Behind the transit curve
the future of urban transportation is coming into view — but many cities' project portfolios are stuck in the past
Cities are running out of room—and time. If urban leaders don't start rethinking transit project portfolios to invest in more public transit options and make way for bicycles and driverless cars, growing cities could face a transportation crisis.
Only 6 percent of the biggest U.S. cities include self-driving cars in their future transportation plans—a key feature of the coming driverless state, according to City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, a November report from Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group National League of Cities. Often, the cost of maintaining existing infrastructure like roads and rails means municipalities are limited when considering more dramatic changes for the long-term vision. But a new mindset is required, says Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director, Center for City Solutions and Applied Research, National League of Cities. “City leaders need to think more strategically and long term,” says Mr. Rainwater, who co-authored the report.
Cities around the world need to better prepare for the future, agrees Gunjan Parik, head of the transport initiative at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The London, England-based nonprofit brings together leaders from megacities around the world to develop strategies and share best practices for becoming more sustainable. “Right now there is a huge need for improved transportation networks,” she says, in both developing countries with rapidly growing populations and older cities with obsolete infrastructure.
Some Brazilian cities are improving their transportation systems by sponsoring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects to create faster and more reliable bus service. Rio de Janeiro is now implementing citywide BRT infrastructure in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. City leaders expect BRT will result in more than 60 percent of citizens having access to public transportation—up from 18 percent before the system was in place, Ms. Parik says. In 2014, a BRT project in Buenos Aires converted four lanes of the city's iconic 20-lane Avenida 9 de Julio to dedicated bus lanes. Commute times for some riders dropped from 40 minutes to 14.
Copenhagen, Denmark has also focused on accommodating people who want to get out of cars. In recent years it completed projects delivering more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) of bike lanes throughout the city. The result? Up to half of its residents now bike to work.
A Bus Rapid Transit station in Curitiba, Brazil
Planning for Big Changes
Creating a better transportation future entails identifying public-private partnerships to supplement project funding and building support from all major stakeholders, including regulators and citizen groups, Mr. Rainwater says. It also involves thinking through transportation options for the “first and last mile”—i.e., getting to and from public transport options—to make them attractive to consumers.
That's where driverless cars will come in, Mr. Rainwater says, noting that companies like Uber and Lyft are already partnering with cities to move passengers on the last leg of their journey. He imagines driverless fleets always on the move, making it easier for patrons to use public transport and reducing the need for parking. “From a convenience and land-use perspective, this is the bestcase scenario,” he says.
But getting projects off the ground to turn this vision into reality isn't easy. New transport infrastructure can be expensive and disruptive, often taking years to construct and infringing on public roads. “You can't create space when there is none,” Ms. Parik says, so roads for private vehicles often need to be traded for bus routes, bike paths and other public options. That can be a tough sell for citizens, especially if they are not part of the planning process.
“We are trying to use the power of the collective to engage manufacturers and pool resources to make these projects possible.”
—Gunjan Parik, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, London, England
Ms. Parik notes that Buenos Aires’ BRT project was successful in large part because the project team engaged citizens in decision-making from the outset through public meetings and campaigns that touted BRT's benefits to the people and the environment. Buenos Aires city leaders are “now mentoring other leaders in cities like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Santiago, Chile to help them engage the public on their own projects,” she says.
C40 is also bringing city leaders together to explore the feasibility of setting ambitious targets for electric buses and to identify strategies that can cut the cost and risk of bringing in these technologies in large volumes. “We are trying to use the power of the collective to engage manufacturers and pool resources to make these projects possible,” Ms. Parik says. Such collaborations can drive innovations at scale, while also helping city leaders to choose the best projects for their cities and understand how to execute them.
To maintain their competitive advantage, cities have to be open to major change, says Mr. Rainwater. “It's an exciting time to implement these projects. There's so much innovation happening in the urban environment.” —Sarah Fister Gale
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