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“Life Is Sacred”: The Surprising Link Between Reducing Homicide and Traffic Fatalities in Bogotá

Thu, 2018-04-05 13:13

Bogota is combining technical know-how with socially and politically savvy campaigns to save lives. Photo by Dylan Passmore/Flickr

In just 10 years, from 1996 to 2006, Bogotá’s traffic fatalities dropped by half. Despite facing challenges common to many cities – inadequate infrastructure, congestion, pollution, inequality and crime – the Colombian city has become a powerful example of urban transformation.

Many elements contributed to this success, including the city’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Transmilenio, which debuted in 2000; the creation of an ambitious network of bike lanes; and improved pedestrian sidewalks and crossings. But how did political, financial, institutional and power dynamics contribute? A new research project by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has revealed an unforeseen synergy between general public safety actions in Bogotá and efforts to lower traffic mortality.

The Strategy: Link Road Safety to Other Issues People Care About

The total number of fatalities from road collisions in Bogota is decreasing. Graphic by Overseas Development Institute

The 1990s were a turbulent decade for Colombia, with record levels of violence and homicide. Citizens demanded a government response. In Bogotá, a suite of enforcement, social marketing and education policies were enacted, under the banner “Life is Sacred.” As part of this program, the administration linked traffic deaths to wider problems of crime and murder in the city, and framed it as a part of a public health crisis.

This approach galvanized public attention around “traffic violence.” Targeted social marketing and education programs encouraged people to expect safe and courteous behavior from their fellow citizens and promoted recognition of societal norms in public spaces, particularly traffic regulations. The resulting shift in perspective also generated increased support for changes to public transport and public space.

These programs had unexpected benefits for road safety. For example, one “Life is Sacred” policy set earlier closing times for night clubs to reduce alcohol-fueled violence. A welcome side effect was a reduction in drunk driving, which resulted in significant gains for road safety. It demonstrated that Bogotá’s actions to reduce violent crime could have an impact on traffic fatalities as well.

Other Potential Strategies

Our research also looked at two other cities which struggle with road safety and sustainable mobility options: Mumbai and Nairobi. We examined local political dynamics in all three cities and outlined key challenges and opportunities for catalyzing action to improve road safety.

The research did reveal some gains, notably the creation of a non-motorized transportation policy for Nairobi and court-mandated road safety interventions in Mumbai.

But we also found that it can be difficult to gain traction politically when discussing road safety in isolation. The issue is often seen as a matter of personal responsibility, rather than a question of public health or government service.

In addition to the strategy above, our research identified three more ways to make progress with road safety: tying road safety to other issues, such as traffic congestion; building alliances at all levels of government, including local, regional and national; and producing a dedicated road safety plan with short-, medium- and long-term aims and objectives to build lasting solutions and avoid prioritizing “quick wins” only.

These strategies are not failsafe. Even in Bogotá, there is still progress to be made. There, road fatality numbers have plateaued and the new “safe system” based road safety plan hopes to catalyze further action. But its dramatic progress in public perception and political action related to road safety make it a point of reference around the world. The city has shown that a multi-level approach, combining technical know-how with socially and politically savvy campaigns, can unite citizens and decision-makers in a common goal: saving lives.

This article was originally published on WRI’s Insights.

Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate for Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Urban Trees: A Smart Investment in Public Health

Tue, 2017-11-21 14:13

City trees can help save lives and millions in health expenditure. Photo by Rick Harris/ Flickr

Would you spend $8 per year to see your community reduce rates of obesity, heart disease, anxiety and asthma? Still not convinced? What if that investment also reduced energy costs and increased property values?

Urban trees can transform city neighborhoods, contributing to a wide range of public health gains. Investing an additional $8 per person, on average, in planting and maintaining urban trees in American cities, could have a significant impact. Yet across the United States, cities are losing about 4 million trees per year.

The humble street tree is an ecological powerhouse. Study after study has shown multiple benefits to people and society. Trees, and other urban green spaces, can help manage runoff during rainstorms. They help clean and cool the air, reducing harmful air pollutants and air temperatures on city streets. They lend beauty to our communities and increase property values. And time spent in natural environments has demonstrated mental health benefits.

A new report, “Funding Trees for Health,” from The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and Analysis Group, raises the concern that a combination of reduced budgets; the ravages of drought, storms, and pest infestations; and lack of investment is quickly stripping cities of the benefits that trees provide.

The paper finds that a significant percentage of the gap between current funding for trees and the amount that cities spend today could be offset by the public health gains that city trees provide.

Every year, between 3 and 4 million people around the world die as a result of outdoor air pollution and its lifelong impacts on human health. Urban trees can serve as pollution barriers and even filter the air. A 2016 analysis of average costs and impacts across nearly 250 major cities found that trees offer comparable benefit to traditional solutions, with the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.

Now, Analysis Group’s research on major U.S. cities finds that that urban trees could account for $25 million in annual savings related to health care costs and lost work days from air pollution alone.

While the situation varies city by city, our analysis demonstrates that a green urban future is not an impossible dream, and it’s affordable in most places if policymakers and others commit to making this critical investment.

The paper offers several specific examples of innovative public sector partnership and private sector investments that highlight the full societal value of urban trees. However, municipal leaders in communities of all sizes can begin to address significant health challenges by thinking creatively about the role of nature in cities and towns.

A range of complimentary solutions will be necessary, including changes to how building codes handle open space and incentivize trees on private property; efforts to break down municipal government silos so that parks and environmental departments are better positioned to collaborate with public health departments; and public education efforts to communicate the role that trees can play.

Some cities are already leading efforts to prove the value of urban trees. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, city leaders are partnering with the University of Kentucky Medical School and others to demonstrate the link between urban trees and cardiac health via the Green Heart Project. The project is a five-year urban laboratory that will plant as many as 8,000 trees in a neighborhood, then conduct a clinical trial to track their effect on the health of local residents.

All cities, big or small, can begin exploring ways to create links between the health sector and urban forestry agencies. The key is connecting public health outcomes to urban trees. Communication and coordination between a city’s parks, forestry and public health departments can reveal new sources of funding for tree planting and maintenance. Working together, the health sector and the urban forestry sector can achieve a healthier, more verdant world.

Robert McDonald is Lead Scientist for the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy and lead author of “Funding Trees for Health.” He researches the impact and dependencies of cities on the natural world, and helps direct the science behind much of the Conservancy’s urban conservation work. He holds a PhD in Ecology from Duke University and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, and a recent book, “Conservation for Cities.”

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

Mon, 2016-11-07 23:58

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

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

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

Sexual Assault Is a Public Health Crisis

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

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

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

Crowded Conditions Foster Assaults

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

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

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

A Culture That Discourages Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path to Safer Transit

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

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

New Research Shows How BRT Ridership Is Making Bogota a Healthier City

Tue, 2016-03-01 02:04
Physical inactivity is one of the ten leading risk factors for death worldwide. Approximately 5.3 million people die prematurely every year due to cardiovascular diseases, breast and colon cancer and diabetes and other illnesses associated with sedentary lifestyles. According to The ...

One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Source of Income

Thu, 2015-09-03 19:27

As landfills reach capacity in developing cities, organizations and governments are innovating new and sustainable methods of managing their waste. (Photo: Mr Thinktank / Flickr)

With massive population growth in store for cities across the Global South, the fact that many cities struggle to provide effective waste collection to serve the current population levels is worrying. Poor waste collection practices — such as the indiscriminate dumping of refuse due to inadequate equipment and insufficient (or even non-existent) separation of different types of trash — can have severe negative effects on the environment and urban residents’ health. In Lagos, Lilongwe, Mexico City, and Dhaka, a combination of government, non-profit, and business interests are working to revolutionize their cities’ trash collection, with a focus on engaging ordinary citizens in recycling and composting.

The Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) is responsible for waste management across Lagos. Through public-private partnerships, the agency has modernized and formalized waste cart pushing, bringing informal waste collectors into the formal economy. Inner-city areas with narrow roads are now reached via mini skip trucks and automotive tricycles instead of wheelbarrows and push carts. This allows operators to collect more waste on fewer trips. It also adds ease and dignity to the process, and ensures proper disposal to official landfills since each operator is accountable to a regulating body that enforces good practices and monitors service delivery. Finally, LAWMA encourages women to get involved in the sector now that most collection has transitioned from intense cart pushing to automated activities.

Estimates show that the number of people living in Lilongwe will have more than doubled by 2030, yet even with the current population, the local authority can barely collect all of the waste that is generated: a 2008 study showed that the city could only collect and safely dispose of 30 percent of the city’s waste. In this context, women and young people, supported by the nonprofit sector, are seizing opportunities. Our World International is a local NGO working in Kawale, a traditional housing area in Lilongwe to mobilize women and youth to form waste entrepreneurship groups. Equipped with basic compost training, the entrepreneurs make compost manure and sell it to landscaping companies or individuals for use in gardens. While the motivation of the waste entrepreneurship groups is to earn a living, they are also cleaning up the city, especially in low-income areas with limited government collection services.

