Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dancing around the carbon tax in the United States Senate

Climate and climate policy are more than moderately complicated issues, as we all are well aware. But at the end of the day we know too there are a certain >number of basic underlying truths that shape these issues and outcomes, which one either grasps or one does not. And in this regard, there can be little doubt that the most single powerful single lever available for slowing down climate damage is carbon-reduction -- and by far the most powerful way to achieve this is through a well-fashioned carbon tax. You put a price on carbon emissions, a high price preferably, and you can be sure that they will come down. Economics 101. But say this to a hundred bright people, and 99 will immediately, without losing a beat, look you in the eye and start to list all the reasons why this cannot be done. But it can be done.

And when it comes to our bailiwick here on World Streets, namely sustainable transport and sustainable cities, what we get with these carbon reductions are many of the things we need to do anyway to move toward these broader goals. Higher fossil fuel prices work to reduce motorized traffic. That's a pretty good start because less traffic on our roads means less environment damage, reduced pressures on scarce natural resources, fewer traffic fatalities, quieter and safer cities, improved public health, economic renewal, stronger communities and world peace. But once we have that carbon tax in place, we then need to use all our ingenuity and efforts to ensure social equity, protect the economy and create better and fairer mobility systems for all. Which of course is what World Streets is all about. Now let's hear what Charles Komanoff of New York City has to say about how the US Senate is facing up to these challenges.

Cap-and-trade, let us hope, is dead. And now, we may begin!

- by Charles Komanof

And now, ve may begin?

Readers of a certain age, and a certain literary bent, will recognize the words of Alexander Portnoy’s psychiatrist, spoken at the close of Philip Roth’s transgressive 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.

After lo these many years, they popped into my head today as I read that Senate Democrats had finally thrown in the towel on an energy bill that would have included a partial cap-and-trade provision for limiting carbon emissions from power plants. The bill, written by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, was touted by Washington insiders and some major environmental groups as this year’s last hope for federal climate legislation. Yet it would have relied on carbon offsets and other dodges to postpone the day of reckoning with true, visible carbon emissions pricing — the cornerstone of meaningful climate policy.

Instead, reported the New York Times, Senate Democrats will pursue a limited bill aimed at increasing oversight of oil drilling and tightening energy efficiency standards — with no direct assault on climate-destabilizing CO2. (For a later Times story amplifying the first, click here.)

Yes, now, we may begin — “we” being Americans who care about climate, sustainability, and Earth — to unite around a climate approach that is effective, equitable and transparent enough to win the support of our fellow citizens and a Congressional majority.

I’m referring of course to the idea advanced by climatologist Jim Hansen as fee-and-dividend and by the Carbon Tax Center as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, by which fossil fuel extractors and importers pay the U.S. Treasury fees pegged to the carbon content of the coal, oil and gas they take from the ground or bring into U.S. ports, and the Treasury distributes the revenues to all Americans via equal monthly dividends (“green checks”), or by tax-shifting from regressive taxes such as payroll taxes.

The Senate’s antipathy to even the partial cap-and-trade proposed by Sen. Kerry will doubtless be spun as indicating that for the foreseeable future the well for climate legislation has been poisoned. The Carbon Tax Center says that the opposite may be true: with cap-and-trade out of the way at last, the political well can begin to be de-toxified so that the effective, equitable and transparent carbon fee-and-dividend can be seriously considered.

For this to happen, however, the Big Green groups like EDF and NRDC that for years have dominated climate discourse among environmentalists, and that convinced Congressional Democrats and the White House that the only way to “put a price on carbon” in America was via carbon cap-and-trade, will have to abandon that approach and allow others, and themselves, to try a fresh start.

It will be said that cap-and-trade failed because Fox News and other climate deniers branded it as “cap-and-tax” and, therefore, a carbon tax (or fee) cannot possibly succeed. And it is true that carbon cap-and-trade was looked to, years ago, as a way to build on the success of acid rain cap-and-trade, win over Republican free-marketers, and put a price on carbon without having to parade the dreaded t-a-x word before the public.

In the event, though, carbon cap-and-trade did none of these things.

Instead, Big Green’s pursuit of carbon cap-and-trade tethered the climate movement to complex financial instruments and branded us as servants of Wall Street elites. It opened the legislative floodgates to off-the-charts Beltway deal-making that rightly repulsed the public. Perhaps most importantly, the co-optation of climate advocacy by the cap-and-traders robbed us of the high moral ground we might have shared with abolitionists, suffragists, labor agitators and civil rights workers — true American heroes who fought to liberate our society of oppression and injustice.

If you’re in the climate movement, you recognize that fossil fuels’ assault on Earth’s climate is an ultimate form of oppression and injustice: of rich against poor, of the profligate against the frugal, of the present against the future. Ending this assault will require concerted action on many fronts; and it starts by internalizing the climate-damage costs of coal, oil and gas into their prices, so that the free ride for fossil fuels is ended and all of the alternatives, from energy efficiency, renewable energy and low-carbon fuels to conservation-based behavior and mindfulness toward energy consumption, may compete fairly and effectively.

Political action to accomplish this must be done in bright sunlight, not in Beltway shadows.

Cap-and-trade, let us hope, is dead. And now, we may begin!

# # #

About the author:

Charles Komanoff “re-founded” NYC’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives in the 1980s, helped found the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in the 1990s, and co-founded the Carbon Tax Center in 2007. Charles’s writings include books, articles, and landmark reports such as Subsidies for Traffic, Killed By Automobile, and the Kheel Report on financing free transit in New York City. A math-and-economics graduate of Harvard, Charles lives with his wife and two sons in lower Manhattan.
A first round of comments are available on this piece were published on the 22nd and can be accessed here.

--> Read on:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Let's give cars more competition! New options for urban mobility

- by Paul Barter, National University of Singapore

What competition do cars have in your city? I don't mean competition between Toyota, Ford or Hyundai. I don't even mean competition between cars and public transport for this morning's work trips. I am talking about competition between a car-owning lifestyle and a set of alternatives that add up to a whole lifestyle, creating a complete 'mobility package' attractive enough to make car ownership feel optional.

In places like Manhattan or Hong Kong or the inner cities of Zurich, Paris, Tokyo or London a lifestyle without your own car is already an attractive option even for wealthy people. But could we extend the range of places where not having a car is an excellent lifestyle choice? Can we make car use more provisional and less locked-in to our liefstyles and our urban systems? How?

Here is a presentation I gave last year which tackles some of these issues in a non-technical way.

* Click following link for slide presentation:

Under-appreciated and neglected urban transport policy opportunities (and reframing competition in urban transport)

In this presentation I claim that the following issues in urban transport are under-appreciated and neglected.

  • Public transport integration and comprehensiveness;

  • Short trips between 1 and 4 km;

  • Taxis and car-sharing;

  • Car ownership cost structures;

  • Parking policy.

They have in common that they seem much more important when we focus our minds on competing with the car-owning lifestyle and not just to get people out of their cars for specific trips.

My central messages were:
  • Urban transport policy for liveable cities can and should dare to compete successfully with car ownership.

  • Seeing the car-owning lifestyle as our primary competition expands and enriches our policy horizons.

  • Imagining excellent mobility without owning a car prompts a more critical look at car ownership arrangements.

I think this line of thinking offers hope for gradually offering a real alternative to the car-owning lifestyle. It brings together themes I have written about before, here, here and here.

