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50 Shades of Shared: How For-Hire Vehicles Got Their Start in India

Mon, 2017-08-28 09:31

Taxis emerge in Indian Cities during Phase 1 and 2. Saad Akhtar/Flickr

India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of for-hire vehicles (FHVs), the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.

Street-hail vehicles dominated the taxi and FHV market generally for the greater part of the 20th century. However, public opinion turned against traditional services in the 1990s, resulting in policy shifts that arguably led to a deterioration of the sector and lower-quality service. This opened the doors to private dispatch services to provide a better experience. These two phases in India’s FHV market are fundamental to understanding how the current regulatory framework evolved and why it is proving so controversial to regulate app-based services today.

Phase 1: Street-Hail

Street-hail vehicles were the first FHVs in India and continue to operate to this day. Primarily, these include individually owned and operated city taxis and auto-rickshaws that can be hailed-off the street, from a designated stand or, more recently, via the web or mobile services.

Taxis were first introduced to India in 1911 to compliment horse-drawn wagons. Auto-rickshaws hit Indian streets in 1959. Institutionalized under the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, city taxis and auto-rickshaws are qualified to operate commercially and provide point-to-point transport services for a regulated fee. Each state sets rules for issuing permits, pricing mechanisms, driver requirements and vehicle guidelines. Such extensive regulation was premised on customers’ inability to assess the quality of drivers and their vehicles before trips and the efficiency of controlling prices. As explored in part three of this series, this premise is challenged today by app-based services that allow customers to view driver ratings and real-time pricing before hailing a ride via the internet.

Auto-rickshaws and city taxis were well-received in India, given the lack of adequate mass transit networks and low personal vehicle ownership. They provided a vital service to all urban dwellers, connecting commuters to the nearest mass transit station and facilitating daily trips to work and to markets.

However, as personal vehicle ownership grew in the 1990s and 2000s, several Indian cities began to reconsider street-hail vehicles, due to high levels of congestion and air pollution. Led by Delhi, several cities instituted a cap on the total number of permits that could be issued to private taxis and auto-rickshaws.

Permit caps have been used extensively around the world to balance supply and demand, protect driver income, and ensure quality service for commuters. Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transport, writes that “decades of experience with taxi regulation have shown the need to retain more extensive regulations, including numerical controls and fare regulation, for ‘flag’ service (e.g., taxi stands and street hail) to prevent oversupply, fare gouging and chaotic street conditions.”

However, in many Indian cities, permit caps led to a deteriorating street-hail experience. The price of permits skyrocketed on the black market to 600 times the government price, while drivers struggled to make a living due to exorbitant hikes in daily vehicle rents. Commuters found it increasingly difficult to hail vehicles off the street in low-density or non-lucrative areas of the city, as bargaining, overcharging and refusing trips became commonplace.

Phase 2: Dispatch Services

Discontent among some commuters, combined with growing demand for reliable transport services in India’s fast-growing cities, created a business opportunity.

The turn of the century brought mobile phones to urban India. Drivers could now be contacted while they were on the road. By the mid-2000s, several companies were operating large fleets of centrally organized taxis in major cities. Mega Cabs pioneered the model in Delhi in 2001, after which Meru Cabs, Easy Cabs and Tab Cab entered the market. These companies could access capital in ways that individual taxi owners could not. At the peak of the model, Meru Cabs, Mega Cabs and Easy Cabs operated 22,000 cabs across 20 cities.

Commuters could now call one number and book a ride anywhere in the city. An air-conditioned car (or auto-rickshaw would arrive at their doorstep within a stipulated time. Overnight, dispatch taxi services, or “radio taxis,” became known for their reliability and quality of service. Drivers were less likely to refuse trips or bargain over fares, which street-hail services had become notorious for. Dispatch services began to corner the market for those that could afford their services and for longer trips such as to the airport or train station.

As the dispatch market grew, state governments regarded these services as a new “luxury” segment of FHVs. The other category under the luxury segment, “tourist taxis,” were earmarked for package rental services for inter- and intra-city travel, but not for point-to-point services. The perceived need for dispatch services, that the street-hail and tourist taxi market could not fulfill, led to the relatively non-controversial introduction of new regulations.

New “radio taxi” rules were first launched by Chandigarh, Delhi and Maharashtra in 2006. They brought changes in three areas. First, a company was now required to be the provider of the service, not an individual. Second, the manner of how a taxi could be hailed was expanded to include booking by phone or website. And third, a higher quality vehicle type, including air-conditioning, was required. Apart from these, not much changed. Dispatch services were still required to ply at government-approved rates and vehicles and drivers had to be compliant with the Motor Vehicles Act.

The introduction of these rules had a major effect on the market, however. They opened the doors for private investment in transit, previously the domain of public agencies and individual permit holders only. Market reports estimated that the dispatch taxi market was worth at least $2 billion, an opportunity that private investors responded to quickly. Meru Cabs raised $75 million alone, and the number of competitors in each city exploded.

However, the bulk of this funding was earmarked to increase the size of company fleets, rather than to improve responsiveness or other aspects of the user experience. Meanwhile, the market was shifting again with the advent of smartphones and the gig-economy, which was about to revolutionize how users access transit options everywhere.

Part three of the series will explore in-depth the rise of Ola, Uber and other ride-hailing apps, and what lies beyond for India’s for-hire vehicle sector.

Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

New Transited-Oriented Development Policy Has Big Implications for India’s Cities

Wed, 2017-08-23 14:50

A hypothetical development using transit-oriented development principles along a metro rail. Graphic by Neha Mungekar and Nikhil Chaudhary/WRI India

India’s burgeoning cities are famous the world over for their startling vibrancy – and, sometimes, their startling problems. A new national policy, enshrining more transit-friendly development principles, aims to steer urban planning in the world’s largest democracy towards more compact and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and streets.

The World Bank projects that India will lead the global urban surge in the decades ahead, adding 404 million urbanites by 2050. However, to date, much of this growth has been unplanned, leading to sprawl and all its attendant effects like longer trips, higher use of private vehicles and more air pollution. The New Climate Economy estimates sprawl could cost India’s economy as much as 6 percent of GDP every year by 2050. Horizontal growth is even cutting into the hinterlands. In 2010, McKinsey estimated that India could save 6.2 million hectares of arable land through more effective land-use planning by 2030.

New policy, adopted by the Ministry of Urban Development in May, seeks to shift current practices to encourage denser, healthier, more productive cities. The National Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Policy recommends transit and land use strategies for compact, mixed-use development, that gives citizens access both to open space and transport services.

An Inflection Point?

The National TOD Policy is critical to achieving the goal of livable, well-connected communities. Currently, only a small handful of cities and states in India have TOD strategies. The policy will provide a much-needed impetus to encourage more local governments to implement TOD concepts into their urban planning.

Such strategies can spur investment in multimodal connectivity (buses, bicycles, transit, walking, and cars), improvements to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and development near transit stations. It might not be too dramatic to say that such an official encouragement may represent an inflection point where compact, coordinated and connected development starts to become the norm across Indian cities.

Indian cities and states that have TOD policies. Table by WRI India

The National TOD Policy highlights the government’s resolve to address issues faced by existing and emerging urban areas. However, the ultimate success of such policies depends on cross-disciplinary integration and partnerships at various tiers of government – not to mention the private sector.

WRI India applauds the new policy and urges policymakers to consider next steps:

  • Government at all levels should review and revise existing policies and regulations to include TOD and promote better understanding of TOD through communications materials.
  • State governments should direct cities to include TOD in their development plans. If they are already prepared, amendments should be issued.
  • States should monitor progress by setting up special departments for TOD implementation. This will ensure that crucial factors, such as financing and governance, are well addressed.
  • City planners should consider the unique needs of individual neighborhoods and evaluate the best use of existing infrastructure.
  • City governments should also identify and create an inventory of informal housing, so TOD is not a stepping stone to gentrification.

The use of transit-oriented development as an urban growth strategy is relatively new in India. Translating policy to action will require a multi-pronged approach. States and cities should take a contextual approach based on local trends, market behavior and city requirements. But if implemented well, the new TOD policy could improve the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions.

Prerna Vijaykumar Mehta is the Manager for Urban Development and Accessibility at WRI India Sustainable Cities

Merlyn Mathew is a consultant with WRI India Sustainable Cities

50 Shades of Shared: The Evolution of India’s Taxis, Rickshaws and Other For-Hire-Vehicles

Mon, 2017-08-21 19:16

Photo by Chris Bird/Flickr

India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of the for-hire vehicles sector, the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.

Indian cities are growing at an unprecedented rate and an accompanying surge in the demand for transport services is inevitable. Forecasts suggest that by 2031, urban Indians will take nearly half a billion trips a day. Today, most of these journeys are completed on foot or bicycle, but as cities continue to sprawl and the distance traveled increases (from 11 kilometers on average in 2011 to 15 kilometers by 2031), the need for motorized trips will grow.

In cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, public transit makes up the largest share of motorized trips, but for-hire-vehicles, such as city taxis and autorickshaws, have long played a significant role as well. An integral part of many Indian cities, they often fill the gap between public and private transport. The recent growth of large, privately run fleets and the development of on-demand technology have increased the options available to commuters, while also changing the way these services are accessed.

This raises important questions about the future of the sector. Will mobility in Indian cities be categorized by separate public and private options, or will there be varying shades of shared options? Can innovations reduce travel time and meet rising demand, while also reducing emissions?

A Changing Market

In India, the for-hire vehicle (FHV) sector has been dominated by city taxis and autorickshaws for decades. Every day, millions of people employ their services in a range of contexts, from “last-mile” connectivity along public transit routes, to a cheaper alternative to owning a private vehicle, to simply providing more reliable service than public transit. According to the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Greater Mumbai, FHVs accounted for 1.4 million trips a day or 16 percent of the city’s motorized mode share in 2015.

