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Urban Stories 2017: India’s Top Issues to Watch in the Year Ahead

Wed, 2017-01-04 02:23

In 2017, India Will Enhance its Public Bicycling Infrastructure as a part of the Ministry of Urban Development’s Smart Cities Mission. Photo by Benoit Colin / EMBARQ / Flickr

As the year comes to an end, Urban Stories explores the emerging trends, key decisions and major changes on the horizon for cities around the world in 2017. With a new installment each day from India, Brazil and Washington, D.C., our series will provide an insightful overview of what’s happening in cities globally.

Public Outcry Grows in Response to Local Problems

Over the last year, Indian cities have witnessed growing conflict over issues related to urban growth, development, transport and the delivery of other public services. Poor service delivery, inadequate access, deteriorating urban infrastructure and ineffective decision making have resulted in public outcry in several cities.

For instance, in Bangalore, the government’s decision to construct a 6.72 km, INR 1791 crore (4.18 mile, USD 263 million) steel flyover was met with intense public opposition. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in protest, mobilized online campaigns and demanded that the local authorities rethink the project. In Delhi, air quality has been a much-discussed issue, with pollution readings hitting hazardous levels. Various citizens’ groups, supported by celebrities, staged protests demanding that the government take immediate and effective measures to curb the rising pollution levels. And in Mumbai, questions around open public spaces and affordable housing were triggered by the new proposed city Development Plan, forcing the city government to order a revision of that plan.

India’s politics and administrative structures are undergoing a significant transformation with growing urban populations. Experts in the field, academics and the general public have recognized that current governance structures and the resulting decisions are not adequately addressing the issues cities are facing. The debates and discussion of significant issues, like devolution of power to local governments, housing and tenure for new immigrants and the adoption of participatory planning approaches, will take another decade or two to fully resolve. In the meantime, we will continue to see more conflict as we go into 2017.

100 Smart Cities: From Good Proposals to Great Projects

In early 2016, the Government of India’s Ministry of Urban Development launched the Smart Cities Mission, inviting applications from cities to participate in a competitive process that would award INR 100 crore (USD 14.7 million) in funding for urban transformation projects. The Mission is aimed at improving governance, promoting equitable growth and access to services and ensuring public participation in urban development, resulting in an enhanced quality of life for residents.

Several innovative proposals were submitted for projects, ranging from public bicycling, pedestrian-friendly streets, public spaces, e-governance, use of technology to improve transportation systems, water and waste management and others. Many of the winning cities are tier 2 cities—cities with populations between 1 and 10 million. In 2017, we will see several of these proposals starting to get implemented into projects that have the potential to improve lives. Ahmedabad’s transit-oriented zone project in Wadaj, a fully automated public bicycling system in Bhopal and Kochi’s redevelopment of its heritage district are some excellent examples.

What Do Indian Cities Need to Succeed in 2017?

So, what do cities need to do in order to leverage investment and ensure change on the ground in the coming year in a way that is equitable and sustainable? One, there needs to be a focus on capacity building; two, governments should leverage private sector investment and innovation; and three, cities need platforms to share learnings from pilot projects and ensure a transfer of knowledge.

Greater Capacity Building

There is a growing need for capacity building across several layers, including the political classes, bureaucrats, practitioners and implementation bodies. The entire process of public service delivery, including planning, financing, tendering, implementation and gaining public support requires specific intervention and capacity at different stages. It is important that Indian governments have a current, common understanding of how things have evolved in this space around the world, and how Indian cities can localize and adopt global best practices.

Improving Private Sector Involvement

Secondly, the private sector needs to be more effectively engaged. Although private sector involvement in public services has been growing over the last five years or so, there have been several challenges. Most importantly, the private players haven’t been able to fully meet the requirements that cities need. Indian decision makers need to actively think of ways in which the public sector and the private sector are not competing but complementing each other, and that risks taken on either side are safeguarded. On the other hand, it is important for these private sector leaders to adequately equip themselves to participate in discussions with civil society and government leaders. This participatory approach will allow cities to grow with a focus on catering to the needs of all groups of people.

After all, India has witnessed private sector-supported innovations at various levels and the development of alternative service delivery models to better meet people’s needs. For instance, through public-private partnerships, in Indore, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system has changed the way people commute. In Surat, renewable energy production and distribution has been transformed, and in Pune, the city has successfully piloted a waste-to-energy project. These projects have tremendous potential. Regulatory and legislative changes will be required, and new models of financing are needed, which will afford an enabling environment for the scaling-up of these projects.

Shared Learning

Cities need to learn from one another. Through national-level convenings and platforms that allow for the exchange of best practices, the successes and lessons learned from innovative projects, like effective public transport operations, urban governance structures, building efficiency, waste management and the development of safe public spaces, can be shared. Since 2012, WRI India’s Bus Karo initiative has brought together representatives from public bus operators from around the country, resulting in the transfer of best practices across cities. For instance, an event in Visakapatnam in 2012, which showcased the city agency’s work around driver training and fuel efficiency, resulted in this training being transferred to 14 other cities over the next two years. Cities would benefit from similar platforms in other sectors, such as water and waste management, urban infrastructure, electricity planning and distribution and other areas of public service delivery.

The Year Ahead

While the cities of 2016 have witnessed the start of positive changes, in the form of the Smart Cities Mission and greater public voice in matters concerning urban planning and development, 2017 will be the year when cities will take concrete steps towards realizing those changes. Growth and expansion are inevitable, and it is now time for local governments, the private sector and citizens to make deliberate and concerted efforts towards sustainable and equitable growth.

Green Transit as a Tool for Social Equity

Fri, 2016-12-23 20:55

Addis Ababa Light Rail Train. Photo by Ben Welle / Flickr

Bike-sharing services, electric bus fleets, restored sidewalks. There are plenty of examples of how cities around the world can use improved transportation and mobility infrastructure to address climate change. But according to the new report, Cities100, released by sustainability think tank and consultancy Sustainia, cities are increasingly harnessing these same types of green transportation initiatives and using them as tools to alleviate and mitigate ingrained social inequalities.

Socioeconomic inequality takes very real and physical shapes in cities around the world. Poor and minority communities tend to be more physically cut-off from economic hubs, educational institutions and healthcare, making access to these opportunities and services more time consuming, expensive and all around more challenging. This trend only threatens to worsen in coming years, as cities will hold more than two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050, putting more pressure on housing and transportation infrastructure. But if distance is part of the equity issue, then innovative approaches to transportation can be the solution.

One city featured in this year’s Cities100 that is acutely aware of the devastating consequences of segregation is Cape Town. In an effort to alleviate the lingering physical and social effects of Apartheid, Cape Town’s Transit Oriented Development Strategic Framework seeks to make transit-oriented development (TOD) the centerpiece of future land-use management and growth. TOD ensures that residential and commercial development take place alongside transit systems in a strategic effort to build compact and walkable cities and promote affordable access to public transport. The city hopes this strategy will lead to a 23 percent reduction in passenger kilometers traveled by 2032, as well as decreased transport costs, particularly benefiting low-income groups who currently spend 43 percent of their income on transport.

Another city using transport overhauls as a tool in catalyzing upward mobility is Mexico City. The Comprehensive Mobility Program represents a paradigm shift in the city’s approach to urban planning, prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists and public transit-users. One of the program’s key goals is to reduce traffic congestion. Cutting gridlock via greener and better connected transportation networks, including the construction of 110 km (68 miles) of bike lanes, will have a particularly profound impact on the city’s low-income and peripheral residents, who can spend as much as three hours commuting – each direction. For many, this adds up to a full 26 days a year spent travelling to and from work. As studies in the U.S. have illustrated, commuting time is the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. Therefore, by shrinking commuting times for low-income earners, Mexico City aims to not only tackle CO2 emissions, but also boost social and economic prospects for vulnerable citizens.

In another corner of the world, the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is just starting out on its path toward sustainable and equitable transportation. In 2015, the city inaugurated Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light-rail train (LRT) network, covering 34 km (21 miles) and carrying 15,000 people each hour. With fares as low as $0.30 per trip, the LRT is designed to cater to middle- and low-income commuters who would otherwise take minibuses on congested roadways or walk long distances to reach their destinations. This low cost is crucially important for the city’s job seekers, as new research shows that access to cheaper transport in Addis Ababa helps unemployed residents search more intensely for new jobs and increases their probabilities of finding stable employment. On top of offering low-cost, high-quality transit, the LRT is laying groundwork that can sustainably and equitably accommodate the city’s growing population, by providing major transit corridors, which can foster future transit-oriented development.

These cases demonstrate how connected and cohesive urban transportation is not only a critical element for cutting CO2 emissions, but also a necessary tool in mitigating socioeconomic disparities in cities around the world. By taking a holistic approach to urban planning, and viewing transportation infrastructure as an avenue toward equitable growth and development, more cities will be able to reconnect and revitalize poor communities and give access to the kinds of economic opportunities that can lead to social change on a larger scale.

Explore more sustainable urban solutions that tackle social inequality in the new Cities100:

As Mexico City Writes Its Constitution, Why Should the City Embrace Land Value Capture?

Fri, 2016-12-23 19:34

As a result of pedestrianization, Madero Street in the Historic Center of Mexico City, increased its land value significantly. Photo by Reskiebak / Flickr

In 2017, Mexico City will have its own constitution for the first time—the next step in a process that will make the city more autonomous and function like a federal state of Mexico. Beyond highlighting residents’ cherished rights and freedoms, the new constitution will touch on the importance of land value capture.  As a result, land value capture has entered the public sphere, even mass media—a very uncommon place for urban development discussions. Unfortunately, many large, misinformed arguments, such as “the end of private property” or “the first step toward becoming Cuba or USSR during the peak days of communism,” have overwhelmed the conversation.

Contrary to popular belief, land value capture does not seek to eliminate private property, impose a new tax or steal anybody’s property; It seeks to recover, and give back to the city, part of the revenue from public investment in urban services and equipment, which is currently retained by private individuals. Mexico City’s Draft Constitution discusses land value capture from “urban infrastructure, public space, changes in land use and building intensity,” understanding that the increase in land values of housing and commerce, due to public investment, would have to be part of the wealth of the city.

Land value capture represents an unbeatable opportunity to move toward compliance with an elementary principle of social justice in cities: the equitable distribution of burdens and benefits among all residents. Land value change is not something that is simply generated by the individual actions of property owners, but by the whole society. Land values primarily change from two state actions:

1. Changes in regulations that modify land-use or increase permitted building intensity

2. Investment in public infrastructure or improvement of the public realm

These actions have a direct impact on the market value of real estate not because of private intervention, but because of actions taken by public actors who represent the whole of society.

How Does Land Value Increase?

Imagine a neighborhood in the city where the government invests—with public money—in the construction of neighborhood infrastructure, equipment or public space. This could take form in constructing a new Metrobus or Metro line, rehabilitating the neighborhood market or creating a new public square. Imagine, on the other hand, that a plot of land is modified from residential housing to commercial space, or it is authorized to have a greater construction potential. The homes, businesses or offices benefiting from these actions will increase their market values from public expenditure, without their owners having made any investment. Of course, at the same time, the owner can make improvements to the property to increase its market value. These actions, however, cannot be attributed to the whole of society, but merely to the effort of the individual, therefore the profits cannot be subject to any recovery process.