People who have been thinking along similar lines include Robin Chase, Chris Bradshaw, Eric Britton, the late Bill Mitchell, and Susan Zielinski.

For more detail on this approach to competing with cars see my working paper on the issue.

# # #

About the author:
Paul Barter is an Assistant Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore where he teaches infrastructure policy, urban policy, transport policy and an introduction to public policy. He has published studies of transport policy in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. His current research interests are in innovation in transport demand management, public transport regulation, and contested priorities in urban transport policy.

You might also like:

--> Read on:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Changing Context for NGO Campaigning

The consistent two-punch theme of World Streets is that (a) we are losing the sustainability wars (no argument there, eh?) because (b) we are quite simply not very bright. Look, how complicated can it be? When it comes to the issues of sustainable transport we really do know what to do (i.e., get our act together and start to rip carbon out of the system, and do it now). But we are somehow not able to get our fundamental messages across. We also have this communication problem. So when someone like Keith Sutter from Sydney has an idea for us, well we listen and try to learn. Let's have a look and see if we can learn something.


I was asked recently to comment on some proposed campaigns by an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO). Here are some general comments on the way that the campaigning context today is now much more complicated than it was.

1. From “Broadcasting” to “Narrowcasting”

One change has been the move from “broadcasting” (a small number of, for example, TV stations transmitting to a large number of people) to “narrowcasting” (a large number of TV stations transmitting to a narrow, specific group of people).

I joke in my speeches that if a stranger in a capital city (with a large number of potential radio stations to choose from) were first to tell me about which is their favourite radio station, then I would quickly know a lot about them. For example, a person who listens to a “serious talk” publicly-funded radio station is unlikely to also listen to commercial contemporary music stations

Alongside the traditional media, we now of course also have the social media eg Facebook: even more “narrowcasting”.

In summary, I suggest we have “de-massified” society so that it is now impossible to fashion one standard message that will suit - or reach - all audiences at any one time.

2. Who are the “opinion formers” now?

In the old days, it was usually necessary to reach only a small number of senior people (usually pale, stale, males) to change government policy. These were often called the “opinion formers”: people (usually men) with a disproportionate amount of influence in the media.

Now it is necessary to operate across a variety of media, targeting a variety of people because in a de-massified society it is no longer possible to always see who has the power to influence others.

“You never know which piece of coal blows the whistle”. You can never be sure what event or form of media coverage could trigger an avalanche.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon is a good example. The video clip of her stunning appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” reached Australia a day after it was broadcast in the UK (via Internet users forwarding it on) and by Thursday of the same week it had become the most watched You Tube clip that day in the US. By the following weekend she was in negotiations over a recording contract. She had become a global “hit” in about a week.

In summary, I suggest an NGO needs to use a variety of media to reach a variety of people with a variety of messages (albeit around a common theme). The “down-market” commercial media and social networks are just as important as the “serious” publicly-funded media outlets,

3. Rise of Epistemic Communities

A by-product of the de-massified society is the rise of epistemic communities: where people think the same thoughts and only communicate with each other in that same small group. Despite the alleged internationalizing effects of globalization, we still live in small communities – only now they cross national borders. An Indian legal expert, for example, may have more in common with follow legal experts in (say) the US or Europe, than with the peasants outside that person’s own home.

The global financial crisis is a good example of this. The finance industry all had the same ideas about how to make money and ignored the warnings of “outside” people, for example, those concerned about society getting into too much debt. Meanwhile the financial regulators (often in the same capital city district a few blocks away) failed to do their own job because they were in their own epistemic community.

The implication here is that the urgency that members of an environmental NGO may feel for their own particular issue may be not shared by most other people in other epistemic communities.
In the example of environmental NGO campaigns, most people in western countries would probably feel that everyday life is actually getting better and that there is not much of an environmental problem. They do not share the fears of environmental NGOs which may be worried about, for example, climate change. Indeed, I grew up in post-war London – the evil, thick fogs of my childhood have long since gone and the Thames is cleaner now than when I was a child. I happen to share the concerns of environmental NGOs but I can also see how a person in my situation could easily claim that life is getting better and better compared with what they would have known in their childhood.

The risk is that environmental campaigners speak only to their own fellow members (in their own epistemic community) and so they don’t reach a wider audience.

4. From “Leaders” to “Followers”

Traditionally “leaders” would stake out their point of view and invite potential followers to get behind them. For example Winston Churchill in the 1930s warned the British about the German menace and he was ignored. But then in 1939/1940 suddenly the British turned to him for leadership and he became Prime Minister in May 1940.

Now we have “followers” – leaders wait to see where the crowd is running and then run in front of the crowd and claim that they have always had that point of view. They will often replay back to the crowd the fears of that crowd. As the crowd changes its mind, so the “leaders” will change theirs.

A standard example of this process is the “war on terror”. The risk of being killed by terrorists in western countries has been greatly exaggerated (the average American stands a far higher chance of being killed through food poisoning). But thanks to the saturation media coverage, there is a perception among the public that there is a high risk of dying in a terrorist attack and so the politicians heed that fear by replaying the fears back to the voters and have introduced overly elaborate security measures.

The Washington DC-based German journalist Gabor Steingart has even warned that the “war on terror” is a diversion from the real threats to the US. “…our fears have been spun out of proportion. The Taliban consists of military dwarves and political pygmies. A country like Iran, with the gross domestic product the size of Connecticut’s and a military budget only as big as Sweden’s, doesn’t deserve the attention of the entire American public and its government”. The real issue is not so much terrorism as the comparative decline of the US economy and the rise of the Asian powers such as China .

If the leaders perceive that the environment (or any other issue) as not being of any real interest to the voters, then they won’t to give leadership on it.

5. Rise of “Info-Tainment”

A fifth change has reflected the growing comfort of media consumers. Life is a great deal easier now for most people in all western countries. The appalling poverty and violence that marred their lives has been reduced; even a black man can become of President of the United States (which would have been unthinkable, say, in 1970 only 40 years ago).
This progress has led to changes in the media. In the 1930s, 1940s and then the Cold War (1945-91) the news could kill you. The Great Depression of the 1930s; followed in the early 1940s by the possible invasion by German, Italian or Japanese dictators (depending on where one lived); and then after World War II the threat of nuclear war were all, so to speak, “bad news”.

Now the news is not nearly so “bad”. There has been, for example, a reduction in international conventional warfare. The most dangerous period to have lived in the past 110 years was 1900-50; since then the number of wars and the number of people killed in them have both declined. Terrorism, as noted above, is not a major cause of death in the western world. The “bad” news is in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere all outside the western world – and those areas hardly rate a mention (unless western tourists accidentally get caught up in the foreign violence).

Therefore, we have moved from serious media reporting and discussion of “big issues” and “bad news”, to entertainment items such “lifestyle”, sport and cooking food. The news is a mixture of light information and entertainment: “info-tainment”.

In summary, environmental NGOs began their campaigns in the late 1960s/ early 1970s at a time when western media consumers were also hearing other “bad” news. It all seemed of one piece – the possible “end of the world” by either nuclear weapons or environmental destruction.

Now there is far less appetite for “bad” news. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of the scepticism about climate change – the warnings seem now so distant and so abstract compared with the earlier risks of war. The planet evaded a nuclear World War III and so many people feel assured that the environmental warnings are equally misplaced.

