Where is our flying car? When can I fly by supersonic jet? Where is my jetpack?
If you look at predictions made a few decades ago, the twenty-first century transportation system was supposed to include flying cars that eliminate traffic congestion, supersonic airline travel to exotic destinations, and jetpacks eliminating the need to walk.
The reality is more modest. We live in a period of great innovation, but most twenty-first century transport improvements do not make travel faster (maximum commercial aviation speeds declined after the Concorde supersonic jet service was grounded in 2003) or replace non-motorized with motorized travel (many cities are improving walking and cycling conditions, resulting in more use of these modes). Recent innovations that improve everyday urban transport include wheeled luggage, electronic navigation systems, and bike lanes: innovations that increase travel convenience and comfort, not speed.
These are important but often underrated innovations. The human experience is increasingly urban. Cities are, by definition, places where many people and activities locate close together. This proximity facilitates positive interactions, both planned (accessing shops, services, jobs and entertainment) and unplanned (encountering old friends while walking on the street or riding in a bus, or seeing interesting products in a store window). As a result, urban living tends to increase our productivity and creativity, a phenomenon known as economies of agglomeration. Scientific studies find that, all else being equal, people’s economic success and ability to innovate tend to increase with the size and urban density of the cities in which they live.
However, proximity can also create problems, including traffic and parking congestion, high costs for infrastructure such as roads and parking facilities, plus noise and air pollution. These impacts can spoil the benefits of cities, making them inefficient and unpleasant. But these problems are not inevitable, they are caused by motor vehicles, not people, and so can be solved by taming excessive automobile travel.
Automobiles are resource-intensive, they require far more space than other urban travel modes. Because they are large and fast, automobile travel requires far more road space per passenger-kilometer, and each vehicle requires several parking spaces at destinations (home, work, shops, and so on). As a result, to be convenient and safe, each urban automobile requires 100 to 400 square meters of land for roads and parking facilities, more than ten times as much as the space required to travel by foot, bike or public transit, and two or three times as much land as a typical urban resident needs for housing and workspace. Consequently, the number of people who can comfortably live in an urban area declines rapidly as vehicle ownership increases.
Automobile travel imposes other costs. Owning and operating a car costs thousands of dollars annually, which is unaffordable for many households. Automobile accidents are a major cause of injury and death, and motor vehicles are the primary source of noise and air pollution in most cities. Automobile travel imposes congestion delays on other vehicles, and wider roads and increased vehicle traffic creates the so-called barrier effect, degrading conditions for active modes of transport (walking and cycling). This reduces mobility for non-drivers, and by discouraging walking and cycling, hampers public fitness and health.
An efficient and equitable transportation system must be diverse in order to serve different users and purposes. This allows each mode to be used for what it does best: convenient walking and cycling for local errands, efficient public transit for passenger transport on major urban corridors, and automobile travel when it is truly optimal. Most communities include people who cannot or should not drive due to disability, low incomes or age, and even those who could drive often prefer transit travel if it allows them to relax or work en route, and active modes for the sake of health and enjoyment.
This is not to suggest that motor vehicles are “bad” and should be forbidden, but automobile travel is far more costly than most people realize, considering all impacts. Therefore, an effective city limits automobile travel regulation must be mindful both of what the road system and parking facilities can efficiently accommodate, and of what is needed to protect walking, cycling and public transit conditions. My research indicates that, considering all benefits and costs, socially optimal vehicle ownership rates range from 100 automobiles per one thousand residents in central city neighborhoods up to 350 vehicles per one thousand residents in lower-density urban-fringe areas. Similarly, optimal automobile mode share (the portion of trips made by that mode) range from 10 percent in central areas up to 35 percent at the urban fringe; beyond these levels transport system performance declines, making everybody worse off. Achieving these targets requires a conservation ethic—that is, an emphasis on efficient resource consumption, using transportation demand management (TDM) strategies to encourage travelers to use the best option for each trip.