But over the last 15 years, private sector investments, advancements in technology and the increasing use of mobile phones have transformed how people interact with FHVs. Now, urban commuters may choose to hail a taxi or autorickshaw the old-fashioned way, but they can also call, text, WhatsApp or e-hail them, or even request just a seat in a shared taxi or bus.

The trajectory of the FHV market in India can be broken into four phases, which will be explored in greater detail over the course of this series.


Phase 1: The first phase of FHVs in India, beginning in 1959, is iconic with its black and yellow taxis and autorickshaws. Similar to the yellow medallion taxis of New York and the tuk-tuks of Thailand, these ecosystems are largely informal and unorganized but continue to this day. Though many regard city taxis and auto-rickshaws as dependable and affordable, they are also notorious for refusing rides, bargaining over fares and providing poor income to drivers.

Phase 2:  Recognizing the opportunity for formalized FHV services, several fleet management companies started emerging at the turn of the century to better organize drivers. They allowed commuters to pre-book a vehicle via phone or website. A vehicle would then be dispatched from a central base or call center. Known in India as the radio taxi or fleet taxi model, this second phase systematized a relatively unorganized sector and brought in measures of quality control.

Phase 3: Further improvements in mobile technology ushered in the “aggregator” or “on-demand” phase. Companies no longer had to own a fleet, and factors such as customer discovery, driver routing and dispatch became simpler and more automated. Companies simply connected drivers to commuters via smart phones. Aggregator services are also expanding to include bigger vehicles, such as buses, and using crowdsourcing technology to develop new routes that better meet customer demand.

Phase 4: We are only beginning to see the fourth phase, of mobility as a service with more seamless, multi-modal commuting experiences. In cities such as Helsinki, Paris, Las Vegas and Singapore, access to transit is becoming a commodity. The vision is of a digital platform on which you can buy units of mobility across all modes of transport, from public to shared to private, instead of paying for individual bus tickets, cab rides or buying a car. In India, we are seeing the initial building blocks of such an ecosystem being put into place. A plethora of apps are already in the market, leveraging crowdsourcing and open data to provide real-time information, allow for cashless transactions and enable commuters to choose from a range of options.

The Future of Urban Mobility in India?

The connected vision of multi-modal transit in Indian cities, where for-hire vehicles blend seamlessly with public transit options, is still in its infancy. Most mass transit options such as city buses and suburban rail networks continue to be managed by public agencies. Private players have tried to step up and plug service gaps, but they have been thwarted by regulatory barriers.

The future depends on smart regulation and nuanced public policy that can balance a legitimate concern for the public good, commuter safety and system efficiency, with the innovations and investment that the private sector can provide.

Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

New York’s Plan to Save Subway Seen as a Test for New Ways to Support Transit

Wed, 2017-08-16 22:47

New York Subway. Photo by Adrian Scottow / Flickr

For the first time in over two decades, transit ridership in New York City is on a downward trend—and we should have seen it coming.

Once a trailblazer for investment in mass transit, New York’s subway system is starting to show its age with consistent delays, numerous breakdowns and overall crumbling service. Despite its relatively high rate of farebox return (73 percent), the Metropolitan Transit Authority is scrambling to pull together resources to keep the system afloat for its 5.7 million daily riders. So far, fare hikes and cutbacks on train frequency have proven to be about as successful as Band-Aids covering a crack in the Hoover Dam.

Funding for transit systems around the U.S. have been plagued for decades, as they rely heavily on government subsidies, which receive just a small slice of the Highway Trust Fund pie. And that piece continues to shrink as the federal gas tax remains unadjusted for inflation since 1993.

To solve the problems that are only now surfacing in New York, Mayor De Blasio has proposed a logical, yet bold plan in an election year: to increase taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of city residents, individuals making more than $500,000 a year. The hike would mean their income tax rate would go from 3.88 to 4.41 percent, raising nearly $800 million a year to fix the deteriorating subway. In addition, a portion of the funds would go toward helping riders who fall below the federal poverty line with half-price fares, nearly 800,000 individuals.

The initiative is logical from an economics perspective because it equally distributes economic burden, but it’s also one of first times a sitting politician has proposed such a “Millionaires’ Tax” to fix a transit network that is traditionally, and predominately, relied on by lower- and middle-income residents. The mayor’s strategy can be further classified as a vertical equity scheme, where those who have the ability to pay more, should pay more.

As cities like New York, and others around the globe, continue to battle the growing urban crisis of crumbling transit infrastructure and widening inequality, strategies like the one proposed by Mayor De Blasio may be a sign of how future public utilities will be financed—especially with a shrinking middle class and a federal government unwilling to step in.

Taxing the wealthy to improve public transit has been successful across the globe. In Nottingham, home of the legendary Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, new parking fees (a proxy for taxing income) helped pay for two new tram lines and other bus and rail improvements in just four years In Seattle, a new ordinance increases the income tax for high-earning residents to pay for affordable housing programs, public transit and other critical city needs. When asked for comment, the mayor called it a “fight for economic stability, equity and justice.”

Still, a similar measure in New York would be a significant, given its size, wealth and global importance. As De Blasio’s proposal moves ahead, several questions must be considered: Is this model sustainable? Can it be adopted elsewhere? Will it raise enough funds to fix the Transit Authority and reverse ridership declines?

In the meantime, all eyes are on New York…so “start spreading the news.”

BRTData Enhances Indicators to Improve Accuracy and Comparisons

Tue, 2017-08-15 14:47

Bogotá, Colombia’s BRT, TransMilenio. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina / Flickr

Since 2012, has provided up-to-date information on bus rapid transit systems (BRTs) in more than 200 cities, from passenger data to coverage and costs. Developed in partnership with the Centre of Excellence for Bus Rapid Transit, International Energy Agency and Latin American Association of Integrated Transport Systems and Bus Rapid Transit, the site is the most comprehensive online database of bus corridor systems available worldwide.

But over the years, the criteria used to classify BRT systems has undergone changes. In an effort to maintain consistency , WRI is making changes to align its corridor definition with the benchmarks and quality standards established by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Implemented for the first time in Curitiba, Brazil, BRTs have the capacity to transform cities by improving public transit at relatively small cost, reducing harmful carbon emissions and increasing productivity. BRTs are already present in cities on five continents, and was created in part to track its spread and various implementations.

As its grown, however, a need to establish stricter quality standards has become apparent, as recognized by the BRT Standard Technical Committee. Following their recommendations, from now on, BRT corridors will be defined as one or more contiguous lanes served by one or multiple bus lines with a minimum length of three kilometers that has segregated or exclusive bus lanes. If the segregated lane is aligned to the curb, at least one of the following elements must be present: (1) prepayment of the tariff; (2) priority traffic signaling; (3) a boarding level or (4) a unique brand and logo.

These changes resulted in the exclusion of a total of 94 systems/corridors from The new database accounts for 358 registered corridors in 164 cities totaling 4,874 kilometers of infrastructure. All these networks benefit 32.2 million passengers per day.

For cities, it is important to have widely applicable standards that make comparisons and performance indicators meaningful. Quality of service can also be better verified by following clearly defined parameters. The BRT TransOlímpica corridor in Rio de Janeiro, for example, underwent an evaluation earlier this year and received a silver rating from the BRT Quality Standard Technical Committee. Implemented as part of the Rio de Janeiro commitments to host the 2016 Olympic Games, TransOlímpica has 17 stations spread over 26 kilometers and meets a daily demand of 40,000 passengers. The assessment serves not only as validation but points to things to improve as well.

But even beyond improving individual systems, the standards have the potential to help planners replicate the most effective approaches in cities without BRTs. By following this standard, will enable more accurate research and continue serving as the most comprehensive hub of BRT data worldwide.

Can Reef and Beach Insurance Improve Coastal Resilience?

Mon, 2017-08-14 16:04

Aerial photography of Punta Gorda, on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast. Photo by Carlton Ward

When you hear the word “nature,” what do you think about? A pristine beach? Maybe your favorite wild animal? Nature means different things to different people. But do you think of nature as a powerful source of protection from storms, rising sea levels and other negative impacts of climate change?

You should.

Climate change is no longer a distant threat. We are living with the reality of it, right here and right now. The impacts of climate disruption from Florida to Fiji, and everywhere in between are clearcostly and widespread, as storms, floods and droughts become more severe and less predictable. Storms are costing the world $300 billion a year, and 68,000 people are being displaced every single day.

We can’t afford to do nothing – literally.

An estimated 840 million people around the world live with the risk of coastal flooding, many in coastal cities. For these communities, the health of their economies is directly related to the health of coastal ecosystems. For example, in 2012, while Hurricane Sandy did tremendous damage to the eastern United States, coastal wetlands likely saved more than $625 million in additional flood damages across coastal communities in 12 states. And, in the Philippines, mangroves are expected to avert more than $1.6 billion in damages for 1-in-25 year events, and $1.7 billion in damages from 1-in-50 year events.

Seawalls, breakwaters and sand bags often come to mind first for disaster preparedness tools, but these are not the only options. And sometimes they aren’t even the best option. Natural resources, including coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, sand dunes and healthy beaches, offer the first lines of defense to slow waves, reduce flooding and protect coastal people and property.

Coral reefs protect 200 million people around the world. A healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, and just 100 meters of mangroves can reduce wave height by 66 percent. These nature-based solutions are cost-effective, self-maintaining and adaptable to sea-level rise. And they also offer other benefits to communities that traditional “grey infrastructure” solutions simply can’t, including improved water quality, more fish and new ecotourism opportunities. In fact, there are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have “million dollar” coral reefs – reefs that generate more than one million dollars in value per square kilometer.

Economists, engineers, insurers and conservationists are together developing new science, models and strategies to evaluate and leverage the protective services of this natural infrastructure, including coral reefs and beaches, and to make sure they can be restored after damaging storms.

Indeed, one of the most promising new developments to maximize the value of nature is the possibility of actually putting an insurance policy on it – to protect the health and protective services of these ecosystems and ensure they are restored after extreme storms hit. This combination of insurance and science could be a powerful step toward protecting and improving the health of reefs and beaches so they can continue to protect us.