In Mexico City, however, large real estate speculators “capture” the land value. They typically buy cheap land and wait, or push, for a regulation change or for the development of public infrastructure in order to build their houses, offices or commercial spaces and sell the property for a much higher price. They do all of this without paying the city back for the extra value derived from these changes.

In this case, why does the benefit of something built with public taxes get to be enjoyed by only a few property developers? The land value add would solely impact the wealthy, real estate spectators; The low-income and middle-class owners and tenants, who are the great majority, would not benefit from this value add.

Land value capture usually applies only in two instances: when there is a purchase and when the owner  takes advantage of a land-use change or the increased building intensity. As long as this does not happen, land value capture will not affect city residents. Therefore, recovering the land value generated for society as a whole is an important mechanism toward creating more equitable cities. If we promote land value capture—which, ultimately, is a partial recovery of what we all contribute—it would be possible to invest in additional projects, financing neighborhood infrastructure, quality public spaces and urban services—a virtuous circle that would benefit all.

Colombia, Brazil, England, the U.S. and France all use land value capture in some way. It is even being contemplated in the legislatures of seven Mexican states and mentioned in the new Mexican General Law of Human Settlements, Territorial Ordering and Urban Development. Furthermore, land value is also one of the principles that the Mexican government pledged to support as part of the New Urban Agenda, which came out of Habitat III.

Land value capture presents an opportunity to limit real estate speculation without affecting housing production or the construction association, promotes affordable housing for the entire population, consolidates the built environment and reduces incentives for uncontrolled expansion. It is an opportunity to create an efficient and equitable urban development model: the opportunity to recover the city for all.

Originally published in Spanish on TheCityFix Mexico

7 Women Voice the Need for a Gendered Perspective in Urban Planning

Sat, 2016-12-17 00:01

Woman Biking in Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil. Photo by: Benoit Colin / EMBARQ / Flickr

While women represent more than half of the Brazilian population, they occupy only 10.7 percent of the seats in Congress and only 5 percent of CEO positions in the country’s companies. The general absence of women’s voices in the processes that define a large part of their daily lives contributes to cities becoming hostile and unfriendly environments. Without a gendered perspective in urban planning, women often feel afraid to walk around their cities because their unique needs are left out of the conversation.

On the other hand, initiatives and projects that empower women and transform the urban reality, are on the rise. For example, on December 5, WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities joined partner organizations—Cidade AtivaCorrida AmigaSampaPéthe Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Pé de Igualdade and the National Association of Public Transport (ANTP)—to discuss urban mobility from a gender perspective. The event’s women-led discussions were attended by at least 18 panelists, experts from the mobility and planning sectors, women active in contemporary debates on the urban environment and an audience of about 100 people.

WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities sat down with seven of these women to discuss two key points that took center stage during the event: 1.) Why increasing female representation in decision-making is fundamental to building more humane cities 2.) And the nature of a woman’s relationship with her ideal city.

Meli Malatesta, from the blog Pé de Igualdade

Diversity of thinking is essential when it comes to planning the city’s public spaces. In comparison to men, women tend to behave in a more cautious and anticipatory manner, which can contribute significantly to urban planning processes. In the ideal city, we would have the effective participation of women in decision making. I would love to see women occupying more senior positions— as mayors and mobility secretaries. I’m sure that positive effects would be felt in practice, with more well-planned environments.

Marina Rara, Journalist

Having a voice in decision making is a matter of securing our rights. It is necessary for women to occupy these spaces, so that we can help make important decisions that directly affect us. Violence, disrespect, abuse—none of this can be fought from only a man’s perspective. Lack of security, sexual violence, difficult access, all this limits the autonomy of women. We need to fight against what limits us.

The balance is not in ensuring a one-to-one gender ratio— the balance is thinking from the point of view of the other; to think about the distance each person has to travel from his/her starting point to the finish line. In an ideal society, everyone would be able to reach this finish line together. Not only in terms of living conditions but also regarding our rights.

Kamila Gomes, from the Participative Council

We are the majority in almost all spaces, so it is not fair that we do not have a voice in the decisions about them. When we are not part of decision making, these decisions, that greatly impact us, are solely made by men. In public hearings, councils, different types of meetings, we need to make our voice heard to secure our rights.

In an ideal scenario, women would be in all different governance structures. What we usually see is that a man holds the position of power, and the woman is his assistant—the one on the side, who takes notes and does not speak. Occupying representation and decision making spaces is to have a voice.

Jamile Santana, from the bike-café La Frida

Equity—this is the word that sums it up. Gender equity, social equity, racial equity. By achieving fairness, we can reach the main goal in all discussions. If we talk, for example, about feminism or racism—if we talk about urban mobility and create an event to discuss it from the perspective of women— this happens because there is a need to talk about this subject because there is an inequality of rights in our society. There is a very significant drop in women’s rights in urban mobility, and we need to change that. It is an ongoing process of struggle and resistance: in mobility, in gender discussions, in access to the city, in equal rights, in health and in education. Including gender in discussions about urban mobility is not just important; it is essential. This holds true for mobility and all other social spheres.

Ana Carolina Nunes, from SampaPé

It is not possible for the city to represent its residents when the actors involved in all decision making processes are always the same. There are problems that only we—women—go through and from which, consequently, we have our own understanding. Solutions have to be built together, considering the perspective of women. Specifically in cases of violence and sexual harassment; we are the main victims; we live this experience. Therefore, in order to reach a truly effective solution, we must have a voice in this process.

In my ideal city, leaving the house should not be a question for women. It should not be something that requires special care. A city where both my husband and I—my father, my grandfather, my son (if I ever have one)—we could think in the same way about our commuting. This is my ideal city: where we are not afraid. And that includes fear of everything—sexual harassment, assault, being run over. A city where we can choose the time and the route of our commuting.

Gabriela Vuolo, from the City of Dreams project

As long as we do not effectively participate in decisions about how the city is planned, designed and built, it will not be a city that meets the needs of women.

In an ideal world, we should feel safe and welcomed, enjoy the spaces we walk through, and our commutes should be carefree. When I think of an ideal city, I think of a city where I can move without having to worry—where I can leave my house and walk in my city without being at risk.

Mila Guedes, from the Milalá blog

Without women, the city does not exist. We need to participate, so our city can be more humane and safer. Our relationship with the city can and must be more active and stronger. We need to have a voice and occupy both the urban and the decision-making spaces.

Between moments of reflection and smiles, resistance and positivity, the messages of these women are an example for all of us: together we are stronger. “We are many, we are strong, we have the right and the power to fight so that urban mobility and cities as a whole are designed to guarantee our safety and dignity,” said WRI Brasil Communications Analyst and author of this blog, Priscila Pacheco.

Originally Published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Combatting Traffic Congestion with Transport Demand Management in China

Thu, 2016-12-15 01:42

Infrastructure Incentivizes Use of Non-motorized Transport in Beijing. Photo by Benoit Colin / EMBARQ / Flickr

China has experienced unprecedented urbanization over the past 30 years, leading to rapid mobilization and a seven fold increase in the nation’s urban area. According to the Ministry of Housing’s China Urban Construction Statistical Yearbook, China’s built urban area grew from 7,438 square kilometers (2,872 square miles) in 1987 to 49,773 square kilometers (19,217 square miles) by 2014, a 570 percent increase. With the vast expansion of urban areas, the average travel distance for city residents rose significantly, triggering a higher demand for vehicle use. As a result, private car registration soared, reaching an annual growth rate over 20 percent, from 2004 to 2014 (see Figure 1). In 2015, private vehicle ownership reached an all-time high, with 124 million cars in China and 5.6 million in Beijing alone.

Figure 1: Private Vehicle Ownership. Graphic by: China Academy of Transport Science

The increasing rate of cars on the road has contributed to worsening traffic congestion, which has been a big challenge for local governments. To mitigate congestion, the government turned to creating new roads, incentive programs and car-sharing. They soon learned, however, that the pace of constructing new infrastructure never catches up with vehicle growth—newly developed roadways induce more vehicle travel demand. Additionally, although vehicle registration lottery policies and license plate auction schemes aim to limit the growth of vehicle ownership, they stimulate existing owners’ aspiration to use their vehicles more frequently. Furthermore, internet-hired taxi companies, like Uber and Didi, which provide subsidies and discounts for drivers and passengers, respectively, bring more spare and un-used cars on the road. To find a new solution to China’s persistent congestion challenges, the government is starting to prioritize moving people, instead of moving individual vehicles.

Transport Demand Management Takes Center Stage at World Forum

In order to lessen dependence on private vehicles, address the needs of the people and create a more efficient mobility system, Chinese transport experts, innovators and governmental officials are turning to transport demand management (TDM). TDM focuses on reducing travel demand by changing people’s travel behavior, encouraging a modal shift away from personal motorized transport and unlocking additional capacity from the existing networks.

Due to TMD’s importance for the future of sustainable mobility, it was one of the focal points at the third World Metropolitan Transport Development Forum (WMTD). On October 24 – 25, over 500 participants gathered in Beijing to discuss challenges and solutions for sustainable transport development. Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport (BMCT), Beijing Transport Institute (BTI) and WRI China co-organized the forum, striving to encourage city leaders and transport professionals to address challenges in urban mobility.

WRI side meeting with Vice Mayor of Beijing Jiandong Zhang at the WMTD Forum. From left to right: Sam Adams, Jiandong Zhang and Holger Dalkmann. Photo by Ying Wang / WRI China Sustainable Cities

During the forum, Vice Mayor of Beijing Jiandong Zhang noted that congestion is always ranked the number one transport issue on the government’s agenda. In response, decision makers and professionals from around the world highlighted TDM as one of the most efficient solutions to mitigate traffic congestion. Jorge Macias, Director of Urban Development at WRI Mexico, explained that TDM is not intended to limit mobility, and that TDM policies without mobility is similar to exercising without a diet. TDM cannot only reduce the need for motorized transport, especially in urban areas, but it can also create better use of existing transport facilities. The incentive of TDM measures provides a sustainable solution for urban planners to rejuvenate existing public spaces for more efficient mobility use.

Putting TDM Measures on the Agenda

Upon acknowledging that expanding the road network is not the best method to decrease congestion, the Chinese government set new goals to 1) adjust the structure of transport and travel mode share by prioritizing public transport development and non-motorized transport systems; 2) enhance more economic incentives to manage travel demand and limit the use of private vehicles.

WRI China is working with Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport and Ministry of Transport to promote a package of preferred TDM measures, with congestion charge as a core policy, to alleviate traffic congestion and promote low-carbon and sustainable mobility. The Ministry of Transport‘s (MOT) 13th Five Year Plan for Urban Public Transport Development is the first time that congestion charge is identified as a key measure to ease urban traffic congestion. Managing traffic congestion is a systematic project that depends on integrated measures and coordinated government frameworks. The government’s TDM goals aim to enhance urban transport systems with less congestion and more efficient mobility. As the long-term benefits of policies, like a vehicle registration lottery, are called into question, the Beijing government is considering the introduction of more market-based mechanisms, like congestion charge and differential parking fees for administrate vehicles, to help meet the government’s goals.

Urban Freeways: Putting Out Fire with Gasoline?