Conventional urban transportation planning assumes that our goal is to maximize mobility (physical movement), and so assumes that automobile travel is better than slower modes. This justifies planning decisions that favor automobile travel, often to the detriment of other modes, for example, roadway widening that degrades walking and cycling conditions, parking requirements that stimulate sprawl, and inadequate investment of road space and money into public transit, resulting in poor quality service.
Socially optimal vehicle ownership rates range from 100 automobiles per one thousand residents in central city neighborhoods up to 350 vehicles per one thousand residents in lower-density urban-fringe areas
A new urban-planning paradigm is more comprehensive and integrated. It emphasizes that mobility is seldom an end in itself: the ultimate goal of most travel activity is access to desired services and activities. Several factors affect accessibility, including mobility (travel speed and distance), transport system diversity (the quality of travel options available), transport network connectivity, geographic proximity (land-use density and mix, and therefore the distances people must travel to reach services and activities), and mobility substitutes (telecommunications and delivery services), as illustrated below.
Figure 1: Space required to commute by various modes
Conventional planning, which results in wide roads and large parking facility requirements, contributes to a self-reinforcing cycle that results in automobile dependency and sprawl, as illustrated in ﬁgure 2. The new paradigm recognizes that “smart growth” policies which create more compact, connected and multi-modal communities tend to increase overall accessibility. This results in “urban villages,” which are neighborhoods that contain the combination of services and facilities most often used by residents—restaurants and cafés, well-stocked grocery stores, pharmacies, barbers and hair dressers, banks, schools, parks, gyms, doctors and dentists—within walking distance of most homes. Even if vehicle traffic speeds are lower, the distances that must be traveled to reach destinations are also shorter. Residents of such communities tend to own fewer cars, drive less, rely more on active and public transport modes, spend less on transport, be safer and healthier, and require less spending on roads and parking than they would if they lived in more automobile-dependent areas.
Figure 2: Factors affecting accessibility
One of the most important and effective ways of improving accessibility is to ensure that any household, including those with low income, can find suitable housing in central, walkable neighborhoods. Cheap housing is not truly affordable if located in inaccessible areas where residents must devote excessive amounts of time and money to reach common destinations. This means that public housing cannot be confined to peripheral zones, and that government policies should encourage private developers to build lower-priced housing in accessible areas.
Some technological innovations can improve urban transportation, including better user information, more convenient payment systems, and better ways to share vehicles and parking facilities. More efficient and alternative fuels can reduce environmental impacts, and self-driving cars may someday improve mobility options for non-drivers, although by making driving cheaper and easier they might also increase total vehicle traffic and associated problems. As a result, such technologies may degrade urban transport conditions overall, unless they are implemented with appropriate incentives, such as more efficient pricing.
We have a rich vocabulary to describe overpricing—we say that we are gouged, gypped and cheated—but underpricing is equally harmful. When roads, parking facilities, and fuel are too cheap, we overuse them, resulting in congestion, accidents and pollution problems. Motorists generally prefer “free” rather than pay roads and parking, but these are never really free: the choice is between financing them directly, through tolls and user fees, or indirectly through general taxes (to pay for roads) and rents (to pay for free off-street parking facilities). Paying directly is preferable because it can ration the use of these scarce resources, avoiding traffic and parking congestion, and it prevents people who drive less than average from subsidizing facilities for people who drive more than average.
Figure 3: Cycle of automobile dependency and sprawl
The new planning paradigm recognizes the unique and important roles that walking cycling and public transit play in an efficient and equitable transportation system, and so applies a sustainable transportation hierarchy which ensures that, when resources (road space, land and money) are constrained, policies favor resource-efficient over resource-intensive modes. This is the key to creating sustainable transportation systems.
The new urban-planning paradigm considers a wider range of planning objectives and transportation-improvement options. This helps identify truly optional transport improvements, sometimes called win-win solutions, such as congestion reduction strategies that also reduce parking problems, increase affordability, improve mobility options for non-drivers, and increase public fitness and health. For example, expanding roadways may reduce traffic congestion, at least in the short run, and more efficient and alternative fuel vehicles help conserve energy and reduce pollution emissions, but provide no other benefits. In contrast, improving resource-efficient travel modes (walking, cycling, ridesharing, public transit, and delivery services) and developing policies that favor smart growth help achieve numerous planning objectives, as illustrated in the table below. Although these strategies are not necessarily the most effective way to achieve any single objective, they are often the most cost-effective option overall to improve transportation, considering all benefits and costs.