The Nature Conservancy is currently designing and testing the first-ever insurance mechanism to leverage the protective services of reefs and beaches to create new financing for restoration and protection. If successful, similar insurance might cover other naturally protective systems like mangrove forests and coastal marshes and even oyster reefs.

The increased threats of severe storms and climate impacts are here today – but so too are replicable and scalable nature-based solutions. We need action at all levels, from the international to the local, to shift our behavior and thinking around nature and drive investment in nature at a level equal to the value it provides us.

Now is the time to examine the full suite of solutions available to protect and sustain coastal communities and economies – and that includes taking a closer look at the potential of insuring nature to ensure nature keeps protecting us.

Kathy Baughman McLeod is the Managing Director for Risk and Investment at The Nature Conservancy. To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work on insuring reefs and beaches, visit

Global Solutions, Local Scale: Recycling Efforts Show Promising Path for Climate Action

Thu, 2017-08-10 14:55

It’s time for cities and businesses to take charge on recycling. Photo by Mo Riza/Flickr

Now that cities can no longer rely on the U.S. federal government to take serious action on the global threat of climate change, many are seeing a path to success through collaboration. Legions of businesses, cities and nonprofits are banding together to support global solutions on a local scale.

This collaborative self-reliance has been a growing trend over the years, with groups such as the Compact of Mayors and We Mean Business using the collective power of outside players to support effective climate action not only in the United States, but across the world. Local governments are saddled with the responsibility of providing the services needed to promote the well-being of their residents and communities, and achieving those goals often requires the support of businesses and nonprofits.

Here in the U.S. we have seen the powerful results that can be achieved when these groups work together in the uphill battle to recycle right.

Despite the common misperception that recycling is universal in the U.S., only half of American households have access to curbside recycling infrastructure. This represents a tremendous lost opportunity for communities to prosper from the environmental and economic benefits that recycling can provide. The public wants to break this cycle. As referenced in The Recycling Partnership’s 2016 State of Curbside Report, 94 percent of the U.S. population wants to recycle.

Recycling is an effective way for cities to reach their climate commitments because it reduces the amount of waste that enters landfills and extends the useful life of existing materials. The methane and carbon dioxide released by landfill waste add to the greenhouse gas emissions that are adversely affecting the climate. In 2015 alone, recycling in the U.S. prevented 410 million tons of greenhouse gases from being emitted, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 43 million homes. What’s more, 20 jobs are generated for every 10 tons of recycled materials, versus just one job for the same amount of landfill waste, underscoring the promising impact recycling can have on the nation’s economy.

How can we improve recycling efforts to unlock these benefits for all communities? The answer lies in an innovative partnership model that brings together corporations with city and state governments.

CEO of The Recycling Partnership Keefe Harrison. Photo by The Recycling Partnership

In the last three years alone, The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit, has applied funding from more than 30 corporations, such as Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Target, to improve curbside recycling infrastructure in more than 420 U.S. cities. Although the scope of work in each city is varied, projects include improving the recycling infrastructure and system itself through placing new blue curbside recycling carts and training city staff and communications campaigns that raise awareness about recycling programs and educate residents on how to recycle properly.

The Recycling Partnership works closely with each city to help make the most of their recycling programs. This often involves expert analysis of the local system, funding and development of targeted campaigns and infrastructure improvements, and personal assistance to ensure that city officials have the tools and knowledge they need for long-term success. Such hands-on involvement improves curbside recycling programs, reducing costs for cities and improving service for residents.

Making recycling more convenient for residents directly reduces the amount of waste headed to landfills and creates immediate, substantial benefits. Beyond the positive effect on climate change, the more a city recycles, the more jobs and revenue that can enter its communities, lifting up residents of every background and income level.

Despite the federal government’s disheartening announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, all is not lost. As progress on recycling has shown, cities and businesses can do much on their own to plant the seeds for a low-carbon future.

Keefe Harrison is CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit transforming recycling in cities and towns across the United States.

Building Better Cities for Pedestrians Means Connecting the ‘Last Mile’

Tue, 2017-08-08 20:27

Planning for pedestrians involves considering the entire mobility system. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil

We are all pedestrians. Even if a car is your primary means of transportation, you are a pedestrian from the moment you park your vehicle and walk to your destination. This is also true if you use the bus, subway or bicycle.

But if that’s the case, why aren’t cities more walkable? The lack of attention and funds for pedestrian infrastructure in many places stems from political, economic and cultural challenges. It also stems from how we think of mobility.

Much of the time when cities study foot traffic, they consider only journeys completed entirely on foot. With this measure, governments decide if pedestrian infrastructure should receive funding. But such trips aren’t the only pedestrian journeys in a city. Many people walk long distances to or from bus or subway stations. These trips to and from public transit are called “last mile” trips, and are arguably one of the most important for pedestrians and the smooth functioning of public transit systems.

A Virtuous Cycle

Ignoring last-mile connectivity can create a destructive cycle for a public transit system, as fewer riders use the service and fewer resources are invested in it. Paying closer attention can boost ridership and investment in surprising ways.

Security, or perceived security, while walking or cycling to a station can determine a person’s willingness to use the service in the future. For example, a person may not feel comfortable walking even 100 meters if next to a highway that allows high-speed travel. However, a person may be willing to walk or bike much further if along a well paved, tree-lined route with sufficient lighting.

A survey last year by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority sought to demonstrate the benefits of investments in improving pedestrian access to subway stations. In a sample of 62 projects that received “relatively small” investments totaling $13 million, the study concluded a return of more than $24 million over 30 years. Improvements in bicycle infrastructure were calculated from an analysis of accident data. The implementation of 141 bicycle projects is estimated to have prevented 84 accidents per year in the area surrounding the six surveyed stations. When calculating the average expenses associated with injuries and damage caused by bicycle accidents, the study estimated the changes saved some $11 million.

“Improving station access for walkers and cyclists not only makes Metro more attractive to those who currently live and work within walking and biking distance from each station, but helps promote ridership from new growth as it comes on line near Metro stations. Together, by better connecting both existing and future land uses, relatively small investments can have lasting financial benefits for Metro, its funders, and the region,” the report states.

Improving pedestrian access can mean more people utilize public transport. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil

The research also points out that improving access to stations on foot was directly linked to an increase in the system’s revenue. “Improving bicycle and pedestrian access to Metrorail stations helps stabilize rail ridership and reduce growth in public subsidy to Metro,” it says.

Secure Access

Good infrastructure planning for pedestrians is a key factor in sustainable mobility. As cities build and expand their transportation systems, there is a growing need for integrated planning, implementation, and evaluation of projects that can take into account the many ways pedestrians interact with a city’s transport systems.

Acessos Seguros,” by WRI Brasil, for example, provides guidelines on how to address the need for improved accessibility around public transit stations, taking into account the unique characteristics of each location. These factors many range from the number of people the system needs to accommodate to land use and historical and environmental characteristics. The 8 Principles of the Sidewalk,” meanwhile, shows that sidewalks can and should be much more than a paved path, helping people move safely and quickly through cities.

Cities must understand that urban design affects the way society behaves. Recognizing the advantages of foot traffic and the effect investments in pedestrian infrastructure can have on mass transit is the first step toward holistic planning that centers around people.

Paula Santos is the Accessibility and Urban Mobility Coordinator at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Paula Tanscheit is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

This was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Sheela Patel on the Urban Housing Crisis: Think Big, Act Local

Mon, 2017-08-07 18:50

The walk to water for one resident of Dharavi in Mumbai. Photo by Meena Kadri/Flickr

From evictions and skyrocketing rents to substandard infrastructure and services, many residents in cities across the global south face acute housing challenges. And the problem is growing. According to estimates, one-in-three people in cities are unable to access affordable and secure housing, leading to burgeoning slums in many fast-growing cities.

Sheela Patel, chair of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI), recently sat down with WRI to discuss the latest installment of the World Resources Report, “Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing.”

For decades, Patel has been a champion for the needs of the urban poor. In 1984, she founded the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, an Indian NGO that partners with communities to expand access to housing and basic services for the urban poor. Today, she is well known across India, Africa and Latin America for her work with SDI extending lines of micro-credit, stopping evictions, and helping organize networks of urban poor to better advocate for their own concerns.

Here, we share three of her key messages.

The Scale of the Problem

The global housing gap is enormous and it’s not getting better, Patel says. Currently, 330 million households in cities around the world, equivalent to 1.2 billion people, do not have access to affordable and secure housing. By 2025, this number is estimated to grow by 30 percent, to 1.6 billion people.

All this growth means that decisions made now will have a significant impact on housing for decades to come. As urbanization intensifies in Asia and Africa, the challenge will get worse without a change in approach.

“We are at a very critical point at which we have to make decisions not only to address the challenges of the deficits today,” Patel says, “but that that process will help us deal with the increase that cities will face [in the future].”

There’s No One Size-Fits-All Answer

Patel echoes a key finding of WRI’s research: there’s no one size-fits-all solution. Instead, practitioners should explore a range of approaches that have proved promising in cities around the world.

“One of them, which is very close to our heart, is the one that looks at upgrading existing informal settlements,” she says. Participatory slum “upgrading” provides residents secure tenure and basic services in the places they already live, rather than relocating them to locations devoid of economic opportunity, and includes their input in the process.

Much of Patel’s work around the world has been focused on upgrading slums in a way that is resident-driven. This model has been demonstrated in several contexts, including India and Thailand, but runs counter to the approach in many cities of simply displacing or relocating slum residents to the urban periphery to make way for new construction within the city. WRI’s research suggests this only exacerbates the growth of slums and inequality in cities.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

Finally, Patel notes that the housing gap is not only a problem for the poor but affects the proper functioning and development of entire cities. “The city is like the human body; you can’t just take care of one part and expect everything else to function,” she says.

