The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies

Medellin, Colombia integrates transport infrastructure to solve its transit challenges. Metroplús/WRI/Flickr

Developing cities worldwide face a severe and worsening transport crisis. A new book, “The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies,” reports that urban transport problems are following a perverse pattern: While education and healthcare tend to improve as developing cities grow wealthier, transport problems worsen. The book looks at twelve of the world’s major emerging economies—Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam. While far from identical, the growth of their transport problems has triggered similar challenges. Although measures to deal with the urban transport crisis are disparate, there are some shared trends. Nine commonly adopted or proposed “interventions” or “solutions” are summarized below:

1.      Road Infrastructure

Experiences in many countries illustrate that road construction may only reduce traffic congestion in the short term. In the long run, increased road capacity fuels additional travel demand. In light of this evidence, transport professionals need to understand that they cannot build their way out of traffic congestion, particularly when this marginalizes other modes such as cycling and walking.

Traffic congestion and reduced pedestrian space in newly-built grade-separated junctions in Ankara, Turkey. Photo by Ela Babalık-Sutcliffe

2.      Rail-based Public Transport

Cities around the world are prioritizing the development of mass transit. Aided by a strong economy in recent decades, many Chinese cities have been developing new urban rail systems. However, in most other developing countries, urban rail is expensive to build, is not always affordable and is often poorly integrated with other transport modes. To shift current mode-based planning approaches, cities need strategic and comprehensive public transport masterplans. These masterplans need to define rail (or bus rapid transit, see below) as the backbone of the public transport network, and buses and informal vans as the feeder systems.

Shanghai Metro Line. Photo by Emcc83 / wikimedia

3.      Road-based Public Transport

Bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are an appealing and effective public transport option for many cities around the world, especially rapidly-growing ones. BRTs can mimic rail-based systems, or function as a simpler network of segregated bus lanes. A main attraction is their lower cost compared to rail. Curitiba’s BRT is a landmark system worldwide. Being one of the first major transport innovations to emerge from a developing country, it inspired many other cities (in both developed and developing countries) to build their own BRT systems. Recently, Guangzhou inaugurated the largest BRT system in Asia.

4.      Support for Non-motorized Modes

Few cities are currently investing substantial amounts in cycling and walking infrastructure. These investments often target small pockets or disconnected urban corridors. In many places, cycling is still seen as a leisure activity rather than a form of everyday transport. Bogotá, however, is a rare exception in terms of investments in cycling infrastructure. Here, cycling rates have grown from around half a percent in 1996 to approximately six percent in 2014. With 392 km (244 miles) of segregated bicycle lanes, it has the largest network in Latin America. In Brazil, support for cycling is increasing, and a large cycling network has been developed in São Paulo. For instance, the city’s Minhocão elevated highway is closed to all vehicular traffic on weekday nights and all day on Sundays, allowing dedicated use by pedestrians and cyclists. In China, bicycle-sharing programs are being introduced to revive the cycling tradition, but there are mixed results.

São Paulo’s walking and cycling infrastructure enables residents to travel without motorized vehicles. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil

5.      Awareness-raising Campaigns

Raising awareness among citizens on the harmful effects of car dependence and on the benefits of safer, more equitable, livable designs for streets is crucial. Campaigns are taking place in many countries, but their success in reversing travel habits has been minimal. To induce reform, attention needs to shift to professional training and education. To tackle these issues, the Indian government has created financial assistance for professional training, sponsoring Centers of Excellence in Urban Transport.

Sidewalks encroached by motorcycles in an Indian city. Photo by Sujaya Rathi/CSTEP

6.      Pricing Mechanisms

Central to improving urban transport is evaluating the full social and environmental costs of different transport modes. In many countries, however, there is great political reluctance to introduce any measures that curtail the use of private cars because drivers are usually among the powerful local elites. Some pricing and taxation schemes are counterproductive. For example, in India, due to institutional inefficiencies, buses are taxed more than personal vehicles. Road pricing or parking schemes have been implemented in just a handful of countries. One example is Tehran, which has had a limited traffic zone (essentially a large charging zone around its downtown) for several decades. Better enforcement in recent years has reportedly led to some improvements in air quality and traffic flow.

7.      Vehicle Access Restrictions

There has been some experimentation with vehicle access restrictions, with limited success so far. Mexico City has prohibited all cars from circulating one day a week, and vehicles are required to stay off the road one Saturday a month. In addition, cities in China, including Shanghai and Beijing, have introduced restrictions on private vehicle ownership by limiting the issuance of license plates.

As Beijing limits car use, more cyclists take to the streets. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI/Flickr

8.      Control of Land Use

Cities are slowly recognizing the need to adopt land-use policies that encourage using public transit. This requires that development be concentrated along urban corridors and, especially, at rail and BRT stations, according to the principles of Transit-oriented Development (TOD). While the application of TOD is context-dependent, uncontrolled, low-density sprawl is rarely appropriate.

9.      Technological Solutions

Some developing countries, particularly in Asia, are harnessing and employing technological improvements. Inexpensive smartphone-based taxi or ridesharing services and on-demand parking payments are becoming increasingly popular, especially with younger travelers. In Indonesia, apps such as GrabTaxi and Go-Jek (the local equivalent of Uber) are becoming widespread. There is also growing interest in Intelligent Transport Systems. India has launched the Smart Cities Mission, an urban renewal and retrofitting program targeting 100 cities, which enlists technology.

Go-Jek motorcycle-taxis in Jakarta. Photo by Dorina Pojani

To provide more equitable, accessible and sustainable city transport, a radical overhaul of urban mobility policies and practices is necessary. Measures discussed above cannot yield satisfactory results if employed in isolation. Implementing packages of measures is necessary, leading to impacts greater than the sum of their individual parts.

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