Five innovations in urban transportation that you won't find in America, yet. PLUS: An original GOOD Video Presentation.
Americans own more than 240 million cars—that’s almost one for every person, though this should come as no surprise. We are surrounded by evidence that we’ve become slaves to our mechanical masters: multihour commutes, sprawling exurbs, empty wallets from high gas prices. Of course, as we fast-track toward environmental ruin, we all know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Cities around the world are leaps and bounds ahead of America when it comes to issues of urban transit. Though this country is woefully lagging, it’s a rare example of when falling behind actually works in your favor: as U.S. cities work to update their transportation systems for the 21st century, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The solutions are already out there.
Bus Rapid Transit
Subways are expensive—in fact, an 11-mile, 21-station addition to Athens’s subway system, opened in 2000, cost more than $3.6 billion. As a result, subways are often limited to high-density areas in order to recover their costs; even then, most systems require a substantial subsidy. In many American cities, the population density is too low to support subways. Light-rail transit systems—trolley-like cars with street-level service—on the other hand, are often economically feasible in areas that lack the density to support subways. Still, the cost of laying track remains beyond the reach of many municipalities.
A solution has emerged in Curitiba, Brazil, which over the past 50 years has quietly evolved into a living laboratory of urban design. Since 1960, Curitiba’s population has quadrupled, to 1.8 million, straining the city’s infrastructure and transportation systems. Rather than building a new network from scratch, Curitiba’s planners created an efficient bus network with red-light-free lanes on the city’s highways and boulevards. Instead of using traditional bus stops, passengers pay at stations, significantly lowering the time it takes to board. The revolutionary new system has been dubbed Bus Rapid Transit.
Over the last 10 years, Curitiba’s BRT system has been replicated around the world, in cities like Brisbane, Australia; and Jakarta, Indonesia. Often cities introduce less elaborate BRT systems, simply increasing the efficiency of existing bus routes, but the BRT system in Bogotá, Colombia, known as the TransMilenio, demonstrates what can be done when Curitiba’s model is expanded to new levels. The 40-mile system of dedicated bus lanes serves about one million people a day, and cost a mere $240 million, just seven percent of the Athens subway extension.
Bogotá’s BRT system has created a new model for urban revitalization, transforming the city by redefining how streets are used. As traffic lanes were appropriated for the BRT, the number of cars in the city fell. Squares once crowded with traffic are now vibrant with street life; sidewalks once covered with parked cars are now open for playing kids. “Over the past 80 years,” says Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor who introduced the TransMilenio, “we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvelous.”
Potential in the U.S.
Because Bus Rapid Transit can be implemented at a variety of service levels and costs, cities can experiment with service over years. In the United States, where using public transportation is as much a cultural shift as it is an economic one, such flexibility may be one of BRT’s strongest attributes.
Pulling up to an intersection where the traffic lights aren’t working is confusing. Whose turn is it to go? Who has the right-of-way? Inevitably, you have to negotiate the intersection by interacting—you look around for pedestrians, then, making eye contact with other drivers, slowly pull across the intersection.
This phenomenon—heightened driver attention and slower traffic in the absence of directions—is the core of a new philosophy of transportation planning: “naked streets.” The naked-streets movement, also known as “shared space,” “mental speed bumps,” or “psychological traffic calming,” advocates the elimination of traffic lights and signs, lines on the street, and curbs separating pedestrian space from vehicle space.
Hans Monderman, the pragmatic Dutch planner who was one of the first to introduce the naked streets concept in Holland, reorganized streets so that cars had to proceed as cautiously as pedestrians. Drachten, a city of 45,000 people, has removed more than 80 percent of its traffic lights and more than half its road signs under Monderman’s guidance: the number of accidents has dropped dramatically. “I am used to it now,” Drachten resident Helena Spaanstra told one newspaper. “You drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker.”
Early in his career, Monderman pursued traditional traffic-calming mechanisms like landscaping and speed bumps. All that changed when Monderman observed traffic patterns in a woonerf, a plaza without curbs or painted lane markers. Speed bumps usually result in a 10-percent average drop in the speed of cars, but in the woonerf cars drove nearly 50 percent more slowly, as they carefully made sure to avoid other cars and pedestrians.
