Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Redesigning Cities for People: Planning Cities for People

As the new century begins, it is becoming increasingly evident to urban dwellers, whether in an industrial or a developing country, that there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. The vehicle that promised mobility and delivered it in largely rural societies cannot provide mobility in cities. Indeed, after a certain point, as more and more people try to achieve mobility by driving in a city, they become progressively less mobile. 

The automobile-centered urban transport system can lead to frustration with congestion, a frustration that sometimes becomes what is now known as "road rage." Urban air pollution, often largely from automobiles, claims millions of lives.

Congestion also takes a direct economic toll in the form of rising transportation inefficiency and greater costs in time and energy. As indicated, longer commuting times are now a source of daily frustration in a diverse array of cities, including Bangkok, Beijing, Houston, Rome, São Paulo, and Tel Aviv. 

Another cost of cities devoted to cars is a psychological one, a deprivation of contact with the natural world
an asphalt complex. There is a growing body of evidence that there is an innate need for human contact with nature. Both ecologists and psychologists have been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by E.O. Wilson, have formulated the "biophilia hypothesis," which argues that those who are deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically, and that this deprivation leads to a measurable decline in well-being.46

Meanwhile psychologists have coined their own term—ecopsychology—in which they make the same argument. Theodore Roszak, a leader in this field, cites a study that documents humans' dependence on nature by looking at the rate of recovery of patients in a hospital in Pennsylvania. Those who were in rooms overlooking the parking lot took longer to recover from illnesses than those whose rooms overlooked gardens with grass, trees, flowers, and birds.47 

One of the arguments for community gardens is that in addition to providing food, they also provide greenery and a sense of community. Working with soil and watching things grow has a therapeutic effect, apparently harkening back to earlier times when everyone worked the soil. 

The exciting news is that there are signs of change, daily indications of an interest in redesigning cities for people, not for cars. One encouraging trend comes from the United States. Rising public transit ridership of 5 percent a year since 1995 indicates that some people are abandoning their cars for buses, subways, and light rail. The country that led the world into the automobile age is starting to lead it away from such complete dependence on the car.48 

Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the car in urban transportation systems. Some of the most fundamental challenges come from the developing world. As noted in Chapter 1, a group of eminent scientists in China challenged Beijing's decision to promote an automobile-centered transportation system. They point out a simple fact: China does not have enough land to accommodate the automobile and to feed its people. What is true for China is also true for India and dozens of other densely populated developing countries.49 

Some cities in industrial and developing countries alike are dramatically increasing the mobility of their people by moving away from the car. The mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, has come up with an alternative transportation system, one that does not mimic those in the West but that is inexpensive and commuter-friendly. Since 1974 the transportation system has been totally restructured. As Molly O'Meara Sheehan points out, although one third of the people in Curitiba own cars, two thirds of all trips in the city are by bus. The population has doubled since 1974, but car traffic in the city has declined by 30 percent—a remarkable achievement.50 

Some cities are far better at planning their growth than others. They plan transport systems that provide mobility, clean air, and exercise—a sharp contrast to cities that offer congestion, health-impairing air, and little opportunity for exercise. When 95 percent of a city's workers depend on the automobile for commuting, as happens in Atlanta, the city is in trouble. (See Table 9-4.) By contrast, in Amsterdam only 40 percent of workers in the city commute by car; 35 percent commute by bike or walk, while 25 percent use public transit. Copenhagen's commuting patterns are almost identical to Amsterdam's. In Paris, just under half of commuters rely on cars. Even though these European cities are older, often with narrow streets, they have far less congestion than Atlanta.51 

Not surprisingly, cities that are more car-dependent have more congestion and less mobility than those that offer more commuting options. The very vehicle whose great promise was mobility is in fact immobilizing entire urban populations, making it difficult for rich and poor alike to move about. 

The design of transport systems, especially rail-based ones, shapes land use and the evolution of cities, but throughout the modern era, budget allocations for transportation have invariably been heavily biased toward the construction and maintenance of highways and streets. Creating more livable cities and the mobility that people desire depends on reallocating budgets to emphasize the development of rail- or bus-based public transport and facilities that support the bicycle. Existing long-term transportation strategies in many developing countries assume that everyone will one day be able to own a car. Unfortunately, given the constraints of land available to accommodate the automobile, not to mention those imposed by low incomes, this is simply not realistic. Given that reality, these countries will provide more mobility if they support public transportation and the bicycle. 

If developing-country governments continue to invest most of the public resources available for transportation in support of the automobile, they will end up with a system built for the small fraction of their people who own cars—15 percent or so in many countries. Much of the remaining 85 percent will be deprived of mobility. Recognition now that most of the world's people are not likely to ever own automobiles can lead to a fundamental reorientation of transport system planning and investment.52 

There are many ways to restructure the transportation system so that it satisfies the needs of all people, not just the affluent, so that it provides mobility, not immobility, and so that it improves health rather than damaging it. One way is to eliminate the subsidies that many employers provide for parking. For example, parking subsidies in the United States that are worth an estimated $31.5 billion a year obviously encourage people to drive to work.53 

