EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Designing Cities for People: Redesigning Urban Transport

Urban transport systems based on a combination of rail lines, bus lines, bicycle pathways, and pedestrian walkways offer the best of all possible worlds in providing mobility, low-cost transportation, and a healthy urban environment.

A rail system provides the foundation for a city’s transportation system. Rails are geographically fixed, providing a permanent means of transportation that people can count on. Once in place, the nodes on such a system become the obvious places to concentrate office buildings, high-rise apartment buildings, and shops.

Whether the best fit is underground rail, light-rail surface systems, or both depends in part on city size and geography. Megacities regularly turn to underground rail systems to provide mobility. For cities of intermediate size, light rail is often an attractive option.

As noted earlier, some of the most innovative public transportation systems, those that shift huge numbers of people from cars into buses, have been developed in Curitiba and Bogotá. The success of Bogotá’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, TransMilenio, which uses special express lanes to move people quickly through the city, is being replicated not only in six other Colombian cities but elsewhere too: Mexico City, São Paulo, Hanoi, Seoul, Taipei, and Quito. In China, Beijing is one of 20 cities developing BRT systems. 17

Several cities in Africa are also planning BRT systems. Even industrial-country cities such as Ottawa, Toronto, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and—much to everyone’s delight—Los Angeles have launched or are now considering BRT systems. 18

Some cities are reducing traffic congestion and air pollution by charging cars to enter the city. Singapore, long a leader in urban transport innovation, has imposed a tax on all roads leading into the city center. Electronic sensors identify each car and then debit the owner’s credit card. This system has reduced the number of automobiles in Singapore, providing its residents with both more mobility and cleaner air. 19

Singapore has been joined by three Norwegian cities— Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim—as well as London and Stockholm. In London—where the average speed of an automobile a few years ago was comparable to that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago—a congestion fee was adopted in early 2003. The initial £5 ($10) charge on all motorists driving into the center city between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. immediately reduced the number of vehicles, permitting traffic to flow more freely while cutting pollution and noise. 20

In the first year after the new tax was introduced, the number of people using buses to travel into the central city climbed by 38 percent, delays dropped by 30 percent, and vehicle speeds on key thoroughfares increased by 21 percent. Since the congestion charge was adopted, the daily flow of cars and minicabs into central London during peak hours has been reduced by 70,000, a drop of 36 percent, while the number of bicycles has increased by 50 percent. 21

In July 2005, the congestion fee was raised to £8 ($16). With much of the revenue from the congestion fee being used to upgrade and expand the bus system, Londoners are continuing to shift from cars to buses. 22

In July 2007, Milan announced it would impose a “pollution charge” of $14 on vehicles entering its historic center in daytime hours during the week. Other cites now considering similar measures include New York, São Paulo, San Francisco, and Barcelona. 23

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who was elected in 2001, faced some of Europe’s worst traffic congestion and air pollution. He decided traffic would have to be cut 40 percent by 2020. The first step was to invest in better transit in outlying regions to ensure that everyone in the greater Paris area had access to high-quality public transit. The next step was to create express lanes on main thoroughfares for buses and bicycles, thus reducing the number of lanes for cars. As bus speeds increased, more people used this form of transportation. 24

A third initiative in Paris was the establishment of a city bicycle rental program that by the end of 2007 was to have 20,600 bikes available at 1,450 docking stations throughout the city. Access to the bikes is by credit card, with a choice of daily, weekly, or annual rates ranging from just over $1 per day to $40 per year. Based on the first few months, the bicycles are proving to be immensely popular. Patrick Allin, a 38-year-old Parisian and an enthusiastic user of the bikes, says they are great for conversation: “We are no longer all alone in our cars—we are sharing. It’s really changed the atmosphere here; people chat at the stations and even at traffic lights.” 25

In writing about the program in the New York Times, Serge Schmemann draws a “lesson for all big cities: this is an idea whose time has come.” At this point Mayor Delanoë is well along on his goal of cutting car traffic by 40 percent and carbon emissions by a similar amount. 26

The United States, which has lagged far behind Europe in developing diversified urban transport systems, is being swept by a “complete streets” movement, an effort to ensure that streets are friendly to pedestrians and bicycles as well as to cars. Many American communities lack sidewalks and bike lanes, making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around safely, particularly where streets are heavily traveled. In Charlotte, North Carolina, transportation planning manager Norm Steinman says: “We didn’t build sidewalks here for 50 years. Streets designed by traffic engineers in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s were mostly for autos.” 27

This cars-only model is being challenged by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a powerful assemblage of citizen groups including the million-member-strong Natural Resources Defense Council, AARP (an organization of 38 million older Americans), and numerous local and national cycling organizations. The “complete streets” movement is the product of a “perfect storm of issues coming together,” says Randy Neufeld, coordinator of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s “Healthy Streets Campaign.” Among these issues are concern over the obesity epidemic, rising gasoline prices, the urgent need to cut carbon emissions, air pollution, and the mobility constraints on aging baby boomers. The elderly who live in urban areas without sidewalks and who no longer drive are effectively imprisoned in their own homes. 28

