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


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Designing Sustainable Cities: Cities for People

As the new century begins, it is becoming evident to urban dwellers, whether in industrial or developing countries, that there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. Urban air pollution, often from automobiles, claims millions of lives. Congestion also takes a direct economic toll in rising costs in time and gasoline.

Another cost of cities that are 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 human need for contact with nature. Both ecologists and psychologists have been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by Harvard University biologist 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. 58

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 whose rooms overlooked gardens with grass, trees, flowers, and birds recovered from illnesses more quickly than those who were in rooms overlooking the parking lot. 59

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.

Throughout the modern era, budget allocations for transportation in most countries—and in the United States, in particular—have 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 bicycle support facilities.

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 nationwide of 2.1 percent a year since 1996 indicates that people are gradually abandoning their cars for buses, subways, and light rail. Sharp rises in gasoline prices in 2005 are encouraging still more commuters to abandon their cars and take the bus or subway or get on a bicycle. 60

Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the car in urban transportation systems. A group of eminent scientists in China challenged Beijing’s decision to promote an automobile-centered transportation system. They noted 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. 61

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, unhealthy air, and little opportunity for exercise. When 95 percent of a city’s workers depend on the automobile for commuting, as in Atlanta, Georgia, the city is in trouble. By contrast, in Amsterdam only 40 percent of workers 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. 62

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

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 for cars, not to mention those imposed by oil reserves, this is simply not realistic. 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. Recognition now that most people will never own automobiles can lead to a fundamental reorientation of transport planning and investment.

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 is to eliminate the subsidies, often indirect, that many employers provide for parking. For example, parking subsidies in the United States that are worth an estimated $85 billion a year obviously encourage people to drive to work. 63

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 buy a bicycle. 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 traffic congestion and the deteriorating quality of life as cities are taken over by cars and parking lots. 64

Scores of cities are declaring car-free areas, among them Stockholm, Vienna, Prague, and Rome. Paris enjoys a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River on Sundays and holidays and is looking to make much of the central city traffic-free starting in 2012. 65

In addition to ensuring that subways are functional and affordable, the idea of making them attractive, even cultural centers, is gaining support. 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. Since its restoration was completed in 1988, it has become a social gathering place, with shops, conference rooms, and a rich array of restaurants.

One of the more innovative steps to encourage the use of public transportation comes from State College, a small town in central Pennsylvania that is home to Pennsylvania State University. To reduce traffic congestion on campus and to address the lack of sufficient parking, 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. 66

As the new century begins, the world is reconsidering the urban role of automobiles in one of the most fundamental shifts in transportation thinking in a century. The challenge is to redesign communities, making public transportation the centerpiece of urban transport and augmenting it with sidewalks, jogging trails, and bikeways. This also means replacing parking lots with parks, playgrounds, and playing fields. We can design an urban lifestyle that systematically restores health by incorporating exercise into daily routines while reducing air pollution and obesity.


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