Report reconsiders urban transportation systems

As the population exodus continues toward megacity centers, the Forum for the Future offers insight and planning tips for smart city planners.

My home state, New Jersey, recently made a decision to pull out of a major transportation project in which we would have funded another train tunnel connecting us with New York City. The reason was financial, but in the absence of reasonable alternatives, the much maligned New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway will become even more parking-lot-like during commuter peaks. I, personally, routinely spent at least one-and-a-half hours each evening traveling the span of just 30 miles. Think about that ratio.

I am lucky enough to be a telecommuter now, but with more than half the world's population already living in cities -- and an even higher percentage expected to make that move by 2040 -- a big question arises: how will all those people get around?

That's the query that shapes the Forum for the Future's new "Megacities on the Move" report, which explores the very real transportation planning challenge faced by the largest of these larger urban areas. The Forum calls these urban areas "megacities," which sometimes stretch for hundreds of miles or kilometers (pick on). The transportation policies of these megacities must be comprehensive, diverse and long-term in nature. The challenges of these cities will probably dwarf those of my own particular region.

In the full report, the Forum offers four scenarios for the transportation cities that COULD develop (more on that in a moment) but, first, it focuses on six factors that will be fundamental to the development of sustainable urban mobility and transportation systems.

  1. Transportation strategies must integrate the interests of public services, food and energy supply needs, and public services.
  2. Low-income residents must be a priority.
  3. Current, rising, rates of car ownership must be reversed.
  4. Information technologies that can reduce the need to travel in the first place should be a priority.
  5. Alternative fuels that are renewable and low-carbon must be central.
  6. Lifestyle changes that support all of the above must be encouraged, starting now.

The report offers some great examples of projects that could point the way, such as the innovative MIT City Car project (model pictured to the left), which I covered here in September, or the so-called "straddling bus" (right and below), a sort of hybrid monorail system in which commuters can be shuttled from place to place above, even while drivers of individual vehicles transport themselves from place to place using more conventional modes.

With these technological developments and many other factors in mind, the Forum envisions four different urban transportation scenarios that could arise over the next three decades.

They are:

  • Planned-opolois: Cities in which there are few personal transportation options and tightly controlled and efficient public transport systems. The use of information and communications technology to bring people together is high.
  • Sprawl-ville: The car-dominant model persists, resulting in huge low-density suburbs and insane commuter traffic jams.
  • Renew-abad: People switch often between a plethora of hybrid and electric vehicles, using public transportation when that makes more sense. Cities set boundaries for growth and city states emerge that are highly autonomous.
  • Communi-city: Many personal modes of transportation proliferate from souped-up bicycles to pod cars. Community horticultural activities are abundant, and power has "devolved" to individuals and communities.

The link below takes you to the Planned-opolis scenario. You can watch the other scenarios here.

Megacities on the move - Planned-opolis from Forum for the Future on Vimeo.

Municipal planners will find the Forum's suggestions for running a strategy workshop focused on these urban transportation challenges useful. Meanwhile, corporate sustainability types would do well to consider how these alternatives -- and possible urban frameworks -- could affect how people "get to work" in the future, if they get there at all.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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