Redesigning Urban Transport

The world’s cities are facing unprecedented problems. In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Shanghai, and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. Respiratory illnesses are rampant. In the United States, the number of hours commuters spend sitting frustrated in traffic-congested streets and highways climbs higher each year.

In response, forward-thinking city planners are seeking ways to redesign cities for people, not cars. They have begun to realize that urban transport systems based on a combination of rail lines, bus lines, bicycle pathways, and pedestrian walkways offer the best of all possible worlds in providing mobility, low-cost transportation, and a healthy urban environment.

A rail system can provide the foundation for a city’s transportation system. Rails, either underground or on the surface, are geographically fixed, providing a permanent means of transportation that people can count on. Once in place, the nodes on such a system become the obvious places to concentrate office buildings, high-rise apartment buildings, and shops.

Some of the most innovative public transportation systems, those that shift huge numbers of people from cars into buses, have been developed in Curitiba and Bogotá. The success of Bogotá’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, TransMilenio, which uses special express lanes to move people quickly through the city, is being replicated not only in six other Colombian cities but elsewhere too: Mexico City, São Paulo, Hanoi, Seoul, Taipei, Quito, and several cities in Africa. In China, Beijing is one of 20 cities developing BRT systems. Even industrial-country cities such as Ottawa, Toronto, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and — much to everyone’s delight — Los Angeles have launched or are now considering BRT systems.

Some cities are reducing traffic congestion and air pollution by charging cars to enter the city, including Singapore, London, Stockholm, and Milan. In 2003, London adopted a £5 ($10) charge on all motorists driving into the center city between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., immediately reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Within a year, bus ridership increased by 38 percent and delays dropped by 30 percent. In July 2005, the fee was raised to £8 ($16). Overall, since the congestion charge was adopted, car and minicab traffic into the central city has dropped 36 percent, while bicycle traffic has increased by 50 percent.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who was elected in 2001, faced some of Europe’s worst traffic congestion and air pollution. He decided traffic would have to be cut 40 percent by 2020. The first step was to invest in better transit in outlying regions to ensure that everyone in the greater Paris area had access to high-quality public transit. The next step was to create express lanes on main thoroughfares for buses and bicycles, thus reducing the number of lanes for cars. The third step was to establish a city bicycle rental program that by the end of 2007 had 20,600 bikes available at 1,450 docking stations throughout Paris. Accessed by credit card at inexpensive daily, monthly, or annual rates, the bicycles are proving to be immensely popular. At this point Mayor Delanoë is well along on his goal of cutting car traffic by 40 percent.

The United States, which has lagged far behind Europe in developing diversified urban transport systems, is being swept by a “complete streets” movement, an effort to ensure that streets are friendly to pedestrians and bicycles as well as to cars. Many American communities lack sidewalks and bike lanes, making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around safely, particularly where streets are heavily traveled. This cars-only model is being challenged by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a powerful assemblage of citizen groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, AARP (an organization of 38 million older Americans), and local and national cycling organizations. This coalition has aggressively lobbied for “complete streets” policies, which are now in place in 14 states and 40 metropolitan areas, cities, and counties. In early 2008, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Doris Matsui of California each introduced national “complete streets” legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Countries that have well-developed urban transit systems and a mature bicycle infrastructure are much better positioned to withstand the stresses of a downturn in world oil production than are countries whose only transport option is the car. With a full array of walking and biking options, the number of trips by car can easily be cut by 10–20 percent.

The bicycle has many attractions. It alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces obesity, does not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, reduces the area of pavement needed, and has a price within reach for the billions of people who cannot afford an automobile. Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in 22 pounds of metal and rubber boosts the efficiency of individual mobility by a factor of three. On my bike I estimate that I get easily 7 miles per potato. An automobile, which requires at least a ton of material to transport one person, is extraordinarily inefficient by comparison.

The capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations was dramatically demonstrated in China. After the reforms in 1978 that led to an open market economy and rapidly rising incomes, bicycle production and ownership started climbing. The surge to 500 million bicycle owners in China since 1978 provided the greatest increase in human mobility in history.

Many cities are turning to bicycles for various uses. In the United States, nearly 75 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more now have routine patrols by bicycle. Bicycle messenger services are common in the world’s larger cities simply because they deliver small parcels more quickly than cars can and at a lower cost.

The key to realizing the potential of the bicycle is to create a bicycle-friendly transport system. This means providing both bicycle trails and designated street lanes for bicycles. Among the industrial-country leaders doing so are the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. The Netherlands has incorporated a vision of the role of bicycles into a Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to creating bike lanes and trails in all its cities, the system also often gives cyclists the advantage over motorists in right-of-way and at traffic lights. Roughly 30 percent of all urban trips in the Netherlands are on bicycle, compared with 1 percent in the United States.

Both the Netherlands and Japan have made a concerted effort to integrate bicycles and rail commuter services by providing bicycle parking at rail stations, making it easier for cyclists to commute by train. In Japan, the use of bicycles for commuting to rail transportation has reached the point where some stations have invested in vertical, multi-level parking garages for bicycles, much as is often done for automobiles.

The combination of rail and bicycle, and particularly their integration into a single, overall transport system, makes a city eminently more livable than one that relies almost exclusively on private automobiles. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessened. We and Earth are both healthier.

Lester R. Brown, is the president of Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, NY: 2008) from which this piece was adapted. The book is available online for free downloading at