Cities in Flux: The Importance of Sustainable Mobility in Megacities
"The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city." says Parag Khanna about the world's urbanized future.

"The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city." says Parag Khanna about the world's urbanized future. Photo by

This is part of TheCityFix’s series, “Cities in Flux,” about demographic shifts as a result of development, immigration, migration, politics and the environment. We look at how city planning and transportation policies respond to this movement.

I thought an essay by Parag Khanna on the rise and paradigm-shifting nature of the world’s biggest cities, would be relevant for the blog’s discussion on urban mobility. Khanna is Director of the Global Governance Initiative.  He also hosted an MTV show InnerView at one point.  The essay covers some topics and ideas useful for framing the debate on transportation policy, land use and urban planning.

The defining feature of today is the city. Megacities in particular are the dominant engines of globalization, says Khanna. And they are the driving force behind human development and culture, but large cities also feature characteristics that need practical and immediate solutions.   Sustainable mobility and transportation are key for the quality of life of an estimated 5 billion people (4 billion in the developing world alone) who will live in cities by 2030. Sustainable transport provides broadly accessible opportunities, lessens environmental degradation, and raises the quality of life for all urban dwellers.  Below are some mobility-related highlights from his essay.

Brand New or Built From Scratch

Many of today’s cities are “built from scratch cities” we’ve written about, from new factory towns in China such as Guangzhou, to knowledge-based cities in the Arabian desert like Masdar, to the ever-extending sprawl of places like Mexico City that stretch into villages.  All need to be addressed in unique ways.

In Guangzhou, development has proceeded at an extremely high rate, bringing millions of migrants to the city. To combat the rapid growth and traffic, this year the city launched a 22.5-kilometer Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system with 42 routes that link up to the city’s metro.  In Mexico City, the key problems of the 1980’s and 1990’s were air pollution and congestion, but today, the BRT system, Metrobus, and Ecobici, a massive bike sharing program, are redefining the transportation successes a city can accomplish in a short period of time.

The speed of urban development often affects the quality of transit projects. For example, a  recent report by EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) Transport Engineer, Dario Hidalgo, analyzing BRT in select cities, showed that a number of BRT projects were developed with political time frames and ambitions in mind which sometimes comprised the design and implementation of projects.

A City is Not an Island

Khanna’s analysis provides context for large-scale transportation projects that have the potential to redefine a city: “globalization allows major cities to pull away from their home states, a reality captured by the massive and potentially dangerous wealth gap between city and countryside in second-world countries such as Brazil, China, India, and Turkey.” His point is important politically, but it is also important in terms of how cities remain aware of their context.

In  Johannesburg, South Africa where people from outside the country come to shop and cross-border buses drop people off in the city, the solution to the increase in traffic and lack of facilities for travelers was to look into the feasibility of a cross-border retail distribution system and “the development of a Transportation Hub for regional travel in the Park Station-Joubert Park area of Johannesburg.

However, it’s a difficult question: to what extent does a city dedicate its resources to areas outside its jurisdiction?  And who is responsible to pay for and plan for regional transportation issues? It’s an issue not uncommon to the world’s major cities. Another attempt to link regions and accommodate people outside the city center is China’s new high speed rail links a major coast city to central China.

Class Disparity

Millions of urban squatters pour into megacities each year. China has about as many cities of over a million residents as all of Europe. And Africa’s rate of urbanization is nearing China’s.  Khanna defers to scholar Saskia Sassen’s argument that in megacities, the government and private sector must work together or the city fails; and low-income residents often face the brunt of this failure.

We wrote about an organization based in India, Parisar, working to rethink how the country builds metro rail. The organization favors projects that are accountable, affordable, respond to the broader populations’ needs and link to other transit infrastructure.  In India, there is a history of heavy-handy and costly megaproject, benefitting developers more than residents. Instead, safe cities,  pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure, and affordable public transportation should be the focus.

A Reversal In The Flow Ideas – More Opportunity For Change

The world’s largest, dirtiest and most emitting cities have the chance to spark changes, ideas, policy and designs that could be utilized by other urban areas, reversing the dominant exchange of ideas. For example successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) programs in Latin America – like Curitiba’s BRT — have been emulated by cities like New York in its design of three new BRT-esque bus lines.

Ultimately, “what happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else. Cities are the world’s experimental laboratories and thus a metaphor for an uncertain age…From climate change to poverty and inequality, cities are the problem — and the solution.”

Cities are our experiments for building a better future. In our lifetime cities will only continue to grow, but focusing on well-planned transportation is one step to ensuring the sustainable growth that provides opportunity for all urban dwellers.

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