Disposing of solid waste is one of the biggest challenges in Mexico City. The government is pushing for a cultural change, urging residents to separate their waste, approximately 50 percent of which can be reused. Since 2012, the government of the Federal District has been implementing the Plan Verde (Green Plan) to encourage recycling. Under this plan, garbage trucks collect organic waste on certain days and inorganic waste on other days. Plan Verde also disseminates information about consumer habits, encouraging residents to buy products with the recycling emblem or made from natural materials like paper or glass. The plan recommends avoiding the purchase of overly-packaged products and limiting the amount of plastics used. Temporary market places have been installed in various locations around the city where residents can trade their recyclables using a points system they can then use to buy fresh produce.

With landfills in Dhaka reaching their full capacities, the municipality and community actors are working to improve the treatment of biodegradable waste, which represents 74 percent of the city’s waste. Waste Concern, a social business, has started a food composting program in Dhaka’s largest slums and residential areas to teach communities how to process food waste they can sell as compost. Large Indonesian composting drums were brought in to conceal the waste and minimize odor. Several families use one drum, and earn USD$12 per month from each compost drum. Waste Concern has also expanded to more affluent residential areas, with a similar door-to-door training and waste collection program. This program is done at a price that allows the organization to cross-subsidize its operations. Waste Concern is now in the process of formulating a larger integrated waste management program between 19 cities, including Dhaka, in cooperation with the city government.

Check out more of the discussion on cities as engines of change on and contribute your thoughts to the conversation.

This post was originally published on

Five Lessons for Making Bike Share a Success in India

Thu, 2015-07-30 19:34

To combat rising rates of private vehicle ownership and ensure a healthy, sustainable future for their citizens, Indian cities—like Jodhpur—need to focus on making bike share work for the local context. (Photo: Tomas Belcik / Flickr)

Public Bicycle Sharing (PBS), or bike share, as it is more popularly known, was first introduced in Amsterdam in 1965. While the concept spread to various European cities, it remained largely experimental in nature and small in scale. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s—with the incorporation of advanced smartcards and progress in Information and Communication Technology (ICT)—that bike share came to be viewed as an innovation with significant potential to promote cycling and sustainable urban mobility.

Since then, bike share has witnessed tremendous growth and widespread adoption. As of 2013, there were 639 bike share systems across 53 countries, with a combined fleet of nearly 650,000 bicycles.

Studies have shown that bike share increases modal share for cycling, creates safer roads, improves health, and reduces gender disparities. Bike share also wields benefits for traditional modes of transport, as it has the potential to reduce stress on congested systems in dense urban areas and increase access to public transport in less dense regions by acting as a last mile connector.  Around the world, bike share has come to be seen as an effective instrument in the sustainable urban mobility arsenal.

India, however, remains behind the curve in bike share. Several small scale pilots have been attempted in cities like Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai. Unfortunately, these attempts have failed to scale-up into large city-wide systems, and are no longer active. While they were primarily led by well-intentioned individuals, the lack of significant government support prevented the expansion of these initiatives beyond the pilot stage.

In the future, it is essential that the planning of these systems incorporates both the lessons learned from Indian pilot initiatives and the best practices from successful systems around the world.

The 5 key lessons for Indian cities looking to implement bike share systems are:

 1.  Go Big

The utility of a bike share system increases exponentially with its scale and coverage. If a system is too small – with too few locations or too few cycles – it is unlikely to serve as a convenient mobility option for most people. Small bike share pilots are largely unsuccessful precisely because they are small, rather than due to any inherent problem with the concept.  Therefore, a serious implementation of a city-wide bike share system must commit to a sufficiently large scale.

 2.  Invest in Quality

Bike share systems are among the cheapest public transport systems to deploy; however, excessively focusing on cost minimization can be counter-productive. Skimping on the quality of hardware and software impacts both operational efficiency as well as the image of the system.  Bike share systems with high-quality components, comprehensive ICT capabilities as well as cohesive communications and branding strategies are most likely to be successful.

 3.  Get the Business Model Right

There are a wide variety of business models and contractual arrangements for procuring and operating bike share systems. While cities must choose the model that works best for them, it is critical that the motives of the operator align with the interests and goals of the city. In many cases, poorly structured contracts have led to situations of moral hazard, where the financial outcomes for the operator are not strictly tied to the quality and performance of the bike share system.

 4.  Adapt to the Indian Context

As with any new concept, unique aspects of the Indian urban context which may impact the utility and performance of bike share systems need to be identified and addressed. Some of these include, for example, the lack of familiarity with automated systems, a predominantly cash-based economy, and the wide range of socio-economic backgrounds of potential system users. Local governments will have to closely evaluate the social and economic landscape in their city and adapt system features to ensure maximum inclusivity and access.

 5.  Build Interest

Modal shares of cycling have been falling across Indian cities over the last decade. For a bike share system to be successful, it is necessary that people be willing to consider cycling as a viable mode of transport. Thus, it is vital that any city striving for a successful bike share system undertake awareness, interest, and incentive building exercises of various forms. These exercises should encourage people to initially try the system and later work to convert casual users into regular users.

While slow to start, many Indian cities are now expressing a strong desire to implement large, city-wide bike share systems, with Delhi, Mysore, Gandhinagar, and Bhopal at the forefront of this movement.  These cities would do well to follow these principles, as the success of this ‘first wave’ of city-scale bike share systems in India will be critical for widespread adoption across the country.

China’s Pedestrianization: Reviving a Tradition of Walking for Healthier Cities

Fri, 2015-07-17 00:54

A pedestrian mall on Nanjing Road, China (Photo: Payton Chung / Flickr)

Pedestrian-oriented streets not only are safer, improve air quality, and encourage physical activity, but also facilitate commercial and social activity. Although China has rapidly urbanized in the past few decades, many cities across the country are still not easily walkable. According to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment (CCICED), 82 percent of Chinese residents indicated that they are not satisfied with the walkability of their city. With increasingly large cities, China’s urban population has experienced a decrease in quality of health, caused in part by heavy air pollution and sinking levels of physical activity.

Given the growing concerns about public health as well as the benefits of pedestrianization, creating vibrant, walkable streets is becoming an urgent priority in Chinese cities.  On the national stage, China has designed and put forward its national urbanization plan which encourages pedestrianization.  On the local level, cities are exploring a variety of strategies for pedestrianizing their streets and open spaces to benefit urban development.  Moving forward, it is critical that China both prioritizes its pedestrian population and monitors the results of these changes.

Economic Development, but Potential Negative Impacts

Changes in mode shares of walking in selected Chinese cities (1986-92 vs 2003-10). In most cities, the percentage of individuals walking has increased over time. Graphic by Wei Li.

In China, pedestrian-only streets are the most common type of pedestrianization projects — with more than 100 cities containing at least one.  Pedestrian streets bring considerable economic benefits to cities. Beijing’s Wangfujing, for example, was visited by 250,000 people per day at its peak, while Shanghai’s Nanjing Road crests at 2 million – the highest in China. Taking advantage of the foot traffic, commercial development typically lines the majority of these streets. Modern pedestrian streets usually feature shopping malls with wide streets, exemplified by Wangfujing Street and Nanjing Road.  Recently, historical redevelopment in traditionally narrow alleys and old buildings has gained popularity.

However, among the commercial success underlies major problems. Noise pollution, displacement of residents during transition phases, and traffic congestion often harm their effectiveness and appeal. Therefore, a more comprehensive approach is needed to create walking environments that benefit cities as a whole and avoids these problems.

Traditional neighborhoods in four Chinese cities. Although varying in building styles, these historical streets are walkable for citizens and tourists alike. (Photo credit: 大杨/ Flickr, Tzuhsun Hsu/ Flickr, Ambert Yeung/ Flickr, kattebelletje/ Flickr)

Pedestrian Zones in Shanghai: Transforming a Waterfront

Beyond pedestrian streets, Chinese cities are also exploring larger pedestrianization zones which offer heightened walkability to connect open spaces with other modes of transport. Particularly notable among them is The Bund in Shanghai. Attracting millions of visitors to the area, The Bund is the signature waterfront area in central Shanghai. However, the old Bund was not well designed for pedestrians, sporting an 11-lane highway (partly elevated) that cuts through the area. Furthermore, the huge amount of pedestrians also strained the capacity of the sightseeing deck.