The National Complete Streets Coalition, headed by Barbara McCann, reports that as of July 2007, “complete streets” policies are in place in 14 states and 52 cities. Two of the country’s most populous states, California and Illinois, are expected to join the group. One reason states have become interested in passing such legislation is the realization that designing bike paths, sidewalks, and other such amenities into a project from the beginning is more efficient and less costly than adding them later. As McCann notes, it is “cheaper to do it right the first time.” This is why Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is reportedly interested in sponsoring a “complete streets” bill in the U.S. Congress. 29

Countries that have well-developed urban transit systems and a mature bicycle infrastructure are much better positioned to withstand the stresses of a downturn in world oil production than are countries whose only transport option is the car. With a full array of walking and biking options, the number of trips by car can easily be cut by 10–20 percent. 30

The bicycle, a form of personal transportation, has many attractions. It alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces obesity, increases physical fitness, does not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, and has a price within reach for the billions of people who cannot afford an automobile. Bicycles increase mobility while reducing congestion and the area of land paved over. Six bicycles can typically fit into the road space used by one car. For parking, the advantage is even greater, with 20 bicycles occupying the space required to park a car. 31

The bicycle is not only a flexible means of transportation; it is an ideal way of restoring a balance between caloric intake and expenditure. The opportunity to exercise is valuable in its own right. Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis and it strengthens the immune system.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in 22 pounds of metal and rubber boosts the efficiency of individual mobility by a factor of three. On my bike I estimate that I get easily 7 miles per potato. An automobile, which requires at least a ton of material to transport one person, is extraordinarily inefficient by comparison.

The capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations was dramatically demonstrated in China. In 1976, this country produced 6 million bicycles. After the reforms in 1978 that led to an open market economy and rapidly rising incomes, bicycle production started climbing, reaching close to 70 million in 2006. The surge to 500 million bicycle owners in China since 1978 provided the greatest increase in human mobility in history. Bicycles took over rural roads and city streets. Although China’s 9 million passenger cars, and the urban congestion they cause, get a lot of attention, it is bicycles that provide personal mobility for hundreds of millions of Chinese. 32

Many cities are turning to bicycles for various uses. In the United States, nearly 75 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more now have routine patrols by bicycle. Officers on bikes are more productive in cities partly because they are more mobile and can reach the scene of an accident or crime more quickly and more quietly than officers in cars. They typically make 50 percent more arrests per day than officers in squad cars. Fiscally, the cost of operating a bicycle is trivial compared with that of a police car. 33

Bicycle messenger services are common in the world’s larger cities simply because they deliver small parcels more quickly than cars can and at a lower cost. As e-commerce expands, the need for quick, reliable, urban delivery services is escalating. For Internet marketing firms, quick delivery wins more customers. In New York an estimated 300 bicycle messenger firms compete for $700 million worth of business annually. 34

The key to realizing the potential of the bicycle is to create a bicycle-friendly transport system. This means providing both bicycle trails and designated street lanes for bicycles. Among the industrial-country leaders in designing bicycle-friendly transport systems are the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. 35

The Netherlands, the unquestioned leader among industrial countries in encouraging bicycle use, has incorporated a vision of the role of bicycles into a Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to creating bike lanes and trails in all its cities, the system also often gives cyclists the advantage over motorists in right-of-way and at traffic lights. Some traffic signals permit cyclists to move out before cars. Roughly 30 percent of all urban trips in the Netherlands are on bicycle. This compares with 1 percent in the United States. 36

Within the Netherlands, a nongovernmental group called Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-ce) has been formed to share the Dutch experience in designing a modern transport system that prominently features bicycles. It is working with groups in Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Uganda to facilitate bicycle use. Roelof Wittink, head of I-ce, observes, “If you plan only for cars then drivers will feel like the King of the Road. This reinforces the attitude that the bicycle is backward and used only by the poor. But if you plan for bicycles it changes the public attitude.” 37

Both the Netherlands and Japan have made a concerted effort to integrate bicycles and rail commuter services by providing bicycle parking at rail stations, making it easier for cyclists to commute by train. In Japan, the use of bicycles for commuting to rail transportation has reached the point where some stations have invested in vertical, multi-level parking garages for bicycles, much as is often done for automobiles. 38

The combination of rail and bicycle, and particularly their integration into a single, overall transport system, makes a city eminently more livable than one that relies almost exclusively on private automobiles. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessened. We and the earth are both healthier.