Throughout Europe, cities are exploring the potential of naked streets, some with financial support from the E.U. For the most part, it is smaller cities and towns that are experimenting with the model, but even in London, pilot projects are under way to test their applicability. Early results suggest similar effects as to what was found in Holland.
Potential in the U.S.
In most American cities, the concept of designing streets for slower traffic is still alien. Portland is one exception. A city full of innovative urban design, Portland has introduced several “Festival Streets,” public squares without curbs or painted lane lines that accommodate cars as guests, but are also used for events that fill the street with activity.
Bicycle Planning and Complete Streets
In 1885, when Karl Benz drove his gasoline-powered car for the first time, he ushered in a new era of transportation. That same year, another inventor was going for a ride of his own: in England, J.K. Starley added a chain drive to his uncle’s triangle-framed cycle, creating the Rover Safety Bicycle, widely thought of as the first modern bike.
In the States, cycling is still for the most part recreational. In Copenhagen, though, perhaps the world’s most bicycle-friendly city, 36 percent of commuters rode to work in 2003, 33 percent used public transit, and 27 percent drove. But Copenhagen’s streets haven’t always been so balanced: In the 1970s, when bike riding was at an all-time low, the city’s traffic-congested downtown resembled American cities of the same era. Yet unlike their American counterparts, who tried to solve congestion by building more roads, Danish planners took an alternative approach: they tried to reduce the number of cars.
Copenhagen epitomizes the principles of “complete streets,” an idea stressing that streets should transport people—not just cars. The transition from car-filled streets to complete streets was not instantaneous. As the city incrementally closed streets to cars, removed parking spaces, and added public areas, citizens slowly realized it would be faster to travel by bus or bicycle.
One of the most important decisions in the reimagining of Copenhagen was the layout of the streets. Instead of locating bicycle lanes on the traffic side of parked cars, as most are arranged in North America, bicycle lanes were placed between parked cars and the sidewalk. This seemingly obvious arrangement not only made it safer to cycle, it made it feel much safer to cycle, which encouraged people of all ages to get on their bikes.
Potential in the U.S.
For American cities looking to change their streets, the success of Copenhagen’s gradual transition to cycling is a valuable lesson. Slowly adding protected bike lanes and embracing the idea of “complete streets” could help mimic the Danish transportation model, which supports a culture of activity, improves the quality of life, and makes cities healthier places to live.
If BRT and bicycle-friendly streets are two of the tastiest carrots that urban planners can offer drivers, then congestion pricing—a fee designed to discourage car use on crowded city streets—is one of the biggest sticks they have available.
To economists, congestion pricing is known as a Pigovian tax, designed to correct negative market externalities—when costs are borne by third parties not involved in an economic transaction. In this case, roads are supplied by the city for drivers, but it is the city’s pedestrians, workers, and residents who must deal with the negative effects of congested streets.
N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor and former chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, argues that “charging for the use of public roads is a sensible Pigovian tax to deal with congestion externalities.” Data from London, where Mayor Ken Livingston introduced congestion pricing in 2003, supports this claim. In the first year of enforcement alone, the number of private cars entering the downtown area dropped by 34 percent. At the same time, the number of buses in downtown London increased 22 percent, and the number of bicycles increased 28 percent.
The Central London congestion-pricing zone includes centers of business and finance, the houses of Parliament. government offices, and major tourist destinations. The roughly $16 daily charge must be paid ahead of time at retail centers, on the internet, or with a text-message service—there are no tollbooths on the roadway. Video cameras with character- recognition software document cars entering the congestion- pricing zone, and compare the registrations of the cars to a database of who has paid. Drivers entering the zone without having paid the congestion charge are fined about $150.
Potential in the U.S.
Congestion pricing alone cannot change the way a city’s population moves around; alternative modes of transportation must be readily available, otherwise congestion pricing just raises the cost of living. So while most discussion of congestion pricing in the United States is focused on New York City (which has a transit system approaching its capacity), it could function better in cities with underutilized rapid-transit systems like Atlanta or Los Angeles.