In response to these problems, Shanghai’s Government implemented a massive retrofitting project between 2008 and 2010. By removing seven lanes from the street, the project reduced 70 percent of vehicle traffic in the area. The project also tore down the elevated section of the highway and replaced it with crosswalks, increasing overall pedestrian connectivity. Lastly, the endeavor expanded the area of the sightseeing deck by 40 percent and redesigned the open spaces along the river. More recently, the city expanded the walkable area into a 7-km non-motorized transport zone along the river to boost space for walkers. With such good results, other cities are pedestrianizing similar areas as well.

The Bund before (left) and after (right) retrofitting. (Photo credit: Mat Booth/Flickr, SeanSheng/ Pixabay)

 Looking Forward: Prioritizing Citizens over Cars

Although pedestrianization is gaining momentum in China, most projects are currently focusing exclusively on commercial development and tourism. As a result, the average citizen still lacks walkable public spaces. Because foot traffic generally consists of daily commuters, ignoring these individuals places walking citizens in an unsafe and undesirable walking environmentIn order to address this gap, political will, viable financing, and proper technical capacity all need to be put into place.

China has a long tradition of vibrant street life and is looking to revive those roots. In fact, the Chinese word for “shopping”(逛街) literally means “strolling around the streets”. Indeed, among many Chinese citizens, walking has not lost its popularity despite the widespread motorization of urban life.  Although some cities have seen a decrease in walking in the past decades, many of them still have a robust walking population, and some cities are even experiencing a growth in pedestrian traffic.

Vibrant streets, as depicted in this 12th-century 5-meter scroll (excerpt), were once central to Chinese cities. Streets served not only as a means transport, but also as places of congregation.

It is time for Chinese cities to design or redesign their streets for pedestrians in big ways. Simultaneously, it is also critical that cities monitor and evaluate the social and environmental impacts of pedestrianization projects so that other cities can learn from their experiences. Improving the walkability of streets and other public spaces is imperative for building on China’s walking tradition for a sustainable future.

How Rethinking Urban Design Can Create Healthier Communities

Wed, 2015-05-13 21:22

Convenient, wide, and clearly marked, this crosswalk in São Paulo, Brazil encourages walking by design. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil.

Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI’s sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.

Flipping on the TV might seem like an innocent way to unwind after a hard day of work. But for the first time in history, a sedentary lifestyle is reducing the average life expectancy in Brazil by five years. Already, 48.7 percent of the adult population is sedentary. This number is projected to increase, causing physical, social, and economic damage to society.

While encouraging healthy habits is essential to combatting this trend, urban design also plays an important role in fostering healthy lifestyles. Ultimately, how we design our cities influences how people live in them.

The concept of active design is key to understanding how cities can improve public health. Championed by New York City’s Center for Active Design, active design prioritizes walking and cycling, and mass transport like buses, in the built environment. In Brazil, Cidade Ativa (active city) promotes changes to the urban environment that encourage a more active and healthy lifestyle.

So how are these ideas implemented on the ground? The Center for Active Design recently created the “Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design” , which contains several recommendations that may be used by cities and planners for designing urban spaces that foster active transport.

Below, we explore some of these tactics that urban planners can use to get people off their car seats and onto the sidewalk:

Mixed Use Neighborhoods Are More Vibrant

A diverse mix of land uses—homes offices, schools, shops, and cultural sites—in one neighborhood encourages more people to walk. A diverse mix of land uses and buildings can make for an interesting walk, and can stimulate people to live near their offices. Devoting space for social and economic activities can fill a neighborhood with people and life.

  • Residential areas should be located near parks, squares, and recreational areas.  Connected streets are conducive to walking. Quality public spaces within 10 minutes of home also encourage neighborhood walking.
  • Neighborhoods with grocery stores and markets close to home and work are associated with healthier diets and lower rates of obesity, according to several studies. In contrast, areas with fast-food restaurants tend to have higher rates of obesity.
Street Design Influences Transit Behavior
  • The Center for Active Design found an inverse relationship between obesity and urban density along transit stops and bus lanes. Residents who use public transportation tend to walk more, which is correlated with lower rates of obesity.
  • Public transport should be located on connected streets. This expands access to pedestrians and makes public transport more convenient.
  • Quality transit stations:  protection from sun and rain, comfortable seating, and wide sidewalks all make public transport and public spaces more friendly and accessible.
  • Parking spots can have a major impact on walkability. Planners should consider the effect that parking spaces can have on an individual’s decision to walk, bike, or use public transit. Generally, when parking is available, drivers will use it. The greater the supply of parking, the less motivation that people have to be active.
Public Spaces for Active Communities
  • Plan public spaces on a large scale. When people have greater access to parks, physical activity levels tend to be higher.
  • When routes are visible and safe in parks and public spaces, pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to use them.
  • Squares and parks should haves drinking fountains, playgrounds for children, bike paths, sports fields, or other types of public facilities.
  • Planners should also consider the cultural preferences of the local population. Public space should be designed for all ages equitably. Placing facilities for physical activity of children and adults in the same place means that everyone can participate in public spaces equitably.
  • Cities should establish partnerships with organizations and volunteers to maintenance public spaces. When volunteers and organizations commit to taking care of public spaces, they become meaningful to those communities.

People who walk and bike regularly are better off physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and financially. The city can be a powerful facilitator of physical activity, encouraging people to walk, bike, and take public transit by design. Rethinking the role of urban design in transport decision making not only can help cities become more efficient and improve quality of life, but can also make communities healthier.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil.

How Istanbul Is Improving Public Health by Designing for Cycling

Mon, 2015-05-11 21:14

Istanbul is looking to expand its network of bike lanes and promote cycling to improve public health and well-being. Photo by EMBARQ Turkey/Flickr.

Growing physical inactivity at a global scale is causing more people to suffer from chronic diseases every day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 31 percent of adults 15 years old and older were insufficiently active in 2008, leading to 3.2 million deaths worldwide. Furthermore, the top five leading chronic diseases linked to physical inactivity cost the global economy $6.2 trillion in 2010.

However, an active design approach to architecture and urban planning has the potential to make daily physical activity an ingrained feature of city life. By focusing on the role that parks, sidewalks, and walkable public spaces play in healthy communities, active design encourages physical activity. Cities that adopt active design have been shown to increase residents’ physical activity and improve public health.

Istanbul Embraces Cycling for an Active City

Many cities have recently focused on integrated transport planning, walking, and cycling as elements of active design. In Turkey, both the central government and local governments have been supporting cycling culture and infrastructure. For example, in recent years, cycling projects have become more important and popular in Istanbul. With 14 million people living in dense communities, the city has faced intense traffic congestion and low air quality. To improve livability and public health, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM)—the agency responsible for cycling projects— is turning to active design targets, pledging to build 1,050 km of cycle lanes in Istanbul by 2023.

A Comprehensive Manual for Decision Makers

EMBARQ Turkey’s Safe Cycling Design Manual for Istanbul addresses the challenges of cycling planning in Istanbul and provides guidelines for improvements. The report gathers input from NGOs and cyclist associations, creates standardized tools for developing safe and accessible cycling infrastructure, and provides recommendations for how district agencies can improve cross-coordination.

One challenge of cycling in Istanbul is a lack of integration with other modes of transport. While there is bicycle parking at several ferry ports, subway, and bus rapid transit (BRT) stations, they are not adequate, given Istanbul’s size. Furthermore, overcrowding makes it prohibitively difficult to carry a bike on public transport. There are 20 buses currently equipped with bike racks, but bike space needs to be expanded across all modes of transportation.

The exact number of cyclists in Istanbul is not known, and collision data is unreliable. This can make planning difficult. To decide on the route of a bike lane, planners and designs need know about the estimated number of cyclists in a given area, their preferences and safety expectations, as well as the slope, width, and conditions of the street. Since the IMM rarely has this granular information, district agencies and NGOs need to come together to work on cycling projects, as they are more familiar with the experiences of local cyclists.

According to surveys in the Manual, cyclists in Istanbul prefer to ride short distances (5-6 km). The majority of respondents stated that their bicycle trips were no longer than 60 minutes and that their trips generally end within the same district or an adjacent district. 90 percent of respondents believe that there are major problems with cycling infrastructure. 50 percent feel unsafe, as unconnected bike lanes can lead to dangerous contact between cyclists and cars. Lastly, 35 percent of cyclists think that there is a lack of signs on the road, making it difficult to navigate the city safely.

Bike lanes should be designed with this data in mind. They should both serve neighborhood life and integrate with public transit systems. Additionally, routes for cyclists should be coherent, direct, and continuous. Improvements to current roads and safe bike parking are necessary to ensure convenience and safety.

Making Istanbul a City Designed for Cycling

In order to combat a growing rate of physical inactivity, local decision makers need to raise awareness about cycling as a viable transport option and implement accessible infrastructure across Istanbul. This will require better coordination between the IMM, district authorities, NGOs, and cyclist associations. The manual, which was awarded an Excellence Honorable Mention from the Center for Active Design in New York, provides valuable guidance for local authorities, planners, and designers to create integrated, connected, and accessible bike infrastructure throughout the city. With strong management and active design, Istanbul can make cycling safer and more convenient for all residents.

