by Ramiro Alberto Ríos – Sustainable Transport Analyst

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Xochimilco, México - Ramiro Alberto Ríos

Photo: Xochimilco, México – Ramiro Alberto Ríos

For quite some time residents of Latin America and the Caribbean countries have experienced first-hand the transport challenges faced by emerging urban agglomerations. Topping the list of transport nuisances are huge traffic jams, rapidly increasing air and noise pollution from more vehicles stuck in traffic more often, increased traffic accidents, and increasing fuel prices.  So what is happening in cities, and what are some the forces behind the worsening of mobility for emerging city-dwellers? Although there are a number of variables at play, I will briefly explain two basic concepts behind increasing mobility problems we have been facing in urban environments.

We are getting richer in money, but relatively poorer in time
Urban agglomerations and proximity to access goods and services and labor markets is a magnet that pulls people towards cities and contributes to increasing population densities, while residents benefit from increased job opportunities and social activities.  This increase in migration to cities also generates incredible amounts of wealth, which increases our ability to provide beyond our basic needs. However, in 2008 we city-dwellers accounted for more than 50% of the world population for the first time in history. The rapid growth in population in emerging urban areas puts a lot of pressure not only on the infrastructure that we use in our day-to-day activities, but also on the capacity of our governments to provide services to meet the needs of citizens, and keep cities competitive, dynamic and functional.  But the problems do not end there. We are richer, and with increased monetary budgets we demand more consumption, which in turn, demands more travel.  We then run in a huge problem, we want to travel more, but the time allowance we have now is the same (or even lower) than it was before we were wealthier.  What does this mean? We want to travel faster, faster and faster. We demand consumption of ever-faster modes of transport.

We want to get away

Mexico City - Ramiro Alberto Ríos

Photo: Mexico City – Ramiro Alberto Ríos

With higher incomes and fast and more flexible modes of transport such as the automobile, a very common solution is to escape the urban problems of increasing traffic congestion and pollution has been to get away to suburbia. The lack of integrated land-use planning in our emerging cities has incentivized an uncontrolled growth in the periphery, and thus has created a dependence on energy-intensive and less-efficient modes of transport.  This has created a vicious cycle: more and more people are leaving city centers to live in the periphery, but usually, job markets stay in the central business districts, forcing long commutes from the periphery into the city center.  This cycle generates a lot of pressure on transport infrastructure and the dependence on private motorized modes of transport generates even more negative impacts in the cities.  Nowadays, we find a great number of vacant housing units in city centers across urban areas in Latin America.

The increase in the demand for travel, ever-faster travel, has spurred unsustainable mobility patterns in urban areas, through the higher dependence in private motorized modes and the uncontrolled suburbanization of our cities. This is part of the story of how we have arrived to the mobility problems that plague our cities today. The explosion in the ownership and uncontrolled use of inefficient and carbon-intensive modes of transport is highly unsustainable for our cities, toxic for our environment, and poses an eminent threat for future generations in Latin American cities.  My questions to you are: should we control these patterns of development?  How can we prevent unsustainable growth in our cities through transport and land-use planning?  How should policy makers manage this increasing demand for travel and the uncontrollable horizontal expansion of our cities?