These new approaches are being applied around the world. They are particularly important in developing countries, where money is limited and most households cannot afford automobiles. In such conditions, active and public transport improvements tend to provide more total benefits, and have an impact on a wider range of residents than expanding urban roadways and parking facilities.
In most cities prominent groups generally rely on automobiles themselves, and so tend to favor automobile-oriented improvements
Although many cities are implementing some of these policy innovations, none are implementing all that are justified, considering all objectives. These reforms can be challenging. In most cities prominent groups, such as powerful politicians, respected professionals, and successful business people, generally rely on automobiles themselves, and so tend to favor automobile-oriented improvements. However, we can now demonstrate, using examples from some of the world’s most successful and livable cities, such as Hong Kong, London, Seoul, Singapore and Stockholm, that a more diverse and efficient transport system benefits everybody, including drivers, who experience less traffic and parking congestion, and reduced chauffeuring burdens.
Figure 4: Sustainable transport hierarchy
Urban-planning debates often reflect our prejudices about the overall goodness of humanity. Many people have a negative opinion of their fellow human beings—they would rather live in isolated suburban compounds and travel in private cars in order to minimize their interactions with other people. Urban living, walking, cycling and public transit demand more involvement with others, and so reflect a more positive opinion about humanity. People occasionally do have conflicts, but overall, most people are good and conscientious, and given the opportunity can live and travel together with consideration and respect. A neighborhood becomes safer as more responsible (non-criminal) people live, work and travel there, providing “eyes on the street” that increase security. As a result, urban planning which creates more compact, mixed and walkable neighborhoods enhance our security and spirit. In fact, considering all risks, including crime, traffic accidents and health impacts, urban living is usually safer and healthier than living in automobile-dependent suburbs.
The old transport-planning paradigm evaluated the efficiency of transport systems based on the movement of vehicles. The new paradigm focuses on moving people, and so is concerned with the travel experience, particularly for resource-efficient modes: walking, cycling and public transit. Under positive conditions we enjoy urban travel—walking down a street or having a friendly conversation with a stranger on a bus or train—and under poor conditions—inadequate sidewalks and dangerous road crossings, noisy, dirty and crowded trains—transport can be the worst experience of our week. When we ask travelers what they want, improving comfort and convenience are often more important than increasing travel speed, which means that much of the funding currently devoted to expanding roads would be better spent improving sidewalks, reducing public transit crowding, and providing better user information for navigating around a city. These improvements are a great gift to the people who live and work in a community.
Not only can innovation create more efficient transportation systems, better transport policies can foster innovation in a community. Innovation increases when diverse people and industries locate close together, creating opportunities for collaboration (those economies of agglomeration), which is why cities exist and why productivity and innovation tend to increase with urban size and diversity. Innovation also requires affordability, the ability to live well on a modest income, and therefore the freedom to take financial risks. For every successful technology company, a city must incubate dozens of little start-ups; and for every famous and wealthy artist, there are hundreds who struggle in poverty. Innovation requires cheap office and studio space, as well as affordable housing and transport for workers, plus plenty of social space, such as coffee shops and pubs, and opportunities for walking to inspire great ideas.
We live in a critical moment in human history—the types of cities we create now will determine the economic success and quality of life of more than half the world’s future population. It’s time to think big about small, positive changes. How can your neighborhood become a great place to walk? What could help residents take advantage of the efficiencies of cycling? How can your bus ride become the high point of your day? By answering these questions we can help create paradise on Earth.
Founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization located in Victoria (Canada) that seeks to improve transport planning and policy by means of innovative and practical solutions, such as improving resource-efficient alternatives to private car travel, and more accessible community design. Litman has worked on numerous studies evaluating transportation costs, profits and innovations. He authored the Online TDM (Transport Demand Management) Encyclopedia, and numerous other publications concerning transportation innovations. He is a regular speaker at symposia on these subjects all over the world.