Friday Fun: From Stadiums to Public Parks, the Impacts of Space for Sports in Cities

Fri, 2015-04-17 22:03

With around 300 million people playing basketball in China, the Chinese Basketball Association is looking to build nearly 800,000 new courts in Beijing (pictured) and other cities across the country. Photo by Filipe Fortes/Flickr.

There are countless ways to analyze—and visualize—sports. For instance, there’s a wide spectrum of where and how sports are played in cities around the world. Professional sports typically take place in expensive stadiums, which are expected to draw crowds of fans and consumers. On the other hand, amateur sports happen at a much more local level. Sports often play a large role in cities and frequently receive a lot of attention from both elected officials and the public.

So how are amateur and professional sports venues producing different economic and social impacts in cities across the globe?

Making Space for Soccer in India

Space for recreational soccer fields has become an increasingly pertinent issue in India, especially in Mumbai. Many companies have formed to develop unused land in response to the demand for soccer space, and they construct fields “in the unlikeliest of places.” These fields are usually small and hastily built on any land that’s available, but they’re providing ample opportunities for soccer aficionados to play and diverting public attention away from field hockey.

Developing these informal fields in Mumbai offers the city numerous benefits. From an economic perspective, small business owners in this new industry have been able to capitalize on otherwise unusable properties and city residents are participating inexpensively. From a social perspective, this development is providing city residents with space for physical activity and has been a source of inspiration for aspiring professional athletes.

In the Dominican Republic, Baseball Takes All

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is the official national sport. Baseball requires little equipment, and is a “ubiquitous” part of Dominican life, providing many young players with the chance to become professional athletes. A couple unique aspects of Dominican baseball are the training programs for aspiring professionals and huge athletic facilities that exist for the country’s almost 30 major league teams. The city of San Pedro is well known for fostering successful baseball players, and houses the majority of major league-sponsored facilities.

Although baseball infrastructure has produced many economic benefits, it’s also had some social drawbacks. “Baseball factories” stimulate the economy with foreign money. In San Pedro specifically, baseball funds help finance public works projects, like plazas. However, the social ramifications of these baseball facilities in the Dominican Republic are typically negative. In contrast to the American system, in which many children play sports through school, Dominican children turn to buscones—people who often take advantage of rising athletes, acting as both coaches and agents. In fact, it’s commonly said that “parents risk a son’s childhood with baseball instead of going to school.”

In China, Basketball is Both a Recreational Activity and an Emerging Profession

China currently is home to around 300 million professional and amateur basketball players. In Beijing, common playing areas include public courts or schools, and recreational basketball is in high demand. At the professional level, there is a need for professional basketball facilities across the country. However, it’s uncertain whether the planned facilities—if and when they are constructed—could generate enough fan interest to be profitable.

In China, whereas the economic benefits of investing in basketball infrastructure are mixed, the social benefits are generally positive. Economically, amateur sports offer facilities the chance to profit from people who are eager to play. However, for professional basketball to grow in popularity, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) will have to invest in infrastructure for the league. Even though the CBA has played in the stadiums remaining from the 2008 Olympics, 800,000 new courts have been planned for development. Socially, recreational basketball can create a sense of community for China’s many only children, and the CBA promotes cultural diversity within the teams. Instead of players leaving to play for international teams, like those from the Dominican Republic, Chinese teams have been actively recruiting American players, like Stephon Marbury.

Sports for Sustainable, Healthy, Vibrant Cities

Around the world, sports serve many purposes. They can be an athlete’s profession, an avid player’s recreational outlet, or a team-building activity for anyone. Sports infrastructure varies widely, making it well-suited to sports’ many purposes. Across India, the Dominican Republic, and China, it’s clear that sports and sports infrastructure play an influential role in city and national development. From an economic perspective, they provide opportunities for new industries and encourage international funding. From a social perspective, they provide recreational outlets and cultural diversity, and, occasionally, professional opportunities.

Looking forward, it’s likely sports infrastructure will receive increasing attention from cities, especially as the process of greening sports facilities and implementing sustainable architecture becomes a bigger part of the discussion.

China’s clean air challenge: Public unrest forges the path ahead

Thu, 2015-04-09 02:18

Transitioning from emissions-intensive vehicles to bicycling and other forms of sustainable transport is a priority of China’s new Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Air Pollution. Photo by Maciej Hrynczyszyn/Flickr.

This is the second installment of the China’s Clean Air Challenge series, exclusive to TheCityFix. This series examines the increasing social, environmental, and economic impacts of serious air quality issues in Chinese cities, and investigates the source of emissions and sustainable solutions.

Toward the end of 2011, episodes of severe pollution levels in China started attracting worldwide attention. Global media employed terms like “airmageddon” and “airpocalypse,” sparking considerable discussion and debate on social media.

Nearly four years later, air pollution remains a pressing issue in Chinese cities. Last month, journalist Chain Jing released Under the Dome, an independently produced documentary investigating both the causes and effects of China’s toxic levels of air pollution. Within 48 hours, the video had gone viral, reaching over 100 million views. Although viewers have now been restricted from  accessing the 103-minute documentary within China, the impact of the film’s message among Chinese citizens has already been forceful.

Public pressure mounts

Air quality has long been a problem in Chinese cities, but it wasn’t until late 2011 when the public started to express significant frustration. Chinese social media platform Weibo has since become a major venue for public discussion. This type of grassroots communication has brought air pollution and its consequences to the center of public consciousness. PM2.5—the air pollutant most associated with respiratory health risks—is now a household phrase. But the problem continued to worsen, and in 2013, PM2.5 in Beijing spiked to 25 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Today, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection reports that cities across China suffer more than 100 days of extreme haze—when PM2.5 concentrations reach four to five times the acceptable levels—per year. Local governments have responded quickly to inform the public about proper protection responses and implement emergency emissions reductions, but public pressure for further action has never been higher.

Even before Under the Dome—and despite its censorship—public awareness of the reality and consequences of living with air pollution has been steadily approaching fever pitch.

Chinese government responds

Public outrage over deteriorating air quality in China did eventually prompt government response. On September 12, 2013, China’s State Council released the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, setting a road map for air pollution control from 2013-2017 in three key megalopolis regions: Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta. The Action Plan states that the regions’ annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should be reduced by 25 percent, 20 percent, and 15 percent, respectively.

More recently, the national government released a new plan that aims to build long-term momentum towards better air quality across the country. This plan pulls from three previous attempts at air pollution control:

China went through three strategic phases of air pollution control before 2010. Each phase has target pollutants, major emission sources, and control approaches. Table adapted from Prof. He Kebin, Tsinghua University. Click to enlarge.

The current combination of regional action plans and national strategies make China’s “war on pollution” a much more robust and far-reaching approach to addressing noxious air pollution.

The way forward for better air quality

Implementing the Action Plan requires initiative at the local, provincial, and national levels. Some notable features of the Action Plan include:

  • Distributing responsibilities and conducting performance assessments: The central government has assigned 80 tasks to various national ministries and has signed agreements with 31 individual provinces to make sure air quality improvement targets are achieved.
  • Curbing emissions from industrial sources: Six emissions standards have been issued since September 2013, covering variety of industrial and manufacturing industries.
  • Managing vehicle emissions: The central government will strengthen vehicle emissions standards by 2018 and has established a timetable to transition to cleaner sources of fuel. At the local level, older car models will soon be phased out the market.
  • Restructuring economic and energy sectors: One notable example of these efforts is that the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region introduced measures to reduce coal consumption.
  • Enhancing air quality management: Several ministries are improving air quality forecasting and scientific research has focused on identifying the sources of pollution. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has issued technical guidelines for developing a comprehensive emissions inventory and assessing energy efficiency that will guide local, on-the-ground work.

Whether because of public sentiment, globally influential campaigns like Under the Dome, or the sheer reality of how much air pollution costs China, the government is now taking the issue very seriously. Now is the time for the country’s growing civil society sector to keep engaging key stakeholders for continued action and bring forward sustainable solutions that clean the air and improve quality of life.

Friday Fun: China’s ‘dancing grannies’ vow to dance on

Fri, 2015-04-03 22:02

A group of elderly men and women dance to traditional songs in Lijiang, China, demonstrating how public spaces can be an important facilitator of both physical activity and community building in Chinese cities. Photo by Buster&Bubby/Flickr.

Walk through any public square or park in most Chinese cities and you’re likely to see—and probably hear—a colorful group of elderly residents dancing and singing to their favorite classical Chinese songs. The dancing grannies, as they are known, have become a permanent fixture of Chinese urban life. But they have also aroused the anger of nearby residents who complain of the noise that often runs late into the evening. Responding to this outcry, China’s national government recently announced guidelines in an attempt to regulate, but not completely ban, the dancers.

