The importance of planning our cities in the future
How countries around the world plan and build their cities and infrastructure is even more vital than ever these days, not only for the safety of all citizens on the roads, but to improve air quality and provide sustainable modes of transport. Brake's Chief Executive Mary Williams writes about the changes needed in current attitudes to provide sustainable and prosperous cities around the world.
This October, a critical event is happening in Ecuador that directly affects the future of transport’s safety and sustainability. The UN’s Habitat Conference will set a New Urban Agenda (NUA) for planning our cities – new and existing – to cope with their incessant growth.
Why is this so important to our transport systems’ future? Half the world’s population already live in urban areas, expected to rise to above two thirds by 2050, with some estimates even higher. In Northern America, the figure is already above 80%, and countries such as the UK are similarly highly urbanised.
Nearly all the anticipated urban growth will happen in Africa and Asia. This includes the explosion of populations in small cities, and the rise and rise of “super cities”. The population of Delhi is expected to be nearly 40 million by 2030, rivalling Tokyo, the biggest city in the world.
The draft NUA is already in circulation and contains a statement to celebrate: “Without a transformation in [transport] policy, and step change in effort, [cities] will not be able to cope with the anticipated urban growth. [Cities need] to set a vision and specific targets …. in particular to provide access for all to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems. We need a massive transformation from the current pattern of “car-oriented” development towards people-oriented development that improves urban access for all delivered through a massive increase in public transport, walking, and cycling.”
This statement is urgent and clear. It recognises the extent of the challenge. It uses the word “massive” twice. But it is point 112 out of 175 points in a document also grappling with the pounding headaches of urban housing and poverty in a time of population explosion, with the added acute migraine of millions of people displaced by climate change, famine and conflict, all needing urgent and equitable accommodation.
Three million displaced Syrian refugees have fled their country’s border. But elsewhere the figures are much higher. In sub-saharan Africa alone there are an estimated 18 million refugees in a region of chronic poverty. Slums are a 21st century reality across the poorest nations of the world. How can safe and sustainable transport be prioritised in a world over-run with such pressing problems?
Brake is a member of SLoCaT (the partnership of sustainable low carbon transport) which represents 96 organisations around the world. SLoCaT is fighting hard for transport to be central, not sidelined, in the NUA. It has produced its Key Messages, which equally call for a “massive” increase in walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure and services, and drives home the message that this requires absolute commitment by governments to target, plan and finance this increase.
Governments have tools available to them to do this, using the Avoid, Shift, Improve model (avoid cars, and shift to sustainable transport options of public transport, walking and cycling). One such tool is the LEDS transportation toolkit. But it is up to nations to recognise the enormous damage of over-use of cars in our cities (horrendous levels globally of casualties (particularly people on foot and bicycles), pollution, congestion, and urban sprawl) and the huge financial burden this places on cities, compared with the lesser financial burden of getting urban transportation right. It’s a matter of doing the maths.
With “new” cities growing in Africa and Asia it is certainly possible to get it right; for informed leaders to place public transport and walking and cycling at the heart of those cities. But this is highly dependent on the political will – which requires undoubted courage - to convince the electorate and spend the money on transformational transport, at a time when cars remain aspirational for much of humanity, and roads are being rapidly paved across the poorest nations.
With “old” cities, such as those in the UK, it is comparatively easy to lead the way – with cycle super highways, excellence in public transport, vehicle exclusion zones, and restrictions on speed and access of cars, trucks and vans in our cities. We need to drive forwards those changes faster than ever before. These changes are proven to bring extra economic prosperity and save money through reduced congestion and the creation of more attractive places to live and work. But much more importantly, they save our planet and our lives; and show the way. They result in cities that are safe, sustainable, healthy and fair; the four tenets of Brake’s vision.
 World Urbanisation Prospections, United Nations, 2014