I think that optimism may be misplaced and that the planet is facing grave resource shortages etc. But it means that environmental messages need to be refashioned to be effective.

6. From “Head” to “Heart”

To conclude, environmental NGOs (and all other NGOs) are now operating in a new media and political context. Here is a final comment on lobbying.

Traditionally, NGOs have gone for the “head”: trying to meet ministers to convey their point of view etc. This was a “Buchanesque” world. John Buchan (1875-1940) was a popular Scottish novelist (eg “The 39 Steps”) and then Governor-General of Canada. His many novels depicted a world where the “good guys” (and usually they were wealthy, well educated white men) were well-connected, members of the right London clubs, knew the right people and could muster resources that the average person could not – in order to defeat the “bad guys” (such as German spies).

NGOs lived with a “Buchanesque” paradigm. If they could only meet the right ministers and present them with logical arguments then they hoped to change policy. If the polite approach didn’t work, they could try to get the attention of the politicians with demonstrations.

I suggest NGOs need to move from the “head” to the “heart”. In other words, who actually makes policy? It is not the ministers at the top because they often now don’t really understand what is going on. Life is now so complicated. The skills of politicians are in winning elections and not getting a detailed grasp of the details of policies.

A good example of this process is the way in which “new right economic rationalist economics”/ “free market economics” replaced the traditional Keynesian approach to national government economic policy. The revolution began with conservative leaders in the US (Ronald Reagan) and the UK (Margaret Thatcher) and Labor leaders in Australia (Bob Hawke and Paul Keating) and New Zealand (David Lange and Roger Douglas). The party labels made little difference – they were all reading from similar scripts.

Who wrote those scripts? The “technostructure” - in John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase (The New Industrial State, 19867) – did the work. The politicians simply did the talking.

Martin Feil, a former senior Australian bureaucrat, has recounted his experiences: “I have never been to a meeting with ministers where advisers and public servants were not present; often the minister’s only contribution has been to say “Hello” and “Goodbye”. I appreciate that captains of industry have private audiences with political decision-makers, but I wonder about the efficacy of such meetings. The billionaire or CEO often isn’t across the detail of what he wants to know or ask for, and the minister doesn’t necessarily know what he is talking about and may have difficulty relaying the substance and purpose of the meeting to his advisers” .

The implication here I suggest is that NGOs need to spend more time with the “script writers” working within the “heart” of the bureaucracy, such as serving on government.

There will still be a need for some NGOs to have an “impolite” approach (such as with demonstrations) because they draw the debate’s options far more out to one end (and reduce the risk of epistemic thinking). Other NGOs can present the ‘heart” with more “moderate” options and so gradually shift government policy.

Will it work if the world is facing a looming environmental catastrophe? Do we have enough time? British writer HG Wells is reputed to have said that life is a race between education and disaster. A century later that is still the case. We just need to find new ways of doing the “educating”.

# # #

About the author

Keith Suter is a futurist and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. His first doctorate was in the international law of guerrilla warfare and his second in the economic and social consequences of the arms race. He is a member of the Club of Rome, President of the United Nations Association (NSW) and President of the Society for International Development (Sydney Chapter). He lives in Sydney Australia and can be via .

--> Read on:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

At Any Cost? The hidden costs of charging for public transport

Today's piece by Alex Berthelsen of, Sweden's largest public transport NGO, is part of World Streets wide-open international brainstorming series on "free public transport". The most recent article in this series appeared here last week under the title " Why Free Public Transport is a bad idea", inviting our readers to share their critical thoughts on this important, contentious but ultimately quite subtile subject. The flood gates immediately opened and within days we heard a variety of responses, negative and positive, from thirty readers logging in from more than a dozen different countries. You can access their comments and all the articles in this series via And as always your critical comments and suggestions are welcome.

At Any Cost? The hidden costs of charging for public transport

There are a lot of obvious advantages that free public transport has to offer. But one that is often overlooked is the savings that can be made by not having to sell, validate and check tickets. Many public transport operators does not know what it costs them to uphold their fare-system, and some of them does not even admit that it is a cost. “It’s such a small amount of money that it’s not even worth counting,” is a reply you might get if asking a public transport operator about their costs associated with having fares.

In Stockholm, Sweden, this was the question asked, and the public transport operator, SL, gave the standard reply, so the organisation I work with, (Sweden's biggest public transport NGO), started to count and measure as many things as we could come up with that were associated with having fares in the public transport. The result was quite shocking, even for such free public transport advocates as us.

It is important to remember that the costs of having a fare-system are more than just the direct expenses such as tickets, vending machines, personnel, and barriers. Things such as queues, unsatisfied customers and violence are also costs directly associated with having fares, even though they are harder to measure in economic terms. Below I will go through a few of the biggest costs of the ticket system in the Stockholm public transport system, to give you a clue to what we could save by making the public transport free at the point of entry.

The Barriers

The barriers in the public transport system in Stockholm takes up well over 2700 square meters of valuable station space, space that could be exploited commercially or used for such nice things as bigger resting spaces for the workers or for putting up “cultural billboards”. Besides this the barriers costs about 2 million € per year in maintenance and 5 million € per year in reinvestment.

The barriers, and the mandatory showing of tickets to the bus driver creates unnecessary queues, bottlenecks and are an endless source of irritation for both the commuters and the workers in the public transport. According to the public transport operator in Stockholm, the queues are “not even worth measuring”, but we did it anyways. On bus line 4 which runs through central Stockholm the time wasted on checking tickets adds up to 35 (yes, thirty-five) percent of the total time the bus is operated. On the Stockholm Central station, the productivity loss of people queuing amounts to more than 3 million € per year, imagine how much money the loss would be if measured across the whole system and not just on one station!

The Workforce

By using the existing workforce, but giving them tasks that are meaningful for both them as well as the commuters we could switch personnel from pointless tasks such as guarding barriers and checking tickets into meaningful jobs such as helping commuters with information, or driving buses and trains. The total amount of money we could spend on people doing good instead of pointless things would be 40 million € per year, this would be a direct gain for the public transport and these 40 million € should be counted as an expenditure solely associated with the fare-system.

By making the public transport free we are also effectively getting rid of a lot of situations where violence occur. According to the public transport union in Stockholm, a majority of all reported threats and incidents of violence directed at workers are connected to the fare system, and according to the public transport ombudsman, almost all threats and incidents of violence directed at passengers are exercised by the personnel involved in selling and checking ticket. The value of reducing violence between passengers and personnel might be a bit hard to measure in economic terms, because it is priceless!

The Math

In this article I have shown that over 45 million € per year is wasted on the fare-system in the public transport in Stockholm, and this is not counting negative externalities such as queues, more people driving cars, unsatisfied costumers, violence, etc. 45 million € is around 10 percent of the total income from selling tickets in Stockholm, but that is obviously "not even worth counting" according to the public transport operator. Talk about disrespect for how they use the commuters hard-earned money!

Imagine a company or NGO that did not know their income and expenditures! This is, unfortunately, quite common in the glorious world of public transport. Instead of maximizing the public good that the public transport should be, our public transport operators are busy with finding new and innovative ways of trying to maximise their income by selling more and more expensive tickets to people who are just doing the right thing and choosing an exemplary means of transportation.