In 1992, California mandated that employers match parking subsidies with cash that can be used by the recipient either to pay public transport fares or to invest in bicycles. In firms where data were collected, this shift in policy reduced automobile use by some 17 percent. At the national level, a provision was incorporated into the 1998 Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century to change the tax code so that those who used public transit or vanpools would enjoy the same tax-exempt subsidies as those who received free parking. What societies should be striving for is not parking subsidies, but parking taxes—taxes that begin to reflect the cost to the community of congestion associated with excessive numbers of automobiles.54 

Some cities are reducing traffic congestion 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. Electronic sensors identify each car as it enters, and then debit the owner's credit card. This has reduced the number of automobiles in Singapore, providing its residents with much more mobility than in most other cities.55 

S ingapore has been joined by Trondheim, Norway's third largest city. And now London too is planning to charge motorists driving in the city in order to alleviate the congestion that is strangling it. This obviously works best when it is coordinated with investment in improved public transportation and bicycle options. Other cities suffering from traffic gridlock seem likely to follow.56 

More and more cities are declaring car-free areas. These have proved to be universally popular. Scores of cities have adopted this approach, including Stockholm, Vienna, Prague, and Rome. Paris experimented with a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River during the summer of 2001.57 

Another social innovation that has substantially reduced parking congestion is car sharing. This approach, which emerged in Europe, is designed to provide access to cars for people who do not use them on a daily basis. The car sharing organization may be publicly sponsored, as in Amsterdam, or privately operated, as in Berlin. In the latter, Carsten and Marcus Petersen invested in a few cars and started taking reservations for those who wished to use them. For people who do not regularly use a car, an automobile represents a huge investment in materials and, for the community, in parking space. Crowding neighborhoods with parked automobiles is no longer necessary with car sharing.58 

The success of this approach is evident in its growth. Car sharing groups in Europe now have 70,000 members in 300 towns and cities in eight countries from Ireland to Austria. Worldwatch researcher Gary Gardner reports that each shared vehicle eliminates four private cars, thus saving money and reducing material use and parking congestion in urban centers.59 

Another initiative gaining attention is the idea of making subways attractive, even cultural centers. In Moscow, with works of art in the stations, the subway system is justifiably referred to as Russia's crown jewel. In Washington, D.C., Union Station, which links the city's subway system with intercity train lines, is an architectural delight. With its restoration completed in 1988 it has become a social gathering place with a rich array of restaurants, shops, and conference rooms. 

One of the more interesting innovations designed to encourage the use of public transportation comes from State College, a small town in central Pennsylvania that is home to Pennsylvania State University. In an effort to reduce traffic and parking congestion on campus, Penn State decided in 1999 that it would provide $1 million to the bus-based local transit system in exchange for unlimited free rides for its students, faculty, and staff. As a result, bus ridership in State College jumped by 240 percent in one year, requiring the transit company to invest heavily in new buses to accommodate the additional passengers. This initiative by the university has created a far more pleasant, attractive campus--an asset in recruiting both students and faculty.60 

An innovation that is attracting attention in the United States is the provision of "location-efficient" mortgages. These are designed to reward home buyers or renovators who invest in housing near transportation hubs. By living near these, people can dispense with automobile ownership, or perhaps own just one car instead of two. This reduction in their cost of living is reflected in the larger loan they are able to obtain. This financial instrument, which was designed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading U.S. environmental group, is available on a trial basis in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle.61 

Another public interest group initiative that is paying dividends has been undertaken by a group in India called the Public Affairs Center. It surveys residents of major cities about the quality of services that they receive. The group then publishes the results in the form of a report card for each Indian city on the adequacy of various services provided to their citizens. This is distributed to the media and widely circulated. Among its contributions was the discovery of widespread corruption in Bangalore, where one of every eight citizens surveyed indicated they had to pay a bribe to get city officials to respond to their needs.62 

One of the most disturbing dimensions of the evolution of cities in developing countries is that this process is shaped by the nature of squatter settlements. As one study notes, the unnamed millions of squatters who are settling in cities are actually shaping the development of these areas. Curitiba, Brazil, again on the cutting edge of thinking, has designated tracts of land for squatter settlements. The alternative, which is to let squatters settle wherever they can—on steep slopes, on river floodplains, or on other high-risk areas—makes it difficult to provide basic services such as transport, water, and sewerage. By setting aside tracts of land for squatter settlements, the process can at least be structured in a way that is consistent with the official development plan of the city.63 

As the new century begins, the world is being forced to reconsider the future role of the automobile in cities in one of the most fundamental shifts in transportation thinking over the last century. It is ironic that the very cars and trucks that made massive urbanization possible are now contributing to the deterioration of cities. 

Some years ago, while attending a conference in Boston, I was making my way one morning on foot to the conference several blocks away. Between my hotel and the conference site, a thruway cut across the city. I had to wait some time for a break in the traffic so I could cross the congested thoroughfare. As I stood there, witnessing the effect of this thruway on the community, noting the noise, the pollution, and the congestion, I felt sorry for the people who lived in the neighborhood. And I felt sorry for us as a species. I don't think this represents the ultimate in human social evolution. We can do better.


Table 9-4. Commute to Work in Selected Cities, Early 1990s
Private Vehicle
Public Transit
Foot/Bicycle/ Other
Atlanta, GA
Los Angeles, CA
New York, NY
Portland, OR
Washington, DC
Source: See endnote 51.


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