Indeed, the report notes that the housing problem is so severe, it threatens the traditional view of cities as reliable drivers of economic growth. At a global level, even as the proportion of urban residents in poverty has declined in recent decades, their absolute number has increased.

“When two-thirds of a city are living in a situation where its garbage is not picked up, its residents are being evicted, they don’t have access to clean water, they don’t have access to safe sanitation, you are creating a situation that jeopardizes the health and well-being of the whole city,” Patel says.

A primary goal of the World Resources Report is to examine whether meeting the needs of the urban under-served can achieve more economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable cities for all. Good housing, Patel and the working paper argue, is fundamental to people’s physical and financial security, economic productivity, and health. Rethinking housing policy then is a truly transformative intervention for cites; it must be viewed as part of a holistic approach to development and planning and not simply another special project.

For more from Sheela Patel on the urban housing crisis, watch a full-length interview here.

Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing” is the latest working paper in WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Harnessing Tanzania’s Explosive Urbanization Requires Central Support for Local Goals

Fri, 2017-08-04 12:30

Dar es Salaam, the capitol of Tanzania, is fast on its way to becoming a megacity with a population projected to more than double by 2030. Photo by Hendri Lombard/World Bank

Tanzania is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Its urban population is projected to grow from less than 15 million people in 2012 to more than 60 million people by mid-century.

Most of this growth will take place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s cultural and economic hub. It’s fast on its way to becoming a megacity with a population projected to more than double from 4.4 million in 2012 to 10.8 million in 2030. Still, other cities like Mwanza and Dodoma are also projected to see major increases in population in the years ahead.

So far, this urban growth has been largely informal and unmanaged. In most cases, cities have evolved without clear spatial planning or vision, leading to insufficient infrastructure to meet basic needs, let alone keep pace with rapid growth.

This is made worse by climate change. Increases in temperature, unpredictable rainfall and intense droughts have already led to food shortages, water scarcity, flooding and power outages in many cities. Low-income and other marginalized urban residents are particularly vulnerable to these impacts.

A new report from the Coalition for Urban Transitions, written by experts from the African Centre for Cities, International Institute for Environment and Development, Economic and Social Research Foundation, and Overseas Development Institute, offers some recommendations, noting that managing this transition will require new ways to link national resources and expertise with local priorities.

Catching Up to Get Ahead

Better Urban Growth in Tanzania” highlights the catalytic role that national government can play in coordinating and aligning the activities of the many stakeholders working in cities – local governments, the private sector and civil society – with the aim of improving resilience, productivity and wellbeing for all.

Tanzania needs to raise significant resources to catch up with current needs and keep pace with those of future residents. More than 70 percent of Dar es Salaam’s population already lives in unplanned settlements without adequate housing, clean drinking water or safe sanitation. Only a quarter of Tanzania’s urban population in total have water connected to their homes.

One of the benefits of denser urban areas is that investments in core infrastructure, such as power and sanitation, can reach many more people for comparatively lower costs than in rural areas. Urban population growth can also create agglomeration economies, whereby the presence of larger markets and more workers enables greater specialization. This increases the productivity of industry and services. More compact and connected cities can enable people to reach jobs and markets more easily, laying the foundations for long-term economic growth.

The report recognizes the importance of spatial planning, but acknowledges how difficult this can be in cities like Dar es Salaam, where most of the population live in informal settlements. It recommends using land titling and infrastructure investments to reinforce good land use planning. For example, mass transit infrastructure should effectively connect housing with services and employment.

Of course, all of these programs cost money. The report offers a menu of financing options that central governments can use to fund core urban infrastructure. It also advocates for the central government to establish an enabling regulatory environment so that businesses feel confident investing in the country and cities are legally permitted to collect and manage local revenue.

Long-Term Planning From a National Perspective

Now is the time to think long term and get Tanzania’s urban development right. The policy and investment decisions made today will determine the success of its cities for decades to come.

The Coalition for Urban Transitions, hosted by WRI as an initiative of the New Climate Economy project, provides targeted support to national-level policymakers, who often hold different tools than municipal governments, to help shape towns and cities. It aims to provide a trusted, independent and objective basis for thinking about urban transitions at a national level.

Rapid urban population growth offers a window of opportunity to reduce poverty, create jobs and adapt to climate change. Well-planned cities are key to sustaining long-term economic growth and reducing environmental impacts. Yet Tanzania’s cities cannot do this alone; their success will ultimately depend on the ambition and support of central government too.

Download “Better Urban Growth in Tanzania” from

Joel Jaeger is the Communications Specialist for the New Climate Economy project, hosted by WRI.

Rachel Spiegel is an intern for the New Climate Economy project, hosted by WRI, supporting the engagement and communications teams. 

Car Pride, Bus Shame: 2017 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship Awarded to Joanna Moody and Rafael Pereira

Thu, 2017-08-03 12:49

Formed in memory of Lee Schipper, founder of EMBARQ, the scholarship is awarded annually to advance the field of sustainable mobility. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil/ Flickr

The Lee Schipper family and WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities are pleased to announce that Joanna Moody and Rafael Pereira have been selected to receive the 2017 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship.

Joanna Moody will explore “car pride” and attitudes toward sustainable transportation to better understand personal choice of transport modes. She aims to measure how people attribute their social status and personal image to car ownership and other transportation choices to inform future sustainable transportation planning and policymaking.

Rafael Pereira’s research will investigate the impact of transport investments on existing inequalities in public access to economic opportunities. Pereira will focus his research on Rio de Janeiro and develop a model to evaluate access to educational, health and employment opportunities that can be applied to other cities in developing countries.

Meet the Recipients

The Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship was established in 2012 to celebrate the EMBARQ founder and recognized researcher Lee Schipper’s vision and contributions to the fields of sustainable transport and energy efficiency. The scholarship awards two extraordinary candidates up to $10,000 to advance transformative research in efficient and sustainable transport.

Winning proposals will advance the field through contributions to data collection, problem diagnosis, policy analysis and comparative analysis. The scholarship is international in nature and open to researchers and students of all fields.

“This support will allow me to expand data collection on ‘car pride,’ ‘bus shame’ and other modal biases in two cities in Latin America, allowing for greater regional breadth in comparing strength, direction and distribution of modal biases in global metropolitan areas,” said Moody. “By sharing my results, I hope to help policymakers and academics shape sustainable transportation initiatives and campaigns to encourage users to adopt active, multi-modal travel lifestyles.”

Pereira’s work will focus on Rio. “The award will greatly contribute to my research by allowing me to harness the capabilities of GPS data to evaluate how transport investments related to recent sports mega-events have reshaped inequalities in people’s access to opportunity,” said Pereira.

“We are extraordinarily excited to award scholarships to two such outstanding researchers,” said Holger Dalkmann on behalf of the scholarship board. “Both Ms. Moody’s and Mr. Pereira’s research have the potential to adjust how we think about developing sustainable transit systems and how we can effectively encourage shifts in public behavior to take full advantage of such systems.”

A Vision Continued

The 2017 scholarship received a total of 61 applications, representing 19 different countries. After the review committee carefully evaluated the applicants, nine finalists were selected to submit full research proposals. From this group of nine, two finalists, Moody and Pereira, were selected to be interviewed.

Moody and Pereira will present the findings of their research in January 2018, at the annual Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, DC. Their final research reports will also be made available in the spring of 2018.

In addition to this year’s two awardees, Kelly Blynn, Diana Ramirez-Rios, Prateek Bansal, Rumana Islam Sarker, Jamey Volker and Lindsay Blair Howe have been designated as honorable mentions, in recognition of their top-tier proposals.

Lee Schipper dedicated his professional life to the efficient use of energy in mobility. He was an international physicist, researcher and musician who co-founded EMBARQ in 2002. Under his direction, EMBARQ expanded into Mexico, China, India and beyond, as he pushed to incorporate data-driven solutions to meet transport challenges. EMBARQ become a signature initiative of WRI in 2014.

He Schipper inspired and shaped the thinking of a generation of students and professionals, and was widely recognized for challenging conventional wisdoms within the field of sustainable transport. This scholarship not only celebrates his unique vision, but also helps propel those who are carrying on his work.

For more information about Lee Schipper and how to donate to the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship, please visit

Matthew Kessler-Cleary is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Strategy and Global Policy of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Opening the Floodgates to a New Climate Economy in Mexico City

Wed, 2017-08-02 13:15

With climate change, Mexico City faces floods, droughts and an opportunity to address much more. Photo by Kasper Christensen/Flickr

The Metropolitan Area of the Valley of Mexico, as Mexico City’s wider metropolitan area is locally known, faces a two-fold dilemma. In recent years, the intensity of rains has increased, straining drainage systems and causing severe flooding in low-lying areas. At the same time, the water supplies available for daily use has declined.

Both problems are highly correlated with the effects of climate change, but they are also a consequence of urban sprawl and lack of long-term adaptation measures. The situation sheds light on the effects of climate change in large urban areas and both the opportunities and challenges facing cities around the world in the years ahead.

Consequences of a Changing World

Changing precipitation patterns in Mexico’s capital have followed what scientists have predicted for elsewhere too: rainfall events are becoming more intense, yet shorter and scarcer. The World Meteorological Organization reports a steady increase in the intensity of rainfall for the Valley of Mexico since the beginning of the 20th century. On June 28 of this year, for example, 7.5 billion liters (1.9 billion gallons) of rainwater fell over the city in just a few hours.

Additionally, the city is seeing higher temperatures. The frequency of heatwaves by decade has increased significantly since the end of the 19th century. By 2030, average temperatures during the coldest months are expected to increase by 1.25 degrees Celsius.

The combination of these two trends puts the city at risk of serious flooding and an unprecedented water crisis. Hotter temperatures are increasing demand for water in a city where already nearly 20 percent of residents lack consistent, daily access. Drought is more likely thanks to more rapid evaporation in lakes, rivers and reservoirs. More intense but scarcer rains also disrupt the natural filtration process by which the city’s crucial underground aquifers recharge.

