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Urban transport in the developing world

By Felix Creutzig

Walking and cycling dominate urban transport in Asia and Africa. This statement is worth repeating. Walking and cycling dominate urban transport in Asia and Africa. It is one of the key statements in the book “Urban Transport in the Developing World“, subtitled “A Handbook for Policy and Practice”, edited by Harry Dimitriou and Ralph Gakenheimer. But it is much more than a handbook. It is the most comprehensive overview on the topic. With more than 600 pages, take your time reading it. While there is some redundancy, reading this book carefully will provide you with a superb, encompassing understanding of urban transport in the developing world.

Here is the book’s story. 60% of the world’s population live in Asia, and Asia is the epicenter of the global urbanization wave. Asia is also the focal point of incredible motorization with China alone being projected to have in 2050 nearly as many cars, as the world has currently on its roads, in totol: 700 million cars. An Asian city also gives its name to one of the key concepts I extracted from the book: the Bangkok syndrome. Similar to their OECD counterparts, Asian and African cities start with dense, walkable city cores. At the beginning of the last century, OECD cities invested in the then upcoming rail-based transport infrastructure, shaping cities profoundly. With the relatively slow but profound rise of automobility, American cities developed into low-density automobile cities, while European cities kept their inner cities served with public transit. Asian and African cities seem to be mostly on a different trajectory: They skip the stage of public transport infrastructures and move directly into individualized motorized mobility. This is too some degree quite surprising: Relative to their GDP, cities of the developing world invest much more into highways, citizens proportionally much more into personal transport than their OECD counterparts do and have done (see e.g. Jeffrey Kenworthy’s contribution). Inversely, these developing cities have high population density and are unsuitable for car transport. As a result, especially Asian cities develop into ‘motorcycle’ cities (Barter, 2000): motorized two-wheelers are best adapt to navigate the traffic disasters, but are subject to high accident rates and still face congestion.

Distribution and accessibility is another, related theme that develops continously across chapters. As the introductary statement indicates, paraphrased from Setty Pendakur’s chapter, non-motorized transport is the starting point of analysis, for transport efficiency and transport equity matters alike. Urban transport planning is often technocratically framed as ‘apolitical intervention’ (Eduardo Vasconcellos), where in fact it is top income segment who by driving their cars consume 10 times more space than the urban poor, consume a largest part of transport energy, and are responsible for most of street-level air pollution. It is then quite clear that a suitable normative objective for urban transport is reasonable accessibility for all, possibly emphasizing the urban poor (the concept itself actually may need to be qualified, see Xavier Godard’s chapter). Accesssibility itself is a highly interesting concept: Some cities, such as Dakar, seem to have high accessibililty – walkability – for the poorest quantile. In contrast, in cities like Buenos Aires the lowest income quintile pays proportionally to income much more than the richest quantile. Poverty may also directly reduce social contact by rendering visits to family or friends infeasible.

In line of the this comprehensive analysis, it then follows naturally to require comprehensive assessments of urban transport projects and plans, relying on strategic environmental assessments (Michael Replogle), inclusive equity evaluation (Eduardo Vasconcellos), and context-specific economic appraisal (Walter Hook). The key conundrum, however, is then in the meta-level of institions (Elliott Sclar and Julie Touber). In the dense urban environment of Asian and many African cities, the traffic disaster of the Bangkok syndrome can only be tackled with efficient public transport. But public transport can be regarded as a quasi-public good, and will not emerge from demand-side focussed market outcomes. Hence institutional capacity, a governance framework of promoting public goods and better public transport and non-motorized transport system need to coevolve simultenously. Transport planning alone is not enough.

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