This is the first post of a blog that will go over questions related to urban mobility. In particular those related to the future of mobility and the actions that cities and nations are taking to improve it. I deliberately chose the word mobility (over transport) to ensure that you are thinking about the actual ability to move within a city instead of just thinking about the train or the road (we’ll still look at the train and the road, but in specific posts).  In the end it’s about creating some awareness and understanding of what is going on in urban transport without getting into the gory technical details.

My main concern is that urban transport is one of those areas in the public domain where things are always getting worse. Seriously, you hear about improvements in education levels, higher life expectancies, reductions in criminality (with some sore spots), better access to water resources… but all the things we hear about mobility are complaints, most of the times. Raise your hand if your train is late, the bus is packed and the highway is jammed… but more importantly, raise your hand if you feel that 10 years ago things were not so bad. Ask your parents or your older cousin. Hey, the traffic jam excuse (and the delayed train) is so accepted that you can always use it in a meeting and get away with it.

A bird’s eye view of the problem

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working in this field for the last 8 years and I like it. I’m writing a blog. But looking back, the attempts to improve mobility seem rather uneven compared to the size of the problems that are at hand.  This problematic is rather complex and it may be better to dissect it in a systematic way. In my view, the city mobility issues can be grouped in:

(i)                  transport issues, related to the increasing inability to move freely through the city. These issues are reflected in longer, more expensive and less comfortable trips. (e.g. traffic jams, packed and unreliable buses, expensive gas and parking costs);

(ii)                environmental issues, related to the negative externalities dwellers find during urban trips such as breathing a polluted air, bearing with noisy streets and being part of car accidents;

(iii)               urban development issues, related to the changes in urban form that exacerbate the before-mentioned transport/environmental issues and impact broader equity aspects. Impacts are seen at a city level (sprawled suburbia vs. compact cities), at a neighborhood-level (isolated communities vs. connected neighborhoods) and at an individual-level (car-oriented streets vs. people oriented streets);

(iv)              global issues, related mainly to the increase in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions as a result of urban transport and its corresponding impacts on climate change.

It is not obvious to me that these issues are improving, in the aggregate. If we could add up the performance of all cities in one single indicator to measure city mobility, it would likely be a declining performance over the last decades. There are major forces acting such as urbanization (rural migration and urban population increase), economic growth (rising incomes, more access to credit), motorization (increase in the number of private vehicles) and vehicle industry development (cheaper and better cars).  These forces are acting and driving public policy decisions. But most of the times, these forces act faster than what public policies can respond to. That explains in part why there are too many cars in the streets, why there are imbalances in public transport supply and why there exist informal, isolated urban settlements.

A simple framework to analyze what cities are doing

While this is a dire problematic, some countries, cities and communities are taking action and improving urban transport. While some efforts are local and context-specific, some are worth sharing globally and can have a truly replicable impact. But what are the actual impacts of these actions?  At the IDB we use the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework to understand the ways how transport issues are being (and can be) tackled: Actions to avoid unnecessary motorized trips (e.g. planning land use and transport, promoting non-motorized modes); Actions to shift trips to more efficient modes (e.g. improving public transport, pricing the use of roads); Actions to improve the efficiency of current modes (e.g. adopting clean technologies). While not all actions can fall on one or more categories, the framework is useful to realize the complexity required to tailor comprehensive solutions.

In Urban Mobility 2080 we’ll go over the urban transport problematic in more detail, with some illustrative figures to understand the magnitude of the issues. It will also serve as a space to discuss the effectiveness urban transport policies and how other cities can learn and adopt the most effective actions. Let’s see.