There are some good examples though, where public transport operators have actually studied the costs of selling tickets. One of those is Island Transit on the Whidbey and Camano islands in Washington. Before they opened their systems they did the math and realized that the costs of selling tickets would be approximately the same as the income from selling tickets. So they decided to make their system fare-free instead.

When faced with the arguments for free public transport, many people respond by saying that it should not be free, but that it should be much cheaper. The problem with that argument is that if you make the public transport cheaper, an even larger share of the income from tickets will go directly to upholding the fare-system. This problem creates a situation where you either have expensive tickets, fewer users and a smaller share of the income going to upholding the fare-system, or cheap tickets, more users and a larger share of the income lost on selling tickets.

Against this I can only put the proposal of making the public transport free, something that would both mean more riders filling up the current empty seats as well as no money wasted on the fare-system -- in the words of Irwin Kellner, chief economist for MarketWatch (a part of the Wall Street Journal), free public transport would be “a win-win solution, if I ever saw one.”

# # #

About the author:

Alexander Berthelsen is editor of Carbusters Magazine. He's a Swede currently living in Prague, Czech Republic where he's doing a one-year internship at World Carfree Network. Back in Sweden he's active in for whom he, amongst other things, wrote a report in Swedish on "At Any Cost?" last year. (This article is based on the Swedish report "Till varje pris?" ("At any cost?") released in March 2009. He can be reached via or is Sweden's largest public transport NGO, they started up in 2001 as free public transport activists but has since expanded their work into many different areas of urban politics. They just released their second English report "The Traffic Hierarchy". URL: Email:

--> Read on:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Guardian comes to visit Paris and Vélib'

In the context of the start-up of London's long-awaited public bicycle project next week, the British daily, The Guardian, sent reporter Leo Hickman to meet with the London start-up team, and then arranged for him to spend  a day with us in Paris asking about and riding the Vélib'. It just so happened that his visit corresponded with the third anniversary of Vélib', so you editor was pleased to have this chance to compare notes. You have here the main text of his article in today's Guardian, but for the full story and photographs, let us point you to the original here

London and Paris: a tale of two bike-hire schemes

- By Leo Hickman, The Guardian,

London's much-vaunted bike-hire scheme launches next week. Parisians love their Vélib' scheme – but will Londoners take to their new bikes so fondly?

London, Tuesday 20 July 2010

It's not the best of starts. I've only been in the saddle of this new bicycle – the centrepiece of London's cycle hire system, set to launch on 30 July – for two minutes and I'm already being flagged down by a policeman. What have I done wrong, I wonder nervously. Did I cut across someone when changing lanes on the approach to Westminster Bridge? Should I be wearing a helmet? It's been three decades since I passed my cycling proficiency test, and there's been very little serious cycling in between.

The policeman points to the spot on the curb when he wants me to park up. "What have I done, officer?"

"Oh, nothing," he says. "I just wanted to ask what the bike was like to ride. Do you think it will be popular?" Squeezing the brakes and ringing the bell, he's like a wide-eyed boy in a bike shop. I offer him a go. "I can't," he says. "I'm on duty."

It strikes me, during this rather surreal exchange, that at least the bike isn't suited to being a getaway vehicle. It weighs more than 20kg, and has three gears: Sloth, Tortoise and Ageing Elephant. It's designed for leisurely ambling rather than APD (aggressive pursuit of destination), which is clearly the default setting of every other cyclist on the road today. The looks of disdain and irritation are palpable as they continually whizz past me.

After Paris, this will be the world's second-largest urban cycle hire system. The scheme, vigorously promoted by London's mayor Boris Johnson, will eventually see 6,000 bikes parked at 400 "docking stations" spread every 300 metres or so across central London (although the latest in a string of delays means only pre-registered "members" will be able to take out the bikes from a week on Friday, with the wider public only getting their hands on the bikes at the end of next month). After paying a daily access fee of £1, and providing details of a credit card for the deposit, the first 30 minutes of bike use will be free, although the price escalates rapidly as the clock ticks on (£1 for an hour, £6 for two hours, £35 for six hours).

My first impressions of the bike, riding it from Victoria to Borough and back along the South Bank, are good. Yes, it is heavy – you're never going to overtake Lance Armstrong on this thing – but it needs to be built to last, and be thief- and vandal-proof, a problem that has blighted other systems around the world (particularly Paris). It is purposely not designed for long rides: the pricing structure encourages sub-30-minute journeys and, given the limited geographical spread of the distinctive blue docking stations, it is not yet a bike aimed at commuters. Rather, it is there to replace a short taxi ride, or a two- or three-stop tube journey.

The bike has an adjustable padded seat, smooth handling, a guard to protect your clothing from the oily chain, a bell and dynamo lights. But there are problems. The lack of mirrors is a minor grumble, but understandable given how easily they might snap off (tip: carry your own clip-on mirrors). A far bigger inconvenience is the lack of a basket or a security chain, both of which come as standard on the Vélib' in Paris. Instead, the London bike has what can only be described as a magazine rack. You could carry a Sunday newspaper in it, but not much else. And rather than chain it to a lamppost when you pop into the shop to buy said paper, you will have to find a docking station or risk losing the £300 deposit should it be stolen.

My other criticism is that you've got "Barclays" plastered all over the bike. Sure, London wouldn't have this new bike without the rumoured £25m that Barclays has paid to sponsor the system for the next five years, but the prominence of the branding earns me a heckle or two as I pass the peace protestors camped out at Westminster Square.

And then there is the name. Parisians have fallen in love with the Vélib' – a portmanteau of velo (bicycle) and liberté (freedom). Londoners are, one feels, less likely to fall for the Barclays Cycle Hire, as the bike is officially known. Freecycle is already taken, but this bike urgently needs an affectionate moniker (The London Wheel? The Big Ben? The Bumbling Boris?) if Londoners are to develop the same levels of affection.

Another key to the scheme's success, says Tom Bogdanovich, campaigns manager at the London Cycling Campaign, will be avoiding the "Montmartre effect", whereby users arrive at popular destinations only to find empty docking stations. (In Paris, the steep hill at Montmartre means users invariably only hire the Vélib' to ride down the slope rather than up, leading to a noted shortage of bikes at the top of the hill.)

"London has the great benefit from learning from the experiences in Paris and Barcelona," Bogdanovich says. "Getting the distribution right is key: it's crucial that people have easy, immediate access. As the system moves on, they must respond to patterns of use and identify where the highest demand is. It would make sense, for example, to think about expanding it to Canary Wharf and the Olympic zone."

Bogdanovich says an estimated 250,000 people cycle in London every day, and that one in three people are "interested" in cycling. "But that's still way behind cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The system should take advantage of the fact that London is a cluster of villages. Hackney, for example, has very high cycling rates – 10% of all journeys. Also, the average bike journey in London now is 3.5km, yet this system is largely aimed at replacing short tube journeys in central London. Over time, the system will need to serve both demands."

Now on to Paris and Vélib'.

Four hours after handing my trial bike back to a Transport for London official, and one Eurostar trip later, I am standing outside a Paris apartment adjacent to the exquisite Jardin du Luxembourg on the Left Bank. The apartment belongs to Eric Britton, an American who has lived in the French capital since the late 1960s and who now acts as an international consultant and commentator on sustainable urban transport systems. He's a huge fan of the Vélib', which launched to much fanfare and enthusiasm three years ago this month. He immediately probes me for first impressions of the London bike.

