More than half of the world's seven billion inhabitants live in cities—a figure that is projected to grow to 66% by 2050. And as our urban centres grow, so too does the demand for more efficient means of moving the people who live in them. We talked to 11 urban planners, economists, business leaders and big thinkers for their vision on creating the cities of the future.
Chair of the non-profit group 8-80 Cities and former commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for Bogotá, Colombia
“There’s no major city in the world that has solved the issue of mobility through the private car. None. And the only way to move people is through public transportation. For that, we need to improve buses. Wherever you see a traffic jam, that’s where you should have dedicated bus lanes. And people need to be able to walk to the station. We’re not going to be able to get people out of their cars unless transit is cheaper, faster, more convenient or all of the above.”
New York isn’t known for its friendly streets, but as transportation commissioner under ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan made them a lot more welcoming. Many of the changes were controversial at first, but public support grew. The shift showed that, to the surprise of some, removing space for vehicles needn’t worsen congestion. And making life easier for cyclists can help local businesses. Now a principal at the former mayor’s consultancy, Bloomberg Associates, Sadik-Khan tells us how she brings the lessons of New York to the world.
"Over seven years, we added almost 400 miles of bike lanes to New York City streets to create a true cycling network. On top of that, we launched CitiBike, the largest and most popular bike-share system in the United States. It was really the first new transportation system in New York in 60 years, and it’s already become a permanent part of the city fabric. We also built 60 pedestrian plazas across all five boroughs and reworked hundreds of corridors and intersections. Our streets are safer than they’ve ever been.
The health of the city’s economy is linked to the health of a city’s streets—we saw proof in numbers. We saw really impressive growth in retail sales by local-run businesses, up 172% in the more walkable parts of Brooklyn. Commercial vacancies near Union Square dropped 49% when public space was added. And closing part of Times Square to cars boosted safety while increasing overall vehicle travel speeds in the area.
In the global race to build safer and more sustainable communities, cities that don’t innovate and give people choices will be left at the starting line.
No two cities are exactly alike, but we now have the opportunity to show what worked in New York. You know, tailor it to meet the needs of a particular city. If we can introduce world-class streets to New York, Toronto and Calgary and Ottawa can too.
It takes new thinking to change streets, though. And in a lot of places, streets have been the same for so long that people have forgotten what’s possible. The attraction to the status quo is incredibly powerful and you really need to show people something even stronger to break that bond."
A Danish architect and public space guru whose firm has worked on projects in cities around the world
“Canadian cities have been too influenced by American city planning, which until recently was nothing to brag about. There has been too much focus on the automobile. In Copenhagen, the strategy is to be a good city for people. It has to do with the physical design of the streets. People are amazed at what they see here: Things have been getting better for 50 years, and that is a feat. You Canadians can do it, for God’s sake.”
Chief information officer of Boston
In a previous life, Jascha Franklin-Hodge worked on the digital strategy for Barack Obama’s two presidential runs. Today, he’s trying to breathe new life into the way Boston deals with an age-old annoyance—traffic management. In January, the city teamed up with Uber to try and use the data the company collects to solve some of its traffic woes. The following month, Boston partnered with Waze, a Google-owned traffic app that collects congestion data from its millions of users.
We took the Waze feed and integrated it with our Geographic Information Systems platform to create a map that can be viewed inside the city’s traffic management centre.
It allows the people who control the signal system to see where there are incidents that they may need to respond to. For example, Waze may notify them that there’s a broken-down truck blocking a lane on a particular street. If they have a camera in the area that they can access, they can say, Okay, I see what’s going on, I’m going to extend the green cycle on the light ahead of this truck.
Roadways are used by buses, cyclists, private vehicles. And now there are things like Uber and Lyft, and while they’re not public transportation in the traditional sense, they are part of the transportation network. In some ways we’re catching up on the data front for more traditional road users, because the public transit system has been providing detailed route and service data for years.
Researchers around the globe are in a race to develop intelligent traffic signals to manage traffic woes. Norwegian artificial intelligence expert Anders Kofod-Petersen is one of them: He built a prototype using the camera from an Xbox lying around his lab in Trondheim and says the device will ease traffic congestion, helping to reduce pollution from idling engines, and discourage jaywalking.
I get annoyed when I drive to an intersection and I get a red and there’s no pedestrian for miles. Why do I have to sit here, waiting for this invisible pedestrian? Our signal looks at the body language of people near the traffic light. We look at certain points on a pedestrian—their hips, shoulders and gaze direction—and calculate a predicted path. If this path indicates that the pedestrian wants to cross the street, we know that. We track these people moving about and do calculations that inform the system that here are, let’s say, seven pedestrians who have the intention of crossing the road. And that will go into the scheduling system, which will also know something about how many cars are about. And then the decision is made to give the green to the pedestrians or to the cars. We are also interested in knowing how long we should keep the green light for the pedestrians. If it is some young sporty guy who runs, he needs the green for five seconds, but if old Mrs. Johnson is arriving with her wheeled walker, she probably needs slightly more time. So we are also trying to classify these pedestrians—are they children or old?—so we can adjust the length of the green-red cycle. There’s no way we can actually solve traffic. But we can make it better.
Executive director of overseas affairs for JR East
In the 1980s, state-owned Japan Railways was wheezing under mounting debt and ridership was stagnating. In a bold experiment, the Japanese government spun off the railway assets into several private companies, the biggest of which was East Japan Railway, known as JR East. Freed of the state’s shackles, JR East became a lean, hyper-competitive transit corporation—it launched new routes, slashed travel times and made transit hubs ultra-efficient. Before “there was no competition or competitors, so there was no competitive spirit,” says Takao Nishiyama, the company’s executive director of overseas affairs. The company now moves an astounding 17 million passengers per day through Tokyo’s spotless subway network and aboard the Shinkansen bullet trains—although they travel at 320 kilometres per hour, not one has recorded an accident since operations began more than four decades ago.
The president of condo developer Knightsbridge Homes is proposing to build a pair of condo buildings in Calgary with no resident parking. This would be the first such development in Alberta and is politically sensitive enough that city council would have to approve it this spring. Opponents are calling the plan unrealistic, but Starkman counters that he’s tapping into a worldwide trend—and he’s able to offer a cheaper product since underground parking stalls in downtown Calgary cost about $60,000 to build.
“We’re looking at the Y generation—the first in decades where a car is not their first priority. It doesn’t even rank in the top five.”
Senior managing consultant, Smarter Cities, Water and Transportation at IBM
Jean-François Barsoum helps cities co-ordinate the flow of information from traffic cameras, road sensors and public transit networks. Lyon and some other French cities are adopting the system that helps crunch the data and beam real-time information to users on their smartphones. You could take the subway to the end of the line and then you could take a cab. Or you could take a bike to the train station and then you could take the train. And because of the access to all the information—including how many parking spots there are for electric vehicles, if the trains are running late and if there is a road blockage—people can actually take all of this into account. If there’s a delay, the system will alert you and say the mode you thought you were going to take to the airport won’t work for you any more. It will also do predictions. There’s historical data which says that at 4 o’clock it usually looks like this, but it will also take in existing conditions and say, based on what it looks like now, here’s what we think it is going to look like. It will actually think ahead: Every time there is an incident or a change in what’s happening on the highways, the system will let you know.
Urban planner and economist
Donald Shoup is a rock star—probably the only rock star—in the world of parking policy. The radically commonsensical ideas in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking have inspired a cadre of self-declared Shoupistas in cities around the world who want to apply the laws of supply and demand to on-street parking.
Tell me about your study of the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Westwood, where you found an astronomical amount of cruising for parking.
It’s a 15-block area and, over a year, we estimated that it amounted to about 915,000 vehicle miles travelled. That’s equivalent to four trips to the moon, or 36 trips around the Earth. It was 50 cents an hour at the meters, but the cheapest off-street parking was about $2—and often you get a similar ratio in other cities. If you look at the garage, it might be $10 for the first hour, $2 on the street. So the city is telling you to cruise. They did the same study in New York and found similar results. In San Francisco, they’ve tried out variable pricing in a big way over the last three years—the cost changes depending on location, time of day and day of the week—and it cut the time of cruising in half.
This makes me think of the Seinfeld episode where George wants a free spot. Why does parking make us crazy?
Just what George said: “I never pay for parking. Paying for parking is like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, if when I apply myself, maybe I can get it for free?” Well, of course that’s what people are doing.
The former environmental adviser to London Mayor Boris Johnson is now head of urban development at Siemens AG, whose technology is used to ding drivers £11.50 ($22) for motoring into the city centre. A new proposal would see central London become an ultralow-emissions zone by 2020. Large older trucks would face a £100 ($190) daily charge, and cars more than 13 years old would be fined £12.50 ($24) daily.
“There are health studies that show around 4,000 people die prematurely every year from poor air quality in London. And if that’s the case in London, I can tell you now that in Beijing and Moscow, it’s going to be a lot higher than that. If you are only going to punish the big dirty wagons initially and disincentivize those, then politically you are not going to upset too many people. Then, year on year, you can tighten up the standard, bit by bit. ”
Professor, Stockholm’s Centre for Transport Studies
On Jan. 2, 2006—the morning before Stockholm introduced a €2 congestion charge—the bridges leading into the city centre were jammed with cars. On Jan. 3, however, traffic flowed freely, thanks to the 20% of drivers who kept their cars off the road. Eliasson helped launch the program.
Why was the charge so successful?
First, we already knew that economic policies affect behaviour, and that the effect is bigger if the prices are really visible. One of the things we did in Stockholm was that we had a big electronic sign over the road reminding people that they really were paying a charge, even though they didn’t get a bill until the end of the month.
And people had more alternatives than we appreciated—not only public transportation, but also in terms of departure times, other destinations, carpooling. Each of these effects were relatively small—the number of vdrivers going to public transportation was less than 10%, but when you added up 5% going to other departure times, 3% going to carpooling and so on, you reach this almost magical figure of more than 20%.
How did drivers feel about it?
The benefits were so large that people started to like it—which I don’t think many people had counted on. Before, just 20% or 25% of voters were in favour. After a year, 70% or 75% of voters were in favour.
So, why are politicians so afraid of these kinds of charges?
I think many politicians underestimate that people will get used to almost any kind of change rather quickly. Once the charge was in place, we asked people in Stockholm if they had changed their behaviour—and it turned out most of them weren’t even aware they had changed.
How do you translate Stockholm’s experience into advice for others?
It depends on what your particular congestion problems look like. When I ask that question, the response I get most often is, “We have congestion everywhere and all the time.” But most cities have worse congestion around the city centre and on a couple of highways, and typically during rush hours. And so what you do is to put a price on the most severe bottlenecks—the junctions or ramps that cause these queues, which build up and lock other junctions. Just putting a price on these places can help quite a lot.