Far from settling the issue, the government’s attempt to rein in the dancing has only sparked more discussion of the grannies and their loud music, and has arguably failed to deal with the chief complaint: the noise that disturbs nearby residents. Despite the complaints, we think these grannies deserve some appreciation for their contributions to vibrant urban life.

Where did the grannies come from?

The practice of the elderly gathering to dance in China’s public squares probably began in the 1990s, according to The New York Times. This was a period when many state-owned enterprises were downsizing and laying off workers, precipitating a rise in unemployed elderly with little to occupy their time. In recent years, however, conflicts have erupted as the dancing culture has irritated younger residents of the city who complain about the noise and disruption. There have been reports of human feces dumped on dancers from nearby buildings. In one city, a group of residents pooled funds to buy a rival loudspeaker to drown out the grannies’ dance music.

It’s no coincidence that the grannies emerged around the same time China’s economy underwent a dramatic transformation. As China’s economy moved from a controlled, planned economy to a market-driven one, the elderly were largely left behind. Before China’s economic reforms, cities were typically planned around the danwei, or work unit. Citizens were supposed to live, work, and play in one fixed community. While the reforms have unleashed unprecedented economic growth and new opportunities for millions, Chinese cities have been slow to provide adequate spaces for community interaction and recreation.

The need for community space in Chinese cities

China’s rapid urban development has led to sprawl as well as the destruction of older neighborhoods—like Beijing’s hutongs—where human-scale spaces foster a sense of community. Strolling through ancient alleyways, observers will find residents playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) or chatting on a neighbor’s doorstep. This is also what American urbanist Jane Jacobs described in New York as the eyes on the street that contribute to neighborhood security and safety. However, this type of informal community life is typically absent from newer subdivisions of massive high-rise apartments.

Elderly dancers gather in a park in Beijing as part of their morning exercise routine. Photo by Andrew Stokols/WRI.

What can China’s cities learn from the dancing grannies?

China’s dancing grannies shouldn’t be thought of as a quaint anachronism. Concerns over noise and disruption to neighbors are legitimate, and could be addressed through modest regulations—such as prohibiting dancing at certain times and in certain places. But the grannies also provide valuable lessons to urban planners and designers.

The phenomenon of the dancing grannies exemplifies the concept of insurgent space which urban planning scholar Jeffrey Hou uses to describe the urban spaces where certain (often minority) groups spontaneously exercise their right to use public space. They’re also engaging in physical activity and promoting public health, which will be crucial to creating healthier cities in China.

In this sense, the grannies have responded to a failure in planning by taking matters into their own hands. It’s similar to pedestrians who, in a park or green space, create dirt paths by “voting with their feet”—indicating where a path should run.

As China hopes to move an additional 250 million people into cities over the next 10 years, there is a small window of time to start designing new cities and neighborhoods that have ample public space and green space for physical activity. If cities plan for more recreational spaces, they can avoid or at least reduce conflicts between neighbors and dancers. Additionally, the actions of groups like the dancing grannies could prove a powerful and free way to foster community and interaction among urban residents, revitalizing cities.

The eight principles of the sidewalk: building more active cities

Thu, 2015-04-02 23:35

Sidewalks are an integral part of cities and should be prioritized as a central component of people-oriented urban design. Photo by Marc Buehler/Flickr.

Walking is the most democratic way to get around. It is the oldest mode of transport, the most common in the world, it’s free, and it may even help you burn a few calories.

Nevertheless, people are walking less and less. As cities have become more sprawled, highways have replaced sidewalks, creating significant obstacles to walking safely. Sidewalks with broken concrete, narrow widths, and illegally parked vehicles on them are further evidence that walking has is slowly being suffocated by other modes of transport that are less healthy for both people and cities.

We need a shift back to pedestrian-friendly streets. Enhancing the quality of city sidewalks not only attracts more pedestrians, but also helps to create enjoyable public spaces where people want to spend their time.

While they’re decreasing in number, these places do exist already. Living sidewalks can be found in many cities in Brazil and around the world where city leaders have made active transport a priority. Instead of just paving a small strip along broad avenues dominated by automobiles, these cities have decided to enrich their walkable public spaces, emphasizing interaction between people.

To support make walking both accessible and safe, sidewalks should be constructed with these eight complementary and interconnected principles in mind. Together, they not only make for vibrant sidewalks, but contribute directly to the development of active and healthy cities.

Meet the eight principles of the sidewalk:

1. Proper sizing 

Sidewalks are made of up three zones: the free zone, where people actually walk; the service zone, where street furniture like benches or trashcans are located; and the transition zone, which gives those on the sidewalk access to buildings lining the street. Understanding the relationship between these components is key for designing appropriately sized sidewalks.

Well-designed sidewalks have three zones, helping them serve as vibrant public spaces. Photo by Luísa Schardong/EMBARQ Brasil.

2. Quality surfaces

The material used to construct sidewalks needs to be consistent, firm, stable and slip-resistant. In order to ensure that a sidewalk functions properly, designers must be aware of how the sidewalk is being constructed and the quality of the handiwork.

On larger streets, pedestrian medians can also be designed to serve as safe, accessible sidewalks. Photo by Luísa Zottis/EMBARQ Brasil.

3. Efficient drainage

Waterlogged streets, paths, or sidewalks are unsuitable for walking. Sidewalks that accumulate water become useless, as pedestrians will likely end up diverting their route through car-filled roads, risking their safety.

Green areas, even small ones, help drain sidewalks and keep them safe and accessible during storms. Photo by Glen Dake via TheCityFix Brasil.

4. Universal accessibility

The sidewalk, as a public space, should be accessible to a wide spectrum of users—including those with limited mobility. This means designing spaces that serve those in wheelchairs, on crutches, pregnant women, the elderly, and others with special mobility needs. Listing out the different potential users and their mobility limitations during the design process can help ensure the final product will meet the needs of all pedestrians.

Bumpy or uneven sidewalks are particularly hard to navigate for the mobility impaired. Photo by Gilmar Altamirano via TheCityFix Brasil.

5. Secure connections

Pedestrians often transition to other modes of public transport, and need to be able to safely access stations. It’s important that sidewalks are connected and integrated within larger transport networks.

Curb extensions, especially at crossings and intersections, minimize the risk of traffic crashes involving pedestrians. Photo by Marta Obelheiro/EMBARQ Brasil.

6. Attractive spaces

Streets are a fundamental part of the urban environment. Sidewalks can play an important role in making the urban experience more enjoyable. Interesting, vibrant sidewalks that can captivate people and make walking more attractive will ultimately facilitate more physical activity while reducing traffic congestion.

Using lighter, reflective materials to design sidewalks can minimize the urban heat island effect. Photo by USP Cidades via TheCityFix Brasil.

7. Permanent security

Day or night, weekday or weekend, sidewalks are always open for us. However, there are fewer people out on foot during certain times of the day and week, leading to potentially unsafe situations given the lack of friendly eyes on the street. Adopting strategies to positively influence safety and security can further encourage walking and help all city dwellers feel more at home in their city.

Active ground floors are good for business and help ensure friendly eyes on the street for pedestrian safety. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil.

8. Clear signage

Just like drivers of motor vehicles, pedestrians need clear information so that they can both orient themselves in the city and understand the rules and guidelines of particular sidewalks.

This sign in London shows clearly which destinations the average person can walk to in five minutes. Photo by Charlotte Gilhooly via TheCityFix Brasil.

This article was originally published in Portuguese at TheCityFix Brasil.

The road to safety

Mon, 2015-02-23 21:26

With the highest rate of traffic crashes in the world, Indian cities need to focus on making their streets safe for all road users. Photo by Ryan/Flickr.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express.

As Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, announces a package of assistance on road safety through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Global Safety Initiative, here is an ugly truth: India has one of the worst road safety records in the world, with around 1,37,423 road traffic fatalities in 2013. This makes up about 10 percent of road crash fatalities worldwide. In absolute numbers, more people die in road crashes in India than anywhere else in the world.

It is estimated that 17-18 percent of these fatalities occur in urban areas. This poses a serious threat as the country is rapidly urbanizing. A recent evaluation of road traffic fatalities in Delhi shows that pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 63 percent of total fatalities, against 11.4 percent for the country as a whole.

Million-plus cities as well as small and medium towns have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of fatalities per million population. They also record more road traffic accidents in the evening, which could be attributed to higher speeds, drunk driving and poor visibility. Allahabad recorded the greatest increase in fatalities per million people — 405 percent from 2001 to 2009 — followed by Agra (319 percent).

Things will probably get worse before they get better. Traffic fatalities increased by about 5 percent per year from 1980 to 2000, and since then have increased by about 8 percent per year.