Wed, 2016-12-07 21:48

Traffic Lines the Highway in Bogotá, Colombia. This Roadway Shares Space with Bus Rapid Transit System, TransMilenio. Photo by EMBARQ / Flickr

The construction of urban highways continues in many places. In Latin America, we see ongoing projects in Santiago (Américo Vespucio Oriente), Lima (Línea Amarilla), Quito (Solución Vial Guayasamín), São Paulo (Rodoanel Mário Covas) and Mexico City (Segundo Piso a Cuernavaca), to name a few.

In Colombia, the National Government just announced a new program for improving access to urban areas during the Thirteenth Congress of the Colombian Infrastructure Chamber. In the words of the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, “our purpose is also transforming access to cities. It is not useful to save time in intercity trips if it is lost in urban areas.” With this, President Santos alludes to the great challenge of urban congestion. Constructing impressive highway systems doesn’t lead to more efficient and better transport infrastructure if, within urban areas, traffic prevents the easy navigation of city streets.

Colombia has a large road construction program, which aims to complete 5,803 km (3,414 miles), investing close to 40 trillion Colombian pesos (USD$13 billion). This not only impacts the economy and employment in the short term, but it helps in catching-up with a decades-long backlog in national connectivity. The last link, urban access, complements this effort, particularly in the country’s capital, Bogotá.

Urban access is helpful in improving national logistics and trips between cities, but it may result in induced demand for automobiles and negative effects that should be mitigated: congestion, urban sprawl, traffic incidents, air pollution and social exclusion.

Increased Congestion

Since the 1950s, experts have recognized the negative effects of increasing urban road capacity. The explanation is rather simple: reducing automobile travel time with freeways is equivalent to reducing cost. Similar to any good or service, cost reduction results in increased demand, and, in this case, increased trips. As Lewis Mumfurd, a technology philosopher, said in1955: “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.” Induced demand, or rebound effect, has been well-documented; new trips absorb between 50 and 100 percent of new road capacity in just three years (see also The Life and Death of Urban Highways).

According to Anthony Downs, from Brookings Institution, “traffic congestion is here to stay… and will get worse.” He suggests mitigating congestion with dynamic tolls: higher cost in peak hours and lower costs off-peak. He also recommends complementing toll roads with high-quality, frequent and reliable public transport. By utilizing tolls and devoting space to public transit, highways can be a good use of scarce space; one lane for light rail or buses, for instance, can carry up to 15,000 passengers per hour, while the same lane for cars can carry up to 7,200 people (with four occupants per vehicle), but typically, on average, cars only carry 1.1 people per car—1,980 per hour.

Urban Sprawl

Probably the most direct impact of freeways is urban sprawl, and this has been known for a long time. In 1974, Yacob Zahavi, a researcher from the U.S. Department of Transport, found that commute times were very consistent across urban areas (around one hour per day). The anthropologist C. Marchetti, qualified this average value as a “basic instinct” of human nature. This means that if travel time is reduced (for instance with the construction of an expressway), people would tend to live farther away, keeping their “travel budget” fairly constant. The good thing about houses in the periphery is that they usually have outdoor green space. The bad thing is that the resulting low-density development occupies agricultural or protected land. Low density also makes public transport, walking or bicycling infeasible, making residents car dependent, even for the simplest errands.

One way to mitigate sprawl is through urban planning: managing urban expansion with compact and mixed-use development, with good quality access to public transport. This is exactly the opposite of what is happening in Latin American cities, where low-density, gated communities proliferate at the urban periphery.

Managing urban planning is outside the mandate of road construction agencies, and in many cases, it is not a concern for city mayors. Municipalities around large cities prefer high-income residential dwellings in their territory, as this brings additional tax base. As a result, national planning authorities and metropolitan coordination may be required to help mitigate sprawl.

Traffic Safety, Air Pollution and Social Exclusion

Another impact of urban freeways may be an increase in traffic deaths and injuries (see Why Reducing Speeds Is Key to Improving Traffic Safety). A few ways to improve road safety are to separate road users, control road-access and keep pedestrians and bicyclists outside high-speed lanes. It is a matter of design.

There are also impacts on air pollution, resulting from increased vehicle-km (mileage). An economist’s approach to this would be to charge for these externalities; not only have congestion tolls but also emission charges. While this is politically difficult, it is progressive, as revenues can be used to improve the quality of public transport, which is used by the majority of people in Latin American cities.

Last, to make urban freeways inclusive, it is necessary to prioritize pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and public transport. Road infrastructure is not only about making fast lanes for cars, but it is about complete avenues, with wide sidewalks and safe bicycle and transit lanes.

Opportunities for Change

There are good opportunities in the announcements by the Colombian Government to invest in urban access, but there are also challenges. National and local governments can confront these challenges by considering road-use planning, dynamic tolls, controlling access to fast lanes and providing for all road users, particularly the most vulnerable. Otherwise we will be putting out fire with gasoline.

This article was originally published in Spanish on El Tiempo

Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Narrow Traffic Lanes Make Cities Safer

Wed, 2016-12-07 02:44

Traffic in Tokyo Reveals Narrow, Safe Traffic Lanes. Photo by Raphael Desrosiers / Flickr

In Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza, the rate of fatalities from road crashes is 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. What do these cities have in common? They have traffic lanes wider than 3.6 meters (11.8 feet). A long-standing belief among transportation planners and engineers is that wider traffic lanes ensure safe and congestion-free traffic flow. Recent academic research, highlighted in Cities Safer by Design, a WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities publication, shows that wider lanes are more dangerous than narrower lanes. To further investigate how cities are stacking up against the existing evidence, the Health and Road Safety team of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities decided to compare typical lane widths in selected global cities with reported traffic fatality rates.

How Wide Should a Traffic Lane Be?

WRI’s research shows that cities with travel lane widths from 2.8 to 3.25 meters (9.2 to 10.6 feet), such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Tokyo, have the lowest crash fatality rates per 100,000 residents. However, many cities, specifically in the developing world, have wider lanes and higher fatality rates (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Comparative illustration showing travel lane widths of different cities, their fatality rates per 100,000 population and Safety Index. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

New Delhi, Mumbai and São Paulo have wider lanes, ranging from 3.25 meters to 3.6 meters (10.6 to 11.8 feet), which leads to a fatality rate of 6.1-11.8 residents per 100,000, while Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza have the highest fatality rate, 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000, with lane widths of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) and higher.

But Why Are Wider Lanes Misinterpreted As Safer?

For decades, transport engineers and planners have considered wider lanes safer, as they provided higher maneuvering space within the lane and were said to help prevent sideswipes among cars. Yet, in an urban setting, this means cars may go faster, and, when cars go faster, the likelihood of crashes and injuries increases. For example, if a car is traveling at 30 km/h (18.6 mph), pedestrians have a 90 percent chance of survival, but, if the car is traveling at 50 km/h (31 mph), there is only a 15 percent chance the struck pedestrian will survive (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Pedestrian Death Risk declines at lower vehicular speeds. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Narrower travel lanes, coupled with lower speed limits, can foster a greater sense of awareness among drivers. Narrower lanes also ensure shorter crossing distances for pedestrians at intersections, which reduces the risk of an accident.

Do Wider Lanes Help to Reduce Congestion?

In 1963, Lewis Mumford said: “Increasing road width to reduce congestion is the same as loosening your belt to fight obesity.” In fact, increasing road space by having wider lanes doesn’t reduce congestion due to rebound effects. More road space results in generating more traffic. Research shows that 3 meter-wide lanes have 93 percent of the road capacity of 3.6 meter lanes—not a noticeable difference. In addition, if narrower lanes reduce speeds, this should not put great strain on vehicle movement. A recent study from Grenoble shows that private vehicles take only 18 seconds longer to travel a kilometer on a road with speed limit of 30km/h as compared to a road with a speed limit of 50km/hr. Moreover, signal delays at intersections create congestion—it rarely depends on mid-block traffic flows.

How Would Road Dieting Help?

Road dieting is a technique of narrowing lane widths to achieve sustainable and safer pedestrian and cyclist environments. If cities embrace narrower lanes, there are a range of possibilities for re-designing city streets to make them safer and more accommodating for pedestrians and cyclists.

Scenario 1: Narrowing lanes may provide space for a pedestrian refuge island or median

Figure 3. Before intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 4. After intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Scenario 2: Narrower lanes may provide space to install protected bicycle lanes

Figure 5. Before intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 6. After intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Scenario 3: Narrower lanes can provide wider sidewalks

Figure 7. Before intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 8. After intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

But Why Aren’t 3 Meter Lanes the Norm?

Most cities in developed countries, like the U.S., follow road design guidelines from standard-setting bodies like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, commonly known as the Green Book, which actually allows lane widths to vary between 10-12 feet (3.0 to 3.6 meters). While the book provides a range, engineers tend to design streets with the maximum lane width, due to the ill-informed notion that wider lanes are safer and can help reduce congestion. Many cities in low- and middle-income countries have adopted this same approach, erring on the supposed side of caution.

Today, with new research showing the opposite of the status quo and a rising interest in cycling, walking and bus systems, it is time for cities to reassess how their own standards foster a safer and healthier city.

Video: “What Are You Waiting For, Brazil?” Jan Gehl Calls Cities to Action

Tue, 2016-12-06 02:49

Jan Gehl. Photo by Bruno Felin / WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

At 80 years old, Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl shares his ideas on how to build a better future for global cities. Gehl has spent more than 50 years in academia and the professional world becoming a different, and unconventional, architect. Upon graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark in 1960, he felt ready to put into practice what he had learned from the modernist school. It wasn’t until he met his wife, the psychologist Ingrid Mundt, however, that everything changed. Gehl and Mundt organized weekly meetings with colleagues in sociology, psychology and architecture to identify opportunities for joint research, when Gehl came up with a simple but vital insight that defined the rest of his career: Urban planning should create cities for people at the human scale. Instead of prioritizing form, architecture must create the best habitat for people.

In 1965, Gehl and his wife traveled to Italy to investigate the interaction of people with public spaces. They studied cities by counting the number of people walking, noting their movements and their habits. “My wife and I realized that the great gap between architects and sociologists was that no one was on the streets observing how the format of cities was impacting people,” he said at the Frontiers of Thought event in Porto Alegre.

Jan Gehl during his talk on the Frontiers of Thought. Photo: Bruno Felin / WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Gehl’s consulting firm, Gehl Architects, founded in 2000, has already completed projects in New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Moscow, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and many other places. In addition to having a successful business, the architect has published several books, among them Life Between Buildings, How to Study Public Life and Cities for People, already translated in 32 languages. “They told me I could continue to criticize and write books, but I should also go to the cities and show what should be done,” he said.

In Cities for People, Gehl formulated 12 criteria for the creation of public spaces, including space to walk, sit, things to see, aesthetic quality and protection from traffic. The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, is one of the places Gehl identifies as perfect, as it meets all 12 criteria. On the other hand, the worst urban form is exemplified in Brasilia. The architect even coined the term “Brasilia Syndrome” to criticize modern practices that epitomize the “worst” that can be done in a city: streets and avenues created only for cars, low density and what he calls “bird shit architecture.”

WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities met Jan Gehl on his way through Porto Alegre and discussed challenges in Brazilian cities: active transport, bicycles, density and people-centered infrastructure. The team asked him the following questions:

What are the main challenges in Brazil for building better people-oriented cities?

