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The global transport challenge

John Whitelegg
25 April 2005

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There is a world transport crisis. 3,000 people are killed every day in road-traffic accidents, air pollution from vehicles is bathing most if not all cities in a chemical soup and deaths from respiratory diseases exceed deaths in traffic accidents.

This would be a high price to pay for a perfectly functioning transport system that delivers people and goods speedily and efficiently but this is not the case. All countries and cities spend a lot of money for a transport “solution” that has failed. In a rare example of global unity and shared experience car commuters in Los Angeles are stuck in traffic jams in the same way as they are in Bangkok, Delhi, Beijing and Rio.

Our highway-based transport systems purchased at huge expense are failing miserably to deliver anything. We have created a very expensive way of organising transport in cities, one that is grossly inefficient and one that exacts a terrible penalty in deaths, injuries and lifetime disability.

This penalty is an affront to human rights. Traffic conditions make it very difficult indeed for children and the elderly to cross roads. Women with childcare duties find public transport difficult to use and the poor who rely on walking and cycling are exposed to more danger than the car occupant. Large sums of money are spent in Delhi and Kolkata on expanding roads, highways and flyovers that can only benefit the richer members of the urban elite. The poor are left to suffer with inadequate pedestrian pavements and polluted air.

Donald Appleyard, in his famous book Livable Streets (1981), described how people living on streets with light traffic had more friends and acquaintances than people in cities with heavy traffic. They lived in more sociable, friendly and community-based environments.

Citizens know this instinctively and seek out high-quality environments away from the noise, dirt and danger of cars and lorries. The problem is that this privilege is usually only available to the rich, which is why 90% of the people killed in road-traffic accidents are likely to be poor, cyclists, pedestrians or bus users in developing countries. Transport has become a socially polarised experience with poor people living in poor-quality environments whilst richer people drive past them, cocooned in their cars on the way to a rich variety of destinations inaccessible to the poor.

The need to lead

Meanwhile, cars and lorries account for about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions and are amongst the fastest growing sources of these gases. This presents politicians with problems. Most politicians would accept that climate change and all its attendant dangers are at or near the top of the list of things that they think are important – but they dare not “touch” transport.

Most cities, regions and countries want more roads. Beijing would like another five-ring road to add to its existing five-ring roads. Most cities would dearly like an international airport, or a bigger one if they already have one. The World Bank funds new roads in India and China. This locks all cities into higher levels of fossil-fuel dependency and higher levels of greenhouse gas production at the same time as prime ministers make speeches about reducing greenhouse gases. No wonder ordinary citizens are confused about what they should do.

It need not be like this. The former mayor of Bogotá in Colombia, Enrique Penelosa, showed the world that a relatively poor city in a relatively poor country can set the highest standards for transport. He declared car-free days, established a highly reliable and cheap to use bus system (TransMillenio) and built a 17-kilometre bike and pedestrian route to connect poor parts of the city with the downtown area. This stands in stark contrast to most African, Indian and Chinese cities that are investing heavily in new roads and doing nothing for the poor and those who live in polluted conditions.

The Bogotá experience is not an isolated one. Curitiba, Brazil has pioneered an outstandingly successful bus “rapid transit system” and done this, like Bogotá, at much lower cost than a metro rail system and with much wider geographical benefits to the region. London has reduced congestion by 30% with its congestion pricing and Copenhagen has achieved some of the highest bicycle use of any city in the world.

The message in global transport patterns is clear. There are no technical, economic or organisational problems in finding solutions but there is an enormous difficulty in achieving political will. Where real progress has been made this has occurred because of strong leadership by key politicians. This presents us all with good news and bad news.

The good news is that there are very few, if any, barriers to innovative and successful transport projects aimed at creating liveable and sustainable cities. They are not expensive to achieve and they present few, if any, technological problems. The significant barrier everywhere is political will. The London congestion charge would not have gone ahead were it not for the unusual drive, ambition and single-mindedness of the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

Werner Broeg in Munich has carried out research around the world on politicians and he has found that in most cases politicians have established views about traffic and transport characterised by a belief that everyone wants to drive, that the car is the most desirable mode of transport and that anything perceived of as anti-car will result in loss of political office.

Another road is possible

Broeg’s work shows that politicians routinely underestimate the appetite of the electorate for radical change. Citizens would like to see more public transport, walking and cycling and would like to see more convivial and sociable use of public space. Citizens are willing to reduce car trips given the right information, incentives and support. In York, England a project aimed at reducing car trips produced a 16% reduction in these trips in a six-month period in its target group.

All this points to the need for a change in worldview underwritten by citizen action. It is possible to create highly desirable city living spaces, to eliminate deaths and injuries on the roads and to reduce obesity and greenhouse gases – and to do this at much lower cost than building roads, which makes the problems worse. The way forward is citizen action and the generation of enlightened politicians. We are still in the foothills of understanding how to move in this direction.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy’s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative - a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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