse set of people including economists, sociologists, community activists, planners, and transportation engineers. Although it has become possible to address most conventional problems facing cities, the challenge of transportation remains in search of an effective solution. Without one, the quality of urban life can easily be devastated.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 15, 2010