Urban sprawl aggravates the looming threat. Extracting, transporting and pumping the water needed to provide basic services to the entire city is a great challenge in and of itself. The city imports about 37 percent of its water from remote sources and 35 percent is lost due to leaks and theft along thousands of kilometers of pipelines. The lack of compact urban development elevates the costs of transporting and pumping water to and from the city and makes it more likely large amounts will be lost along the way.

Uncontained urban sprawl is also cutting into conservation lands, mostly located south of the city, and mountainous areas around the Valley of Mexico. Conservation lands provide highly valuable ecological services. They allow soils to properly filter water, absorb it and eventually recharge aquifers. Covering them in asphalt cuts off these processes and adds to the city’s drainage and sewage problems as more and dirtier water ends up in the system.

Forest lands on the slopes of hills and mountains allow rainwater to runoff and recharge reservoirs and lakes. However, settlements along the Valley of Mexico’s rim, many of them informal, prevent the natural flow of water downhill and increase the amount of sediment in water bodies. Landslides and mudslides too are a major problem as communities creep onto more and more marginal land.

Accelerating the Transition to a New Climate Economy

Building more compact, sustainable cities, with responsive and coordinated local governments, is one of the key goals of the New Climate Economy, an international initiative managed in part by WRI. There are several steps that could help Mexico City address its two-fold water crisis and reap environmental, economic and social benefits at the same time:

  1. Use every policy instrument to densify the city and stop sprawl. A more compact and connected urban area is one of the best ways to reduce pressure on the city’s drainage and water systems.
  2. Prioritize public transportation. The transport sector contributes 46 percent of total emissions in the Valley of Mexico in large part due to Mexico City. Expanding low-emission public transport should be at the forefront of urban development policies.
  3. Stop expansion into mountainous areas and restore and protect conservation lands. The water cycle is being obstructed by development that hampers proper runoff along mountain slopes and reduces soil absorption rates. Droughts and floods are more likely and aquifers are draining quickly.
  4. Improve existing climate adaptation plans. Innovative, new approaches will be needed to create a water model that will sustainably meet the city’s needs in the decades ahead. A growing population – 2 million more people by 2030 – and accelerating climate change will only add to problems. Potential solutions include rainwater collection systems that operate in parallel with the city’s drainage system to supply more freshwater. Similar ideas should be considered as part of the city’s climate plans.

Megacities like Mexico City offer large windows of opportunity to shift our models of urban development towards more sustainable patterns. Major policy changes could have a large impact on more than just climate change adaptation and mitigation, providing benefits like better access to electricity, sanitation and housing. However, the room for maneuvering is decreasing. We must act now to contain the most harmful effects of climate change and ensure a healthier, safer more productive future for residents.

Tomislav Lendo is Executive Director of the Human Sustainable Development Foundation.

Ricardo Smith is a Policy Analyst at the Human Sustainable Development Foundation.

Do Bus Rapid Transit Systems Improve Equity? A Look at the Evidence

Tue, 2017-08-01 12:30

The bus lane in Bangkok. Photo by ICLEI EcoMobility

Some time ago, professor Christo Venter of the University of Pretoria sent me an intriguing message: Did I have data on how bus rapid transit systems, or BRTs, affect equity in cities? Impact evaluations for changes in travel time, cost, traffic fatalities and air pollution, not only in total but disaggregated by socio-economic group, geography or other factors? I pulled together everything I could find, including many articles published in the gray literature, but there wasn’t much.

Six years later, with great patience and the help of Gail Jennings (now at WWF) and support from Andrés Felipe Valderrama Pineda of Aalborg University, Venter has completed an extensive review of 68 publications that touch on equity and BRT, directly and indirectly, and published the results in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (he was also gracious enough to include me as a co-author).

Why Equity and Why BRT

If the three legs of sustainable development are social, economic and environmental, equity is sometimes defined as the overlap between social and economic. As a result, it’s not always given the consideration it deserves, as the economic and environmental components of sustainability get the most attention. WRI is working in its own way to help change this with the latest edition of our World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City.”

In the WRR – which spans several working papers, the latest of which tackles housing – we take equity as our entry point and ask how it affects economic and environmental outcomes in cities. This paper by Venter et al. comes at a timely moment in the development of the transport working paper, which will build on the work of Karen Lucas, Eduardo Vasconcelos, Karel Martens and Aaron Golub, among others, on social justice.

Bus rapid transit is a relatively recent mass transit “technology” capable of improving urban mobility through a package of interventions, including busway improvements, reducing travel times and costs, upgrading urban corridors, and mitigating carbon emissions and road safety risks. According to BRTData, there are currently 452 BRT corridors around the world, covering 5,655 kilometers, 205 cities and serving more than 34.3 million passengers a day.

We found in our review that many BRT projects are rhetorically positioned as pro-poor in developing countries and their political acceptability is often linked to a larger policy agenda aimed at alleviating poverty by improving access to transport and reducing costs. But we also found that, despite the mandate by international development institutions to help eliminate extreme poverty and the fact that many BRT projects have financial assistance from major development banks, methods to measure the impact on the urban underserved are not widespread.

Impacts on the Underserved

BRT implementation usually reduces travel time, travel cost, traffic fatalities and air pollutant emissions. But impacts on particular groups of society are reported in very few cases. Most of the few examples are positive but not all:

  • A study of Bogotá’s TransMilenio Phase 1 by Tito Yepes and myself found higher travel time savings for poor people (18 minutes per trip) than for middle income passengers (10 minutes). Low-income passengers, who would have paid two fares on the traditional system, saved 8 to 12 percent of their daily income.
  • Tiwari and Jain (2012) showed that both cyclists and bus users saw reduced travel times (on the order of a 33 percent reduction) when using the Delhi BRT corridor. As most non-motorized transport users are from low-income households, the benefit is likely to be progressive.
  • Scholl et al. (2016) found Lima’s integrated and flat fare pricing structure promotes BRT usage among the poor by reducing the cost of longer trips below those of traditional modes of transport.
  • An evaluation of Lagos’ BRT found the standardization of fares that used to vary by the hour brought cost savings to many passengers.
  • In a distributional analysis of costs and benefits for BRTs in Bogotá, Mexico City, Istanbul and Johannesburg by WRI, investment was found to be progressive. Benefits exceeded costs by a larger proportion for lower income groups than for higher income groups. In all cases except Istanbul, the highest income group experienced a net loss (costs exceeded benefits), indicating that BRT serves an income distributive function. However, very low income users are usually underrepresented as BRT riders because they are priced out by fares.
  • There is also evidence that it is possible for BRTs to exacerbate inequality. BRT has been used as a tactic to transform existing informal or semi-regulated public transport operations, like minibus networks. Some new systems in Latin America and South Africa have attempted to incorporate existing drivers and minibus owners into the BRT, but have met with limited success due to lack of driver qualifications. As a result, there can be negative spillover effects on both drivers and owners, which fall disproportionately on lower-income groups.

“An Evolving Project”

While this evidence gives an indication of progressive impacts, there are several caveats. The identification and measurement of equity impacts is hampered by the lack of a clear and consistent framework for analyzing equity that can be applied and compared across different locales. Better data are clearly needed to support more rigorous assessment of equity impacts in transport implementation.

Ultimately, as Christo Venter indicates:

Paratransit reform is an evolving project; no consensus has been reached about the most appropriate paths to be followed. But regardless of the path, it is important that authorities carefully consider equity impacts and mitigation of negative spillover effects via effective regulation and transitional strategies.

Bus rapid transit systems possesses characteristics that enable them to provide service to traditionally under-served populations better than other mass transit alternatives. Their relative low cost and rapid implementation can improve travel time and travel costs for low-income populations faster and more effectively than rail options. And if “complete streets” concepts are used, they can benefit pedestrians and bicycle users too.

Nevertheless, the impact of BRTs on equity is not automatic. They need planning and careful design and implementation. There is the potential for affordability and accessibility problems, displacement of low income dwellers as land prices increase due to better access (i.e., gentrification), as well as spillover effects on incumbent transport operators.

Darío Hidalgo guides the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ international team of transport engineers and planners.

To Improve Core Services, Cities Should Embrace Disruption

Wed, 2017-07-26 12:30

The iPod and streaming services disrupted the music industry. Can cities harness similar innovations? Photo by Toshiyuki Imai/Flickr

Innovative business models can turn entire industries on their head – just ask retail executives how Amazon has changed their world, mobility companies about Uber, or music magnates about Apple’s legacy. How we shop, move, and enjoy music is fundamentally different today from just a decade ago thanks to disruptive changes in these markets.

The phrase “business model innovation” rose to prominence in the startup culture of Silicon Valley, but public administrations could use the same principles to reshape urban life for more productive, sustainable and inclusive cities.

What Is Business Model Innovation?

An iconic example of an industry transformed by business model innovation in recent years is the music industry. At first, the iPod, accompanied by online file-sharing services, changed everything. Then online retail emerged as a cost-competitive alternative to store-based music sales. Together these changes brought the demise of many physical record shops. Nowadays, streaming services such as Spotify no longer sell records but rather provide access to music on demand. Such services are often offered on a “freemium” basis – free access to songs and playlists, interspersed with advertisements that can be turned off for a subscription fee.

The music industry’s evolution exemplifies several aspects of business model innovation:

  • The first is capitalizing on a new value proposition to the end user. In this case, music lovers benefited from greater choice of easily accessible, on-demand music at a lower cost.
  • Second, is the emergence of new channels for value creation. New supply chains, developed in parallel with new MP3 players and phones, helped move music from physical, store-based locations to online files and applications on users’ devices.
  • Finally, new models for capturing value emerged in the form of new cost structures and revenue models. Moving online cut costs for some, while selling access to streaming rather than ownership of a song makes recurring fee-based charges possible compared to one-off sales revenues.
What Does It Mean for Cities?