Domestic vehicle sales increased from 97 lakh in 2008 to almost 2 crore in 2014. There is a strong correlation between the increase in vehicles and increase in road fatalities. Some estimates suggest traffic fatalities will grow five-fold in India by 2050 if we do not take adequate action.

Global experience shows that building safer motor vehicles and re-engineered road geometry does not translate into a better road safety record. There are success stories, like Sweden, where a “vision zero” approach to road safety was able to bring down fatalities to five or six annually. The US, on the other hand, managed to bring down the risk of road fatalities per kilometers traveled. However, the total kilometers traveled has grown exponentially in the past decades,  hence total road traffic fatalities continue to be high.

Rather than focusing on improving the safety of fast-moving vehicles, the international road safety discourse now focuses on two objectives: reducing the average speed of vehicles and, importantly, reducing the total volume of vehicle kilometers traveled. Together, this is known as a “sustainable transport approach” to road safety. It includes the redesign of urban streets and transport systems so that greater emphasis is put on public transport, non-motorized transport and transit-oriented development. The sustainable transport approach can also be categorized by the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework, where the objectives are: avoid growth in vehicle kilometers traveled; shift trips to safer and more sustainable modes, like public transport and non-motorized transport, and improve the general condition of transport in terms of safety, time, cost, comfort.

This means India needs a two-pronged approach to road safety, with an equal emphasis on reducing the risk of fatality per kilometer traveled and reducing the number of vehicle kilometers traveled.

There is a critical list of best practices under each approach. Reducing the risk of fatality means strict enforcement of traffic rules —  drunk driving, helmet use, seat belts and child restraint, as well as air bags. It means improving the behavior of all road users: lane driving, keeping to speed limits, using and respecting pedestrian crossings etc. It also means improving road geometry — identifying accident-prone spots and re-engineering them. And finally, it means ensuring that the vehicles manufactured are safer. Governments and planners should require many of these standards by law and build a strong system for their enforcement.

Reducing the number of vehicle kilometers traveled means increasing safe access to presently vulnerable road users — bicyclists and pedestrians. Planners should make access to urban streets safer through better design and adequate space for pedestrians and other non-motorized transport users. It also means encouraging alternate, preferably non-motorized, forms of transport, such as cycle rickshaws, for shorter or local commutes. The use of mass-transit systems such as buses and trains to assist long-distance commutes is strongly recommended.

Planners should rationalize new road infrastructure investments by asking if it is a priority if only a small percentage of commuters own or drive cars. In Mumbai, for instance, just 14 percent use private cars or two-wheelers, whereas the majority spend a large part of their commute as pedestrians or users of public transport. As is often repeated within the transport sector, a rich nation is not one in which the poor have cars but one in which the rich use public transport.

Urban design for safer roads: Insights from EMBARQ Turkey’s RSLab

Thu, 2015-01-22 00:27

Turkey has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Better road infrastructure design and sustainable mobility can change that, reducing crashes and saving lives. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr. 

More than 1.2 million people worldwide are killed in road traffic crashes every year, and an additional 20 to 50 million are injured. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if urgent action is not taken, these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years, making road traffic crashes the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030. Half of these road fatalities occur just in ten countries, and Turkey has the dubious honor of being among those ten. The Turkish Statistical Institute indicates that in 2013, an average of ten people died and approximately 750 people were injured every day due to traffic crashes in Turkey.

EMBARQ Turkey recently concluded its Road Safety Lab (RSLab), a two-year long project that aims to assess the state of road safety in key Turkish cities and offer transport planning and urban design solutions. The project offers insight for cities worldwide: while human error is a factor in road safety, road design is also a critical determinant of traffic fatalities. An outsized portion of crashes in these cities occured in just a few particularly dangerous locations. Identifying and improving the design of these “blackspots” is a powerful strategy for saving lives on urban roads.

The role of engineering and design for safer roads

At RSLab’s closing meeting, Beste Gülgün of the WHO pointed out that road fatalities are not merely the result of “accidents.” Deaths caused by road traffic crashes are structural and can be avoided through comprehensive and cost-effective precautions. This is why the United Nations and the WHO have launched the Decade of Action for Road Safety for 2011-2020 to mobilize more than 100 countries and prevent a total of five million deaths from traffic crashes by 2020. 

Speed management, drinking and driving, and helmet or seatbelt use are widely acknowledged risk factors in road safety management. However, road safety challenges cannot be attributed solely to human error, as drivers and other road users adapt their behavior to many external factors. Therefore, road infrastructure design plays a crucial role in reducing fatalities and injuries. According to the Handbook for Road Safety Measures, simply lighting previously unlit roads can reduce fatalities from traffic crashes by 60%, for example.

Where can cities start when improving road design?

In most cases, a few traffic safety hot spots account for a high proportion of crashes. According to RSLab presenter Andre Münche from PTV Group, 50% of avoidable accidents occur only on 10% of the road network. One powerful method to improve road safety – called blackspot management – involves identifying particular locations that are highly problematic and resolving site-specific problems that might be causing human error.

With the support of Bloomberg Philantropies and 3M, the RSLab team has identified 25 critical blackspots for road traffic crashes across five Turkish cities and made a number of reccomendations to improve each blackspot. These range from traffic signalization and pedestrianization designs to improved lighthing. EMBARQ Turkey estimates that these measures could prevent more than 500 crashes and approximately 70 injuries annually. According to RSLab Project Lead Tolga Imamoğlu, a road safety inspection is also a cost-effective measure to include when building new roads. Road safety inspections reduce traffic crashes on average by 30%, with a 1:10 cost-benefit ratio.

Identifying the right blackspots, however, can be challenging; it requires quality data and road design expertise. Imamoğlu mentioned that data accuracy can be hampered by a range of factors such as incorrect GPS information or lack of tracking on the status of injuries after crashes. RSLab Project Analyst Kiarash Ghasemlou emphasized that a well-organized, comprehensive, and accessible data collection system is crucial to correctly identifying blackspots.

Turkey’s speed management problem

Beyond blackspot management, speeding also plays a significant role in crashes and resulting fatalities in Turkey. According to Mustafa Ilıcalı of Bahçeşehir University, 43% of fatalities and injuries from traffic crashes in Turkey are due to speeding. Ilıcalı pointed out, however, that this trend in Turkey is not surprising, given the lack of attention paid to speeding offences. Ilıcalı’s statistics showed that only 18 out of 1,000 drivers receive tickets for speeding in Turkey, compared to 456 of 1,000 in Australia and 558 of 1,000 in the Netherlands. Given the staggering number of road fatalities in Turkey and lack of comperehensive enforcement, speed management has become a focus of numerous organizations and agencies like the WHO and the Turkish Road Association.

One issue brought up by many participants at the RSLab closing meeting was the tension between current transport policies that emphasize making cities safe for pedestrians and those prioritizing the mobility of cars. Although many stakeholders, especially in Turkey, voice similar concerns, conceiving urban mobility more broadly as the safe movement of people through sustainable transport policy and planning is a way of resolving this tension. Road safety as a public health problem is not an isolated issue. Rather, it is closely linked with behaviors and trends in other areas such as access to public transport or level of vehicle emissions. As one aspect of sustainable transport policy, better road design through methods can make roads safer for all users, whether on foot, on bikes, or in cars.

View photos from the closing meeting of RSLab on Flickr

Transport plays a key role in urban air quality

Tue, 2015-01-20 21:59

Transport plays a growing role in both the global climate and public health in cities like Londrina, Brazil (pictured). Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil.

The city is like an organism, and the swift movement of people and goods is the oxygen that sustains its well-being. When this circulation is inhibited, it significantly compromises the quality of urban life. For example, private cars account for less than one-third of trips in cities worldwide, but are responsible for 73% of urban air pollutants. Per capita, private cars generate three times more greenhouse gas emissions than public transport systems like buses. In the last year, the transport sector accounted for 46.9% of Brazil’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Rapid global urbanization comes with the potential to accelerate current climate change trends, and transport emissions may even triple by 2050. In addition to the severe consequences for the global climate, rising greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles also have a direct impact on human health. Air pollution contributed to 3.7 million deaths worldwide in 2012. It’s also estimated that urban air pollution contributes to 7,000 premature deaths per year in metropolitan São Paulo and reduces life expectancy by 1.5 years on average.

These challenges require urgent action to reduce the negative public health and environmental impacts of urban transport. One of the main paths for achieving this is through better urban planning and design. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the importance of building denser cities with mixed land uses to reduce sprawl. To do this, we need to shift to a “3C” model of urban growth: connected, compact, and coordinated. These are the key proposals of transit-oriented development (TOD) strategies, which focus on adapting urban spaces to the scale of pedestrians and cyclists, providing quality, efficient public transport, and designing safe, connected spaces around transit hubs to improve connectivity and accessibility.