The challenge in Brazil, in my opinion, is the same challenge as anywhere else. Around the world, we have a growing population, particularly in cities. This urban shift is a good thing—we can live in a much more sustainable way in cities than in rural areas. In the countryside, services are more expensive, there is a greater demand for resources and for mobility—one must travel miles for any singular need. So in cities, we can have a more sustainable lifestyle.

As a result, it is very important that we rethink the way we organize cities. I know that many cities already direct much of their agendas to build more sustainable cities, which means getting rid of cars as quickly and efficiently as possible. The role of automobiles is outdated; they are made for specific needs a hundred years ago. We now know that the bigger cities are, the more unnecessary it is to have individual cars as a means of transportation. It is interesting that, in 2009, global cars-use reached its all-time peak, even in America, Australia and Canada. In my view, it is a good thing that we reconsider how we move because the current prevailing view of mobility is about cheap oil—its endless supply and other resources. But neither resources nor oil are infinite, and both are very dangerous and damaging to the climate.

In my opinion, we need to make smarter neighborhoods and city centers, based on the idea of increased walking and cycling. Many cities have decided to do this. In my city, Copenhagen, 50 percent of people go to work or school on a bicycle. This was not so ten or twenty years ago—it has gone up and up. With more infrastructure, the safer it becomes and the more people cycle. It’s good for the climate, good for you, good for the economy, good for pollution and good for noise. It’s actually quite good.

In Brazil, and in many other places, people still ask for wider streets and complain about bike paths that take road space from motorized vehicles. Is it possible to change this?

Asking for wider streets is just completely stupid. We know, based on examples from all over the world, that the wider the streets and the more streets you have, the more traffic, the more fat people and the more pollution you get. That is a “no-no” road. In smart cities and countries, they narrow the roads, limit the number of streets, and they do everything to promote other forms of mobility—to promote public transport, cycling and walking as much as possible. We need to develop much smarter modes of public transportation because the old buses that still circulate in many places are not 21st century technology.

We really need to think of future cities as pearls on a string. The string should be a very fast, smart and secure public transportation system. Then we will have neighborhoods as pearls on a string, where most people are within walking or cycling distance from transit stations. There you have fantastic neighborhoods where you can work, live, where your children can grow up and the aging population can get even older.

One way to accommodate more people in less space is to build high-rise buildings, which goes against your idea of human-scale development. How can we find a balance for this?

What is different about Paris? Barcelona? Both have high densities, but their buildings are only six or seven stories. I sometimes say that lazy architects respond to density with towers. But if the same architect works harder, he can create the same density with shorter structures. The quality of life at the top of a tower and the quality of life below are very different. On top, you are completely isolated; the only things you can see are airplanes coming and going from the airport. Down below, you are part of the city. These two lives are completely different. I really think that tall buildings are outdated, and by studying the density issue closely, we can build much better cities.

Looking at Porto Alegre, we see the sad example of developers who erect high-rises everywhere. They are what I call “bird shit architects” [Gehl uses a bottle to demonstrate the analogy. According to him, these architects simply look at the city from above and blindly place tall buildings. See the explanation in the video]. They look from above without any insight into what quality of life should be in the city.

How does shape of a city affect people’s lives? What is the role of architecture in today’s society?

In fact, I see the big cities of the future made by a large number of villages and neighborhoods where one can be a child, have fun and go to school; where you can be old. Doctors say you need to walk a lot, so you should be on the street and not sitting at home watching television. For this, you need a very nice neighborhood, where you love to walk; where you have reasons to go to places: a library, a cultural center or anywhere else. You need to have a good quality of life, whether you are young or old, but quality of life and cars cannot exist together; we are sure of that. We have lived this model for 50 years; it does not work.

How can cities already built outside the human scale be rethought and rehabilitated?

My own city, Copenhagen, has two very strong city strategies. One is: “We will be the best city in the world for people,” we will make a fantastic city for walking, for all regions and for any age. We will also do our best for community living, so people can meet naturally in squares and parks.

The other strategy is that we will be the best biking city in the world. We know that if we construct more streets, we will have more cars, more traffic. If you provide better conditions for pedestrians and public life, ten years later, you will have more pedestrians and more life on the streets. If you offer better conditions for bicycles, ten years later, you will have more cyclists. So it’s a question of what strategy you have. In a city like this (Porto Alegre), you can easily establish strategies that favor people and bicycles instead of just having strategies that favor cars, traffic and automobiles.

Is Brazil uniquely guilty of the “Brasilia Syndrome,” or are other countries having the same problems?

Brazil is no different from anywhere else. In all the countries where I worked for 30 years, they always started by saying: “You need to understand that it is different here—we have different climate, different culture, we have a different tradition; we love our cars more than other places. That’s how we are, and we cannot be changed.” In the end, they changed, and no one remembers who said “this can never be done.” I heard this in New York, especially. “The Big Apple cannot be changed. You can never come to New York with European ideas.” Then it changed. In Moscow: “This can never be done in Moscow.” It was done; it happened. What are you waiting for, Brazil?

When given the choice, everyone—rich, poor, young or old—would choose to live in a good, healthy habitat. That desire comes from within.

This piece is a transcription of an interview with Jan Gehl and does not necessarily reflect the views of WRI

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFixBrasil

India Can Save Up to $1.8 Trillion Per Year with Smart Urban Growth

Fri, 2016-12-02 19:48

A Mother and Her Child Wait to Board Ahmedabad’s Bus Rapid Transit System, Janmarg. Photo by Meena Kadri / Flickr

India is at a crossroads, and how its cities develop in the coming several years will shape its future for generations.

While only about one-third of Indians currently live in cities, that number will nearly double from 420 million to 800 million by 2050. Whether those people live in safe, productive and clean communities will depend on how India’s leaders guide urban growth.

A new report released today by the New Climate Economy called Better Cities, Better Growth: India’s Urban Opportunity finds that more compact cities experienced faster economic growth from 2002-2012 than cities that are more dispersed or “sprawled.” In fact, the report shows that smart urban growth can save India between $330 billion and $1.8 trillion (₹2-12 lakh crores) per year by mid-century – up to 6 percent of the country’s GDP – and create significant savings for households.

The Costs of Getting It Wrong

India isn’t “sprawled” in the traditional way—Indian cities are among the densest in the world. But the problem is that it is not productive density. Instead of multi-level buildings organized into accessible neighborhoods, many Indian cities are filled with short, overcrowded buildings, and lack public transit and pedestrian spaces. So for each square mile of space, there’s a lot less room to live. One of the key reasons for this is India’s relatively restrictive land regulations like building height and zoning restrictions that prevent efficient, productive development. Smart urban growth in India therefore will require ensuring compact development without overcrowding and connecting people to places with a variety of transportation options, from bus rapid transit (BRT) to safe cycling.

The cost of getting urbanization wrong is tremendous. Dispersed, low density cities with inadequate mobility options require a lot more money to sustain. When communities are spread out over large distances, infrastructure and services become significantly more expensive to provide, and many people are often forced to spend a lot of money and hours in transit. The New Climate Economy report notes that providing public infrastructure and services like water, sewerage and electricity is likely to be 10-30 percent higher in dispersed, automobile-oriented developments than in more compact, connected neighborhoods. Furthermore, traffic congestion, air pollution, traffic fatalities and poor health are all outcomes of poorly planned cities, creating additional costs both for residents and governments. Owning and operating a car in India costs 12 times as much as using public transport; 30 times more than using a bike.

Delhi, India’s capital, is a stark example of how car-driven growth has led to traffic congestion that costs the economy an average of almost ₹5 (7¢) per kilometer for cars and ₹10 (15¢) per kilometer for buses during peak hours as a result of air pollution, wasted fuel and lost time. Considering the city already has more than 7 million cars—more than 300 cars per 1,000 people—the impact is significant. The recent air pollution crisis has brought global attention to how Delhi’s reliance on polluting vehicles has created a livability crisis that affects all residents.

The new report uses satellite data of night-time lights to investigate the relationship between urban form and economic growth, and finds that cities had increased economic growth if development occurred within existing city limits rather than expanding beyond them. Graphic by New Climate Economy.

3 Target Areas for Changing Course

But as the new report points out, India has an opportunity to save tremendously by planning cities that are compact, connected and coordinated. By pursuing reforms in three key areas, the country can tap into the potential of urbanization to create social and economic benefits for everyone:

  1. Reforming land regulations can help India better manage its expanding urban footprint. Doing so will help make land use patterns more efficient and effective so that people can live in dense urban communities that work for them. The kinds of regulations in need of reform include restrictive maximum building heights and parking space requirements, but additional measures to the legal system will be essential, like determining property rights and conducting equitable public land acquisitions.
  2. Expanding sustainable urban infrastructure such as efficient, low-carbon public transport systems like bus rapid transit (BRT) is critical for ensuring that cities adequately meet the needs of their residents.
  3. Strengthening urban local governments, accountability and financing can be key to creating a system of governance that works for sustainable cities. Currently, it’s unclear how responsibilities for managing urban issues are divided between national, state or local governments, and technical capacity for city-led action is low, for example due to a lack of formal training for professionals in urban management. The national government should undertake reforms to clarify the evolving responsibilities of local governments, strengthen their administrative capacity and expand their fiscal resources.
A Sustainable Urban Future for India

With 400 million new urban residents by 2050 and 75 percent of national income coming from cities by 2031, there is a lot at stake for India’s urban future. The country’s national and local leaders should recognize the urban opportunity and build on the momentum of newly created central programs like the Smart Cities Mission that aim to get urbanization right. Doing so will ensure that India’s urban future is one of inclusive and sustainable growth where all people can live in cities and have a high quality of life.

From Quito to Marrakech: Towards an Inclusive 1.5 Degree Pathway for Sustainable Mobility

Thu, 2016-12-01 01:00

Global Leaders Discuss the Future of Sustainable Transport at COP22. Photo by UNclimatechange / Flickr

More than 35,000 people from around the world gathered in Quito in October to celebrate the adoption of a New Urban Agenda, and an estimated 20,000 people convened in Marrakech two weeks ago for COP22. The events and dialogue that took place in Quito and Marrakech brought to light the crucial role mobility and transport must play to reach a sustainable future. Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda brought significant attention to issues of equality, inclusion, gender and participation, making the case that the international community will not be able to achieve its aspirations without true inclusion. COP22 convened nearly 200 countries to advance implementation of the Paris Agreement, reached at COP21 in Paris last December.

Like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in particular Goal 11 on sustainable cities—the New Urban Agenda reflects the need for greater access to mobility for all people. During Habitat III, the transport sector factored large, organizing more than 30 events to raise awareness of the importance of investing in low-carbon infrastructure and creating enabling policies and projects. These events centered around making transport more equitable and accessible, in particular for the urban poor, women and for those with disabilities. COP22 saw a similar commitment to the transport sector, with over 30 transport-oriented events, including a high-level ministerial round table and Transport Day, hosted by the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC) and SLoCaT.

