Urban transport and mobility challenges

lagos250The scale of the challenges that planners face from urban transport is made clear in the new UN-Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements. As ever more trips are made it becomes harder and harder to move around cities, even when money is invested in transport infrastructure. Across the globe, but especially in the rapidly urbanising mega cities of the global south, cities are facing a crisis of accessibility. Quite simply, unsustainable forms of urban transport are no longer working.

Road deaths – a pandemic in the developing world

Each year, around 1.2 million people are killed and a further 20–50 million injured in road traffic accidents worldwide. More than 90% of the deaths are in developing countries, despite the fact that only a third of the world’s vehicles are there. The road safety gap between the developing and the developed world is widening.

The report warns that in 2050, there may be three to four times as many passenger-kilometres travelled as in the year 2000, infrastructure and energy prices permitting. Freight movement could also rise more than threefold during the same period. It says “Mobility flows have become a key dynamic of urbanization, with the associated infrastructure invariably constituting the backbone of urban form. “

It is the world’s poorest regions that will see the greatest growth in urban populations, and so of urban trip, in the coming decades. Today some 19% of the world’s annual urban growth is in Africa. By 2045 that figure is expected to reach 43%.
A call for planners to do things differently
The report calls on urban planners to move away from their “transport bias” and focus instead on “the human right to equitable access to opportunities”. The argument is that transport is a means to an end: most trips are not made for the sake of the trip itself, but to reach a destination, or more broadly to meet a need. If we focus efforts on making it easier to reach destinations, then a range of options open up, not just the knee-jerk construction of physical infrastructure.

There is a link, for example, between urban form and urban transport systems. “The combination of high-density settlements, strong sense of place and mixed-used functions not only minimize the need for extended movement, but also enhance economies of agglomeration and encourage non-motorized mobility.”

A look into the future

A few figures show why it is important to move away from car dependency. In 2008 China had 35M private cars: by 2035 the number is expected to be 350M. In India, private car growth is running at three times the rate of population growth, with a 20% increase each year in cars, trucks and motorized two-wheeled vehicles. The impacts on energy and carbon emissions are disturbing to contemplate, though there is also evidence that car ownership and usage is levelling off in developed countries .

Public transport

Public transport is recognised as “the backbone of accessibility-based urban mobility”. However, just a few cities in Sub-Saharan Africa (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) have “reasonably well-developed, institutionalized public bus services”. Elsewhere in the region, private para-transit and informal operators dominate with minibuses that are largely unregulated. It’s a similar story in poorer parts of South and South East Asia. Buses dominate in Latin America.

Affordability and inclusiveness matter. Is the city as a whole accessible to all its residents? The report argues that the right to mobility – i.e. to be able to access destinations, functions and services – is universal and the key to the practical realisation of many other human rights. Seen in this way, mobility is about empowerment, but there are barriers of class, gender, poverty, disability and affordability.

Walking and cycling

Walking is often the only form of transport that the very poor can afford. So designing and maintaining a safe pedestrian environment is an important part of any pro-poor planning strategy. Women in particular walk, often having to contend with a lack of pavements, safe crossing points, and poorly lighted streets.
Similarly, cycling can be a cheap and sustainable form of transport that could help take people out of poverty by giving them access to a wider range of jobs and services than they can access on foot. However, cycling is a hazardous mode of travel in many cities. Again, a planning approach that made cycling safer and more attractive could potentially help those on very low incomes in the rapidly urbanising world in particular. Bicycle taxis can be a way of earning a living.

Planning and equity

The idea that planning should be about equity may surprise many planners, but it is central to the way that UN-Habitat has promoted planning since the “Re-inventing Planning” paper was presented to the 2006 World Urban Forum. The advocacy for “Re-inventing Planning” was led by the Commonwealth Association of Planners, as a response to the use by the Zimbabwe government of planning legislation, the Regional Town and Country Planning Act of 1996, to justify “Operation Murambatsvina/Restore Order”, which — in the name of cleaning up “filth”— resulted in the forced eviction of some 700,000 poor people. The large professional planning institutes in the developed world gave support to the “Re-inventing Planning” paper, but never promoted its ideas to their own members, let alone to politicians.

More than seven years later, many people in the rich countries are now struggling to cope under conditions of falling real incomes and withdrawal of public services. Political concern about climate change has plummeted, and the ubiquitous adjective “sustainable” has become hackneyed by inappropriate use. The UN system, of which UN-Habitat is a part, has its weaknesses, but the Global Report on Human Settlements 2013, reminds us why the need for planning is more urgent, and more global, than ever.