Urban cycling, public transport and changing cityscapes

Tired of eight mile back-ups? Sitting in a stationary car costs time, money and health, both mentally (frustration, road rage) and clinically (stress, disease). Vehicle pollution, including soot, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide (greenhouse gases) cause lung and heart disease; according to the UN there are 7m premature deaths linked to air pollution globally per annum. 92m Americans live in areas of chronic smog pollution. Bad for people, bad for the planet. People living near major arterial roads are 7% more likely to have dementia. The recent death of a 9 year old girl Ella Kissi-Debrah from asma complications, who together with her family, lived 25m from the notorious pollution hotspot of South Circular Road in London, is poignant and symbolic of how bad things have become. And cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Kolkota are far worse. Traffic accidents also injure 78 million and kill 1.35m people per annum globally.

Against this toxic combination, many cities have be proactive in restricting car access through congestion charges (London since 2003 and Stockholm since 2006 ) and London has since shown a 10% reduction in traffic volumes, while in Stockholm, this introduction has led to a 20-25% increase in air quality and it being awarded European Green Capital in 2010. Also, because of zero emissions and the obvious benefits to health, cities such as Madrid, Oslo, Stockholm, Mexico City, Athens, Rome, Paris, Copenhagen and Brussels have either introduced car-free days (St Andrews had its first car-free day last year), diesel bans and/or pedestrianised or added cycle lanes to big sections of the city. During the annual car-free day in Paris last year, there was a 41% drop in NO2 levels, while a similar car-free day in Brussels resulted in a massive 80% decrease in aerial soot levels. In Pontevedra, Spain, a car ban in the Central Business District (CBD) has resulted in a reduction of road deaths to zero, understandably, while 80% of the children here now walk to school; certainly a healthy lifestyle. Internationally, forklift trucks in warehouses are electric for a reason; you cannot have exhaust fumes choking your employees, yet we allow this in the enclosed canyons of inner cities!

This move from cars to cycling and walking is having a huge positive effect on urban communities. Cars are also a really an inefficient and dangerous way to get around a city; trains move on average 22000 people per hour, pedestrians are around 1900ph; cyclists, 1400ph; buses, 9000ph and cars only 2000ph. Yet cars and their supporting infra-structure, including parkades, motorways and street parking, can occupy up to 60% of city space! And space in big cities is at a premium and could be far better utilised.

The city of Amsterdam is informative; back in 1971 when cars ruled the city, more than 400 children were killed by traffic accidents, which led to the ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ campaign to free the city of ‘killer’ cars. The groundswell of opinion was so strong that the city gave bicycles and pedestrians priority, expanded their cycle path and lane network and now it is the bicycle capital of the world, a cycling nirvana for adults and children alike.

The car and personal mobility were central to the city planning of many post-war cities such as Glenrothes, Milton Keynes and Canberra, Australia, which spread out with car-centred transportation, and this allowed the city to expand exponentially into peri-urban and sub-urban precincts making cycling and walking difficult. Older cities, particularly in Europe have had public transport infrastructure such as underground railways for a long time (London, the oldest since 1863; Budapest, since 1896; Glasgow, since 1896; Paris Metro, since 1900), which move people around the cities on a massive scale. The Metro for example moves 1.42m people a day or 20% of all traffic in Paris, while the London Tube moves around 3.7m people a day, with more forecast with the completion of the CrossRail project, which features 21km of twin rails beneath the city. However, rapidly developing cities, unless specifically planned, have outgrown their rail/tram/underground infrastructure, so end up ensnarled and choked by their own growing emissions such as Beijing (ironically of 9m bicycles fame according to Katie Melua, but 13m according to the Chinese Government; 2009 stats).  The megacity Sao Paulo, Brazil, also known as the Automobile City of 21.8m people (its population was 2.3m in 1950), has had massive traffic problems with a reported 180kms of traffic jams/gridlock/tailbacks recently. However, to this end, driven by strong public support and political will, it has emerged as a winner of a Sustainable Transport Award in 2014, after limiting parking, enlarging cycling infrastructure and introducing bus lanes, pedestrianisation and car free streets. The introduction of 8000 bike racks and bike parking at all bus terminals are slowly changing it from autocity to cyclecity.

An even better example is Curitiba also in Brazil, which has been called the Greenest City on Earth, where the city itself is regarded as a living organism with 52m2 of green space per capita. Curitiba has invested heavily in a green rapid transport system (BRT) of busses which accounts for 70-80% of daily transport, resulting in carbon emissions 25% lower than other Brazilian cities. The BRT is an efficient way of moving people quickly around the city and reduces the need for cars, and, is cheaper than underground or elevated (like Chicago) rail systems. Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transport (MRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT) and bus (SMRT) public transport systems are clean, cool and efficient and are a model for green, sustainable transport. Being a small highly populated island, Singapore has had to deal with transport issues directly and so has had a low emissions zone in place for some time, while its Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) deters congestion on certain roads during peak hours.

With ever more people moving to cities (since 1979, China’s urban population has grown by 440m making this the largest migration in history), city planners need to respond by making cheap, fast and efficient public transport the norm. Under- and over-ground rail, monorail and trams are already known, but innovations such as Maglev (magnetic levitation trains are being tested in Japan and Germany) and Hyperloop-systems as envisaged by Elon Musk could be popular in the future. The Japanese Maglev has just broken the world train speed record at 603kph; compare this to HS2’s planned top speed of 400kph! Personal cars and truck use needs to be controlled to zero emission (electric or hydrogen), while more bus/ cycle lanes and more green spaces need to be created. Innovations like the fold-up bike, ecars, ebikes, fuel cell hydrogen cars, etrucks (Tesla is marketing its first etruck) and autonomous cars and pods should also make city and inter-city transport more efficient, cleaner and safer. Only time will tell.  City planning and vision is good, but community and resident driven responses to local problems also need to be addressed.