Urban Transport Challenges | The Geography of Transport Systems

Dovie Salais

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue The most important transport challenges take place when urban transport systems, for a variety of reasons, cannot satisfy the requirements of urban mobility. Cities are locations having a high level of accumulation and concentration of economic activities. They are complex spatial structures supported by complex infrastructure, […]

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

The most important transport challenges take place when urban transport systems, for a variety of reasons, cannot satisfy the requirements of urban mobility.

Cities are locations having a high level of accumulation and concentration of economic activities. They are complex spatial structures supported by complex infrastructure, including transport systems. The larger a city, the greater its complexity and the potential for disruptions, particularly when this complexity is not effectively managed. Urban productivity is highly dependent on the efficiency of its transport system to move labor, consumers, and freight between multiple origins and destinations. Additionally, transport terminals such as ports, airports, and railyards are located within urban areas, contributing to a specific array of challenges. Some are ancient, like congestion (which plagued cities such as Rome), while others are new like urban freight distribution or environmental impacts.

a. Traffic congestion and parking difficulties

Congestion is one of the most prevalent transport challenges in large urban agglomerations, usually above a threshold of about 1 million inhabitants. By the 21st century, drivers are three times more likely to be affected by congestion than in the latter part of the 20th century. Congestion is particularly linked with motorization and the diffusion of the automobile, which has increased the demand for transport infrastructures. However, the supply of infrastructures has often not been able to keep up with the growth of mobility. Since vehicles spend the majority of the time parked, motorization has expanded the demand for parking space, which has created space consumption problems particularly in central areas; the spatial imprint of parked vehicles is significant.

Congestion and parking are also interrelated since street parking consumes transport capacity, removing one or two lanes for circulation along urban roads. Further, looking for a parking space (called “cruising”) creates additional delays and impairs local circulation. In central areas of large cities cruising may account for more than 10% of the local circulation as drivers can spend up to 20 minutes looking for a parking spot. This practice is often judged more economically effective than using a paying off-street parking facility as the time spent looking for a free (or low cost) parking space is compensated by the monetary savings. Also, many delivery vehicles will simply double-park at the closest possible spot to unload their cargo.

Identifying the true cause of congestion is a strategic issue for urban planning since congestion is commonly the outcome of specific circumstances such as the lack of parking or poorly synchronized traffic signals.

b. Longer commuting

On par with congestion, people are spending an increasing amount of time commuting between their residence and workplace. An important factor behind this trend is related to residential affordability as housing located further away from central areas (where most of the employment remains) is more affordable. Therefore, commuters are exchanging commuting time for housing affordability. However, long commuting is linked with several social problems, such as isolation (less time spent with family or friends), as well as poorer health (obesity).

c. Public transport inadequacy

Many public transit systems, or parts of them, are either over or underused since the demand for public transit is subject to periods of peaks and troughs. During peak hours, crowdedness creates discomfort for users as the system copes with a temporary surge in demand. Low ridership makes many services financially unsustainable, particularly in suburban areas. In spite of significant subsidies and cross-financing (e.g. tolls), almost every public transit system cannot generate sufficient income to cover its operating and capital costs. While in the past deficits were deemed acceptable because of the essential service public transit was providing for urban mobility, its financial burden is increasingly controversial.

d. Difficulties for non-motorized transport

These difficulties are either the outcome of intense traffic, where the mobility of pedestrians, bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles is impaired, but also because of a blatant lack of consideration for pedestrians and bicycles in the physical design of infrastructures and facilities. On the opposite side, the setting of bicycle paths takes capacity away from roadways as well as parking space. A negative outcome would be to allocate more space for non-motorized transport than the actual mobility demand, which would exacerbate congestion.

e. Loss of public space

Most roads are publicly owned and free of access. Increased traffic has adverse impacts on public activities which once crowded the streets such as markets, agoras, parades and processions, games, and community interactions. These have gradually disappeared to be replaced by automobiles. In many cases, these activities have shifted to shopping malls while in other cases, they have been abandoned altogether. Traffic flows influence the life and interactions of residents and their usage of street space. More traffic impedes social interactions and street activities. People tend to walk and cycle less when traffic is high.

f. High infrastructure maintenance costs

Cities facing the aging of their transport infrastructure have to assume growing maintenance costs as well as pressures to upgrade to more modern infrastructure. In addition to the involved costs, maintenance and repair activities create circulation disruptions. Delayed maintenance is rather common since it conveys the benefit of keeping current costs low, but at the expense of higher future costs and on some occasion the risk of infrastructure failure. The more extensive the road and highway network, the higher the maintenance cost and its financial burden.