"Yes, it is a big error not to include a lock-up and a basket," he agrees, as we walk to his nearest docking station. "Around 90% of Parisians use the basket on their Vélib'. Ladies' purses, backpacks, shopping bags – they all go in there. I also think the London scheme is too small. Paris, which is a smaller city, launched with almost twice the number of bikes and stations."

Still, Britton is broadly optimistic that London's bikeshare scheme will be a success: "The real genius of the systems in both London and Paris is that the first 30 minutes are free. It needs to be 100% ready on day one, though. All the problems need to be ironed out, otherwise people will conclude it's not worth the effort.

"Over time, you will see the bikes starting to occupy the terrain. Slowly, they will increase and gain more of the roadspace. Then the demand for more bike lanes will increase. We've seen this in Paris. Such a modal shift takes a little time, but it is happening here."

Britton shows me how easy it is to undock a Vélib'. As an annual subscriber, he has a swipe card which gives him instant access. I have to use my bank card to gain access via the electronic terminal, though, which delays things for a couple of minutes.

Britton shows me how to quickly scan for the best available bikes: brakes, tyre pressure, seat, gears, a spin of the back wheel – a habit he says is now instinctive for most Vélib' users. It has also become etiquette, should you have a faulty bike, to lower the seat and turn it to face backwards to indicate to other users not to use it. (Each docking point also has a "spanner" push button to mark the bike down as needing a repair.)

The Vélib' is virtually the same bike as the London one, except for the sizeable basket and chain lock. But whereas I had a gleaming new model to try out in London, most of the Vélib's I see in Paris are displaying signs of heavy use. I pick a bike with a handle grip missing. Graeme the photographer discovers, in the middle of a fast-flowing intersection as we head towards the Eiffel tower, that his chain has a tendency to slip at the most inopportune moments.

Nevertheless, it is immediately apparent what differentiates Paris and London in terms of cycling experience. Paris's wide boulevards and avenues, with their separate side lanes now converted into cycle lanes, mean cyclists can regularly escape the near-constant close contact with heavy traffic that London's cyclists must tolerate. Despite the launch of London's first cycle "superhighways" for commuters yesterday, it is hard to see how other city's urban topography can ever be drastically altered to counter this.

But Britton's most surprising observation is that the Vélib' hasn't done much to reduce road traffic in Paris. Rather than get people out of cars – it is reckoned to have substituted only about 10% of car trips in central Paris – it has done a far better job of getting people off public transport. As many as half of all Vélib' trips are estimated to have replaced Metro or bus journeys.

Before I depart Paris, I meet up with Albert Asséraf, a strategist at JCDecaux – the advertising corporation that runs the Vélib' in return for a 10-year exclusive contract to use the city's 1,500-odd digital display hoardings. I ask what lessons London can learn from the Paris system, particularly after JCDecaux director general Rémi Pheulpin's comments last year that the Paris scheme was not commercially viable because of the extent of the theft and vandalism.

"Since we launched in 2007, we have expanded to 1,750 stations across the city and neighbouring suburbs and now have a maximum of 24,000 bikes in operation at any one time," he says. "To date, we've had 9,000 bikes stolen and 9,000 bikes vandalised. Most thefts are caused by day users because they are not used to how the docking systems works and they leave the bike accidentally unsecured. We have worked hard to communicate the message that these bikes are 'ours' – they belong to all of Paris, and it is a system we should be proud of. London should do the same."

Asséraf says the average journey on a Vélib' lasts 21 minutes and covers 2km, but that to counter the aforementioned Montmartre effect, users are now rewarded for returning their bikes to unpopular docking stations on hills (bikes are also redistributed around the city in trucks).

"We now give users 15 minutes' free credit if they return a bike to a so-called 'altitude' station. It's little lessons like this that London will need to learn. And London should make sure the stations are well stocked, even during the night. About 15% of all Vélib' journeys occur after the Metro shuts down and people want to get home without paying for expensive taxis. The Vélib' has become part of our lives – Parisians just can't imagine Paris without the Vélib' now."

# # #

About the author:

Leo Hickman is a features journalist and editor at the Guardian. He is not a daily cycling enthusiast but did well in coping with Paris traffic on his first game try here.  Leo is the author of "The Final Call", "A Good Life: The Guide to Ethical Living, and "Life Stripped Bare: My Year Trying to Live Ethically", all available from The Guardian. You can consult his website at

World Streets on Fair Use here:

--> Read on:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Honk! City of the Future? (Have a stupid weekend)

We here at World Streets always have problems with "cities of the future" visions, not so much because they are almost always consistently wacky in some totally wierd unreal-world way, but because they tend to project things so far into the distant, almost always thoroughly magical future, that they get us off the hook for doing anything about it TODAY. So sit back and relax, dear citizens and voters, and let the benevolent forces of the economy and technology solve the problem for you. Hmm.

Again this background, and for your weekend viewing pleasure, we are pleased to share with you this excellent drawing of a future city which has been kindly sent along today by Mike Co of the Clean Air Initiative for our contemplation (see his note

And since the underlying text is a bit difficult to read, here is what the authors had to say back in 1925 about their future cities, only 25 years out:

How you may live and travel in the city of 1950.
"Future city streets, says Mr. Corbett, will be in four levels: The top level for pedestrians; the next lower level for slow motor traffic; the next for fast motor traffic, and the lowest for electric trains. Great blocks of terraced skyscrapers half a mile high will house offices, schools, homes, and playgrounds in successive levels, while the roofs will be airplane landing fields, according to the architect's plan."

Haw haw. Well perhaps not. When was the last time you checked out Dubai?

And since bad ideas die hard, let's have a look at the latest issue of that same journal (now somehow appropriately relabeled "Popscicom"), where this time they offer up their vision of "The plan for tomorrow's mega city, which they currently target 2030.

Here, we the innocent readers are told, "We present the most visionary ideas by scientists, engineers and designers to make the cities of the future what they were meant to be all along: sustainable". To which they add in their transportation vision "an eco-savvy blueprint that points the way to fresh air, clean water, and traffic that never jams".

You can check it out at, where you will see that their future city's transportation system keys on the marvels of MIT's PodCar, driverless buses, energy highways ("Save energy by driving faster" – nice!). and – whoopee – PRT in the form of "Maglev Skytrains". ("Le plus ça change, le plus c'est la même chose", translating roughly to "will they never learn?"

After a summer weekend of marvel, we can get back to the serous work at hand on Monday morning.

Eric Britton, Editor

PS. And should you be coming to Paris in the next month, there is an exhibit in the Centre Pompidou entitled "Dreamlands" which in my view is no less unpleasant than either of the above but which may be worth a visit nonetheless. The basic idea is set out in these words from the exhibit program which you can view at

"The dreamlands of the leisure society have shaped the imagination, nourishing both utopian dreams and artistic productions. But they have also become realities : the pastiche, the copy, the artificial and the fictive have become facts of the environment in which real life is led, and they serve as models for understanding and planning the urban fabric and its social life, blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality."

Scary stuff! Come visit. Ride a Velib. Real 21st century century technology that works.

--> Read on:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Gender, Economic Integration and Cross-Border Infrastructure Development

We do not often provide coverage of conferences and their output, however World Streets is strongly  committed to the concept of taking women's needs as the prime target, the defining metric of transport policy and practice in cities and in rural areas.  (If you click to you will be taken to other articles in this W/S series and campaign.)