It is generally thought that new business models emerge in response to changing market conditions and consumer preferences. While not explicitly studied to date, these trends are also underway in cities worldwide. New and rapidly growing cities, changing living standards and consumer preferences, and new technologies are some of the drivers leading to the emergence of alternative business models for common city services. These include changes to mobility, housing and electricity consumption.

Business model innovations in mobility are some of the most visible. Ride sharing solutions – cars, bikes, and taxis that users pay to access, sometimes non-exclusively, rather than own – have exploded. Bike-sharing is taking off even in unlikely places, such as Bhopal, India, where more than 10,000 new users signed up within the first few weeks of the system’s operation. This trend is underpinned by a new value proposition, about point-to-point, no hassle mobility that is particularly attractive to urban users. While shared mobility options continue to coexist alongside public transit and private vehicles, they are becoming a larger part of the urban mobility mix.

In urban energy, decentralized solutions are another example where new business models are reshaping established value propositions, in this case between utilities and customers. By purchasing or leasing solar panels on their own property, city dwellers can exercise greater control over their energy supply, prioritizing lower carbon emissions. They can also establish a two-way relationship with the utility by selling electricity back to the grid or earning money from leasing roof space to a solar company. Decentralizing energy supply through onsite renewables reverses a long trend of increasingly centralized power generation in power plants far beyond city limits – a paradigm that in fact replaced earlier decentralized solutions, based on greater efficiency and economies of scale.

Finally, recent developments in urban land use and housing point toward competing value propositions that could radically change how urban development is carried out. In some cities in the United States and Asia, “transit-oriented development” is displacing decades of auto-centric policies based on the separation of residential and commercial land uses. This comes in response to people’s increasing preference for city-living over suburban lifestyles because they are able to easily access basic services and cultural amenities by walking or public transit. With a major affordable housing gap, estimated to affect 440 million households by 2025, developing country cities need to develop scalable approaches to city living too.

The Need for Experimentation and Governance

Business model innovation has critical implications for cities seeking greater sustainability. It suggests that the same core service needs – e.g., for mobility, energy, water and sanitation, housing – could be satisfied in a range of new ways, through potentially radically different models than are currently in place, including those that are more environmentally and socially sustainable.

But local governments need to actively shape developments in their city. Innovations, especially in their infancy, can have unexpected pitfalls. Cautionary tales about the negative impacts of short-term rental services such as Airbnb and “rogue” bike-sharing companies show local government’s essential role in providing proactive city leadership that anticipates, steers, and where necessary corrects development in real time.

Critically, this is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s clear from the experience of industries that have been disrupted that alternative and established ways of meeting the needs of end users can coexist even as one may be gradually displacing the other (e.g., in home entertainment, where ad-based television coexists with subscription-based services like Netflix).

Fundamental shifts are driven by processes of experimentation, learning and iteration. In the private sector, firms experiment with new ways of doing business to generate profit. In cities, local governments should take inspiration and exercise leadership in working hand-in-hand with the private sector to actively experiment with new value propositions and new channels for value creation and capture to deliver social and environmental benefits to all.

Anne Maassen is the Energy, Climate and Finance Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. She leads WRI’s work on Financing Sustainable Cities, an initiative with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, funded by the Citi Foundation, focused on helping cities develop business models to accelerate the implementation of sustainable urban solutions.

Friday Fun: How Pop-Up Clothing Shops Help Create More Equal and Sustainable Cities

Fri, 2017-07-21 19:50

The Street Store in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: The Street Store

Everyone, in one way or another, relies on clothing every day. Clothing is essential to keeping us warm and protecting us from the elements. Yet, ill-fitting clothing or having no clothes at all can cause great hardship beyond exposure to the elements—it can hurt self-image and reduce ones chances of getting ahead. A poorly dressed person has little chance for success during a job interview and can be functionally barred from certain spaces in the city.

To help mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness, social entrepreneurs around the world are promoting creative solutions to help clothe the homeless through urban pop-up clothing shops. In addition to improving social conditions, these shops inspire positive environmental impacts through the reduction of waste. One successful urban clothing pop-up that’s inspired similar models around the world is the Street Store in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Street Store

Cape Town’s homeless population has few opportunities to acquire low-cost clothing. To help solve this problem, the Street Store was created in 2014 by the Haven Night Shelter Welfare Organization and M&C Saatchi Abel. The concept is simple, yet its impacts are great. The pop-up shop is setup one day every few weeks or months and is designed for those with low or no income. All the clothes are free. To gather donations, the company promotes the event on social media, including on Twitter and Facebook.

To gather donations, the company promotes the event on social media including Twitter and Facebook. Photo credit: Design Indaba/Vimeo

On the day of the event, cardboard signs with painted hangers line the sidewalks, letting people know what’s available and encouraging gifts. Donors drop off contributions and volunteers help organize the clothes by size and style. Patrons can visit and collect quality items for job interviews, work and everyday wear.

The first Street Store pop-up was a success. During the one-day event, 3,500 people visited. Further social impacts enabled by the Street Store were subtle, but equally important. Customers are treated with dignity—they are able to “shop” for clothes, regardless of ability to pay. According to one customer, “Shopping at the Street Store was for me, very nice—the people were accepting of me with friendly faces.”

Additionally, the Street Store’s reuse of clothing drastically expands the lifetime of each item. Reusing clothing reduces carbon dioxide emissions and waste, improving environmental sustainability.

Customers are able to “shop” for clothes, regardless of ability to pay. Photo credit: The Street Store


The success of Cape Town’s Street Store has inspired similar efforts around the world. The Street Store partnership provides open-source materials at no cost to social entrepreneurs. Today, more than 580 Street Stores have occurred globally across five continents.

Similar to the Cape Town store, the San Francisco pop-up is committed to promoting a more equitable city. They strive to pass on high-quality donations to the homeless, rather than items people don’t need or want.

“Right now, they don’t have the choice in where they live, where they eat,” organizer Deepika Phakke told SFGate. “The Street Store is about giving them respect and the power of choice. Saying to them, ‘Hey, you’re invited to the store and free to pick up whatever you want.’ That’s going to be empowering.”

More Street Stores are coming to a variety of cities, including Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Hasselt (Belgium) and Americana (Brazil). As the network grows, so will the empowerment of the urban homeless around the world.

Lori O’Neill is an intern for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ Building Efficiency Initiative.

Between the Road and the Built Environment: Exploring New Opportunities for Africa’s Cities

Wed, 2017-07-19 12:31

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities recently convened experts in Nairobi for a workshop on equal cities for all. Photo by Talia Rubnitz/WRI

WRI Ross Center’s engagement with sub-Saharan African cities is emerging with new projects, research and training programs. In this series, we explore – and ask partners – how to pursue and maintain equal and sustainable cities, highlighting people, spaces, challenges and opportunities in the region.

“Urban green spaces in Africa are under attack,” said Wanjira Mathai, director of the Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) and WRI board member, at a recent workshop in Nairobi. As African cities expand, their “lungs” are disappearing; even as cities grow and spread, “we must invest in livable cities for the future,” she says.

On June 28, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities convened stakeholders from across sub-Saharan Africa in the first of a series of workshops to examine urban trends for the region and the potential for transformative change, particularly in Nairobi and Kampala. Participants came from academia, urban planning, business, the technology sector, community groups and other areas, discussing methods for innovation and working together to create more sustainable cities.

“The economic dynamism in cities isn’t a given,” said WRI Ross Center’s Kate Owens. “Our old business models aren’t working in all contexts. We need to innovate. We need to focus not only on the road and the built environment, but also on the space between the two, where the city exists.”

Urban Transitions 

Today, many of the conventional approaches to urban planning are failing residents. The growth of sub-Saharan African cities poses both enormous opportunities and challenges. More than half of Africa’s people will live in cities by 2040, including a great number of young people.

Wanjira Mathai and Joy Mboya exchanged ideas for a more sustainable and equal Nairobi. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

The public and private sectors recognize the potential associated with this demographic transition, as well as the challenges, including ensuring access to good jobs for everyone and providing services that improve quality of life.

“Today, we are here to connect certain dots; through each other we can see something different,” said Akiva Beebe of the Center for Creative Leadership, who helped moderate the workshop. “How do we move faster and better together? How do we think about cities differently?”

Throughout the day-long event, attendees participated in group exercises, including writing the “headlines of tomorrow” to highlight major urban challenges and goals. These activities encouraged conversation, creativity, relationship-building and learning. They also highlighted the need to work at the mtaa or neighborhood level to test new ideas and business models for service provision. Instead of focusing on policy changes, institutional reform and large-scale infrastructure investment, participants highlighted the need to build legitimate governing bodies through active participation in the life of the city, provision of green spaces, pedestrianization, distributed energy systems and natural building materials.

Kate Owens presented on WRI Cities’ work and strategy for regional support. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

Nairobi and Kampala

Local experts discovered potential for this alternative narrative in the experiences of Nairobi and Kampala.

Reflecting on a recent week-long arts festival, Joy Mboya, director of the GoDown Arts Centre, discussed the importance of intersecting art with the city itself. It wasn’t the fact that they held a festival that changed people’s engagement with the city, but how involved communities were in determining the content and description of the event, she said.

“We must mobilize Nairobians around civic pride and the space we all call home,” said Mboya. “Once we get people’s ideas and participation, we will see a kind of different city – one that is more exciting, liveable and fair.”

A presentation from Joy Mboya, Shuaib Lwasa and Musyimi Mbathi. Photo by Talia Rubnitz/WRI

Shuaib Lwasa, head of the Kampala Urban Action Innovations Lab and professor at Makerere University, reiterated the importance of community involvement and local-level activism for Kampala. “As a city, we need to move from knowledge for knowledge’s sake to knowledge for action,” he said. He highlighted the importance of partnerships in the community, strong leadership and the role of students, like those at Makerere’s Innovations Lab. He urged that informal neighborhoods be valued for the solutions they already offer in terms of employment opportunities and alternative service delivery. His research flips our understanding to suggest that the informal is the city.