Linking Transport to Climate and SDGs

One key message that resonated throughout the events in Quito and Marrakech was the need to link the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda to the global climate agenda, particularly the Paris Agreement. Ensuring that everyone benefits from progress made in sustainable development will prove to be the next challenge for these global agreements. Given the rapid urbanization occurring across the planet, acting on climate commitments will be inseparable from making cities more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable, where all people have access to mobility options that connect them to opportunity.

A clear illustration of how climate and mobility are interconnected can be found in social housing that is built outside of cities, in locations with low access to jobs, services and livelihood opportunities. For example, in recent decades, more than four million houses were built in the outskirts of Mexico City, leading to long travel times, and, in some cases, forcing the poor to abandon new developments because of the lack of access to any economic opportunity. These vulnerable groups have also been most affected by air pollution and road fatalities, as almost fifty percent of the 1.25 million road fatalities that occur every year are pedestrians from low-income countries. If we continue down this path of pushing poor people further and further out of the city without affordable transport options, then the world will not be able to achieve its goals to cap global temperature rises and eradicate poverty.

Now that Habitat III and COP22 have come to a close, there is an opportunity to continue the conversation about linking these agendas and create a greater sense of urgency. From a sustainable mobility perspective, there will be three key elements where integration needs to happen: The Global Climate Action Agenda (formerly known as the Lima-Paris Action Agenda), the development of National Climate Action Plans (National Determined Contributions – NDCs) and the creation of a mechanism to track and report progress on implementing the Paris Agreement.

Last year in Paris, the transport community launched PPMC in partnership with SLoCaT and Michelin Bibendum, which brought together a number of initiatives from civil society organizations, NGOs and business associations to announce their commitment to act on climate change. Many of these initiatives were present in Quito and Marrakech and renewed their commitment by acknowledging the New Urban Agenda during Transport Days at both events. It is vital to continue tracking these initiatives in terms of their impact on reducing greenhouse gas as well as poverty and inequality.

Secondly, as of August 1st, 160 countries have committed to action through their NDCs. While more than 75 percent of countries included transport actions in their initial commitments, less than a tenth of them included investments in walking and cycling infrastructure. The majority focused on improving fuel and vehicle efficiency. While fuel efficiency is certainly important for tacking climate change, there is a risk that focusing solely on this area—particularly in poorer countries—will draw attention and investment only to individual motorized vehicles, which a minority of the population actually uses. In order to achieve the SDGs, Paris Agreement and New Urban Agenda, more investment will be needed for walking, cycling and public transit infrastructure.

These three agreements all contain requirements to measure and report on future commitments and actions— crucial steps toward realizing a vision for better and more inclusive development. The transport sector has and should continue to serve as a model for other sectors on how to align actions and report on progress. Initiatives including Decarbonizing Transport from the International Transport Forum, the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between SLoCaT and UN-HABITAT to track the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the follow-up on the report of Ban Ki Moon’s UN High-level Panel on Sustainable Mobility should make sure that emissions, as well as safety and accessibility, are integral parts of a future tracking framework.

Translating Global Agendas into Action

While there is certainly momentum on the global level to take action and responsibility towards sustainable and low-carbon mobility, the ultimate litmus test will be how these translate into real, on-the-ground progress covering all three dimensions of sustainability. Now, the world looks to see whether the international community and national governments will move to create new policies and stronger investment, empowering sustainable transport infrastructure and services, as they’ve committed to on the global stage. Only if we see progress towards an integrated approach which provides a pathway for more people becoming empowered through low-carbon sustainable mobility and have access to safe and affordable jobs, education and health services, we can assess if Quito and Marrakech have been successful.

Planting Healthy Air: A Natural Solution to Address Pollution and Heat in Cities

Tue, 2016-11-22 22:59

© The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

Can nature help cities address the twin problems of air that is too dirty or too hot? Based on a new report released by The Nature Conservancy – in collaboration with C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group – the answer appears to be a qualified “yes.”

The Planting Healthy Air report identifies the potential return on investment from tree planting in 245 global cities, which currently house about a quarter of the world’s urban population. By collecting and analyzing geospatial information on forest and land cover, particulate matter, and population density and leveraging existing literature, the study estimates the scope of current and future street trees to make urban air healthier. The benefits that trees could afford to cities will be even more crucial in the future, the study finds, as a quarter million people could die each year because of urban heat by 2050, unless cities take proactive steps to adapt to global warming.

Urban Trees, Cooler Cities. © The Nature Conservancy (Erica Simek Sloniker)

While existing city trees already clean and cool the air for more than 50 million people, a global investment of $100 million per year in tree planting and maintenance could provide as many as 77 million people with cooler cities and offer 68 million people measurable reductions in fine particulate matter pollution. New city trees offer great potential impact, but maintaining existing city trees is critical, as many global cities are losing tree cover over time, due to development, pests and pathogens, and lack of budget for maintenance.

Urban Trees, Better Air Quality. © The Nature Conservancy

The Planting Healthy Air report and the accompanying website, with an interactive map and case studies for the report’s top ranked cities, provide resources for those interested in using nature to make air healthier. These findings can help urban leaders and public health officials address outstanding issues about trees and air quality, such as which cities and which neighborhoods can be helped most, the fraction of the air quality problem can trees solve, how much investment is needed, and where are trees a cost-effective investment. In many cities, an individual neighborhood may offer a much higher return on investment (ROI) than the city’s average, and the report’s maps can be a useful tool for city leaders deciding where to make an investment in city trees.

For those searching for ways to address the challenges of air quality and heat, urban trees are the only solution to simultaneously address both. Trees also provide a range of co-benefits, including wildlife habitat, flood control, carbon sequestration, and recreational opportunity, which can have significant value for a city. While urban trees alone can’t solve the challenges of urban heat and air pollution, they’re a solution that can be put in place today and are comparable in cost and effectiveness in many neighborhoods to such solutions as limiting automobile traffic in cites, painting roofs white or installing scrubbers on smokestacks.

In the right spot, trees can help make our air healthier and our cities more verdant and livable.

Visit to learn more and explore the interactive map.

Urban Sanity: Understanding Urban Mental Health Impacts and How to Create Saner, Happier Cities

Tue, 2016-11-15 02:57

Woman waiting for her train at Mumbai Suburban Railway Western Line Church Gate Terminal, Mumbai, India. Photo by Benoit Colin / EMBARQ / Flickr

Does urban living threaten our sanity and happiness? Popular culture is rife with stories which suggest that living in a city increases loneliness and unhappiness, and some scientific studies indicate that urbanization increases mental illness and depression. Are these claims credible? How can communities maintain mental health and happiness?

These are important and timely questions. The human experience is increasingly urban; transitioning from rural to more urban areas. Decision-makers and individuals need practical guidance on how to maximize sanity and happiness when planning cities and choosing where to live.

A newest report from Todd Litman, “Urban Sanity: Understanding Urban Mental Health Impacts and How to Create Saner, Happier Cities,” examines these question. It indicates that city living has mixed mental health impacts.

Some research suggests that urban residency may increase psychosis and mood disorder risks, certain types of drug addiction and some people’s unhappiness, but it tends to reduce dementia, some types of substance abuse and suicide rates, and generally increases happiness, particularly for people who are poor and alienated. Urban living also tends to increase mental health by increasing economic opportunities, fitness, health and access to mental health and addiction treatment services. Self-reported happiness (also called life satisfaction) tends to increase with education and income, and therefore with urbanization since cities tend to offer better economic opportunities than rural areas. Urban areas tend to have much lower (about half) the suicide rate of rural areas, which suggests that city living increases overall mental health and happiness. The table below summarizes these effects:

Urbanization Mental Health Impacts

Overall, this research found little credible evidence that urban living significantly increases overall insanity or unhappiness and lots of evidence that most people are, overall, mentally better off living in compact, mixed, walkable urban neighborhoods. Scientific studies which indicate that urban living increases mental illness and unhappiness tend to be incomplete and biased; they consider a limited population and fail to account for important confounding factors. In this regard, they cannot differentiate between association (cities attract mentally ill and unhappy people) and causation (cities make people mentally ill and unhappy).

There is plenty of empirical evidence that most people are happier living in cities, including huge worldwide rural-to-urban migrations; these would not occur if billions of people did not consider themselves overall better off in urban conditions. Some consumer surveys indicate that, given unlimited resources, most households would prefer a large suburban home and automobile commuting over an urban apartment and public transport commuting; in fact, if resources were unlimited, most would probably prefer a castle located  in a private game reserve and commuting by helicopter, but when confronted with realistic trade-offs, a major portion of households will choose compact urban housing. Much of the evidence that consumers dislike cities, and that cities increase mental illness and unhappiness, are specific to North American conditions, where public policies are anti-urban and cities have severe social problems. As a result, such evidence does not apply to economically successful, well-designed urban neighborhoods.

The table below summarizes various mechanisms by which urban environments can affect mental health and happiness, considers whether these are actually caused by urbanization, and identifies specific response strategies.

Urban living can affect mental health and happiness in several ways. Some are inherent to urban conditions, but many are associations related to confounding factors.

This analysis suggests that better policies and design strategies can increase urban mental health and happiness. These include policies that improve mental health services in urban areas, more affordable urban housing and transportation, improved walking and cycling conditions, improved social programs that integrate visible minorities and welcome newcomers into urban neighborhoods, and appropriate public parks and recreation facilities. Such policies are important in both developed countries, where public policies currently favor suburban over urban living, and in developing countries, where rapidly developing cities can incorporate design features to maximize mental health and happiness.

This is not to suggest that everybody should live in dense cities; some people are unsuited due to their lifestyle or temperament, for example, because they own large pets or engage in noisy activities. However, because cities tend to improve economic and social opportunities, many people benefit overall from urban living; their economic and social gains more than offset any additional mental stress, particularly over the long run, as they become accustomed to urban environments. Since urban living reduces per capita land consumption and transport costs, it tends to provide additional, indirect benefits.

Urban planners should find this research reassuring; it suggests that most people can take advantage of urban living benefits without sacrificing their sanity or happiness. Good urban planning can help create saner and happier cities.

Do Global Initiatives put the Transport Sector on Track to Fight Climate Change?

Sun, 2016-11-13 22:02

São Paulo, Brazil Offers a Variety of Mobility Options. Photo by Mariana Gil / EMBARQ Brasil / Flickr

Today is Transport Day at COP22, which will highlight the important contribution transport can make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last two years, the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), as part of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has encouraged various non-state actors (the private sector, cities, NGOs, etc.) to develop ambitious emissions-reduction initiatives. For the transport sector, fifteen initiatives have been registered to date, and these initiatives have been collected through the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC).

While the Paris Agreement demonstrates the will for global climate action, important questions remain around implementation and ambition. The questions are: do global initiatives put the transport sector on track to fight climate change? What is missing? This is the core of the discussion during COP22. A new study from WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, entitled Can Transport Deliver GHG Reductions at Scale? An Analysis of Global Transport Initiatives, sheds light on seven of the transport initiatives in terms of emissions reduction potential, costs and ambition. The study finds the initiatives to be very ambitious and would lead to a 3.7 percent reduction in global energy-related emissions by 2050.

In addition to this study, researchers looked at qualitative ways to assess the potential for all 15 initiatives. The criteria include: coverage of initiatives, transparency and clarity of targets and leading and participating organizations and institutional capacity.