The International Workshop on Gender, Economic Integration and Cross-border Infrastructure Development aimed to discuss how regional economic integration strengthened by cross-border road networks has a differentiated effect based on gender, ethnicity and class. The workshop was organised in June in Bangkok by the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) Thailand and the Asia-Pacific Regional Secretariat of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD). It was supported by the Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund, ASEAN Foundation, Asian Development Bank and global Transport Knowledge Partnership (gTKP).

Opening speeches were made by:

  • Dr. Filemon A. Uriarte, Jr., Executive Director, ASEAN Foundation

  • Mr. Tomoyuki Sakairi, First Secretary of Embassy of Japan

  • Ms. Sonomi Tanaka, Principal Social Development Specialist (Gender & Development), ADB

  • Prof. S. Rakshit , Vice President - Research, AIT

  • Mr. Ranjith de Silva, Regional Coordinator of the IFRTD Asia and Pacific Secretariat.

  • Dr. Kyoko Kusakabe described the outline of the workshop and a research study on gender carried out in the Mekong Region.

The workshop was conducted in two parallel Panels, in which all the presentations were categorised in the three themes below.

  1. Transportation development and gendered mobility.

  2. Transportation development and its social and gender impact.

  3. Cross border trade and transportation development.

The final plenary of the workshop was a Panel discussion moderated by Ranjith de Silva, IFRTD Asia-Pacific Regional Coordinator.

Members of the Panel:

  • Ms. Nite Tanzarn (IFRTD Board Member) from Uganda.

  • Ms. Sonomi Tanaka, Principal Social Development Specialist (Gender & Transport) of the ADB

  • Mr. Upali Pannilage. Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, university of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

The following issues and facts were taken up at the Panel discussion by the panelists and participants.

  • Impacts of transport interventions on the earning power of women.

  • Amount of gender disaggregated data made available from the Mekong Regional study. There was concern regarding the efficiency on the dissemination of baseline data of the Mekong research.

  • Benefits of being closer to the intervention/border/bridge.

  • Evidence of impacts needs to be delivered to relevant policy makers.

  • The research and workshop outcomes should be shared with technical practitioner (e.g. engineers, planners) to enable them to mainstream social issues in their plans.

  • The papers presented at the workshop can be categorised in to three aspects:

    • Direct relevancy to Gender and common to many countries in the region.

    • How to internalise this data into our work.

    • Some papers discussed facts within specific contexts and hence some issues in the sector were left out.

  • Need for gender specific and gender neutral projects.

  • Participation of beneficiaries at planning levels.

  • No updating of good studies carried out earlier there is a need to look at the emergence of different gender needs due various social and economic changes in the present day context.

  • Gender is not just about women.

  • We need to encourage a wider audience thinking about gender and transport issues.

  • The transport sector appears to have changed the gender roles.

Moving forward:

  1. Influencing and lobbying should not be stopped.

  2. Invest in research that in turn is an investment in policy changes.

  3. Further strengthening the gender analytical capacities.

  4. Do not store the research findings and evidence but use them.

  5. Gender is a subject to be included in university curricula.

  6. How to do the “updating” of data?

The full papers presented at the workshop can be accessed here:

The Power Point presentations and full proceedings will soon be available at the IFRTD and AIT websites respectively at and

--> Read on:

Why Free Public Transport is a bad idea?!? (v. 1.1)

There are a number of proponents around the world for the idea that public transport should be free. And if we here at World Streets have some thoughts of our own on the subject, we also think it is always very important to check out both sides of the issues. Just below, you will find four short statements setting out arguments against FPT, and we are interested in hearing from our readers and colleagues around the world both (a) their comments on these criticisms and (b) yet other critical views. In later issues we will look at this from more positive sides, but with the intention of developing a range of views and recommendations on this important topic. Today however, we want to hear from you about the downside. Let's have a look at what we have thus far (and please do take the time to review the comments just below which enrich this first draft considerably):

(You will find extensive comments and additional information on this article at

The fact that most public transport is not "zero-fare" is evidence that there are arguments against this policy option. Some of these arguments include:

1. Fairness. Some people's transport needs may not be well-served by the public transport network, and yet they (as tax-payers) are forced to contribute to the cost of the service. At least in ideal economic models, user-pays systems lead to the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. Could the cost of paying for the public transport be better spent elsewhere?

2. Financial sustainability. Any extension or improvement to the public transport service must be fully funded from the public purse: being free, it cannot recover part of its cost from increased farebox revenue. As patronage on the system increases, so does the cost of provision. This may create resistance to measures to improve public transport or promote public transport use.

3. Crowding. Fares can be used to moderate demand. If cheaper fares are available off-peak, then people with more flexibility have an incentive to travel at off-peak times. This results in more effective use of limited resources. (Demand management is also used in telecommunications and energy markets.) It could be anticipated that a free service would be particularly crowded at peak times.

4. Impact on car industry. Greater public transport means that people use fewer cars; as a result, car manufacturers and service providers (e.g. mechanics, gas stations, etc.) can go out of business.

Source of the four above comments:

# # #

Thank you for pitching in on this side of the debate. Of course we are also interested to hear from you with other comments and suggestions on this important transport policy issue. (See for an earlier World Streets article on this topic. Also:

--> Read on:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Highway of the future? (Give them more rope.)

Again and we have to ask you to believe us dear readers, we're definitely not anti-car -- but sometimes a low-IQ high car-favoring project proposal pops up that puts the case in such flagrant terms that it just screams for attention. Which we are now if not exactly pleased at least prepared to share with you.

--> Read on:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Car Crazy: The Perils of Asia’s Hyper-Motorization

We need to be quite frank about this. World Streets is not, even if it may at times appear to be the case, an anti-car journal. To the contrary! There are many reasons for this, one of them being the sheer good sense of understanding that it's going to be kind of hard to get rid of something like one billion of them with a simple swing of righteous rhetoric. And not to forget that cars really do play a powerful and useful role under many circumstances in the daily lives of many honest hard-working people. But the other side of this good sense coin is awareness that our very high and even cascading level of car dependence and profligate use are major challenges to quality of life, health and sound economics that need to be faced squarely and soon. Let's see what our long time colleague "Mr. Meter", Lee Shipper of the Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, has to say on the subject of car-madness in Asia.

Asia’s love of vehicles is chokingly and noisily apparent. The number on the roads seems to rise inexorably, so fast in many places that it far outstrips the ability of governments to plan roads and infrastructure for them. But Asian nations desperate to find ways to cope with the clogged roads and foul air in their cities should not despair, says transport scientist Lee Schipper. Asian car ownership overall is tiny compared with the US and Europe. With the right planning and bold vision, it is possible to reclaim the streets and find more sustainable and more efficient transport systems.

Asia is crazy about its wheels. China’s Geely Automobile is set to buy Volvo as auto sales in China boom. In India, Tata Motor has rolled out the Nano, a mini-car for the middle class, while Japan’s Honda sells top-of-the-line two-wheelers in Vietnam. Even rural Laos and Cambodia are abuzz with motorcycles. The world’s most populous region is taking to the road, and many are overjoyed. Motorcycle or motorcar, personal vehicles are a pillar of development and for many a way to escape poverty. But are rapid increases in vehicle ownership a solution to poverty, or are they leading Asia, particularly its cities, to even greater problems? Will Asia’s wheels grind to a halt? The answer is that for many Asian cities, wheels already have ground to a halt.