Similarly, Musyimi Mbathi, head of the University of Nairobi’s Centre for Urban Research and Innovations, spoke to the importance of student action and engagement. “We are training the next generation of green champions in this country,” he said. “There is a big resource that remains out there, untapped.” His experience with service provision and informal distribution systems highlights how to incorporate action at the neighborhood level to begin reshaping the city toward a more sustainable and livable future.

“There is a massive opportunity if we collaborate and work together,” said Giles Bristow of the Ashden Foundation. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

“The Opportunity Is Exponential” 

From the experience of Nairobi and Kampala, new priorities emerged around creating shared ownership of city visions, aligning investment projects with community needs, providing equal access to jobs and services and planning more intentionally to create an adaptive urban fabric that can weather and take advantage of change.

These topics represent important directions for future partnerships and projects, said Giles Bristow, director of programs at Ashden Foundation. “There is a massive opportunity if we collaborate and work together,” he said. “We need to be more intentional in our purpose to make this change a reality.”

“This is the beginning of a journey…the opportunity is exponential,” said Beebe.

Through establishing partnerships with local organizations, convening key stakeholders and improving data collection and transparency, WRI Ross Cities aims to increase its engagement in Africa. Stay tuned for more as we explore these priorities and search for a new approach.

Kate Owens is the Urban Development Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Talia Rubnitz is the Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“Open Traffic” Provides Unprecedented Data to Urban Policymakers

Mon, 2017-07-17 12:30

Traffic data for Quezon City, the Philippines, from the Open Traffic portal

Cities are complex and fast changing organisms, especially in low- and middle-income countries where rapid population growth, urbanization and technological advances are creating a dynamic mix of opportunity and challenge. One major issue facing many cities is road safety.

On one hand, fleets of cars and motorcycles are growing rapidly, increasing risks to pedestrians and drivers as they overwhelm infrastructure and policy. Take a city such as Bogotá, where every year approximately 500 people lose their lives on the roads and thousands more are seriously injured; the majority, 89 percent, are people walking, bicycling or riding motorcycles.

On the other hand, decision-makers are beginning to understand and adopt a philosophy of shared responsibility and an integrated approach to road safety. More and more cities and countries are embracing systemic change rather than pinning their hopes on road users to behave perfectly under imperfect circumstances. This approach is often referred to as “Safe Systems” or “Vision Zero.”

These approaches can now be informed by an explosion in data on how people travel around cities, thanks to the advent of mobile phones and accompanying apps for mapping, ride-sharing, ride-hailing, planning public transport trips or any app that provides location-based services. The data generated could guide decisions in a more precise, timely and cost-efficient manner. But much of it is gathered by private companies that are constrained by privacy and business concerns, both in terms of releasing the personal information of customers and commercially sensitive data. Furthermore, the massive amount of data available must be proactively gathered and synthesized to actually be useful to policymakers.

In response to this, WRI recently helped launch Open Traffic, an initiative of the Open Transport Partnership that aims to help improve transport planning, traffic management and safety by facilitating the delivery of detailed traffic data to cities. The partnership, led by the World Bank, along with its founding partners Mapzen, the National Association of City Transport Officials (NACTO) and WRI, will enable leaders to make informed, targeted decisions about sustainable urban mobility and road safety and monitor the impact of these decisions, potentially saving thousands of lives and improving productivity too. The first iteration of the partnership focuses on one of the most fundamental problems: speed.

Open Data, Safer Speeds?

The speed limit in Bogotá is 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). In reality, however, the city moves at an average speed of 20km/h during the day. A disproportionate number of fatal crashes occur at night when vehicles are able to travel at higher speeds due to free flow conditions. According to the UN, speed contributes to between one third and one half of fatal collisions globally – higher speeds allow lower response times and people simply can’t withstand the physical forces of high speed collisions.

Studies have shown that lower speed limits can actually help ease congestion in addition to improving safety. This was the case in Sao Paulo in 2016, when lower speed limits on major urban roads reduced congestion by 10 percent as well as reducing fatalities by 29 percent.

However, speed reduction proposals are often met with resistance and skepticism. Will congestion worsen? Will trips take longer? To make things more difficult, cities often don’t have information about which streets have the highest increases in speeds, which would help make more targeted interventions. As part of the Open Traffic initiative, city governments will have access to a platform that will help them answer these questions and gauge the benefits of policy changes like reducing speed limits from 80 km/h to 50 km/h.

Segment details for a route in Cebu City, the Philippines

This has been possible through Open Traffic’s data agreements with ride-hailing companies, fleet companies and other consumer apps which makes it possible to anonymize and aggregate their raw GPS data, converting them into real-time and historical traffic information. A global data platform of traffic speeds linked to OpenStreetMap road segments is already under development. This same data will also be accessible to the public under an open data license. The current data partners are Easy Taxi, Grab , Le TaxiNDrive and Miovision. Thanks to these companies, Open Traffic provides access to data for more than 500 cities all over the world.

Open Traffic will offer cities the opportunity to understand and measure the impacts of road safety interventions on safety and traffic flow. This applies both to identifying risks, such as dangerous speeds and the types of roads that encourage these, and measuring the impacts of traffic safety improvements, such as a street redesign or lowered speed limits. Furthermore, it will empower cities to study the impacts of traffic safety interventions in a fraction of the time and cost previously required. The data generated by Open Traffic will provide the opportunity to identify high speed areas to target, quickly establish a baseline, and review impacts of speed reduction, almost in real time. Most importantly, it will allow decision-makers to convey messages about the benefits of these interventions in a clear and transparent way.

Expanding the Dataset

Open Traffic was piloted in the city of Cebu in the Philippines in 2016, where municipal authorities were able to apply the data to adjust traffic light phasing. Initial studies showed that while a traditional traffic analysis process could take weeks of planning and cost up to $55,000, with Open Traffic a single person could generate more robust information almost instantly.

Since its launch in December 2016, the Open Transport Partnership has been seeking to secure partnerships with other data partners to make the platform truly global and to start generating new types of data, which will further aid city policymakers in improving safety and equality, and reducing emissions and congestion. The data will consider elements such as curb space utilization, lane space, parking inventory and trip-level data, among others. As well, as data is continually gathered over time, it becomes cumulatively more reliable; patterns by times of day, week and year will be better understood and visualized by the platform.

In Bogotá, where plans are currently underway to introduce low-speed zones of 30km/h and below by setting speed limits and redesigning streets, access to data provided through the Open Transport Partnership will enhance the city’s ability to refine these projects, and identify and communicate positive outcomes to citizens. The subsequent road safety changes will benefit everyone, but especially the majority who walk, bicycle and ride motorbikes.

Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate; Claudia Adriazola-Steil is the Health and Road Safety Program Director; and Diego Canales is a Tools and Data Innovation Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Is the Tesla Model 3 Our Ride to a Sustainable Future?

Thu, 2017-07-13 12:30

The recently announced Tesla Model 3. Photo from Elon Musk/Twitter

This past weekend, Elon Musk shared the first images of a production Tesla Model 3—the much-anticipated new electric vehicle that had hundreds of thousands of people lining up last year to place preorders. It was the latest in a series of major recent announcements about the future of the automotive industry.

Earlier this month, Volvo Cars announced all of its new models will be electric or hybrid by 2019. Meanwhile, France announced it intends to end sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040, which follows similar goals in Norway (2025) and India (2030). Next month, General Motors may grab the headlines as its Chevy Bolt is expected to roll out nationwide.

All the attention on electric vehicles raises the question: Is this the path to sustainable mobility?

Yes: Electric vehicles can be a cleaner alternative to conventional vehicles.

We are paying a heavy toll for our reliance on conventional vehicles. Health care costs, lost productivity and other consequences of road pollution amounted to $3 trillion in lost GDP collectively among OECD countries, China, and India in 2010.

Electric vehicles offer a cleaner alternative, especially as more renewable energy is incorporated into the power grid. A recent study, factoring in emissions from the generation of electricity, shows the average battery electric vehicle in the United States today emits 214g of carbon dioxide per mile—far less than the 356g to 409g of carbon dioxide per mile produced by conventional gasoline vehicles.

Yes: A lot of people want to buy them.

What is perhaps most exciting about the Model 3 is the unprecedented demand. Never before has an electric vehicle—or any vehicle—had nearly half-a-million preorders a year before production. Electric cars officially have mass-market appeal. As a result, Bloomberg New Energy Finance is now projecting electric vehicles will account for more than half of new car sales by 2040 as demand increases and battery costs decline.

Electric vehicle market penetration is critical to efforts to address climate change. New electric cars will need to be more attractive, affordable, and accessible to consumers who are driving today, as well as billions of people reaching middle income around the world who will be driving tomorrow. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, electric car sales will need to go from zero to 60 in a hurry. Scenarios from the International Energy Agency suggest that to keep pace with a pathway to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), we need the global stock of electric cars to increase from 1 million in 2015 to more than 20 million in 2020 and more than 150 million in 2030.

No: Electric vehicles are not, by themselves, going to get us to sustainable mobility.

Anyone banking on selling millions more electric vehicles is ignoring the elephant in the room—and the billions of vehicles already on the road. Estimates of the annual cost of congestion in the United States, for example, exceed $100 billion. If the total number of cars continues to climb at its projected pace, we will not have a chance of limiting global warming, even if many of those cars are electric. Neither will selling cleaner cars solve the challenges of congestion, road safety, equal access to opportunity, or other mobility issues. This is why WRI and others champion the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework (see below), which emphasizes the types of investments that ultimately will allow people to move around in sustainable ways.

So Which Car Companies Will Embrace New Approaches for Tomorrow’s Markets?