Scope and Coverage of the LPAA Transport Initiatives

To understand the full scope of the initiatives, researchers categorized each initiative by its main focus and if it falls under “adapt, planning, avoid, shift or improve.” The study shows that the current LPAA transport initiatives have a clear focus on “improve” measures, to the detriment of “avoid” and “shift” measures, which means the focus is more on technology improvement rather than behavior or lifestyle changes. While reducing the energy consumption of vehicles is important, shifting modes or reducing travel demand can be more cost-effective. What’s more, it will be important to consider how these initiatives impact other policy areas such air pollution and access to goods and services. It will also be important to assess whether these initiatives equally address needs in all global regions.

Table Categorization of LPAA Transport Initiatives

Transparency of Initiatives and Clarity of Targets

Central to the discussion during COP22 are two imperatives around limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius. First is the need to first implement the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Second, because current commitments are not enough, the level of ambition must increase.

Transparency of action, plans and clarity of initiative targets are crucial for several reasons. First, global initiatives will deliver their objectives only if they are integrated and grounded in government plans, policies and regulations and actions of private companies. Second, to be effective, these initiatives need to work with other climate efforts beyond the transport sector. Third, LPAA initiatives are expected to provide further confidence on the movement toward a climate-friendly world, helping the international community understand the potential of the initiatives, track progress and act on the main proposals.

All of the initiatives have information readily available, many with their own websites. Some initiatives, such as the Global Fuel Economy Initiative, publish regular reports. In general, the goals and intended actions of the initiatives are clear; however, information available on action plans for achieving the initiatives varies.

While international organizations developed the targets, it is not clear to what extent the goals reflect different global regions; it is not realistic that each initiative is universally plausible or needed. For instance, some countries are very well positioned to adopt electric vehicles, while others may benefit more from an increase in public transit. Translating these initiatives to regional or country targets will help cities prioritize their efforts.

Additionally, connecting with the right decision-makers and levels of government will be important for achieving these goals. Transit plans, cycling and public transport initiatives will require dedication from cities and regions, and many vehicle initiatives will need incentive and infrastructure support from national governments.

Impact, cost, and level of effort for individual initiatives. Bubble size also indicates level of effort. Image Credit: WRI

Good Initiatives Lead to Large Potential Impact

Good initiatives can create a strong movement to make them a reality. WRI’s study shows that the largest effort and biggest reduction in emissions comes from mode-shifting, either to rail or public transport. While these initiatives may be the most impactful individually, there are many synergies among initiatives that could be explored further. For example, if mode-shifting is successful, it makes it easier and less costly to achieve targets in vehicle efficiency or electrification of the fleet because it will reduce the total number of vehicles needed. Additionally, linking vehicle electrification to low-carbon electricity is critical for total emissions reduction.

Important Opportunity If Done Right

Historically, when talking climate change, the transport sector has been considered part of the problem without much discussion about how it can be part of the solution—COP21 changed that. COP22 needs to put this new view of the transport sector into motion.

COP22 will be critical for scaling up actions as well as engaging the private sector, governments and civil society to collaborate better, accelerate ambition and transform the transport sector. Current LPAA transport initiatives are a huge step forward; we need to celebrate this progress. However, we also need to acknowledge that there is still work to be done to achieve COP22 objectives and bring the Paris Agreement to life: mobilize additional global initiatives to achieve significant greenhouse gas reduction; clarify the action roadmap for existing initiatives; and articulate potential synergies between existing transport initiatives and with many other global initiatives.

Click here to learn more about WRI’s study

After the U.S. Election, Cities Look for Ways to be Great on their Own

Sat, 2016-11-12 03:43

Residents of New York Gathered in Rockefeller Plaza on Election Night to Watch the Live Results. Photo by Marco Verch / Flickr

What comes next for U.S. cities, now that the 2016 Presidential Election has come to a close? As polls closed on Tuesday, this question quickly came to the forefront for urban planners and city-dwellers, alike.

In recent history, cities have been on the frontline for providing solutions. Adept at crafting locally appropriate solutions, urban leaders have been able to take direct action on a range of challenges facing rapidly growing cities. The site of many policy changes to come, Washington, D.C. itself has already set up a precedent for action, taking on resilience and emissions reductions goals of 80 percent by 2050. As the new administration prepares for the first 100 days in office, it is clear that there will be wide-ranging implications for cities, like Washington D.C. Throughout the course of the election, special attention was given to areas like transport, while critical decisions for infrastructure and climate also loom large in the agenda of the incoming administration.

In the past, urban citizens and leaders have been champions for issues like climate change and transport. Now, these issues are called into question, as the next administration steps into place. So, what can we expect cities to look like in the next four years?


Many cities already see the value in making transport safer and more sustainable for everyone. Cities like New York are implementing speed limits to improve safety for sustainable modes of transport like walking and biking. Creating spaces for pedestrians, bike share programs and better cycling infrastructure have been woven into cities’ transport systems.

Adding to this progress, making transport work for everyone has risen to center-stage for U.S. voters this year. As evidenced by the $200 billion in transit funding that U.S. voters decided on this week, cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta are all taking a closer look at how their futures can be improved through better transit. Los Angeles, for example, will be funding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, in addition to an expanded bus rapid transit system. Investing in better transport options are certain to create multiple benefits in the long-term for the city; reducing the chokehold that congestion from cars has on many U.S. cities will improve the outlook for urban emissions and productivity in the long run.

The Promise of Infrastructure

One issue that seemed to unite the otherwise polarized U.S. presidential candidates this year was the need for better infrastructure. The U.S. is lagging in both the condition and maintenance of its critical infrastructure, with transit in particular falling behind in quality and upkeep.

There exists a huge opportunity to guide the coming global boom in infrastructure, which is projected to amount to US$90 trillion within the coming 15 years, toward a better path. Moving forward, infrastructure development must be oriented toward better connecting people and places, through better and more sustainable forms of transport, and through better-planned and more compact development. Ensuring that new funding activity in this area looks beyond the status quo and actively seeks better and more sustainable projects that do not lock in decades of sprawl and emissions, will prove vital to making good on infrastructure promises. We realize that here exists a huge opportunity for shifting existing finance. In transport-related infrastructure alone, investment worldwide comprises between $1.4 trillion and $2.1 trillion each year. Decisions made today, where we have a massive opportunity to make a transformative shift in what types of projects are funded, will directly decide the types of cities we will create for years to come.

The new administration’s plans for an American Energy & Infrastructure Act have emerged, post-election, promising public-private partnerships that will leverage $1 trillion for infrastructure, in the next ten years. If this private sector-oriented policy can be guided away from congestion-inducing and car-oriented transport, toward smart, sustainable investments, this promise of more sustainable and livable cities may still become a less-distant reality.


In a turn from this week’s progress at COP22, with the groundbreaking Paris Agreement having just entered into force, the future of climate action in cities has now come into question.

Cities have proven themselves to be the forerunners of climate action, often taking on deep commitments to reducing emissions and improving resilience beyond the promises made at the national level. Portland, for example, has taken on an ambitious plan beyond the scope of national-level goals, in which targets for greenhouse gas reductions have been in place since 1993 under the Carbon Dioxide Reduction Strategy. Portland also maintains steadfast focus on equitable, connected, climate-resilient growth. A vision of a shared future has emerged for cities, coming out of involvement with various collaborative city networks that actively knowledge and solutions to climate challenges.

In the first 100 days, avoiding any backslide on climate progress will prove critical. Cities have often operated outside of federal action, acting as independent, but connected entities—this is not likely to change any time soon. Networks, like the Compact of Mayors, will remain powerful representatives for more than 600 million urban residents, while C40 Cities works to improve technical knowledge-sharing in at least 12 U.S. cities. However, ensuring that these cities are empowered to take action under the Paris Agreement remains of vital importance.

Urban Change

The outcomes of the U.S. election will have direct bearing on cities. Global urbanization over the next four years, coupled with a new administration, will invariably determine the ability of cities to follow through on transport, infrastructure investment and climate change. Examples set in U.S. cities resound worldwide. Now is the time to make sure that we guide policies toward the long-term goal of a sustainable and livable urban future; we must ensure that cities stay great.

Friday Fun: Beyond the Map—Google Explores Rio’s Slums

Fri, 2016-11-11 20:09

Favelas, or informal settlements, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazi house important culture, history and 20 percent of Rio’s Population. Photo by Talita Oliveira / Flickr

What do you think of when you hear the word “slum”? For many, the word brings to mind poverty, violence and squalor; slums, or informal settlements, are overwhelmingly associated with the negative. This is particularly true in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where favelas, often known as low-income communities or informal settlements, have long been linked to danger, violence and crime. Due to the negative connotations that populate the urban conscience, not many realize that one of every five Rio residents, a total of 1.5 million inhabitants, lives in a favela.

To counter these negative associations, Google’s Beyond the Map project presents alternate images of life in Rio favelas through an innovative, interactive website. The platform states that “the favelas are not simply a place. They are a people, and, to understand them, you must go inside and see for yourself.” With the help of Google Street View technology, Beyond the Map offers users a guided tour through several Rio favelas, including Vidigal and São Carlos. The tour begins with a motorcycle ride through the narrow streets of a favela community. Throughout the tour, 360-degree video and photospheres fully immerse viewers into favela life.

Paloma is a favela residents featured in Google’s Beyond the Map videos.

At different stops along the journey, videos and pictures portray aspects of favela culture, community and history. Documentary vignets tell inspirational stories of favela residents, including the story of Paloma, a woman from the Maré favela, who overcame great odds to study computer science at a local university. Videos also highlight favela culture and local business, featuring performances from local drumming and hip-hop groups, as well as interviews with a local barber and shopkeeper.

 360-degree videos are used throughout the Beyond the Map website.

Tá no Mapa Project 

As explained on the tour, the Beyond the Map project is one facet of a larger initiative undertaken by Google to map Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The ongoing Tá No Mapa project, which began two years ago as a collaboration between Google and the NGO Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, has mapped 26 of Rio’s favelas. Replacing what once had been blank, unmapped space, detailed records of favelas streets, buildings and businesses are now available on Google Maps.

The Rocinha Favela, as seen on Google Maps, before and after the Tá no Mapa project.

The Tá no Mapa project reflects a growing trend in approaches to address the issue of informal settlements. With the recent proliferation of new technologies, some NGOs have begun to create detailed maps of informal settlements. NGOs, like Slum Dwellers International, the Orangi Pilot Project and Shelter Associates, have led informal settlement mapping initiatives in Kenya, Pakistan and India. The mapping process is often participatory, as is the case with the Tá no Mapa project, which employs local favela residents to collect the spatial data. Data collected through the mapping process can also be employed for infrastructure provision, economic development, disaster preparedness and other upgrading services.

Through Beyond the Map, Google presents inspirational, humanistic stories from Rio’s favelas. With these videos, Google attempts to build a narrative of hope, countering prevailing notions of the favela as a place of poverty and violence.

Improving Building Efficiency: A Tale of 4 Cities

Fri, 2016-11-11 01:15

Da Nang, Vietnam partners with the Building Efficiency Accelerator to become a champion for building energy efficiency.

One-third of the world’s energy-related emissions come from buildings. So perhaps it’s no surprise that more than 80 national climate plans submitted ahead of COP21 in Paris included commitments to improve building efficiency.