Container shipping, introduced in 1955, revolutionized freight transportation. By 2005, 18 million containers circled the globe, carrying 90 percent of the world’s manufactured goods. The success of container shipping comes from one thing: efficient intermodal transfers. Shipping a container by boat, train, or truck is no faster than shipping anything else by those methods—it’s the efficient transfer of the container from boat to train to truck that makes all the difference.
The basic lessons of container shipping can easily be transferred to passenger transportation, where the efficient movement of passengers between modes of transit—say, from a local bus to an express train—can greatly reduce travel time. If a city improves the connectivity between different modes, it can dramatically improve the efficiency of the overall system.
Easing connections between different modes can take place between any two types of transportation. In Amsterdam, for example, rail networks are the city’s high-speed backbone while people often get around locally by bike. Amsterdam has linked these two systems by planning bicycle lanes as feeder systems for rail stations and by building extensive bicycle parking. By facilitating these mode shifts, Amsterdam was able to improve the experience for commuters without having to fundamentally alter either its bikeways or its subways.
Intermodal hubs can be used to link urban transit systems with regional and international networks as well. In Hong Kong, a high-speed rail system links the international air terminals with a downtown station for subways, ferries, and Hong Kong’s distinctive double-decker streetcars. Travelers bound for the airport can even check their bags in at the downtown transit terminal, which dramatically reduces congestion at the airport itself.
While intermodal hubs have been common in Europe and Asia for decades, the United States, unsurprisingly, lags behind. Most U.S. airports still don’t easily link travelers to high-speed public transportation. The terminals and parking areas at Dallas- Fort Worth Airport, for example, are connected through a “Skylink” train system guaranteeing a less-than-nine-minute commute to any destination within the airport. To reach the closest public-transit link, however, travelers have to take a shuttle bus to a commuter rail line where they sometimes wait more than an hour for a train. Once on board, it takes an additional 30 minutes to reach downtown.
Potential in the U.S.
Improved intermodal systems offer American cities a chance to capitalize on transportation resources they already have. Park and Rides, like those at the outer stations of D.C.’s subway system, let drivers use their cars to reach their homes in the suburbs while reducing the number of cars in the city. By planning for intermodal systems, American cities can not only link existing transportation systems to new ones, but increase the efficiency of transit overall.
Five North American Cities on the Right Track
With more than 200 miles of bike lanes and trails, Toronto is arguably North America’s most bicycle-friendly city. Roughly eight percent of downtown Toronto’s workers commute by bike, and the city is encouraging even more by amending zoning laws to require that new large-scale developments provide storage and showering facilities for bikers. The city is also adding to its impressive Bikeway Network so that its bike-only paths will be within a five-minute ride of all Torontonians.
Completed in 2001, Portland’s new 2.4-mile streetcar line exemplifies the place-making potential of public transportation. The project was awarded the 2005 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence due to its effectiveness “as a mode of reclaiming disconnected parts of the city, and providing incentive for new development.” Besides reducing auto congestion and improving air quality, the $73-million project has encouraged more than $2 billion of private investment within local improvement districts.
New York City: subway
Every year, 1.4 billion people ride New York’s subway, accounting for about a quarter of all mass-transit riders in the entire United States. Though its 490 stations and more than 660 miles of track make New York’s subway system one of the world’s largest, this network is nearly strained to its capacity. Accordingly, the Metropolitain Transit Authority has embarked on several ambitious construction projects, including an extension of the crosstown 7 line and a new subway line under Second Avenue.
Los Angeles: buses
In 2005, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority initiated service on the 14-mile Orange Line BRT. For a city with such an ingrained car culture, the BRT has the potential to reshape L.A.’s transportation paradigm. In its first year, the Orange Line was used by commuters far more than expected, spurring calls for the introduction of additional lines across L.A. County.
Denver: light rail
By area, Denver’s airport is larger than San Francisco and roughly twice the size of Manhattan, but its size hasn’t made it more accessible to the city. A $4.7-billion redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station designed to change all that is currently underway. A “FasTracks” rail linkage between Denver Airport and Union Station will connect to a light rail system in the downtown area, providing a convenient means for air travelers to get to Denver itself.