Automakers should see this month’s news—and the news yet to come—as a call to action for a bolder transportation vision. WRI’s Elephant in the Boardroom paper outlines three ways companies might respond:

  1. Some will ignore the signals of market transformation. Investors are already looking to assess the leaders and laggards and better understand who is positioned to win or lose.
  2. Some will improve on existing options and make incremental progress. They may sell cleaner, more efficient vehicles, but that by itself is not enough to solve congestion or climate change.
  3. Some will embrace new business models and mobility services. We need more companies investing in the systems and services that meet customers’ mobility needs without putting more and more cars on the road. Bill Ford knows this. As he said in 2011:For most of [my 30 years at Ford Motor Company], I worried about how am I going to sell more cars and trucks. But today I worry about, what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks? What happens when the number of cars on the road doubles, triples or even quadruples?This seems to be part of the reason Ford made a leadership change this yearand is making investments in ride sharing and even bike sharing.

All these developments and recent announcements are welcome. But more is needed—quickly. It’s a race worth watching. Who will be the first to grow their business without simply selling more cars to more people?

The Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) Framework

The first aspect of sustainable mobility involves investments in options that allow people to avoid unnecessary trips, like walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and options for telecommuting from home and shared-work spaces. These strategies can also include Transport Demand Management solutions like congestion charging, which can disincentivize people from driving in crowded areas at busy times, thereby reducing unnecessary congestion.

The second aspect encourages investment in infrastructure that allows people to shift to other transport options that are better suited to move people around the cities of tomorrow, like walking, biking and public transit. Research shows that connected cities that have strong public transit systems and safe infrastructure for cycling and walking boost GDP, create new jobs and create considerable cost savings.

Combining solutions from each of these two aspects with the third—improvement of transportation technology like electric vehicles—is the only sure-fire way create safer, cleaner, more convenient, affordable and sustainable transportation. We already know that cities around the world are growing at unprecedented rates and those urban residents are going to have more money to invest in their transportation needs. The ASI Framework can be a guide to disrupting the current transport industry and ensuring that these growing communities reflect our vision of a more sustainable, equitable future.

Companies that want to embrace a new approach for tomorrow’s markets can find ways to advance the ASI Framework and move beyond outdated models of selling more cars to more people.

Eliot Metzger is a Senior Associate in WRI’s Markets & Enterprise Program.

Alyssa Fischer is the Strategy and Management Associate for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Confronting the Urban Housing Gap

Wed, 2017-07-12 09:31

Informal housing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Zoriah/Flickr

More than 1.2 billion city dwellers – one of every three people living in urban areas – lack access to affordable and secure housing. This housing gap is a major drag on the economy and the environment. The impact is severe in Asia and Africa, where 2.25 billion people are expected to be added to urban populations between now and 2050. If business continues as usual, slums will grow across the developing world, exacerbating inequality and threatening cities’ traditional role as drivers of economic growth.

The latest working paper of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City,” draws on the knowledge of dozens of urban experts to examine whether meeting the needs of the urban underserved can improve the economy and environment.

Housing is often seen as falling into discrete categories such as public or private, formal or informal, individual or collective. Instead, we view housing options on a spectrum that combines different elements of ownership, space, services and finance. In some cases, land may be public while the dwellings on it are private. This spectrum allows a more nuanced analysis of the reality of housing markets in the global south and consideration of a wider range of possibilities.

While many challenges emerged, we focused on three that city officials can act upon and scale up.

Issue 1: The Growth of Informal or Substandard Settlements

As demand for housing has outstripped supply, informal and substandard settlements have proliferated. Since 1990, even as the proportion of global urban populations living in slums has declined, there has been an increase in the absolute number of people living in these areas.

Solution: Find ways to accommodate people where they are

While some call for “slum-free” cities, this is often code for displacement of people to the edge of town, which disrupts labor markets, social networks and lives and harms the city at large. Instead we suggest finding ways to upgrade existing slum areas, tapping into community knowledge and energy while retaining links to social and livelihood networks. This option is best for cities with large slum populations, except in locations with environmental or geographic risks.

An example is Thailand’s Baan Mankong program, which directs government infrastructure subsidies, soft housing and land loans to poor communities who then negotiate with land owners for formal tenure and use the funds to upgrade their housing. By 2016, 101,224 poor families in 345 cities had been fully upgraded under the program with secure land, decent houses and healthy living environments.

Issue 2: Overemphasis on Ownership

Home ownership is over-emphasized in urban development, which hurts those who lack the resources to buy a home or who need flexibility, such as those working in the informal economy. Subsidies meant to encourage home ownership are geared to those with regular, documented incomes, not those who work in activities like recycling, domestic help and construction that do not produce a paper trail in many parts of the world. Rentals are often not available to the urban poor, or are subject to great uncertainty about rights and responsibilities for both landlords and renters, with unclear processes for dispute resolution.

Solution: Expand rental markets for people of all income levels

Establishing legal protection for landlords and renters, while acknowledging informal sector activity, can help meet the housing needs of the urban poor while maintaining flexibility and encouraging market-driven development. This includes non-standard payment patterns and cooperative housing where tenants collectively purchase land and rent small plots within it. Vibrant rental markets foster a fluid labor market, a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity in any city.

For example, authorities in Gauteng Province, South Africa, which includes Johannesburg, tackled a housing shortage of 687,000 units by making it legal to rent out formerly illegal informal backyard apartments. This made it easier for low-income people to find places to live and encouraged development of services without government subsidies.

Issue 3: Policies That Drive the Poor to the Periphery

In many cities, land is often tangled up in legal disputes, leaving it under-utilized or unused, even as new residents seek housing in the city. Building and land use regulations often impose costs and limit creative use of incremental improvements and innovative land management tools.

Solution: Convert under-utilized land, especially publicly held land, into affordable housing

Political will to address housing needs is critical. Rather than encouraging sprawl, existing urban land should be used for housing. City officials and real estate developers should revise rules and building standards to expand the availability of housing on under-used land.

For instance, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 420 families live in the María Auxiliadora community land trust on land purchased and held in trust as community-owned property. The community’s unique governance structure rotates leadership among women in two-year terms, rejects men who engage in domestic violence and provides support to families. The land cannot be sold for profit, which keeps the housing affordable.

These solutions will help urban policymakers in fast-growing cities meet the demand for housing while encouraging economic development and cleaner, safer environments. Closing the housing gap by providing access to affordable, adequate and secure housing will benefit everyone, not just the poor and underserved, as cities become more productive, environmentally sustainable and truly places for all.

Download “Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing” from

Robin King is the Director of Knowledge Capture and Collaboration at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Public Spaces: What Can Urban Planning Gain from the Mobile Internet Revolution?

Tue, 2017-07-11 18:33

Technological innovations can modernize urban planning and make policies and guidelines more efficient and accurate. Photo by verkeorg / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

The world is experiencing unprecedented urban growth. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. As cities modernize, urban residents are finding their lives increasingly optimized and automated by a series of technologies. But urban planning has not kept pace and it is still a challenge to build urban spaces that are conducive to people’s well-being and happiness.

In one of his most famous quotes, the architect Jan Gehl said, “We know more about healthy environments for gorillas, Siberian tigers and pandas than we know about a good urban environment for homo sapiens.” Although we live in the era of big data, the quality of data we have on cities is relatively poor and outdated. And yet we still use it to inform the norms and policies that guide the construction of our cities. The democratization of the internet and proliferation of smartphones, along with the daily emergence of new technologies, brings opportunities to change the way we plan streets, public spaces, neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

The fall in prices and miniaturization of mobile internet technologies has led to a data collection revolution: Almost everything we own collects data. Our watches, clothes, shoes, trash cans, cars, cell phones and houses collect information on our whereabouts. This network of data creates a constant flow of information, which we are often unaware of. According to Euan Mills, author of the essay “Planning by Numbers” and the planning lead at Future Cities Catapult, 2.9 million emails are sent per second, 20 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded per minute and 50 million Tweets are sent per day, not to mention the myriad of posts on social networks, Google searches and Amazon purchases that are continuously monitored.

Technology Exhibition at the City Planning Center of Liuzhou City, China. Photo by UTSEUS/Flickr

Opportunities for Improving Public Spaces

The combination of these vast amounts of data with processing power can be applied to improving public spaces in at least three ways, writes Mills:

  • By creating tools capable of monitoring and helping us quickly and efficiently understand what makes good public spaces successful
  • By constructing more specific public policies that can also be regularly adjusted on the basis of results
  • By making decision-making processes more inclusive and transparent

In practice, technology has already changed the way we live in cities. Broadly spread applications, like Airbnb and Uber, have changed the way we occupy the urban environment and move. Additionally, other innovations are changing the way we plan everyday commutes. This is the case with real-time traffic information made possible by Waze and Citymapper, not to mention the possibilities of sharing bicycles, cars and co-working spaces.

Innovations like these (and those that are yet to come) also have the potential to radically change the way we plan and build cities. If used in planning processes, they can draw more precise and efficient strategies to build more sustainable and accessible cities.

Technology optimizes and improves urban planning by allowing real-time monitoring systems and simulation. This can make the process of urban planning much more precise and provide information on whether dwellings are occupied, how streets are used and even how people feel in parks and public spaces.

It is already possible to observe steps in this direction. Solutions such as UrbanPlanAR, for example, explore augmented reality to simulate new buildings prior to construction. Others, such as Land Insight and Urban Intelligence, are creating policy databases and planning applications. Data consolidation helps to create tools that automatically evaluate development proposals using many variables, such as the microclimatic impact of the construction on the surrounding area; visual impacts of the project in the neighborhood; and gauge housing quality and even economic viability.

The ability to monitor the impacts of planning policies allows municipal policymakers to establish more flexible plans and create places where people really want to live. They can be instruments of change, adaptable to the needs of the population.

Above all, it is necessary to ensure that data is open and accessible to residents, that planning tools are transparent and that public policies and guidelines are clear and accountable. The result would be better-planned cities with public spaces tailored to fit and adaptable to the constantly changing dynamics of city life.

Priscila Pacheco is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.


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