Designing efficient, low-carbon cities and transport systems can improve health and the climate. A 2013 EMBARQ study shows that 11 new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Mexico, Colombia, China, India, and South Africa have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31.4 million tons over the next 20 years. This amount is equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 6.5 million cars.

As defined in its National Plan on Climate Change (NPCC), Brazil aims to reduce carbon emissions by between 36.1% and 38.9% by 2020. To achieve this, the country has an important ally: investment in urban transport infrastructure provided by the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). More than 80 Brazilian cities now have the opportunity to use federal funding to enhance transport corridors, implement TOD strategies, and in the process improve public health and air quality. It is expected that these investments will prioritize active transport and mass transport systems and help to reverse the country’s trend towards car ownership and motorcycle use.

A study by the Climate Observatory indicates that Brazil could be on track to meet the voluntary emissions reduction commitments outlined in the NPCC, but also signals a worrying increase in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to fossil fuel consumption from transport. While we still face many challenges to shifting planning and investment to a low-carbon path, there are potential solutions at hand. Current negotiations over funding sources that would subsidize the costs of public transport, such as from taxing fossil fuels, can help build cleaner fleets and make sustainable transport more viable in Brazilian cities.

These is the pathway we need to breathe better in our cities.

This article was originally published in Portuguese in the Revista NTU Urbano.

TheCityFix’s Year in Review: Urban sustainability trends to watch

Mon, 2014-12-29 21:01

What moved the dial on sustainable cities in 2014? TheCityFix’s Year in Review recaps trends to watch for the urban future. Photo by Birger Hoppe/Flickr.

With urban growth come a number of opportunities to positively transform our cities. And while the unique challenges faced by city leaders are shaped by local contexts and histories, their actions reveal broader trends in how cities worldwide are changing to better serve their residents. Supported by a combination of political leadership, citizen innovation, and global knowledge networks, 2014 was a year of remarkable progress for urban sustainability.

So, what moved the dial on sustainable cities in 2014? These three major trends are ones to watch for the future of our cities.

Sustainable cities are on the international agenda

More than ever before, building socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable cities was a priority issue for the international community in 2014. Although discussions around global development typically take place among national leaders, action often begins at the city level. In many cases, the ambitious, innovative local actions city leaders take are taking have done more to advance sustainable development than national actions.

This focus on cities was reflected in multiple international arenas. For instance, the latest draft of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) includes an explicit goal to make cities “safe, inclusive, and sustainable.” The Medellín Declaration put forth at the end of the seventh World Urban Forum (WUF7) in March places equitable cities at the core of global development. Finally, climate negotiators at the U.N. Climate Summit and COP20 built strong consensus around the importance of cities in winning the fight against climate change.

These developments bode well for advancing urban sustainability as we move into a pivotal year for the international agenda. In 2015, we can expect to see the finalization of the SDGs and an international climate agreement at COP21, all leading into 2016’s HABITAT III conference on housing and sustainable urban development.

New and exciting innovations in urban mobility

More people in cities means we need mobility options that move beyond the personal car, and 2014 provided us with plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of sustainable urban mobility. From established solutions like bus rapid transit (BRT) scaling up to newer shared-use mobility systems like bike-sharing, car-sharing, and ridesharing taking hold in emerging economies, it was a year of major progress for cities built to move people, not cars.

Sustainable mobility solutions continue to grow as cities move away from auto-dependency. Graphic by EMBARQ (2013).

While the specific reasons vary from city to city, there are a few explanations for these growing trends that ring true across the board. For one, the number of new technologies to fuel citizen participation and innovation grew substantially in 2014, tapping the power of businesses and civil society to help city leaders advance sustainable mobility. Additionally, we’re also seeing a generational shift away from car culture towards more flexible mass transit and shared mobility systems. In places like Mexico, India, and Brazil, the preference for sustainable mobility options over cars has even been embedded in official policy.

Cities are growing, and this is a good thing

It almost goes without saying at this point, but our cities are growing at an unprecedented scale and pace. According to the 2014 revision of the U.N. World Urbanization Prospects, 66% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, up from 30% in 1950. Africa and Asia are currently the only regions with majority rural populations. They’re also the fastest urbanizing regions and are expected to be solidly urbanized by 2050. Asia is already home to 53% of the world’s urban population, and China – which boasts the world’s largest urban population – is building its national development plan around urbanization.

Does this rapid urban growth present challenges for creating sustainable, livable cities? Certainly, but it also means there are huge opportunities to improve quality of life for billions and boost global economic growth through city-level action. Not only that, but these goals go hand in hand. Analysis from the Better Growth, Better Climate report released in September shows that sustainable, connected urban development could save cities US$ 3 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 15 years. Cities may be the source of many challenges to sustainable, equitable development, but they’re part of the solution, too.

Trends we’re looking forward to in 2015 

Progress in 2014 does not mean we can rest on our laurels in the year to come. Rather, we at TheCityFix hope that 2015 will be a banner year for urban sustainability.

We hope mayors and city leaders will take bold actions on climate change, traffic safety, public health, urban equity and other chronic challenges for the world’s cities; we hope their citizens will not rest until they do. We hope to see more platforms for financing sustainable solutions and global networks to help cities make urban sustainability a reality. And of course, we hope to see many of you – our wonderful readers – again in 2015 as we continue to chronicle the latest trends, innovations, advances, and ideas in sustainable cities and urban mobility.

Check out the other entries in TheCityFix’s Year in Review series for more on the movements and moments that shaped our cities in 2014. 

TheCityFix’s Year in Review: Momentum builds for the open streets movement

Wed, 2014-12-24 20:33

Open streets movements are spreading worldwide, nowhere faster than in India, where two of the countries largest cities now close major roads to cars every Sunday to reclaim public space. Photo by Raahgiri Day, New Delhi/Facebook.

Do the streets in your city belong to people or cars? In more and more cities worldwide, residents are taking back their streets as public spaces. The open streets movement started in the 1970s with “Sunday Ciclovía” in Bogotá, Colombia, where to this day, 121 km (75 miles) of roads are closed to cars and buses every Sunday. Weekly and annual open streets events have expanded to cities worldwide in recent decades. 2014 was a year of major growth for the movement. The best example is Raahgiri Day, India’s open streets movement that has expanded from Gurgaon in 2013 to six more cities in 2014, including capital New Delhi.

This low-cost, high impact strategy can improve quality of life, provide opportunities for recreation and sustainable transport, and unite citizens around the idea that streets are public spaces that should people’s needs. Beyond the weekly events, open streets events advance efforts to create safe, attractive spaces for people and active transport options like bicycling and walking.

Indian citizens reclaim their streets

Now in Gurgaon, Delhi, Bhopal, Ludhiana, Navi Mumbai, Indore, and Dwarka, Raahgiri events draw tens of thousands of participants weekly in these seven Indian cities. In Gurgaon, nearly 90,000 people came out for Raahgiri in its eighth week. When these cities close major roads to cars on Sundays, it allows people room to bike, walk, do yoga, Zumba, aerobics, and much more. Mumbai has recently launched its own open streets movement called “Equal Streets – A Citizens Movement,” and it has quickly gained momentum. In its first four weeks the crowd grew to approximately 40,000 people.

India is a particularly important country for the open streets movement, as increasing car ownership contributes to serious air pollution and road safety problems. In late January 2014, Delhi’s average daily peak of harmful particulate matter was 20 times the level considered healthy by the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, 330 people die each day on India’s roads. Raahgiri and Equal Streets advance a different path for Indian cities, one that prioritizes sustainable mobility, public space, and quality of life.

This graphic from the official Times of India contrasts the vibrancy of a road closed to cars during Mumbai’s Equal Streets event with a dangerous, polluted, and congested road on a typical day. Graphic via official Times of India.

Istanbul’s pedestrianization permanently gives streets to people

Istanbul has taken a different approach to turn streets into true public spaces for people. Since 2011, Istanbul has pedestrianized 295 streets throughout its Historic Peninsula, closing the streets to cars and creating safe, accessible, and attractive spaces for community interaction. In 2014, EMBARQ Turkey released the Istanbul Historic Peninsula Pedestrianization Project report to investigate the impact of this pedestrianization. After surveying students, residents, and local business in the Historic Peninsula, EMBARQ Turkey found an 80% satisfaction rate with pedestrianization. Fifty-five percent of respondents felt that transport modes are more accessible by foot, and respondents also reported decreased noise pollution and improved air quality.

What’s next for open streets?

Over 100 cities now have open streets events, and the events have been shown to be effective in cities of all types, from Latin America, to the United States, to India, and beyond. As many cities face rapid growth and increasing car ownership, they are challenged to provide public spaces where people can be safe and active. The Journal of Urban Health estimates that the benefits in reduced medical costs from open streets events substantially outweigh the costs of closing infrastructure to cars.

