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Mobility is a key dynamic of urbanization, and the associated infrastructure invariably shapes the urban form – the spatial imprint defined by roads, transport systems, spaces, and buildings – of cities. By 2005, approximately 7.5 billion trips were made in cities worldwide each day. In 2050, there may be three to four times as many passenger-kilometers travelled as in the year 2000 (infrastructure and energy prices permitting). Freight movement could also rise more than threefold during the same period.
Yet, despite the increasing level of urban mobility worldwide, access to places, activities and services has become increasingly difficult. Owing to urban sprawl – the horizontal, low-density growth of cities over vast areas – distances between functional destinations such as workplaces, schools, hospitals, administration offices, or shopping amenities have become longer, leading to a growing dependency on private motorized transport and other car-centered mobility. Consequently, widespread congestion and traffic gridlock have now become the norm in many cities, impacting urban life through negative externalities such as pollution, noise stress, and accidents.
In some cities, the physical separation of residential areas from places of employment, markets, schools, and health services force many urban residents to spend increasing amounts of time, and as much as a third of their income, on transportation. In the developing world, and especially in African cities where walking can account up to 70 per cent of all trips, this low-density horizontal urban development causes further exclusion of the urban poor. Due to transport poverty, many residents cannot afford to travel to the city centres or to areas where businesses and institutions are located, depriving them of the full benefits offered by urbanization.
Furthermore, many cities still have not developed efficient, if any, public mobility systems. Even when available, public transport often suffers from stigma caused by high access costs, lack of reliability, and deficiencies in safety and security. In addition, administrative boundaries don’t always match the total metropolitan area, with each administration having separate mobility policies and transportation systems in place. This often leads to inefficiencies and unattractiveness due to uncoordinated operations, such as mismatching schedules or multiple fares.
So far, the standard response to addressing urban mobility issues typically has been to increase infrastructure, mostly for cars, such as building more roads, highways, flyovers, or tunnels. Unfortunately, these developments engender a vicious circle: more infrastructure stimulates urban sprawl because access to peripheral urban areas is eased, increasing the use of cars which, in turn, calls for further infrastructure development, and so on.
While it is true that all residents must be able to access home, work, amenities, and other places of leisure or personal fulfillment in a fast and efficient way, and that the construction of roads is paramount for the development of low-income cities and countries, adding infrastructure is not necessarily the panacea for the urban mobility challenges of today.
Mobility should not only be a matter of developing transport infrastructure and services. It has to be placed in a systemic context including city planning as a whole, to overcome the social, economic, political, and physical constraints of movement.
Addressing the mobility challenge calls for a paradigm shift in urban planning, encouraging compact cities and mixed-land use as a way to increase accessibility and to reduce the need for transportation altogether. Understanding that the purpose of mobility is to gain access to destinations, activities, services and goods, urban planning should therefore be resident-centered, so that functional endpoints – the reasons for travel – are as close as possible to each other, in effect reducing distances and transportation needs.
Thus, urban planning and design should focus on how to bring people and places together, by creating cities that value accessibility, rather than merely adding urban transport infrastructure to increase the movement of people or goods. Simply put, city residents should be able to address their needs using as little travel as possible.
Likewise, the current global bias towards private motor vehicles needs to change in favour of more sustainable mobility concepts, such as public transport systems that have high passenger capacity and area coverage and are low in energy use and carbon emissions. To cut reliance on private motorized transport, cities need to develop attractive, accessible, and affordable public transport systems that are within geographical and financial reach of all residents, especially the urban poor.
Because most trips involve a combination of several modes of transport, cities need to provide multi-modal transport systems and address modal integration as a major component of any urban mobility strategy. For example, high-capacity public transport systems – metro, light rail, or bus rapid transit (BRT) – need to be integrated with other forms of public transport that serve as feeder services to ensure full utilization of their conveyance capacity. Emphasis is therefore to be placed on “last mile access,” to allow residents easy access to the public transport system.
The urban space needs to be rethought in order to optimize flow of traffic, but also to increase and encourage the use of non-motorized transport, such as pedestrian movement or cycling. Streets need to be adapted, with walkways, crossings, and cycling lanes. Transport junctions need to be established to create connection points between different transport modes, thus facilitating access to and extending the range of a public transport system, on both the macro level – the city, the region and beyond – and micro level – the neighbourhood.
Wide-spread institutional fragmentation undermines the ability to enhance transportation services. Separating urban sector functions into different organizations – each with its own boards, staff, budgets, and by-laws – often translates into missed opportunities, such as the failure to site new housing projects near public transport junctions.
Well-functioning institutions and a high level of political support are essential for creating and maintaining good quality infrastructure and services for urban mobility. Urban mobility is also impacted by parties from outside the transport sector associated with land use, and social and environmental impacts. In developing countries in particular, powerful non-specialist stakeholders can exert influences that seriously undermine efforts at achieving integrated development between urban movement and land use.
This calls for strong strategic planning and coordination from national and local governments who need to provide enabling legal frameworks and policies, and address mobility in light of their global city planning endeavours. Authorities also need to allocate sufficient time and funds to improve their transport infrastructure over the long-term and to accommodate future travel demands.
To oversee these efforts, countries, regions, and cities need to set-up well-managed transport authorities that set clear and measurable objectives and can efficiently coordinate urban transportation services. In large metropolitan areas that are split into separate administrative zones, efforts need to be coordinated by a single authority to ensure efficiency through common planning and addressing the area as one, effectively cutting costs on infrastructure development.
To help address the mobility challenge, UN-Habitat offers a comprehensive package of knowledge, advocacy, and technical assistance to support national governments and local authorities in the development and implementation of sustainable urban mobility plans and investment strategies.
In consultation with partner governments, while building on previous engagements and partnerships, UN-Habitat will first initiate and support a broad consultation process of stakeholders to develop metropolitan mobility strategies that are adapted to local needs and particularities, and feasible in terms of initial financing, construction, maintenance, and operations.
In the context of assisting partners towards drafting strategy documents, UN-Habitat will avail international expertise and best practices. It will also strengthen the technical capacity of local and national governments through training on planning for compact development, institutions, and system arrangements for public transport systems, planning better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, and combining different modes of transport in a city. To ensure realistic implementation perspectives, potential financing partners at the domestic or international level will be closely incorporated into the process.
One such project is called “Promoting Sustainable Transport Solutions for East African Cities,” which aims to reduce private vehicle growth, thus reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions in three East African capitals: Addis Ababa, Kampala, and Nairobi. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions shall be achieved directly through sustainable infrastructure and clean fuel use, and indirectly through the development of local management capacities and knowledge on urban mobility.
The project, which began in November 2011 and is expected to finish in 2015, is implemented by UN-Habitat in close collaboration with the government and local authorities in the three countries. UN-Habitat’s role includes support in the multi-stakeholder coordination of building pilot Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors. The International Council on Clean Transportation reviewed the existing and future energy sources, fuel type and quality, vehicle technology, and infrastructure available in each project city. Based on this, different options for using clean bus technology will be presented to identify the most appropriate clean technology.