Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Designing Sustainable Cities: 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. Megacities regularly turn to underground rail systems to provide mobility. Whether it is these rail systems, light-rail surface systems, or both depends in part on city size and geography. For cities of intermediate size, light rail is often an attractive option.

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.

As noted earlier, some of the most innovative public transportation systems, those that move 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 relies on special express lanes to move people quickly through the city, is being replicated not only in six other Colombian cities, but in cities elsewhere too: Beijing, Mexico City, São Paulo, Seoul, Taipei, and Quito.

Several more cities in Africa and China are also planning BRT systems. Even industrial-country cities, such as Ottawa and—much to everyone’s delight—Los Angeles, are now considering BRT systems. 19

Many 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 than in most other cities. 20

Singapore has been joined by London and by several Norwegian cities, including Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim. In London—where the average speed of an automobile a few years ago was about the same as that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago—a congestion tax was adopted in early 2003. The £5 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. 21

During 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. Since the congestion charge, the daily flow of cars into central London has been reduced by 65,000–70,000, a drop of 18 percent, while delays have dropped by 30 percent. The number of bicycles and mopeds has increased by 17 percent, and vehicle speeds on key thoroughfares have increased by 21 percent, from 8.7 to 10.6 miles per hour. 22

Contrary to the fear about falling profits, 65 percent of businesses in London’s inner city have not noticed any effect on their bottom line. A substantial majority of business owners think the reduced vehicle flow has had a positive effect on the city’s image. A similar tax is now being considered in Cardiff for adoption within the near future. Other cites considering the measure include Stockholm, São Paulo, San Francisco, Milan, and Barcelona. French officials are looking at a congestion charge to deal with the suffocating air pollution in Paris. This highly successful use of taxes to restructure urban transport systems is discussed in terms of restructuring the overall economy in Chapter 12. 23

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. 24

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 strengthens the immune system. Millions of people pay a monthly fee to use a fitness center, which they often drive to, where they ride stationary bikes, trying to achieve the same benefits.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting the bicycle for the automobile on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in 13 kilograms (28 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 (11 kilometers) per potato. An automobile, which requires 1–2 tons of material to transport even one person, is extraordinarily inefficient in comparison.

The capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations was dramatically demonstrated in China. In 1976, China produced 6 million bicycles. After the reforms in 1978 that led to rapid economic growth, rising incomes, and a market economy in which people could exercise their preferences, annual bicycle production started climbing, eventually soaring over 40 million in 1988. Once the market was largely saturated, production dropped somewhat and remained between 30 million and 40 million a year through the 1990s. Since 1999, production has taken off once again, rising to 79 million bicycles in 2004. The vast surge to 545 million bicycle owners in China since 1978 provided the greatest increase in human mobility in history. Bicycles took over city streets and rural roads. Although China’s 7 million passenger cars are getting a lot of attention, especially in the large cities, it is the bicycle that provides personal mobility. 25

Many cities are turning to bicycles for numerous uses. In the United States, more than 80 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000–249,999 and 96 percent of those serving more than 250,000 residents 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. For fiscally sensitive officials, the cost of operating a bicycle is trivial compared with that of a police car. 26

Urban bicycle messenger services are common in the world’s larger cities. Bicycles deliver small parcels in cities more quickly than motor vehicles can and at a much lower cost. As the information economy unfolds and as e-commerce expands, the need for quick, reliable, urban delivery services is escalating. For many competitive Internet marketing firms, quick delivery wins customers. In a city like New York, this means bicycle delivery. An estimated 300 bicycle messenger firms are operating in New York City, competing for $700 million worth of business annually. In large cities, the bicycle is becoming an integral part of the support system for e-commerce. 27

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. These should be designed to serve both commuters and those biking for recreation. In addition, bicycle use is enhanced by the provision of parking facilities and showers at workplaces. Among the industrial-country leaders in designing bicycle-friendly transport systems are the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. 28

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-ways 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. 29

Spain, one of the latest countries to climb on the bicycle bandwagon, began converting abandoned railway lines into recreational paths in 1993. The 52 new “greenways” include 1,300 kilometers of bicycle trails throughout the country. 30

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 other 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.” 31

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. 32

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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