A year later, the discussion continues with Human Settlements Day today at COP22 in Marrakech. The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (Global ABC) released a report taking stock of the opportunity to reduce emissions from buildings, and laid out a roadmap for national governments attending the climate talks.

One of the key recommendations is to support building efficiency action by cities. WRI leads the Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA), a public-private collaboration of 30 organizations working with 23 cities to help them advance building efficiency. In doing so, they also reduce pollution, boost resiliency to heat waves and other climate events, improve infrastructure and more. Here’s a look at four cities where BEA partners are working now:

Anticipating a Hotter, Larger City in Da Nang, Vietnam

Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo by Patrick Keogh/Flickr

Residents of Da Nang, Vietnam’s third-largest city, face hot and humid weather, particularly in the summer. As the climate changes, summer heat waves could pose health risks to citizens in buildings without effective and efficient cooling technology. Because Da Nang’s population is growing rapidly along with its industry and tourism, electricity demand, related pollution and strain on the grid are also growing.

Da Nang’s government has prioritized building efficiency as part of its new Resilience Strategy to address public health risks from climate change. Local leaders are exploring creative ways to signal to property developers and building managers that efficiency is a public priority. The government is working to improve the availability of information on energy performance of large buildings like hotels.  And it’s considering expediting permitting processes for new construction and renovations that include efficiency measures, as well as creating a demonstration project to improve efficiency in one or more hotels.

Creating Livable, Efficient Neighborhoods in Eskisehir, Turkey

Eskişehir, Turkey

Home to Europe’s largest university, Eskisehir in Central Anatolia has a dynamic, knowledge-driven economy, and values creating livable spaces as it grows. Demand from Turkey’s national government for better energy performance has placed pressure on building owners to improve efficiency. The city wants to improve its buildings while also protecting the city’s character.

Eskisehir is currently pursuing multiple district redevelopment projects to improve construction quality and public spaces. The mayor and his team are finding ways to include building efficiency measures within the plan to lower energy use while reducing pollution and waste.

Eskisehir is also striving to expedite the effective implementation of Turkey’s national mandate for all large buildings to have energy performance certificates that rate the efficiency of their construction and equipment.

Reducing Energy Costs through Better Buildings in Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia. Photo by Magelan Travel/Flickr

In Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, a large stock of old, multifamily public housing provides homes to thousands of residents. Energy to heat 22 million square meters of homes and business, which cover roughly half the city, comes from a district heating system that pipes heat from central sources to individual buildings.

City leaders in Belgrade are now developing a building renovation plan to reduce wasted energy. Better building insulation would lower energy costs for residents and the utility company, while expanding efficient district heating to more of the city.

Leadership through Legislation and Implementation in Tshwane, South Africa

Pretoria, Tshwane, South Africa. Photo by South African Tourism/Flickr

The City of Tshwane is home to Pretoria, the district which hosts the executive branch of South Africa’s national government.  The drive to be a national leader is one motivation behind the city’s aim to make its buildings the country’s greenest.

In 2013, the city instituted a green buildings by-law, but now it must implement it. Like many cities, Tshwane faces limited financial resources, so its leaders are exploring how to achieve further efficiency gains through financing models and non-financial incentives for efficiency investments. To demonstrate public leadership by example, the city hopes to retrofit several municipal buildings.

Cities on the Frontline of Building Efficiency Action

All cities have a unique cultural and political context. Mayors, administrators and other urban leaders often face significant demands and limited resources to address multiple challenges, everything from housing growing populations to reducing utility costs and improving services.  Building efficiency is a cost-effective solution that improves air quality, boosts productivity and provides better occupant comfort.

But cities can’t go it alone. Urban leaders require technical support, financial investments and policy alignment with their national governments. As the climate community gathers today, it’s time for local and national leaders to work together in pursuing more efficient buildings for everyone.

Tunnie Srisakulchairak (UNEP ROAP), Eric Mackres (WRI), Dinh Quang Cuong (City of Da Nang), Nguyen Thi Kim Ha (City of Da Nang), Tran Van Giai Phong (ISET) at the BEA kick-off meeting in Da Nang. Photo by Eric Mackres

Culture or Conditions? A Look at Sexual Assault on Public Transport

Mon, 2016-11-07 23:58

A Busy TransMilenio Commute has Some Wondering about Sexual Assault. Photo by Eli Duke / Flickr

Bogotá, Colombia was recently named the least safe transit system for women, largely due to an epidemic of sexual assault (defined here as any type of unwanted sexual touching). According to a survey, conducted in Colombia and Bolivia as part of the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship last year, 38 percent of female TransMilenio users, Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system, have been assaulted. While the case of TransMilenio is extreme, Bogotá’s system is far from alone in facing this crisis. In El Alto, Bolivia, 20 percent of female users, or one in five, have been assaulted.

The conditions within transit systems, such as extreme crowding, isolation and lack of accountability, often contribute to sexual assault and cause perpetrators to go unpunished. However, cultural norms also play a role in normalizing and trivializing violence against women. The sustainable transport community needs to recognize this and work toward changing both conditions and culture—including its own.

Sexual Assault Is a Public Health Crisis

The risk of sexual assault violates women’s right to access public space safely, and assault can have lingering consequences for victims. One study found that one-third of groping victims suffer lasting psychological consequences and nearly two-thirds are forced to change their behavior in some way—many begin closely monitoring their proximity to others (a behavior known as hypervigilance).  For public transit-dependent users, avoiding crowds may be impossible. One user of TransMilenio described her continuing stress, six years after she was assaulted:

“I was waiting for TransMilenio, and this guy came up behind me and started rubbing his genitals against me. I thought it was because the platform was so crowded, but when I got on TransMilenio, he stayed behind on the platform. He was looking at the other women, surely to do the same to them. I still don’t feel comfortable on TransMilenio. You’re always on the defensive so they don’t touch you, watching out to see who’s in front of you, who’s behind you, who’s all around you.”

This constant state of stress and hypervigilance impacts users’ emotional and psychological wellbeing and can erode trust of those around them. Less than half of assault victims on TransMilenio believed their fellow passengers would intervene if they witnessed an assault, as compared to 67 percent of women who had not suffered an assault.

Crowded Conditions Foster Assaults

TransMilenio’s legendary crowding creates an atmosphere where riders can harass women with little fear of legal or social consequences. The crowding normalizes very intimate contact with strangers. As a result, physical sensations that would normally be clear indications of assault may be ambiguous. In the most crowded vehicles, it may not even be possible to tell who, of the half-dozen people in one’s immediate proximity, is doing the touching. Both victims and witnesses have discussed feeling unable to intervene because of this ambiguity and anonymity.

Even in less crowded conditions, the normalization of intimate contact lowers the chance that the assaulter will be detected. Many women describe feeling someone pressing up against them and assume it’s because of the crowded conditions, only to realize later that the contact was inappropriate. In general, women who did not or could not confront their assaulter in the moment (whether or not they legally reported them), express more negative feelings in the aftermath.

A large crowd gathers on the TransMilenio platform in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Gwen Kash

A Culture That Discourages Action

Some people in both developing and developed countries view sexual assault as something the victims bring on themselves. An interview excerpt from Bolivia illustrates this sentiment:

“Put on a thick jacket! Don’t comb your hair! But if you go around in really tight jeans, people are going to look at you. They’re going to touch you.”

Both men and women expressed similar opinions, although many respondents of both genders also rejected the idea that women are responsible for their own victimization. A recent campaign in Curitiba, Brazil captured this alternate belief: “Today I left the house wearing makeup, but it wasn’t for you.”

Other interviewees felt both the frequency and effects of sexual assault were overstated, such as these two Colombian respondents:

“There are women who, to feel important or to be rebellious, use these mechanisms to denounce an assault to get revenge if someone evaded the fare, or didn’t let her pass, or went in front of her. It’s very common.”

“When you go to a place where there are a lot of people, there’s going to be groping. But women, just like men, feel sexual desire, so about 15-20 percent of women enjoy that this happens to them, true? But since the feminist movement appeared, women complain about everything.”

While opinions like these are troublingly common, it is worth noting that many respondents, both men and women, wholeheartedly rejected these ideas.

However, sexism is not just a problem among transit users. All three of the previous excerpts came from interviews with transit planners of varying ages. When raising awareness about assault on public transit, advocates for sustainable transport must not neglect examining their own perspectives.

The Path to Safer Transit

To successfully address sexual assault on transit, advocates need to raise awareness among both transit users and transit planners that assault is a real problem with serious consequences. It is critical to identify cultural and technical measures to reduce future assaults and make women feel safe using public transport. Drawing on the perspectives of women who have experienced assault will help gauge the effectiveness of potential remedies. For example, based on a victim’s experience with ambiguous assaults, it may be helpful to focus on empowering victims and witnesses to react in a way that avoids conflict. Addressing sexual assault is vital for improving women’s physical and emotional safety as they take transit.

In recent months, TransMilenio took an important step toward addressing sexual assault, as representatives met with several victims during the final stage of the Lee Schipper study. While awareness of existing resources, such as the Purple Hotline (offered by the Secretary of Women), is low, new recommendations include targeting awareness campaigns toward both men and women and the training of and building trust in transit police officers.

Three Ways to Tackle the Knowledge Gap in Building Energy Code Enforcement

Tue, 2016-11-01 21:30

Construction Workers in Tianjin, China. Photo: Yang Aijun / World Bank / Flickr

Cities and countries around the world are adopting building energy codes as tools to reduce energy consumption. Mexico City recently joined this wave, when, in June, the city updated its building regulations to include energy efficiency for the first time.

On paper, building codes have reduced energy use by over 30 percent in the last two decades. But building codes don’t achieve energy savings if they are not effectively implemented and enforced. The Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) found that staggering rates of noncompliance, as high as 100 percent in some jurisdictions of the United States, have eroded the gains from code development and adoption. If all new construction in the United States fully complied with building energy codes, the country would achieve annual energy savings of $63-$189 million, or lifetime savings of $37.1 billion.

In many parts of the world, code enforcement is the responsibility of local governments, where institutional capacity and resources are limited. Cities face a number of challenges in implementing and enforcing building energy codes. Two common challenges are insufficient awareness of the importance of energy efficiency and a lack of knowledge of building science or technical expertise. For many cities and countries, this knowledge gap—which applies to both code enforcement officials and building industry stakeholders—throws a wrench in the building energy code enforcement system. To combat the knowledge gap and ensure successful implementation and enforcement, Mexico City, and other local and national governments, must invest in awareness campaigns, capacity building strategies and robust compliance-check systems.

Awareness Campaigns Increase Compliance

Code enforcement officials are often responsible for enforcement of several building codes, such as structure, fire safety and energy codes. Resource and knowledge limitations may lead these enforcement officials to undervalue building energy code enforcement—a challenge revealed in a 2010 study by the American Council for Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) in the United States. Similar limitations apply for the private sector, where building architects and construction staff have to navigate through numerous regulations and energy codes. There are discussions of different ways to address resource limitations, including, but not limited to, streamlining institutional capacity, sustaining funding resources through permit fees and use of third-party enforcement firms.

