Monday, January 30, 2012

Carlos Pardo: On Slow(er) transport?

I was thinking that, since the concept of “slow” has been around for a while, but applied to concepts such as food and “living” in general, one could think of applying it to transport policies and projects… that is, create the term “slow transport” or “slower transport”, but responsibly. Below are some notes that could generate ideas towards that direction: where the concept comes from, why and how we can apply it, and some obstacles or possible problems. I will be as brief as possible, since I could write for ages about this. My main concern would be to develop a (or yet another) way of justifying the promotion and development of sustainable transport. And my main worry is that we could just generate a new empty term related to urban transport (we have enough already).


In short, the message (which is implicit in many other discussions related to urban transport, urban planning and land use planning) is that greater speeds can generate greater distances traveled and consequently living farther from work or study, and then a snowball effect into greater sprawl (this part is not so new). What may be a more interesting angle is that this all represents greater energy use, greater emissions and less quality of life. Even more interesting would be to find speed-related solutions.

What is “slow”

Slow is a concept from the 1980s that was applied to food when an Italian movement rejected the idea of bringing McDonalds to Italian cities (as a sign of protest, they sat at McDonalds entrances eating pasta). This then turned into a movement that now encompasses more than food and includes “Città Slow” (Slow cities) and the broader concept of “slow living”. The concept of slow is also related to voluntary simplicity and other simplicity- related movements. The closest that Slow has come to transport is in Città Slow, but they have not really worked on the topic farther than saying “cars are the enemy” and other vague statements.


If we follow a rather simplistic approach of relativity (and some classical physics), we could say the following:

-          Time is (or could be) in a 4th dimension, or at least it varies within a fourth dimension, different from the 3 spatial dimensions we normally use. Of course, this dimension has been only relevant at speeds close to that of light.

-          Distance traveled in time is determined by speed: directly related to the classic formula which states that speed is distance over time (v = d/t).

-          Time is determined by speed: especially near light speed, time is variable to the point that it reaches zero variation at the speed of light (the Twin Paradox shows this clearly).

In more practical terms, we cannot expect to solve issues of transport, distances traveled, travel times and other transport- related issues if we do not take into account speed more explicitly (not just in road safety).

And to make it all more complex, we have followed a process of “speed desensitization”: in the 19th century, trains that went at 20 km/h were “excessively fast” and people were afraid of riding bicycles because they would suffer from “bicycle face” (your face would suffer a deformation due to the high speeds of the vehicle). People did not like the train ride because they didn’t feel they could perceive the journey and its surroundings. Today, speed limits of 30 km/h are difficult (or impossible) to enforce and bicycles and choo-choo trains are the slowest vehicles one can think of. Thus, we don’t perceive the impressive acceleration of our daily lives. This idea of speed as beauty was also perfectly exemplified by Marinetti in his Futurist Manifesto of 1909.

To reiterate the idea from the beginning: In transport and land use, greater speeds  generate greater distances traveled, which in turn can generate the tendency, idea (or action) of living farther from work, study and everything else. This normally has produced sprawl as a consequence, and thus greater energy use and increased emissions. Most of this is common to many, but the issue of speed as a factor in this is normally neglected or its importance underscored.

In conclusion, we need to go slower than today. It doesn’t mean we have to ban highways tomorrow or that we have to stop riding the TGV, it means that we have to be aware of the consequences of our current speed in daily life, and plan for solutions. It’s not about going slow, really, but about travelling at an appropriate speed in order to see details in our daily lives.

The irony...

How to implement it:

Implementation of the concept would be based on the following (nothing really new):

-          Planning for lower speeds, lower speed limits (The EU has taken a major step forward in this regard in October 2011);

-          Enforcement of speed limits

-          Promoting use of bicycles and walking for relatively short trips (8 kms for bicycles, 3 kms for walking)

-          Production of slower cars (I laugh when I write this, since the current “maximum speed” agreement on some sports automobile brands is around 280 km/h)

-          Production of slower (and 4-stroke) motorcycles (I laugh again, but I like Vespas)… or maybe e-bikes with limited speeds from the factory;

-          Development of land policies that support these ideas in terms of mixed uses and instruments that reduce gentrification.

Most of these measures are not really innovative, but if this were broadly implemented, we could see as a Result: lower speeds = reduced distances travelled = living closer to work, study, etc =more appropriate densities = reduced energy use = reduced emissions… increased quality of life. Ok, there doesn’t have to be a direct consequence but this may be a good first step forward.

Guangzhou - yay


The problems of applying this concept would be the following:

-          Implementation: as happens with all sustainable transport measures, it can’t be implemented so easily due to resistance from most (if not all) of the people in charge of transport policies in cities – and in this case, many citizens and speed-nuts;

-          Misunderstanding: Many may (or will) misunderstand the concept and think this is about staying still or promoting congestion (since that could also be seen as a sort of “slower speed” measure). Extremes will never be useful. Again, the issue is appropriate speeds more than just going slow.

-          Being Naïve: The other extreme, where people would think we have to ban everything that goes more than 30 km/h and confiscate cars. This won’t be useful either;

-          Mass Transit: Does this mean mass transit (Subways, BRTs, etc) shouldn’t be promoted? I wouldn’t say so, even if BRT means “Bus Rapid Transit”. A nice example is Bogotá’s Environmental Axis (Eje Ambiental), where buses cannot go faster than 13 km/h due to the frequent interactions with pedestrians along that transit mall.

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About the author:

Carlos Felipe Pardo is a psychologist interested in transport. Mainly, any strategy that reduces the dependence to car use and improves access of all population to affordable transport modes.  He has worked in urban transport issues in Asia and Latin America since 2002 in work that has involved organizational, advocacy and policy-related activities. He is Director of Slow Research, served as Country Director for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) in Colombia and previously worked with a foundation in Bogotá as mobility coordinator and coordinated the GTZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project in Asia and Latin America. He can be reached at carlosfpardo @

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