The rapid increases in Asian motorization are no surprise to those of us who study transport. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s “Sustainable Mobility” project, backed by a host of major auto and oil companies, foresaw this boom. Concerned about the impact on both carbon dioxide emissions and the oil market, the group’s 2003 report, “Mobility 2030: Meeting the Challenges to Sustainability,” recommended that the developing world adopt strategies already in use in the West, such as road pricing, vehicle emissions controls, better highways and car pooling as a way to cope with an inevitable rise in vehicle numbers.

More recent work by the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects more rapid growth in vehicle ownership in Asia, but it has sounded alarms. Will Asians be better off with far more cars than today?

The problem is not individual transportation itself — i.e. vehicle ownership. Rather, it is what I call hyper-motorization, which occurs when individual vehicle ownership rises so fast that authorities cannot cope with the associated problems — traffic fatalities, air pollution, congestion and noise — or more subtle yet difficult issues such as when whole sections of cities are cut off from pedestrian and cycle traffic by the kind of congested highway networks familiar to anyone who has tried to take a stroll through downtown Jakarta, Metro Manila or other mega cities.

Why is Asia Different?
On the surface, Asia should have a sustainable transport system. Urban transport across the region is mostly by bus, foot, bicycle or two-wheeler. But when all of this motion is focused in cities, the challenge of sustainable transport becomes particularly acute. First, there are about 200 cities in Asia with populations over a million and thousands with populations over 100,000. In short, Asia is crowded. But the wealth of Asia’s economies is also concentrated in its cities, and with that comes the ability to own individual vehicles.

Finally, the infrastructure required to support present and future generations of vehicles is also concentrated in urban areas. But in Asia’s big cities, the amount of road space per person, per car or per square meter is often only a quarter to a half of what it is in the US or Europe. That means Asian cities often face massive traffic congestion even though fewer than 20 percent of all trips in cities are taken in cars, and car ownership levels are well below 100 cars per 1,000 people. In comparison, more than half of all trips in European cities are made in cars, and car ownership levels are around 300-500 cars per 1,000 people. In the US, 80 percent of city trips are made in automobiles, and car ownership is over 600 per 1,000 people.

But it took the US and Europe several decades to reach this level, while in Asia it is happening much faster, in part because per capita incomes and urban populations are growing so much more rapidly than was the case in the US or Europe. Indeed, in much of Asia today, middle class urbanites have gone from walking to cycling to riding buses to running their own car or motorcycle within a generation. Few cities have been able to create either the policies or the physical infrastructure to provide fast, efficient, clean public transportation for the majority of people without letting the rise in private vehicles intrude — this is true even in such cities as Hong Kong and Seoul, where the mass transit systems are excellent but traffic congestion remains a problem.

Most national and local governments in Asia have embraced development that favors the small minority in cars, to the detriment of the sizeable minority on motorcycles and the majority still walking, peddling or riding buses. This American-style development, in which individuals outrun collective transport, rarely gives alternatives a chance. Through what amounts to a vicious cycle, each family has an increasingly strong incentive to acquire individual means of transport, which clogs the streets and pollutes the air even more. Those left behind move ever more slowly. Increasingly, the real costs of transportation are imposed on the majority by the minority. The urban landscape evolves towards even more car-oriented development and urban transport becomes unsustainable.

Sustainable Transport: Not Just About Energy and CO2
Sustainable transport is not merely a throwaway phase. The World Bank defines three components of ST — social, economic and environmental sustainability. In simple terms, the United Nations’ definition of sustainability calls for not passing on real costs and damages (what economists call “externalities”) to others or to future generations — this includes damage to present generations in the form of high death rates from air pollution or road accidents or harm to future generations in the form of CO2 emissions. But even the direct costs of building roads or other transport facilities, particularly in congested areas, are not currently passed on to those who use the facilities. In a sense, Asia has learned from the US how to create a kind of automotive Ponzi scheme, in which roads are built, and when they fill up, more roads are built, without making those who need and use more road capacity pay for that capacity.

Transport can only be sustainable if governments develop rules for both travelers and the transport industry, define the economic boundaries through licensing and other means so that private and public operators can run safe, clean and fast collective transport systems, and enforce safety and environmental standards. Through most of the 1990s and the early part of the past decade, governance in this area was lacking. This was particularly true where common sense would call for higher fuel prices, measures to limit individual vehicle use in very congested areas, standards on emissions and fuel quality and, equally important, access to public transport for poor and non-motorized middle-class citizens.

What is the worst of these “externalities” depends on who you are. I met a businessman from Jakarta once who was incensed that the city had taken away lanes from car traffic to permit exclusive bus traffic, arguing that his time was valuable, and implicitly that the time of the hundreds of thousands who move rapidly on the TransJakarta Busway had no value. He, riding in his air-conditioned car with a driver, breathes better air and has better accident protection than the vast numbers of motorcyclists, bus riders, pedestrians or brave souls on bicycles. And anyone who has tried to cross Jalan Thamrin in central Jakarta during the day knows how difficult it is to walk even in the “nicest” parts of the city. My friend aside, the worst burden of unsustainable transport falls on the poor and lower middle class, not because of their direct expenditures, but because of the larger costs to their health, safety and time.

Some argue that air pollution is a problem that has technological solutions. Yet technologies to address the problems, while relatively affordable, have only recently been required by the majority of Asia’s local and national governments. But when governments insist on clean fuels and vehicles, this raises costs and always meets objections from private or state vehicle makers and fuel suppliers who lobby, usually with success, for exemptions and delays.

Thus, most of the problems of sustainable transport are related to policies and economics — i.e., governance. In simple terms, transport itself is underpriced — both the cost of roads and fuel. Few governments in Asia are willing to face down drivers, transport companies or increasingly powerful automobile manufacturers. And with almost any sidewalk open for parking, vehicle owners don’t even bear the cost of displacing pedestrians at will. Space on the road is underpriced, except in Singapore where electronic road pricing has made a substantial difference in traffic. With the cost of both individual vehicles and infrastructure cheap in most of Asia, it is no wonder there is a boom in the sales of two-wheelers and cars.

How Do We Know What Is Sustainable Transport?
There is no absolute level of sustainable transport. But experts can tell improvement from deterioration. A project I led — the Partnership for Sustainable Urban Transport in Asia (PSUTA), sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency and the Clean-Air Initiative Asia, based in Manila — worked with leading transport and environmental authorities and experts in Pune, India; Hanoi, Vietnam and Xi’an, China to help develop quantitative indicators of congestion, air pollution, fatalities and other problems arising from transport.

When we started in 2004, one city, I won’t name which, had only intermittent sampling of air quality. A sample deemed indicative of pollution from traffic was collected as a bag of air once every even-numbered month. A foreign bilateral assistance agency — again, I won’t say which — donated money for a lab to measure air pollution emissions from cars and two-wheelers, but there was no money to actually get a representative sample of vehicles and measure them. In another city, the main transport consultants had a great survey of travel patterns, but they had never asked themselves what people spend in terms of money or time to get to work. It was not so much that there was no data, rather that officials had never shared information or figured out what they needed to know. One of the leading transport planners in Xi’an told me, “I never thought about sustainable transport before.” Thanks to the PSUTA project in these cities, authorities, experts and civil society cooperate in a much more quantitative way today than before.