Policymakers and energy agencies can raise awareness about energy issues and the multiple benefits of energy efficiency through conferences, workshops and various media channels. Public communications platforms should discuss current code requirements and the consequences of non-compliance, to ensure that all market actors (designers, engineers, developers and construction industry and finance experts) clearly understand what building energy codes require and the steps they need to take to ensure that codes are effectively implemented. Furthermore, recognition and award programs could also be helpful in incentivizing code officials and industry stakeholders to support compliance. For example, IMT and the International Code Council (ICC) created the U.S. Standard Bearers Award, which recognizes state and local jurisdictions and individuals who have reached compliance with energy codes and achieved energy reduction in buildings.

Awareness campaigns that target building owners and occupants can lead to increased interest in effective implementation of codes, providing additional incentives for developers to comply. If coupled with building ratings, awareness campaigns can inform occupants about a building’s energy use and allow them to make informed utility decisions. For instance, in China, real estate developers are required to disclose information about a building’s expected energy use when selling a property.

Capacity Building Strategies Decrease Knowledge Gap

In addition to a lack of awareness, the lack of technical expertise on how to enforce and comply with building energy codes adds to the knowledge gap. Governments need to establish targeted training and educational strategies for code enforcement officials and industry professionals. Trainings for code enforcement officials should focus on how to check compliance and be audience-specific. For example, City Energy, a joint project of NRDC and IMT, found out that single-discipline inspectors are only interested in learning about code requirements related to their specific disciplines (ie: fire safety or seismic requirements). Establishing local experts and updating code training resources is an important first step. Cities can expand on this by “training the trainers” by partnering with universities and working with industry professionals to incorporate energy efficiency into educational courses and professional certifications. Additionally, international best practices show that compliance software can help simplify design evaluation and assure compliance among all actors involved in code implementation. Where software is not accessible, simple spreadsheet tools can be equally helpful.

In a pilot program in Indian states Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, more than 700 architects, engineers and experts received training on Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) to boost the states’ building code implementation and enforcement capacity. In Telangana, the state government, Administrative Staff College of India and Natural Resources Defense Council, along with experts at the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), conducted workshops to increase capacity among stakeholders on the code compliance process. Other initiatives, supported by the national energy agency, Bureau of Energy Efficiency, include setting up state level ECBC cells and a mobile phone app for building designers to ensure code compliance. However, as these efforts are relatively new, it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

Compliance Checks at Key Points in Building Lifecycle

The third strategy to reduce the knowledge gap involves a robust compliance-check system, which ensures energy code realization. The International Energy Agency (IEA) identified four key stages throughout a building’s lifecycle when compliance checks are conducted. These include the design, construction, pre-occupancy and post-occupancy stages.

Building Energy Code Compliance Cycle. Image courtesy of IEA 2014

Compliance checks are most effective when integrated with local building permit systems. According to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, building energy codes are integrated into enforcement processes in China. First, this requires a certified third-party to verify mandatory code compliance before developers may apply for construction permits. Second, a third-party supervisor and local authorities check and inspect the construction process. Finally, upon project completion, all parties (developer, designer, constructor and supervisor) co-verify that the project meets all standards, including building energy codes, before the developer registers the project and applies for occupancy permits. If buildings don’t comply with energy codes, the local government can suspend construction, withhold permits and issue fines. The robust compliance-check system in China has been successfully implemented for many years and has inspired discussion in research publications, including those by the ACEEE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Building energy codes are important for saving energy, but implementing and enforcing them can be a challenging task that requires time and resources. Even the aforementioned examples of good practice have significant room for improvement. It is therefore crucial that code-adopting countries and code-implementing cities mobilize resources and share best practices to ensure compliance and provide better buildings for all.

Development Finance Institutions Have a Role to Play in Creating Sustainable Cities

Tue, 2016-11-01 18:37

Bus rapid transit in Florianópolis, Brazil. Photo by Dylan Passmore / Flickr

By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities, increasing the size of the world’s urban population by more than two-thirds. Cities will need to focus on building the right things to ensure this growth happens sustainably—so how can they pay for it?

Recognizing that finance is a core issue of sustainable urban development and one of cities’ biggest challenges, the International Development Finance Club (IDFC) hosted a side event on this topic at Habitat III in Quito.

The discussion, which featured leaders from CAF-Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), Agence Française de Développement (AFD), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the National Planning Department of Colombia (DNP) highlighted four key insights about financing sustainable cities. In short, development finance institutions can play a big role in bridging the funding gap, but only with the right partners and policies in place:

1. Growing cities should seek better outcomes, not just more finance.

A long-term plan for a city with at least a 10-15-year horizon sets the stage for how it develops and what projects will ultimately need financing. Ultimately, it’s not just about the money, but what cities build with it. The New Urban Agenda adopted in Quito provides cities with standards for sustainable urban development that they can incorporate into these plans, and the Sustainable Development Goals and countries’ national climate plans (NDCs) provide still more important considerations. One critical characteristic of these plans, as noted by Simón Gaviria, chief director of the DNP, is that they should serve citizens’ rather than the government’s needs.

Development finance institutions (DFIs) can help cities develop strong and effective plans. For instance, Koki Hirota, JICA’s chief economist, shared how JICA has supported hundreds of master plans for cities undergoing rapid urbanization in an effort to support development while preventing future inefficiencies in delivering services to city populations.

2. Development finance institutions are ready to unstick cities struggling with project preparation.

Once plans are in place, cities often need help with feasibility studies and preparation to get projects like bus-rapid transit systems or building efficiency retrofits to a stage where they are “bankable,” or financially viable and able to secure financing from third-party sources. However, city governments, which can be good at designing broader city plans, often hit a wall when it comes to creating a pipeline of bankable projects. DFIs are helping to address this challenge. As Rémy Rioux, AFD’s CEO, explained, AFD launched its 100 cities/100 Climate Projectsinitiative last year at COP21, which provides grants to cover project preparation costs and then lends to projects once they are developed.

3. Scaling can happen only if local financial institutions and agencies play a prominent role.

Local institutions like local commercial banks and mayor’s offices understand the local financial system, players, challenges and opportunities. So it’s important that national and international institutions work with the local players. In light of this, the DNP is making an effort to collect data to better understand Colombia’s cities. DFIs can collaborate with local government and financial institutions to provide additional funds and knowledge. One approach is to provide a loan to a local financial institution for “on-lending,” where the local financial institution uses the borrowed money to provide loans to its clients, which in this case, are cities.

4. The best outcomes come from partnerships and coordination with a range of actors.

The involvement of mayors, national planning agencies, private sector developers and investors, and civil society groups are all needed to develop and finance sustainable cities. DFIs can bring financing to the table, and they can also help enhance coordination between these different actors. For example, in CAF’s Cities with a Future project in Guayaquil, Ecuador, CAF’s financing for housing, transport, water and sanitation programs  helped transform the city and improve quality of life of its citizens. The program involved strong coordination with multiple actors, including the mayor, city planners, community organizations, local agencies, private sector operators and utility companies.

A Need for Further Innovation

While DFIs are already doing much to support sustainable urban development, there’s room for more innovation. Part of this involves further exploration of instruments and models that would support investments in sustainable urban services, like guarantees to de-risk projects, bonds to raise debt financing from pension funds, or public-private partnerships to capture land value. Another area involves direct engagement with cities. DFIs often ask cities to provide a guarantee from the national government (ensuring that payment obligations will be met) before providing them with finance; this can cause delays or limit cities’ options if the national government refuses. IDFC members like AFD do not have this requirement. Changing internal policies to allow DFIs to channel funds directly to city governments would open new doors for collaboration.

As underscored by Enrique García, CEO of CAF, during the discussion, DFIs are looking to play a catalytic role in creating sustainable cities. The hope is that with these innovations and the continued support of DFIs, cities in developing countries can grow and thrive for generations to come.

Habitat III: Milestone for the World’s Cities or Business as Usual?

Mon, 2016-10-31 21:19

Quito, Ecuador, site of Habitat III. Photo by Cristian Ibarra Santillan / Flickr

Two weeks ago, 30,000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for Habitat III, the once-every-20-years UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development. At the conference, 167 country representatives adopted a non-binding but influential vision for cities of the future known as the New Urban Agenda (NUA). This declaration will help steer national decision-making over the next two decades while it supports the Sustainable Development Goals – especially Goal 11 on cities – and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Going forward, what does the Quito meeting mean for urban leaders?

Forward on Equity, Missed Opportunity for Implementation

Beyond climate action, the conference recognized the need for social inclusion. While participants used different language to describe their focus on equity — “The Right to the City,” “Cities for All,” “Leave No One Behind” — the conversation centered on how urban design and policy can be used to improve quality of life, safety and prosperity for all urban residents. WRI’s launch of the first installment of the World Resources Report in Quito helped move the conversation from theory to action.

Another positive sign was the inclusion of a wide range of participants in the conference. Civil society organizations and the business community both had strong voices in the discussion, demonstrating their intent to invest in the future of cities and their belief in the importance of good urban development. Local governments also displayed a commitment to action, including the commitment of 7,100 cities to measure, report and set targets for carbon emissions as part of the Global Covenant of Mayors. After a challenging process of coming to agreement around the New Urban Agenda, it was clear from Habitat III that pivoting toward action will require including these voices.

Habitat III also saw a few new commitments from countries, multi-lateral development banks and other stakeholders to help achieve the goals of the NUA, including safe and accessible urban services, strong urban planning policies at the local and national level and action-oriented partnerships for implementation. For example, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development committed $1 billion in Euros next year to finance sustainable urban mobility projects around the world. The Global Platform for Sustainable Cities, led by the Global Environment Facility in partnership with WRI, the World Bank and others, also launched a resource group to bring together global thought leaders to create new decision making tools for cities. Going forward, the international community will need to build on these initiatives to continue the momentum post-Quito.

What’s Next?

Less than a month after Quito, international negotiators will meet in Marrakech to chart the next steps for action on climate change. Urban champions should leverage the NUA to ensure that the role of cities in mitigating and adapting to climate impacts is on the agenda. The Paris Agreement was not a key topic in Quito, but cities need to be part of the climate discussions at COP22, since cities are where some of the most severe climate effects will be felt and where an increasing slice of the global population will live. The New Urban Agenda aligns with the core of both the climate process and the Sustainable Development Goals, as future solutions for urban challenges will need to be aligned with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels, and NUA’s core message is that development must be more equitable and inclusive. Initiatives such as the Global Covenant of Mayors and the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate can help jump-start these discussions.

Balancing power and responsibility between local and national governments as they start implementing the NUA will be tricky, but necessary. Local actors should continue to draw on the NUA to guide decision-making, while national and regional bodies should seek the frameworks best suited to their laws to support and empower cities.

One of the conference’s missed opportunities was the low profile of the Quito Implementation Plan (the UN’s proposed platform for coordinating and publicizing efforts from non-state actors and stakeholders), which could have helped maintain momentum. Implementation might still be strengthened using provisions of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

It is also essential to begin the discussion of how to hold national governments accountable for the commitments they’ve made through the Habitat III process. Without accountability, it will be impossible to ensure that all are doing their part to achieve these urban and global goals.

As the world celebrates the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, we must remember that the hard part is only just beginning. The pressure is now on us to ensure that the legacy of Habitat III is one of action. The resounding message from the tens of thousands of Habitat participants, and the surprisingly high number of young people at the conference, clearly states that our future is an urban one, and it has never been more important to make sure we do it right.


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