g. Environmental impacts and energy consumption

Pollution, including noise, generated by circulation has become an impediment to the quality of life and even the health of urban populations. Further, energy consumption by urban transportation has dramatically increased and so the dependency on petroleum. These considerations are increasingly linked with peak mobility expectations where high energy prices incite a shift towards more efficient and sustainable forms of urban transportation, namely public transit.

h. Accidents and safety

Growing traffic in urban areas is linked with a growing number of accidents and fatalities, especially in developing economies. Accidents account for a significant share of recurring delays. As traffic increases, people feel less safe to use the streets. The diffusion of information technologies leads to paradoxical outcomes. While users have access to reliable location and navigation information, portable devices create distractions linked with a rise of accidents for drivers and pedestrians alike.

i. Land footprint

The territorial footprint of transportation is significant, particularly for the automobile. Between 30 and 60% of a metropolitan area may be devoted to transportation, an outcome of the over-reliance on road transportation. Yet, this footprint also underlines the strategic importance of transportation in the economic and social welfare of cities.

j. Freight distribution

Globalization and the materialization of the economy have resulted in growing quantities of freight moving within cities. As freight traffic commonly shares infrastructures with the circulation of passengers, the mobility of freight in urban areas has become increasingly problematic. The growth of e-commerce and home parcel deliveries have created additional pressures in the urban mobility of freight. City logistics strategies can be established to mitigate the variety of challenges faced by urban freight distribution.

Many dimensions to the urban transport challenge are linked with the dominance of the automobile.

Automobile use is obviously related to a variety of advantages such as on-demand mobility, comfort, status, speed, and convenience. These advantages jointly illustrate why automobile ownership continues to grow worldwide, especially in urban areas and developing economies. When given the choice and the opportunity, most individuals will prefer using an automobile. Several factors influence the growth of the total vehicle fleet, such as sustained economic growth (increase in income and quality of life), complex individual urban movement patterns (many households have more than one automobile), more leisure time and suburbanization. Therefore, rising automobile mobility can be perceived as a positive consequence of economic development. The automotive sector is a factor of economic growth and job creation with several economies actively promoting it.

The acute growth in the total number of vehicles also gives rise to congestion at peak traffic hours on major thoroughfares, in business districts and often throughout the metropolitan area. Cities are important generators and attractors of mobility, which is associated with a set of geographical paradoxes that are self-reinforcing. For instance, economic specialization leads to additional transport demands while agglomeration leads to congestion. Over time, a state of automobile dependency has emerged which results in a declining role of other modes, thereby limiting alternatives to urban mobility through path dependency. A city can become ‘locked in’ into planning decisions that reinforce the use of the automobile. In addition to the factors contributing to the growth of driving, two major factors contributing to automobile dependency are:

  • Underpricing and consumer choices. Most roads and highways are subsidized as they are considered a public good. Consequently, drivers do not bear the full cost of automobile use, such as parking. Like the “Tragedy of the Commons”, when a resource is free of access (road), it tends to be overused and abused (congestion). This is also reflected in consumer choice, where automobile ownership is a symbol of status, freedom, and prestige, especially in developing economies. Single home ownership also reinforces automobile dependency and if this ownership is favored through various subsidies.
  • Planning and investment practices. Planning and the ensuing allocation of public funds aim towards improving road and parking facilities in an ongoing attempt to avoid congestion. Other transportation alternatives tend to be disregarded. In many cases, zoning regulations impose minimum standards of road and parking services, such as the number of parking spaces per square meter of built surface, and de facto impose a regulated automobile dependency.

There are several levels of automobile dependency, ranging from low to acute, with their corresponding land use patterns and alternatives to mobility. Among the most relevant indicators of automobile dependency is the level of vehicle ownership, per capita motor vehicle mileage and the proportion of total commuting trips made using an automobile. A situation of high automobile dependency is reached when more than three-quarters of commuting trips are done using the automobile. For the United States, this proportion has remained around 88% over recent decades.

Automobile dependency is also served by a cultural and commercial system promoting the automobile as a symbol of status and personal freedom, namely through intense advertising and enticements to purchase new automobiles. Not surprisingly, many developing economies perceive motorization as a condition for development. Even if the term automobile dependency is often negatively perceived and favored by market distortions such as the provision of roads, its outcome reflects the choice of individuals who see the automobile more as an advantage than an inconvenience. This can lead to a paradoxical situation where planners try to counterbalance the preference of automobile ownership supported by the bulk of the population.

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