Will Developing Nations Drive/Follow in our Faulted Footsteps?

Ian Sacs's picture
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The growth in hybrid car sales is a welcome sign that a major change in the automobile industry is afoot.  The shift to transport infrastructure that is not based on the archaic complexity of an internal combustion engine, with its hundreds of moving parts and compressed fuel explosions, has been long put off by an automobile industry, happy with status quo, partnered with oil cartels with the power to price their product as if it were in endless supply.  But with smack-in-the-face-reality fuel prices last summer, the collapse of the so-called "Big Three" over the winter, and the simultaneous heralding assertion of alternative energy technologies (Daimler AG bought a 10% stake in Tesla Motors last month!), the fallout of western economic near-collapse has changed everything we've known to be sacrosanct; Leonard Lopate even waxed nostalgic about the "Death of the Car Song" yesterday on National Public Radio's local station, WNYC.

However long it may take, we are clearly creeping towards an era of full vehicular electrification, where twentieth century harbingers of crumbling urbanity, such as auto-born CO2 emissions, smog, and its particulates, will dissipate, along with human reliance on fossil fuels.  For urbanites, this means cleaner city air and easier breathing, less soot caking street facades, and reduced smog over the skyline.  It also means quieter streets, an extremely attractive aspect of vehicular electrification that gets surprisingly little attention.

While these are exceptional improvements to current transportation systems' stresses on the environment, health, and national policies, they are not a panacea to burgeoning nations.  Cleaner cars are important, but the challenge of congestion is entirely unaddressed by the incoming wave of zero-emission vehicles.  Emerging economies, with urban populations unprecedented in developed countries, simply cannot support a similar level of individual automobile use.  The fact is already evident in a long list of large Asian cities clogged with hundreds of thousands of recently purchased cars.  Lee Shipper, a visiting scholar at the University of California Transportation Center, suggests all is not lost, "Since so few people in Asia own cars, it may not be too late to change course."

It is a question, however, whether city leaders truly grasp the costs such congestion has on even the proudest examples of the developed world.  As in American and European cities throughout the twentieth century, rapid increases in car ownership are leading to serious consequences.  In 2007, when Formula 1 racing champion Michael Schumacher joined with then United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair to rally awareness, it was because, "Road crashes are now the leading cause of death worldwide for 10-25 year olds."

Congestion is a serious threat to productivity and public safety, and no major western city is without its woes.  Perhaps the most (stereotypically) efficient city, Tokyo, despite its eerily quiet (though heavily trafficked) streets, still suffers from severely inadequate subway capacity during peak periods, and streets can often feel unfriendly to pedestrians.  Amsterdam, praised for its bicycle-laden downtown, regularly jams up its highways with commuters too stubborn, or too entitled, to give up their cars.  Berlin and Frankfurt also choke up with kilometer-long queues at the oddest times (like Sunday afternoon).  Copenhagen, the West's pristine example of a bicycle culture, may be successful in this sense, but with a total metropolitan population of less than 2 million, is difficult to compare to future cities with populations ten times greater.  Stockholm and London are still seeking clarity on their congestion pricing experiments.  Helsinki's keha (ring) roads bog down regularly with commuters despite the low overall population, although the city center is generally pleasant to navigate.  Stateside, no large city escapes the bane of congestion.  Portland's oft-cited bicycle haven is still want for healthy symbiosis between cyclist and driver.  New York City, where the proportion of transit ridership is more than double that of all other US cities combined, suffers daily congestion across its bridges and tunnels, despite only 14% of all CBD-bound trips being by car.

In many ways, our failure to successfully accommodate individual ownership of the automobile within the urban built form, despite all kinds of machinations to do so, is a valuable lesson for the new host of nations on the verge of the economic wherewithal to similarly consume en masse.  Somehow, transportation professionals must find a way to collaborate with urban planners, architects, and politicians to design a viable future for these nations that does not lead them to traffic-jammed highways, senseless fatalities, and city-centers where millions of person-hours are wasted in daily commutes.  Somehow, we must convince them to not follow in our footsteps, while overcoming the hypocrisy of having "enjoyed" individual car ownership ourselves for decades.  This is the burden of our profession in the twenty-first century.

Readers: This post is the first in a five-part series on the urgency of getting transportation right for the future's cities.

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.

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