You are here

How We Move: Sustainable Transport Around the World

When it comes to urban transportation, ingenuity is the key to cleaner, greener, and smarter cities.

Until recently, Bogotá, like many other cities around the world, was choking on its own growth. Fostered in part by inadequate urban and transportation planning, its streets were crowded and polluted, illegal settlements and uncontrolled sprawl were rampant, and community-oriented urban space, like public parks and walking paths, were disappearing fast. Reinforcing Bogotá’s other well-known problems, this chaotic environment helped perpetuate a vicious cycle of urban decay, social and economic inequality, and environmental degradation in the city.

Then Bogotá got smart.

MAP: Cities with Cutting-Edge Sustainable Transport Initiatives. Click here to view a larger version of this map.

Driven by a vision of a city built for people, not cars, in 1998 the city’s reformist mayor, Enrique Penalosa, began a massive urban renewal campaign. In just three years, he created or renovated hundreds of miles of bike paths and over 1,000 parks. He also erected 100 nurseries, 51 schools and 14 libraries. Most famously, he launched the TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system – a cutting-edge network of buses that by 2003 was carrying 750,000 passengers each day – a subsequent expansion of the system increased ridership to 1.4 million passengers per day.

Almost immediately, air and noise pollution began to ebb, traffic accidents became less common, and people started spending fewer hours stuck behind the wheel and more time enjoying the city’s new green spaces. Even crime, a previously constant scourge in the capital, responded to the reforms, falling 35%. Considering the magnitude of these changes, Penalosa’s reforms were remarkably rapid and inexpensive.

This type of bold vision can also be seen in a handful of other metropolises around the world, where dynamic leaders are launching sustainable, people-centered policies of their own. In doing so, they are creating a cadre of global “smart cities” that is proving municipalities can reduce traffic congestion, increase energy efficiency, and create more livable communities – all at a fraction of the cost and the time that many thought possible.

Paris is a perfect example. In the French capital you can now rent a bike at one of the new docking stations all over the city, ride it across town, and drop it off at your destination. In a few years you’ll be able to do the same with one of the 2,000 electric-powered cars Mayor Betrand Delanoe plans to provide. It’s all part of his program to reduce car traffic in the city by 40 percent by 2020.

In London, Mayor Ken Livingston worked hard to reduce traffic and air pollution through a system known as “congestion pricing,” which charges drivers a toll whenever they enter the ancient burg’s chronically snarled downtown streets. In addition, he launched an ambitious action plan to combat global warming that would encourage more energy efficient homes and offices, decrease reliance on cars, and promote the use of alternative energy to meet London’s needs.

Cities across the developing countries are also wising-up. Last year, Guayaquil, Ecuador was awarded an international sustainable transit award for its efforts to create a new Bogota-esque bus rapid transit system, refurbishing its public spaces and pedestrian areas, and launching “Car-Free Sundays” on its downtown streets.

Even Mexico City, long the epitome of a sprawling city, with legendary air pollution and traffic congestion problems, is entering an urban renaissance fueled by new, more sustainable urban development and transportation policies. Under the banner of his ambitious new “Plan Verde” (or “Green Plan”) Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has committed to creating and renovating numerous parks, expanding Metrobus (the city’s bus rapid transit system), and increasing pedestrian and bicycle paths to reduce dependence on private automobiles.

The examples above illustrate that changing a city’s “built environment” can have transformative effects on its overall quality of life. Crucially, decades of planning or billions of dollars of investment are not needed to start making cities more livable. This is because being ‘smart’ doesn’t necessarily mean adopting space-age technologies, or launching exorbitantly expensive infrastructure projects. Instead, it is about creating better systems, based on more people-friendly principles.

In particular, we have identified three key policies that municipal leaders can implement in order to quickly and inexpensively transform their cities into oases of sustainability and livability.

The first is an increased emphasis on public transportation. By getting people out of cars and into clean, efficient mass transit, cities can free themselves from the expensive and self-defeating race to build more and more highways. It is important to note that cost need not be prohibitive for these projects. For example, Mexico City, Bogota, and Guayaquil have all proven the worth of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a new type of mass transit system akin to an above-ground metro. By using special lanes reserved exclusively for high-capacity buses, these cities have mimicked the speed and capacity of subways, but at fraction of the cost.

Cities should also vigorously promote biking and walking. Like public transit, these “non-motorized” modes of transport get people out of cars, increasing energy efficiency and reducing air pollution. In addition, a large number of studies have shown that even modest increases in bicycling or walking can significantly reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and stress.

Finally, policymakers can create people-centered cities by using their existing land more wisely. Current zoning policies and transport systems often encourage mindless sprawl. But by changing the way that cities grow and function, cities can foster higher-density neighborhoods, and bring shops and offices closer to residential areas. These steps cut down on the need to travel, and create more vibrant communities where people can spend more time enjoying community spaces, and less time in front of the TV.

The three interrelated polices above are common-sense, cost-effective, and mutually reinforcing. Unfortunately, they also represent a marked departure from the way in which most of the world’s cities have operated over the last 50 years. Thus, even though the policies outlined above can be accomplished quickly and inexpensively, they do require courageous city leaders willing to make the politically difficult decisions necessary to ensure the long-term health of their communities. The mayors highlighted above have all proven themselves up to this challenge. As a result, their cities are best positioned to take advantage of the new economic, social, and environmental realities of the 21st century.

Cities that have yet to embrace this new way of thinking, on the other hand, are at a crossroads. They must decide, and decide soon, if they can muster the political will to ‘get smart’ and leave behind the failed, unsustainable policies of the past. Cities have faced such hard choices before. As recently as the 1800s, metropolises like Paris, London, and New York were plagued by epidemics and overcrowding. In each of these places, leaders looked beyond the immediate problems they faced and made decisions that would help them achieve a better future. New roads, parks, public transportation and sanitation systems made their cities more livable and turned them into engines of the economic growth for France, England and the United States. These cities became great because their leaders made the visionary, though difficult, choices that moved their cities forward.

Much like these disease-ridden cities of the past, many modern urban areas are now choking on their own growth, struggling with traffic jams, energy inefficiency, urban sprawl, and depleted social capital. As humanity for the first time has become urban – with half the world’s population living in cities - finding solutions to these problems becomes all the more urgent. It is clear that thoughtless, shapeless, sprawling cities are no longer tolerable. Instead, what cities need is a purposeful shaping of public space, like that being carried out by the cities and mayors profiled above. We urge other city leaders to learn from, and build upon their example, and take the small but challenging steps necessary to create healthier, happier, and more sustainable cities.

This article was originally published in Poder Magazine and EMBARQ.

Stay Connected