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Old July 11th, 2009, 11:47 PM
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Arrow Transport in Cities: A few key issues

By Debra Efroymson
Regional Director, HealthBridge ,

While urban transport can be a complicated issue, it is far too important to leave in the hands of planners, with no input from those most affected. Understanding a few basic issues about transport can help the general public to give input into urban plans and thus ensure a better result than might otherwise be likely to occur.

Starting at the very beginning, it is helpful to remember that the key goal in transport should be to ensure that people can reach destinations safely, conveniently, and at little or no cost. Transport should be of high quality not only for the rich, but for all income groups.

When planners study transport, they need to measure trips. Various methods can be used, and the choice of the method is of vital importance. One can, for instance, study vehicle kilometres traveled. Such a method ignores non-vehicle trips such as walking and cycling, yet many trips are made without the use of what transport planners define as a vehicle. By ignoring such low-impact trips, the system is biased towards more environmentally-hazardous, expensive, wasteful and space-inefficient travel.

A second method is to measure people kilometres traveled. While this method is an improvement over measuring vehicle kilometres, as it includes trips made by all means, it still contains an important bias: it emphasizes long distances over short ones. Consider the case of one person traveling 10 kilometres to work, and ten people each traveling one kilometre. Under the people kilometre method, that one person would have the same priority as those ten. It would thus be deemed equally important to ensure that one person can travel a long way as that many people can travel a shorter distance, a bias again likely to result in greater congestion, pollution, inefficiency and waste.

Finally, one could consider people trips. Under this method, ten people are equal to ten people, period. Traveling short distances is equally as important as traveling longer ones. Thus improvements to sidewalks and street crossings, enabling people to travel by foot, would be considered equally important as measures designed to enable people to travel farther. In fact, short distances should be prioritized over longer ones, but at least this method removes many of the negative biases of the other methods of counting travel.

In sum, the method used to measure trips can, however inadvertently, result in encouraging or enabling more people to travel farther, which in turn leads to such common and pressing problems as congestion, expense, pollution, road injuries and obesity. Would it not be better to encourage shorter movements? Remember that the key focus of transport is to ensure that people can reach destinations. That is, it is not travel itself that is important, but the destination itself. In other words, the focus should be on access, not mobility; on people having access to what they need close by, rather than on being able to travel far to reach desired destinations. This access can be promoted by ensuring that key destinations are close to residences, not only in the centre but throughout the city. It means that planners would emphasize short over long distances, and remember that walking and cycling are important modes of transport.

Consider the typical pyramid of travel in many car-oriented cities. The lower volume of traffic, by car, is given the highest priority, despite the fact that cars cause the most problems in terms of space and fuel required, pollution generated, and danger to other road users. Meanwhile, low-impact modes such as public transit, cycling (and other non-motorized transport), and walking are given low priority, despite the high volume of use and their low impact on others.

In a far better, people-oriented approach, the pyramid would be reversed. Cars would be given the least priority (followed by motorbikes); the highest priority would be given to pedestrians, followed by bicycles and public transit.

What would such measures mean in practice? Three key issues in urban planning are critical to ensure a better transport system: density, diversity and design. Density is key in that low density makes public transport unfeasible, whereas higher density supports mixed use and makes it more likely that conveniences and necessities will be located near residences. Density will be of little use, however, without diversity, more commonly known as mixed use. High density cities in which zones are clearly segregated for residences, businesses, shopping and so on will result in heavy traffic demand, and thus congestion, pollution, and other related problems. But mixed-use areas in a high density environment greatly reduce the need to travel.

Finally, design is critical, as a poorly-designed compact city will lead to many problems of its own. Among the critical design issues as related to transport are street design to encourage modes other than motorbikes and cars; this means smooth and well-maintained sidewalks, preferably segregated bike ways, and safe and convenient street-level crossing for pedestrians. Connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists is also key; it is not helpful to have cycle paths that disappear at major roads, or sidewalks that take their users across a busy street from a bus stop, park, or other attractive destination but offer no help in getting safely across that street.

Design of the pedestrian environment is also important. Pedestrians need not only good sidewalks and frequent street-level crossings, but something to look at when they walk. Design issues include ensuring that buildings do not turn their back on the street, that building façades are narrow and varied, and that shops and restaurants have windows onto the street rather than blank walls. Interest and variety for the pedestrian can also be ensured by allowing sidewalk vendors.

Urban design and transport planning are inseparable. Just as urban design needs to be improved, so key transport issues must be addressed. In practice, these include safer and better conditions for walking and cycling. These can include smoother and continuous sidewalks unhampered by parking of cars and motorbikes, frequent lights for street crossings by pedestrians and advance signals at intersections for bicycles, and higher fees, charged by the amount of time used, to park cars and motorbikes. Transport also means better public transport, preferably involving a street-level system, which will be at least 100 times cheaper than an underground public transit system. The less expensive system will make a more extensive service possible, and the savings can be used to create better facilities for walking and cycling as well as attractive public spaces. After all, public transit only functions when people can access the stations or stops.

Potential benefits of adapting some of these suggested measures include greater safety (far fewer and less serious injuries from traffic), greatly reduced air and noise pollution, more options for exercise and thus lower rates of chronic disease, and reduced expense for both individuals and the government.

One final note of importance: however much we may wish it, we cannot have it all. It is not possible to create a system in which residents can ride their motorbikes to all destinations, and have clean air, kids playing safely outdoors, and independent mobility for children and elderly. This means that some difficult decisions need to be made, but given the potential benefits, such decisions are well worth thinking about.
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