Moving Around the City
Urban Crossroads #49

How does one move around the city? The most natural manner of doing so is walking. If nothing else, it is a form of exercise and one does not have to pay for it. It also allows for a maximum level of interaction between the pedestrian and the physical elements of the city, such as its streets, buildings, and spaces; and also between the pedestrian and the people around him or her, thus emphasizing the role of the city as a place where people come together. In recent years, there has been a strong direction in urban planning - as with the New Urbanism movement – emphasizing that people should not have to walk for more than ten minutes from their homes to reach facilities they use regularly such as those for shopping, education, recreation, and, if possible, even work. Short walking distances however are not enough, and other issues such as safety and comfort also should be considered. It almost is useless to have close-by facilities if one needs to go through the life-threatening, nerve-wrecking experience of crossing an extremely busy street with fast traffic to get to them, or if there aren’t adequate sidewalks to provide pedestrians with their own zone that separates them from the dangers and disturbances of vehicular traffic.

Another medium through which one may get around the city is public transportation. In this case, vehicles would move along a pre-determined path (and hopefully according to a set schedule), picking up and dropping off passengers along the way at specific locations. The vehicles may include buses, cars (such as those known as "service" cars in Amman), as well as above-ground light rail and underground subway trains. Public transportation vehicles are cheaper to use than private vehicles, and the more people use them, the more it becomes possible to alleviate problems of traffic and parking congestion.

There also are taxis, which should not be confused with public transportation. Taxis more or less are private vehicles that one hires for a short period of time to transport him or her from one point to the other. The price of using them ranges from one city to the other, but they generally are relatively expensive to use on a regular and continuous basis, as with going to and from work every day. Their use may not contribute to reducing overall traffic congestion, but they do limit the need for parking spaces in the city, and can limit the need for individual car ownership.

Of course, there also is the private vehicle. It is very flexible in that it allows its owner to use it whenever he or she wishes. Unlike public transportation, but like a taxi, it is not restricted for use along a specific route. However, it is expensive to own a car. Not only does one have to pay for the cost of purchasing a car, but also has to cover its running costs, as with registration, insurance, gas, as well as routine maintenance and repair expenses. In contrast to public transportation or taxis, one needs to worry about finding a place to park a private car when the destination is in a very congested area. In addition, the more people use private vehicles, the more will the city suffer from problems of traffic and parking congestion. One bus easily can accommodate thirty people or more, while most cars usually only have their drivers in them.

There are other less conventional methods of transportation. Bicycles are one excellent transportation alternative. They are relatively inexpensive to own and maintain, they use up very little space while moving or when parked, and they provide an excellent mode of exercising. They are a very popular means of transportation in numerous countries, both rich and poor. Ideally, cities should have bicycle paths to separate their movement from that of pedestrians and motor vehicles, and should have locations specified for parking bicycles. The disadvantage of bicycles, however, is that they are difficult to use in hilly terrains and under extreme weather conditions.

A very innovative new development of providing means of transportation that is taking place in some cities is the sharing of cars. Accordingly, people join a group whose members share a set of usually small-sized vehicles that are parked in specifically designated locations around the city. One would pick up the car from that location, use it, and return it to the place from which it was picked up, or park it in another designated location. These cars almost function as a taxi that you drive yourself. Of course, there is a need to ensure that the cars are used only by those authorized to do so, and to track distances and locations of the cars being used. With current information technologies, this is relatively easy to accomplish through computerized technologies such as special codes that only allow designated people to drive the cars, and tracking systems that monitor the use of the cars and determine where a given car is located at any given time. One advantage of this system is that it provides something in between owning a car and taking a taxi. It provides people with the flexibility to take cars almost whenever and wherever they choose, but without having to own one.

These are the means through which one may move around the city. They all depend on the availability of suitable networks of infrastructure systems. These include sidewalks and streets. In the case of light rail or subway lines, the infrastructure become more complex, and requires components such as rail tracks, passenger stations, control stations, centralized power generation… etc.

The requirements for developing and operating an effective transportation network for the city do not stop here. Two additional important requirements come to mind. One is of a rather technical nature, and the other of a socio-economic nature. We have to make sure that infrastructure systems are able to accommodate the numbers of people and vehicles that need to move around the city, especially during rush hours, as when people head to or from work. However, we also have to keep in mind that streets, for example, can only be so wide, and do have a maximum capacity. There are only so many vehicles that any street network can handle, no matter how well designed it may be. Once that network is used beyond its capacity, traffic congestion becomes the norm. These challenges raise important issues such as how to achieve that difficult balance between growth and manageability in the city.

The other very important issue is that of equity and accessibility. Not everybody can afford to own and maintain an automobile. Also, not everybody can drive an automobile, as with those who are underage, or who are unable to drive because of old age or health problems. An equitable system needs to provide these groups with reasonable access to the systems of movement in the city, ranging from adequate sidewalks to efficiently-run public transportation vehicles. People of all walks of life need to move around the city on a regular basis: to go to school, to work, to buy things, to visit a physician, and even for recreation. A healthy city is one that allows them to do all of this without having to exert unreasonable amounts of effort and to spend unreasonable amounts of money. If you have to wait an hour each day to catch a bus, or if you have to pay a third of your monthly salary to cover the costs of your transportation needs to and from work, then something is seriously wrong with the city's transportation system. The transportation system in a given society says a great deal about that society's success in achieving socio-economic justice and equity.

How does Amman satisfy the transportation needs of its inhabitants? This is the subject of the next article. In the meantime, do give some thought to how you and the people around you (especially those of them who do not own their own cars) move around Amman.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 15, 2005