Radical urban transport changes needed before population explosion

Posted: 2 December 2010

Cities need to radically reengineer their infrastructures to cope with much larger populations.

Stackable electric cars which you can hire all over big cities, a website where you can rent out your vehicle when you’re not using it, lifelike ‘telepresence’ screens which let you talk to people in different countries and feel you’re in the same room – these are just some of today’s innovations which hint at what life may be like in 2040, according to a new report from Forum for the Future.

Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic dodges a cow in Mumbai, India. Photo © Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures

Megacities on the move argues that cities need to radically reengineer their infrastructures to cope with much larger populations. By 2040 two in three people will live in cities; the world’s urban population will grow from 3.5 billion to 5.6 billion.

The report gives examples of solutions cities worldwide need to adopt to ensure a sustainable future for their citizens. Without action now they risk becoming dysfunctional environments, where people face extreme deprivation, shortages of food, water and energy, and are vulnerable to floods, heat waves and other impacts of climate change.

Peter Madden, CEO of the Forum, said: “We are seeing the largest migration to cities in history. How those cities develop today will lock in behaviour for decades to come. The future wellbeing of billions of people depends on the action we take now. The global race for sustainability will be won or lost in the streets of our megacities.”

Megacities on the move, a collaboration with Vodafone, EMBARQ and the FIA Foundation, is a practical toolkit designed to help governments, city authorities and businesses understand the challenges of the future and develop strategies which will allow people to live and travel more sustainably in the major cities of the 21st century.

It sets out six solutions for sustainable mobility that they can follow now to help city-dwellers access the people, goods, services and information they need, and it gives examples of where these are already happening. It also provides four vivid scenarios for the world of 2040 which organisations can use to make long-term planning more effective by exploring what the future may hold for them.

The report is based on interviews with more than 40 experts in different aspects of sustainable mobility from around the world, which identified key factors and trends that will shape the future of cities, including shortages of key resources, the strength of global institutions and whether alternative energy sources replace fossil fuels.

Six solutions for sustainable mobility

  1. Integrate, integrate, integrate. Cities need to consider transport, urban planning, business, public services, energy and food supply as part of the same integrated system. They should offer people choice and easy connections. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has prototyped stackable electric cars which fit three to a parking space. They are designed for instant hire at train stations and other key points, like city bike rental schemes in London and Paris. http://cities.media.mit.edu/ (Go to Mobility section, then select CityCar).
  2. Make the poor a priority. Urban mobility systems must ensure that goods, services and job opportunities are open to all. Medellin, Columbia, has installed an electric cable car system linking poor barrios on hillsides too steep for buses directly to the city and its metro. http://www.medellininfo.com/metro/metrocable.html
  3. Go beyond the car. Cities need to be designed for people, not cars, and promote alternative forms of transport. Vancouver’s Downtown Travel plan looked at all aspects of its urban travel system as a whole. More than 80 coordinated initiatives have created a massive shift from driving to walking and cycling. http://www.driversofchange.com/slimcity/urban-mobility/integrated-planning.php.
  4. Switch on to IT networks. Information technology can create more efficient vehicles, better integrated transport systems, and can offer online and telepresence solutions which avoid the need for travel altogether. High-end telepresence systems such as the DVE Immersion Room are now good enough for people to feel like they are in the same room, thanks to 3D high-definition live video. http://www.dvetelepresence.com/products/dve_huddle.asp
  5. Refuel our vehicles. Climate change and rising prices mean we need to focus on energy efficiency and shift the way we power our vehicles from petrol to renewable, low-carbon fuel sources. Better Place and Renault are launching commercial services in Denmark and Israel in 2011, which will allow drivers of electric cars to swap used batteries for recharged ones at a network of switching stations. http://www.betterplace.com
  6. Change people’s behaviour. Infrastructure and technology are not enough, we need to create new social norms that encourage more sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles. Whip car is the world’s first peer-to-peer car rental service, which allows owners to rent out their own vehicles when they aren’t using them. http://www.whipcar.com/

The Megacities on the move report, four scenario animations, and other information material, are available here.