January 16, 2012

Sustainable Transportation and the Future of Our Cities: A Global Discussion

A year ago today, I arrived in Copenhagen – my first trip to Denmark, to Scandinavia, even to Europe. Excitement (and nerves) surged through my under slept body as I stepped off the plane, full of expectations and preconceptions. I was going to be studying sustainability in the biking capital of the world, the champion of environmentalism, the king of wind power. I fully expected to be surrounded by Danes who wanted to save the world, one bike ride at a time. While this was not intrinsically untrue, I would come to realize this was simply not the whole story.

50% of all Copenhageners commute to work or school by bike, every day. Of these daily bicycle commuters, over 60% report that they bike because it is the most convenient way to get around the city. Not because it is the most environmentally friendly, not because it is the healthiest, not because it is the cheapest, but because it is the easiest. By creating bicycle infrastructure, in combination with the extensive commuter trains, metro, and buses, Copenhagen has created a sustainable transportation system that makes cars unnecessary. In doing so, the city shifts its focus to the human being, creating a more engaging and livable community.

The Council of Transport Ministers in the European Union defines sustainable transportation as a system that:

  • “Allows the basic access and development needs of individuals, companies and societies to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and promises equity within and between successive generations
  • Is affordable, operates fairly and efficiently, offers choice of transport mode, and supports a competitive economy, as well as balanced regional development
  • Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, uses resources at or below their rates of generation, and uses non-renewable resources at or below the rates of development of renewable substitutes while minimizing the impact on land and the generation of noise.”

Sustainable transportation addresses some of the biggest challenges facing the modern urban environment – social equity, public access, climate change, energy security, rising populations, public space, obesity, and quality of life. Right now, over half the world’s population lives in an urban area. By 2050, this number will have risen to 75%. As people continue to flock to our cities, it will become increasingly important to transition to sustainable transportation to accommodate this influx. But how do we – as policymakers, urban planners, architects, nonprofits, government officials, developers, and engaged citizens – do this, particularly in the sprawling, post-WWII American city exclusively designed around the automobile? It is this question I wish to engage and study over the next year as a Keegan Fellow, a question I have already begun to study within my own community.

When I returned to the US, I was exceedingly aware of the shortcomings in the urban design of some of our cities. Without a car, I found myself limited to either a patchwork of bus routes in Nashville or the angry shouts from drivers as I tried to share the road on my bicycle. Disheartened by the current state yet encouraged by what I know a city can be, I looked for individuals and organizations in Nashville with shared fervor for urban design and innovation. It was through this search that I became involved in the Nashville Civic Design Center, Young Urbanists, and League of American Bicyclists.

As a full-time intern with the Nashville Civic Design Center this past semester, I served as a researcher for their upcoming publication, Shaping Healthy Cities: Nashville, a book focused on designing the built environment to foster better health among our citizens. By completing a thorough review of national and international empirical literature, I identified the factors of the built environment that have been shown to affect health. I organized these factors into six groupings based on overarching themes, one being transportation. I was able to see my own observations from Copenhagen of the big picture effects of sustainable transportation on the life and health of a human reflected in peer-reviewed research. Simultaneously, I was introduced to design and transportation initiatives both in Nashville and around the world.

This global awareness of efforts to introduce and further sustainable transportation is the key to transforming our cities. By identifying and exploring design initiatives throughout the world, we can utilize the experience and innovation of other communities as our own inspiration. For this reason, I propose to investigate sustainable transportation initiatives of policymakers, government leaders, community groups, nonprofits, and ordinary citizens in major cities around the world, particularly those leading in innovative design. The design of a city is uniquely shaped by the collaboration of all these stakeholders – it is the product of a careful balance, one that necessitates active participation and engagement for full understanding.

My cities of focus include the following: Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Zurich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, and Bogota – all have been identified as cities with innovative design in transportation. Chicago is expanding transportation options with bus rapid transit and introducing increased bike-ability in the city. New York stands as a testament to the fact that cities in the U.S. can rely upon public transportation.

London’s Tube, while not always user-friendly, has incredible range and is supported by buses, a light rail, ferries, and the first congestion charge limiting car travel into the city. Paris, a city completely redesigned by Haussmann in the late 1800s, has a multi-level transportation system, while also boasting possibly the most successful bike-share program in Europe. Zurich is regarded as having the most accessible and inclusive transportation system in the world. Amsterdam rivals Copenhagen for the title of ‘Biking Capitol of the World’ and particularly represents the power of public protest in initiating change. Copenhagen boasts a driverless metro system among its transit with commuter trains, buses and biking.

Moscow leads with one of the most reliable and frequent metro systems. Hong Kong’s public transit, dominated by the Mass Transit Railway, is supported by the innovative Octopus Card, which can be used in many non-transit venues. Tokyo’s high-tech system – consisting of a subway network, light rail lines, and bus lines – is widely recognized as remarkably user-friendly and incredibly clean, especially regarding the high numbers of daily users.

Vancouver has been touted as one of the most livable cities in the world, particularly for its effective mass transit, and it is the only Canadian city that has seen declining rates of car ownership and average distance driven by daily commuters since the early 1990s. Portland stands as the bike capitol of the U.S. with pervasive bicycle infrastructure. San Francisco founded ‘Critical Mass,’ a monthly cycling event based upon reclaiming the streets now celebrated in over 300 cities around the world. In Bogotá, former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa began the transformation of the city’s infrastructure around a vision of livability, social equity, and reclamation of public space in the 1990s – initiating projects such ‘car free days’, pedestrian- and bicycle-only streets, and a bus rapid transit system. The popular ‘Ciclovía’ (streets blocked off to cars) has spread through Columbia to Medillín and Cali and has now been replicated in cities throughout the world.

By living in these cities, working with organizations through internships and volunteering, participating in transportation initiatives, mapping routes for access, analyzing health impacts, meeting with policymakers and local government, and talking to ordinary citizens, I can develop a picture of the effectiveness of the public transportation system, how it developed, and how it was parroted in other cities.  I am particularly interested in the effect successful (or unsuccessful) transportation has on community development and the daily lives of those living in that community. Travel between cities will be chosen based on the most sustainable option, primarily rail when available.

Through innovative design, we can do more than accommodate the influx of people into major urban areas – we can create livable cites that offer high quality of life. Cities around the world, including cities in the United States, are working towards creating sustainable transportation infrastructure. By engaging in a global discussion, and learning from each other, we can successfully address the challenges facing the future of our cities. It is this community effort that can lead to livable communities.


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