This year’s UN-Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements is dedicated to sustainable mobility. In its foreword, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlights the urgent need to invest in urban transport to ensure sustainable development around the world.
Undoubtedly, 2014 will see a multiplication of the global actions for sustainable transport that we’ve witnessed in 2013. For decades, developing countries followed the failed US suburban development model; a model based on addiction to cars, with urban centres fractured — inhumanely — by highways and overpasses. Yet this year, several cities in the Global South moved away from this anachronism, reinventing themselves with major investments in Curitiba-style bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Focusing, in other words, on transport oriented development.
Across the five continents, we’ve seen a revival of walking as a desirable transport mode: the 19th Century Parisian flâneur is once again an urban symbol. There is a new realisation that, to be sustainable, the cities of the future will need to combine mixed, high density transport to allow more compact urban forms – i.e. to enable jobs, education and entertainment to be reached on foot. Citizens are actively joining this global wave and, using art to reclaim their streets, they want walking in the city to be ‘sexy’ again.
Cities in East Asia provide a roadmap for the future urban development options across Africa and Latin America. While some cities, like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, have bet on a highly motorized economic model that aims to ‘grow’ first, and ‘clean’ later; others like Singapore and Hong Kong iteratively generate lessons on how to ensure a more sustainable transport trend from the outset.
This year media attention has been focused on several major players in the transport world. The financial failure of the ‘Paris of the West’, Detroit, heralds a looming revolution in car country, while US mayors from Miami to Honolulu have been jumping on their bikes to share a new agenda. And they are not alone, inspired by New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Paris’ Bertrand Delanoë, and London’s Boris Johnson. All three will go down in history as true urban reformers: regaining treasued urban space from the car, and returning it to the holy trinity of sustainability: pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.
Key cities in the South have also woken up from the lethargy of car promotion and are massively investing in sustainable transport alternatives. Mexico City and Buenos Aires are leading the way in Latin America, yet Rio de Janeiro and Medellín also merit attention.
Medellín incorporated ski-resort style cable-cars into its metro system, to such success that it has been copied in various nations and prompted a comprehensive research project by the UK’s University College London. Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, has focused on transport-based urban revitalisation as a key plank in its World Cup and Olympics magic. It recently levelled a massive urban highway to make way for public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.
Will there be a leap forward in 2014? At the very least we should expect progress on the ‘innovation path’ toward sustainable cities. I hope all our mayors listen to Aaron Renn: that the mark of a great city is not how it treats its special places (because everybody does that right), but how it treats its ordinary ones.
VIDEO: TEDx Brain Train
VIDEO: Metro de Medellín
Images: UN Photo / E.Debebe; K.Park; N.Fekrat