Our team let the officials in these three cities do the talking and ask the questions. Our role was to show them how to build tools to measure the consequences of their planning decisions and policies. As a result of the project, Pune in now engaged in a serious effort to strengthen its bus system, while Hanoi and Xia’n are building bus rapid transit systems (similar to the TransJakarta Busway) and rail/metro systems. Most importantly, authorities in all three cities have learned how to think about interconnected urban systems, not just roads, rails, motors and tires.

Sustainable transport is more than just a problem of mobility and vehicles; it is also one of land use and urban and rural development. As Asian cities expand in response to hyper-motorization, shops and homes are moved to make way for more road space, ironically forcing more homes, jobs and shopping to the urban fringes served mostly by, yes, individual transport. Examples include the satellite city of Gurgaon outside of New Delhi, which seems to be India’s first edge city — or the many “campuses” of Fortune 500 companies outside of Bangalore, with poor transport to and fro. The burgeoning sprawl of Beijing, whose sixth ring road opened fully to traffic in September 2009, and other Chinese cities, meanwhile, portend even greater shifts in land use. Among Asian cities, only Singapore and to some extent Hong Kong recognized this fate — Singapore early on — and found it possible to adjust urban development.

When policies address these transport problems, one benefit is that fuel use and CO2 emissions are lower than otherwise. This is because better transport ultimately means less use of cars and two-wheelers, better utilization of existing and new transit systems and more and safer access for pedestrian and bicycles. Technology can reduce the fuel use and CO2 emitted when a vehicle moves a kilometer, but smart, people-friendly cities reduce long travel distances that require motorized transport. Indeed, it’s not mobility measured in daily kilometers traveled that counts, but rather access to friends, parks, jobs and services that matter. Unfortunately, few Asian cities today are being shaped for people.

The crux of the policy dilemma for urban and non-urban transport, both for travel and freight, is that transport is woefully underpriced. Covering distances by motorized means for those who can afford it is too cheap, while ironically, for the lower middle class, transport to and from work is expensive because it is so poorly organized. Fuel is underpriced and poor in quality, vehicles and their emissions systems are not well maintained and in many countries not well built in the first place. The impression among the public is that vehicles and fuels must be had now, on the cheap, and that somehow the resulting problems will rectify themselves later. Experience, however, shows that this leads to a decades-long vicious cycle that can only be reversed at great cost. One reason is the investment in vehicles and technologies, but the other is the evolution of land use as if cheap transport would always be available. Unfortunately, Asia knows now that the real cost of transport is much higher than what individuals pay.

When urban density is extremely high, as in China and many other parts of Asia, metropolitan rapid transit makes sense both from an economic standpoint and as an element of a total transport system. They are also irresistible politically, particularly when built with other peoples’ money. But when that money only finances the metro itself and not good access to stations, in the long run there is little change in surface traffic.

With the opening of the Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed rail (HSR) line, China has shown that HSR might make inter-city driving and even air travel obsolete, if the country can build stable corridors between the large cities that HSR connects. When Japan first introduced the “bullet train” in 1964, there were about the same number of cars per 1,000 inhabitants as there are in China today. But China introduced HSR when it had a lower per capita income than Japan at that time, so in a sense, this represents a leapfrog in planning. The same corridors created by HSR could serve markets and bring needed transportation to surrounding rural areas where the delivery of goods is currently dominated by polluting diesel trucks or some combination of two- and three-wheelers — and in some cases, even on foot.

The important lesson is that when transport is considered as a system that involves urban and rural areas and not just individual modes separate from overall land use, access is better assured than if huge sums are spent on isolated projects. Various transport modes must be molded into a system suited for people.

The other lesson, which is good news for Asia, is subtly hidden in all the data about vehicle usage. With so few automobiles per 1,000 inhabitants compared to the US and Europe, Asia is not irreversibly bound to an automobile nightmare. It can still choose another course.

What Asia Needs to Do
For the most part, Asia can still choose to avoid an unsustainable transport future if local and national authorities act now. Or they can continue on the present path, but before doing so, leaders should visit Latin America to see the chaos on unprepared streets when car ownership reaches 100 per 1,000 inhabitants, and motorcycle ownership is even higher. This bleak reality is already well known in Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta and many other mega-cities in Asia.

But that future is not inevitable. Seoul, for example, has shown that a shift is possible, with good outcomes. China, too, has shown that improvements such as newly implemented fuel economy standards can have a noticeable impact. Money is actually the least of the problems. It is tempting to think otherwise, because metros and other systems are expensive. But my view is that these cost far less overall than the unreasonable path of expanding road infrastructure and allowing the rapid acquisition of millions of private vehicles. While some funding assistance is important to demonstrate the overall sustainability of collective transport, policies that restrain individual vehicle use are even more important, and they tend to save money. They are risky and costly politically, however, which is why funds are needed to finance public transit demonstration projects. The danger is that when a flood of other peoples’ money is spent on transit systems, the real costs of transport will be invisible and the vicious cycle that spurs inefficient vehicle growth will continue.

Fortunately, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral organizations seem to have finally understood that money alone does not buy sustainable transport: the political will must be there to enact strong policies, as the ADB and World Bank have recently said strongly. Moreover, civic and business groups have also called for more sustainable transport policies. In Manila, the Clean Air Initiative Asia has organized various actions, and called for stronger environmental standards in every Asian country and all major urban areas.

In individual countries, civic groups such as the Pune Transport and Traffic Forum or EMBARQ in India, Pelangi in Indonesia or the Energy Foundation in China have sprung up to mobilize a wide group of stakeholders in the debate over transport policy. Some multinational oil and auto companies, meanwhile, have seen the writing on the wall and have begun supporting cleaner vehicles and fuels. Bus manufacturers are bringing out affordable hybrid buses that both cut local pollution and use less fuel, thus reducing CO2 emissions. In other words, the ingredients for sustainable transport are in place in many Asian nations and cities.

Will leaders steer a new course? It is unclear. The high end of my own previous projections for car ownership in China actually underestimated 2010 ownership, while the introduction of the Nano in India appears poised to boost an already high growth-rate of cars. But the determination of the Chinese government to act locally, as well as the efforts in India by the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission’s national fund for better urban transport, suggests more leaders are seeing the successes of places like Seoul as a good sign. A billboard I saw by the SkyTrain path in Bangkok advertising a huge new apartment building, boasted of its location “along the sky train.” That tells me that the interests that control land use and urban sprawl have begun to get the message.

Our role as “experts” remains the same. We should not to say what is “right” for others, but help them sort out the consequences of their own choices. We need to help Asian leaders plan for better “choices” than what is currently on offer. This can help leaders change course by uncovering what their people really want and are willing to pay for. The challenge really is one of leading and making decisions. The rest is easy.

# # #

About the author:
Lee Schipper is Project Scientist with Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and Research Engineer at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, Stanford University. He has authored over 100 technical papers and a number of books on energy economics, environment and transportation around the world. Previously, he was Director of Research for EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute (WRI) Center for Sustainable Transport, which he helped found in April 2002. The views he expresses here are solely personal. (This article was originally published by Global Asia, Journal of the Asia Foundation and is published here with the permission of the author under World Streets Fair Use provision -

--> Read on: