Around the globe the urban transportation sector is experiencing rapid expansion, driven by economic growth and a global demographic shift towards urbanisation. Politicians, urban planners and private sector actors are working together to find new solutions for reducing congestion and increasing the speed and efficiency of urban transport. However, unless proactive steps are taken to plan and invest in well-executed infrastructure, urban mobility can deteriorate.
Urban mobility has become a critical quality-of-life issue worldwide, due to rising migration to urban centres and the emergence of mega-cities. According to the UN, 4.2bn people, or 55.3% of the world’s population, lived in urban areas in 2018. Despite its relatively lower level of urbanisation, at around 50%, Asia is home to 54% of the world’s urban population. Furthermore, nine of the world’s top-10 mega-cities are located in Asia, with the world’s three largest cities – Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai – collectively housing over 92m people in 2018.
In Latin America, São Paulo and Mexico City each house more than 20m residents, with the latter’s population increasing from 13m in 1980 to over 21.6m in 2018. In Africa, Lagos’ population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2018 to 13.5m people, and Cairo has just over 20m residents. In the coming decades these mega-cities, along with other large cities – such as Istanbul, Paris, Moscow, Bangkok and Tehran – will play a critical role in developing new urban mobility solutions. Compact urban areas are also seeing significant growth. Austin in the US saw its population rise from around 675,000 in 2000 to nearly 1.9m in 2018. Smaller urban areas will also need to find new ways to address evolving transport needs.
Challenges & Potential
It will be crucial for governments to address the major negative side effects of growing urban populations. In Latin America cars and motorcycles generate more than two-thirds of all CO₂ emissions in urban areas. On a worldwide level, air pollution is expected to cause 6.6m deaths per year by 2050, according to research from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. On a global level, policymakers, city planners and the private sector are collaborating to reduce congestion and pollution, while allowing residents to move quickly and easily throughout urban spaces. New urban transport networks are combining access for passenger vehicles, metro and bus systems, bicycles, and new means of transportation such as app-based scooters and electric bicycles.
“Cities need to rethink urban transport systems to enable safe and connected networks between traditional transit, pedestrians and cyclists,” Claudia Glen, a transport consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank, told OBG. “Streets are valuable public spaces, and cities need to reimagine how to allocate that space in a more equitable way.”
Urban residents continue to rely heavily on privately owned vehicles, and vehicle ownership has grown exponentially in emerging economies over the last two decades. Worldwide, the number of cars in use is expected to exceed 2bn by 2040, according to investment research firm Bernstein. Much of this will be driven by new vehicle purchases by the burgeoning middle class in emerging markets, including India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. By 2025 the 600 largest cities in the developing world are expected to house 235m middle-class households earning an average annual wage of over $20,000 per year, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
For example, Indonesia has a population of around 260m, but a car ownership rate of just 4%, according to figures from Pew Research Centre. Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta, a city with a population of 10.5m, is already overburdened by traffic. It is also one of the fastest-growing cities in terms of new car ownership and already ranks as one of the world’s most congested cities, with vehicle emissions accounting for 70% of urban air pollution. On average, drivers in Jakarta spend 184 hours per year stuck in traffic, incurring around $7.1bn in economic losses. Traffic congestion is also a major challenge in other urban areas, such as Mexico City, which is the world’s most congested city. Nearly half of all residents own cars, with 4.7m cars registered in Mexico City and an additional 5.1m registered in the surrounding Mexico State, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI).
After the UN ranked Mexico City as the world’s most polluted city in 1992, officials worked to improve emissions standards for vehicles and provide alternative transportation. The introduction of requirements for catalytic converters and other emissions controls helped cut the amount of lead in the air by 90% and the levels of particulate matter by 70% between 1990 and 2010, although the city still needs to reduce congestion and lower CO₂ emissions. Other cities around the world are also confronting the challenge of congestion. In Algiers there are now more than 300,000 cars operating on a road system that was originally designed to handle 40,000. Meanwhile, there are nearly 7m registered vehicles in Saudi Arabia, about one-third of which are registered in Riyadh, the most-congested city in the Middle East. Riyadh’s population is expected to rise from 6.5m to 8.3m by 2030.
In addition, many mega-cities across the globe have experienced significant increases in motorcycle usage. In Mexico City motorcycle ownership increased from just under 294,000 in 2000 to over 3.5m in 2017, according to INEGI. “The motorcycle market is relatively new in Mexico; it is growing slowly but has not yet become part of the lifestyle like in other countries,” Fernando Zapata, the director general of Grupo Zapata, told OBG. India is the world’s biggest market for motorcycles and scooters. For example, residents of Bangalore – a city whose population grew from under 5.6m in 2000 to nearly 11.4m in 2018 – now own nearly 5m motorcycles and scooters. Motorcycles and scooters now make up 70% of city’s vehicles. While the adoption of electric vehicles could help decrease air pollution, it still does not address the congestion problem. Thus, long-term solutions are likely to be driven by public transport.
In some major cities metro rail lines form the central pillar of the public transport system. The metro system in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul transports 7m passengers per day over 1600 km of track. The system includes nine lines, eight of which are operated jointly by the city council-owned Seoul Metro and Korea Railroad Corporation, the state-owned rail company. Additionally, Line 9 is run as a joint venture between local private firm Hyundai Rotem and international public transport firm RATP Dev Transdev Asia. The city also has a commuter rail linking the central station to Seoul’s new international airports.
Seoul has set a high standard for urban mass transit, and global governments are looking to catch up. City planners in Algeria inaugurated the country’s first metro line in the city of Algiers in 2011 and in 2018 added two metro lines and two new tram lines. Algiers now has 17 metro stations, which carried between 100,000 and 200,000 passengers per day in 2018, according to the Algerian Business Leaders’ Forum. Authorities in Algiers are now planning further extensions to the metro system and a refurbishment of the city’s roads, tramway system and public bus fleet.
Other countries are working to adapt older systems for rapidly expanding populations. In Brazil many of the mass transit systems built in the early 20th century were dismantled between the 1930s and 1970s. Although more than a dozen cities in Brazil have built rail-based public transport networks, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are the only two cities in the country that have fully functional underground metro systems. Municipal authorities are undertaking efforts to improve this system further, with a major extension of the São Paulo metro system earmarked for completion by the end of 2020. The expansion project features 11 new stations along 14.4 km of track with four integrated bus terminals, and has been developed under a public-private partnership supported by the World Bank.
In Jakarta severe congestion has rendered buses slow and inefficient. The centrepiece of the city’s public transport overhaul is a mass rapid transit system. The first phase of the project, which opened in March 2019, comprises 13 stations across 16 km of track, connecting the south of the city to the business district. The $1.2bn project is expected to move 170,000 passengers per day. The second phase of the project, which will extend to the north of the city, is expected to open in 2024. The government hopes that as infrastructure comes on-line, public transport will accommodate 60% of commuters by 2030. Meanwhile, Cairo – the largest city in Africa – was an early adopter of mass transit in the region, opening the first fully fledged metro system on the African continent in 1987, which carries over 4m passengers per day. As part of the country’s Vision 2030 development programme, the government plans to develop a further 180 km of metro lines to accommodate over 7m passengers per day.
Given the relatively recent urbanisation of the Gulf, many cities grew around the prominent use of cars and therefore have limited public transport systems. However, the 21st century has brought a number of key projects to the region. This began with the opening of Dubai’s metro in September 2009, followed by Makkah’s metro, which opened for the Hajj season in 2010. The entirety of the Doha Metro in Qatar gradually came into service between May and December 2019, composed of three lines covering 76 km. There is scope for the addition of another line and the extension of existing lines in the coming years. The Doha Metro is also set to be one of the fastest driverless train systems in the world, with speeds of up to 100 km per hour, and is expected to contribute to a 50% reduction in traffic congestion. An added benefit of the system will be its use for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Qatar during November and December of that year.
Another international event to be held in the region is Expo 2020 in Dubai – which, following the spread of Covid-19, now looks likely to take place from October 2021 through March 2022. To prepare for the increase in events and visitors, the city’s Roads and Transport Authority enacted a 15-km extension to the current metro system, known as Route 2020, which should come on-line in May 2020. Route 2020 will bring the city’s total network to 110 km of metro track, with hopes to extend the network to 421 km by 2030.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, is also in the process of building a $23bn metro system, which is slated to begin operating in late 2020. It will use driverless electric trains running on six lines, covering 176 km of track and connecting 85 stations. Upon completion, the Riyadh Metro is expected to increase the share of residents using public transport from 2% to 20%.
Medellín hosts Colombia’s only rail-based urban mass transit system. The Medellín Metro system includes two intersecting rail lines, four cable car routes, two high-capacity bus lines, a tram route and a complementary system of buses. The rail system connects 27 stations, while the tram service links nine stations. “Public transport is a priority in cities like Medellín,” Humberto Iglesias, the transport minister of Medellín, told OBG. “We are going to keep investing in public transport.”
Despite a series of major delays, the Lagos Rail Mass Transit project is expected to be fully operational by 2022, with seven lines connecting different areas of the city. Upon completion, the system could decrease residents’ average commuting time from two and a half hours to just 37 minutes. In July 2018 the Lagos state government signed an agreement with French infrastructure giant Alstom to finish construction of the system’s blue line, which will connect 13 stations along 27 km of track and carry 400,000 passengers each day.
Mass transit systems that are bus-based provide another critical tool for improving urban mobility. In Latin America, Bogotá, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile have invested heavily in this segment. Bogotá’s TransMilenio articulated bus system was an early pioneer in this regard, with 12 routes spanning more than 114 km as of March 2019. The city’s bus network carries more than 1.7m passengers every day.
Smaller cities are also implementing smart bus systems, many of which incorporate new green technology. In September 2019 Indianapolis introduced an electric bus system and had more than 30, 18-metre buses in operation by the end of the year. Los Angeles – the second-largest city in the US – is in the process of replacing its entire 2200-vehicle bus fleet with electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Riyadh is expanding its bus network to include 956 buses travelling routes spanning over 1000 km. Jakarta has also followed Bogotá’s example by investing in a rapid bus transit system. The 120-mile TransJakarta system carries over 350,000 passengers every day in air-conditioned buses.
Bicycles are also set to play a role in the transport systems of 21st century cities. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are known around the world as bikefriendly cities. Nearly two-thirds of Copenhagen’s residents commute on bicycles, making use of 350 km of dedicated bike lanes. In addition, mid-sized urban areas like Boulder and Montreal are also investing heavily in bike lane infrastructure. Within Latin America, Rio de Janeiro has led the way in embracing bicycle-based transit and building bike-friendly infrastructure. The city offers over 435 km of well-paved bike lanes, which makes it the largest network in South America. Buenos Aires also has a municipality-run service that provides free bicycle-sharing services for residents and tourists to use, with over 195 km of dedicated bike lanes as of March 2019. Mexico City has built a dedicated bike line along Reforma Avenue in the city centre and opens a recreational cycling-only route on Sundays. Furthermore, the city’s public EcoBici bike-sharing programme has over 120,000 users. Nevertheless, cycling advocates state that the city still lacks sufficient infrastructure to make daily commutes feasible and safe. In Cairo urban planners are introducing a new bike-sharing programme and building over 700 cycling lanes.
In China, Beijing was long touted as a world capital for bicycle commuting; in 1980 nearly two-thirds of all commuters in Beijing rode bicycles, however, by 2014 bicycles were used by less than one-fifth of all commuters. However, Beijing has recently experienced a massive expansion in cycling thanks to the introduction of more than 16m shared bicycles by around 60 new bicycle-sharing firms. City planners aim to further support this by expanding the network of bike lanes and sidewalks to over 3000 km by the end of 2020.
Over the last few years a number of new start-ups have emerged, following in the wake of ride-hailing apps such as Uber, Lyft and Didi, to offer urban residents access to privately owned, shared-use scooters and electric bicycles. “New semi-public modes of transit such as ride sharing and shared vehicles are challenging conventional urban transport planning and providing a more tailored mobility solution,” Mariana Torres, vice-president at New York-headquartered John Laing Investments, told OBG. Two Chinese two-wheel vehicle-sharing companies – Ofo and Mobike – are expanding their operations outwards across Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Furthermore, electric scooter-sharing apps are also emerging, with Bird being launched in Santa Monica by former Uber executives in September 2017. Santa Monica is already taking a leadership role in embracing car-free transit and providing the infrastructure to facilitate the adoption of electric scooters. Bird has since expanded its operations, launching its service in Mexico City in October 2018.
Meanwhile, in Jakarta, GO-JEK, a local motorbike ride-hailing and delivery platform began to allow users to rent electric scooters. Nevertheless, while electric scooters and motorcycles – facilitated by ride-hailing and sharing services – may offer a welcome alternative to private cars, they remain a complement to, rather than a replacement for, sufficient public and private investment in rail, bike and rapid transit bus systems.
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