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17. Jay Walljasper, “Unjamming the Future,” Ode, October 2005, pp. 36–41; Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center, Transport Innovator (newsletter), vol. 3, no. 4 (July/August 2007); BRT Information Clearinghouse, “Existing BRT Programs,” at path.berkeley.edu/informationclearinghouse/brt/existing.html, viewed 27 September 2007; Yingling Liu, “Bus Rapid Transit: A Step Toward Fairness in China’s Urban Transportation,” China Watch (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 9 March 2006).

18. Walljasper, op. cit. note 17; Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center, op. cit. note 17; BRT Information Clearinghouse, op. cit. note 17.

19. Molly O’Meara Sheehan, “Making Better Transportation Choices,” in Lester R. Brown et al., State of the World 2001 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 116.

20. William D. Eggers, Peter Samuel, and Rune Munk, Combating Gridlock: How Pricing Road Use Can Ease Congestion (New York: Deloitte, November 2003); Tom Miles, “London Drivers to Pay UK’s First Congestion Tax,” Reuters, 28 February 2002; Randy Kennedy, “The Day the Traffic Disappeared,” New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2003, pp. 42–45; James Savage, “Congestion Charge Returns to Stockholm,” The Local, 1 August 2007; British sterling to dollars conversion on 16 October 2007, from www.bloomberg.com/invest/calculators/currency.html.

21. Transport for London, Central London Congestion Charging: Impacts Monitoring—Second Annual Report (London: April 2004), pp. 2, 39; Transport for London, Central London Congestion Charging: Impacts Monitoring—Fifth Annual Report (London: July 2007), pp. 21, 22, 47.

22. Transport for London, Fifth Annual Report, op. cit. note 21, pp. 3, 7.

23. “Milan to Impose ‘Pollution Charge’ on Cars,” Reuters, 23 July 2007; “Congestion Charging Sweeps The World—A Rash of Cities Round the Globe is Set to Travel the Same Road as London,” Guardian (London), 15 February 2004; Aaron O. Patrick, “Life in the Faster Lane: How London Car Curbs Inspired U.S. Cities,” Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2007.

24. Serge Schmemann, “I Love Paris on a Bus, a Bike, a Train and in Anything but a Car,” New York Times, 26 July 2007; Katrin Bennhold, “A New French Revolution’s Creed: Let Them Ride Bikes,” New York Times, 16 July 2007.

25. Bennhold, op. cit. note 24; Alexandra Topping, “Free Wheeling: Paris’s New Bike System,” Washington Post, 23 September 2007.

26. Schmemann, op. cit. note 24; La Fédération de Paris du Parti Socialiste, ed., Ce Que Nous Avons Fait Ensemble (Paris: Office of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, 2007), pp. 20-25.

27. John Ritter, “Narrowed Roads Gain Acceptance in Colo., Elsewhere,” USA Today, 29 July 2007; John Ritter, “‘Complete Streets’ Program Gives More Room for Pedestrians, Cyclists,” USA Today, 29 July 2007.

28. National Complete Streets Coalition, “Complete the Streets: Who We Are,” at www.completestreets.org/whoweare.html, viewed 16 August 2007; AARP, “AARP: Creating a New Health Care Paradigm,” at www.aarp.org/about_aarp/new_paradigm.html, viewed 16 August 2007; Ritter, “Narrowed Roads,” op. cit. note 27.

29. Ritter, “Narrowed Roads,” op. cit. note 27; Ritter, “‘Complete Streets’ Program,” op. cit. note 27.

30. Car trip reduction is author’s estimate.

31. O’Meara, op. cit. note 3, p. 45.

32. Chinese bicycle production compiled from United Nations, Yearbook of Industrial Statistics (New York: various years) and from Industrial Commodity Statistics Yearbook (New York: various years); “World Players in the Bicycle Market,” table in John Crenshaw, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, e-mail to Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute, 8 October 2007; bicycle owners from Song Mo and Wen Chihua, “Turning Full Cycle,” China Daily, 28 September 2006; cars in China from Ward’s Automotive Group, Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data 2006 (Southfield, MI: 2006), p. 16.

33. Percent of police forces calculated from Matthew Hickman and Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2006), pp. 3, 13; arrest rate from a member of the Washington, DC, police force, discussion with author.

34. Glenn Collins, “Old Form of Delivery Thrives in New World of E-Commerce,” New York Times, 24 December 1999.

35. O’Meara, op. cit. note 3, pp. 47–48.

36. Ibid.; Barbara McCann, “Complete the Streets!” Planning Magazine: Special Transportation Issue, May 2005.

37. Walljasper, op. cit. note 17; Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-ce), Locomotives: Annual Report 2006 (Utrecht, The Netherlands: December 2006), pp. 3–4; I-ce, “Locomotives,” at www.cycling.nl/ frameset.htm, viewed 21 August 2007.

38. O’Meara, op. cit. note 3, pp. 47–48; Japan from author’s personal observation.


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