While open streets events make cities more livable on their own, they also contribute to a larger goal. Each Sunday, the movement is creating advocates for safer streets with infrastructure for people – bike lanes, sidewalks, and sustainable transport, and more. As EMBARQ India’s Amit Bhatt stated, the growth of the open streets movement represents a major step in the advancement of people-oriented cities:

This movement has sparked a ray of hope in many cities in India, which now realize that non-motorized and public transport will be the chosen modes of transport in the future. We have been hearing from passionate citizens and public agencies from different cities in the country, who have shown interest in replicating this initiative.

Mumbai is ready For “Equal Streets – A Citizens’ Movement”

Fri, 2014-11-07 04:55

Car ownership is on the rise in Indian cities, but Mumbai’s new Equal Streets movement will help people take back the streets every Sunday while encouraging community interaction and active lifestyles. Photo by

Every day, Mumbai residents are being squeezed out of spaces to walk or cycle by the sheer pressure of cars, whose numbers are growing rapidly each year. A recent report by the Munich-based global consultancy Roland Berger Strategy Consultants stated that the Indian passenger vehicle market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12%, and will reach annual growth of five million cars by 2020. According to consultancy Strategy&, India will be third largest market for annual vehicle sales in the world by 2030.

Despite having a lower rate of car ownership than other developed and developing countries at present, India is rapidly catching up. Graphic via Skolkovo Institute for Emerging Market Studies.

In an attempt to help reclaim streets for people, EMBARQ India has initiated “Equal Streets – A Citizens’ Movement” with the help of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and Mumbai Traffic Police, and with support from the Times of India Group. Equal Streets will be held every Sunday, starting this weekend on November 9.

In addition to the omnipresent danger posed by motorized transport on the roads – which are in fact public spaces – Indian cities face a rising toll of air and noise pollution, traffic crashes, completely eradicated footpaths, increasing investment in roads and flyovers (also known as overpasses), increasing traffic speeds, high stress levels from driving, and the loss of tree cover from increasing automobile infrastructure that has left Mumbai gasping for breath.

How do we deal with this complex web of problems to create more humane and environmentally sustainable streets instead of highly unequal roads that favor cars? How do we make cities and their streetscapes more livable? How should we reclaim some street space for pedestrians and cyclists?

EMBARQ India is launching “Equal Streets – A Citizens’ Movement” with the intention of correcting this fundamental imbalance. The movement strives to put the people at the center of road use for major roads, including Linking Road, SV Road, and a section of Juhu road in the suburbs of Mumbai. Through this bold movement, communities will regain some control of major roads and declare them closed to motorized traffic for a few hours every Sunday morning, and perhaps eventually more.

The equal streets loop is a stretch of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) including: Linking road, SV Road, and a part of Juhu road in the suburbs of Mumbai. Graphic by Naresh Kuruba/EMBARQ India.

The mission: Establishing the right to equal space in the city

Everyone, regardless of their class or wealth, will have equal access to the open spaces of the Equal Streets loop. One side of the road will be closed to vehicular traffic to create a 6 kilometer (3.7 mile) open space for people. The other side will remain open for general traffic. People of all age groups are welcome to interact with their community and participate in activities like yoga, aerobics, cross fit, Zumba and street dancing.

Through cycling and open streets, Equal Streets aims to create active communities and connect citizens and happy neighborhoods. Photo via Cycle Day, Bangalore.

Equal Streets, as the name suggests, gives Mumbai residents an opportunity to access the roads as public rather than private spaces. It seeks to rid select roads of an oppressive hierarchy whereby motorists believe that they have a right to occupy the majority of space while pedestrians and cyclists are pushed to the periphery, always in danger of being injured, and suffering from toxic vehicle emissions.

In every corner of Mumbai, there are conventional and non-conventional spaces that should be opened for public use. Equal Streets can network such spaces by connecting them with walking and cycling tracks. This promotes healthy activity and seeks to correct the sedentary lifestyle in which even children now partake.

This comic from the official Times of India contrasts the vibrancy of the Equal Streets portion of roads with the damaging, stress-inducing portion for motorized vehicles. Graphic via official Times of India.

While Equal Streets certainly aims to be a fun, community-building event, at its core it is an important statement about public space and democracy in urban India. According to Binoy Mascarenhas, Manager of Urban Transport for EMBARQ India:

This movement does not end at declaring a car-free day but aims at raising greater public awareness regarding the significance of public spaces in Indian cities. Thus Equal Streets is not a one-off initiative but a sustained movement by the people. The objective is to provide walking and cycling tracks throughout all neighborhoods in the city. This is the assertion of a democratic principle, based on the rights of citizens to equal space in the city, which should be a part of Mumbai’s Development Plan. The closure of certain streets to motorized transport will result in achieving the larger mission.”

Can’t join in Mumbai this weekend? Follow the Equal Streets movement on Facebook and Twitter, and stay tuned for more coverage on TheCityFix.

Three maps help explain São Paulo, Brazil’s water crisis

Wed, 2014-11-05 02:50

São Paulo is experiencing a drought so extreme that the city could run out of water, and it is only one of many populous Brazilian cities that face significant risk for drought in future years. Photo by Martha Slivak/Flickr.

The worst drought to grip São Paulo, Brazil and neighboring states in 80 years is wreaking havoc on the local population. As of late October, key reservoirs hold less than two weeks’ worth of drinking water. Schools and health centers are closing early, dishes sit unwashed in sinks, and restaurants are steering customers away from restrooms. Significant crop production declines are of deep concern, and because 50% of Brazil’s electrical energy comes from hydropower, possible power cuts loom. The president of Brazil’s Water Regulatory Agency warned that if the drought continues, the state faces “a collapse like we’ve never seen before.”

Brazil has more freshwater than any country in the world – 12% of the entire planet’s total volume. So how is São Paulo – the richest, largest city in South America – running out of water? Three maps help tell the complicated story.

1) It’s a distribution and management problem

Brazil’s water resources and population are very unevenly distributed. The Amazon River basin contains roughly 50% of the country’s water, but only 4% of its population. About 80% of Brazilians are concentrated in megacities along the east coast, like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which rely on their own local river basins. Many of these cities are water stressed, due to their rapid growth and development.

WRI’s Aqueduct project recently analyzed water stress in Brazilian cities with more than 1 million people. About 40% of the population in these largest cities faces medium to extremely high water stress. This means that, depending on the particular location, as much as 80% of the water naturally available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually, leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity.

Based on this relationship of demand and supply in a typical year, São Paulo, in fact, faces low to medium water stress. But this is far from a typical year. On top of São Paulo’s epic drought right now, a series of interconnected water management failures across the metropolitan area have hindered its ability to adapt to those conditions, according to Brazilian researchers. São Paulo demonstrates how destabilizing a drought can be – even in less-stressed areas – without adequate management. Other more-stressed cities in the region could therefore be at even higher risk.

2) It’s a variability problem

Water supplies can vary significantly from season to season and from year to year in Brazil. Most of Brazil experiences pronounced wet and dry seasons, otherwise known as high seasonal variability. Northeastern Brazil has also experienced considerable fluctuations in total average water supply from year to year – called high inter-annual variability.

The ongoing drought in Southeastern Brazil offers a prime example of how damaging a major supply drop can be over the course of a year. It began last summer, between December 2013 and February 2014, historically the wettest time of year. The region received only half its usual amount of rain, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. In the eight months since, rainfall has hovered at 60% below normal levels. There is concern among Brazilian experts that inter-annual variability may be increasing in southern and southeastern Brazil due to heavy deforestation of the Amazon (see section below).

Where variability is high, it’s important to store freshwater underground and in reservoirs during wet periods to sustain companies, farms, and people through dry periods. The city of São Paulo depends, among other reservoirs, on the Cantareira System. Its six reservoirs, linked by 48 km (30 miles) of tunnels and canals, provide water to half the people in its metropolitan area. Sabesp, São Paulo’s water utility, reported on Oct. 23 that Cantareira system was reduced to 3 to 5% of its maximum capacity. The utility is currently pumping water from the reserves below the intake pipes of the reservoirs.

3) It’s a deforestation problem

Expert consensus is building around deforestation as a major driver of this year’s drought and other serious dry periods in Brazil. In 2009, Antonio Nobre, a scientist at Brazil’s Center for Earth Systems Science – CCST/INPE, warned that Amazonian deforestation could interfere with the forest’s function as a giant water pump; it lifts vast amounts of moisture up into the air, which then circulate west and south, falling as rain to irrigate Brazil’s central and southern regions. Without these “flying rivers,” Nobre said, the area accounting for 70% of South America’s GNP could effectively become desert.

In recent years, Brazil has been hailed for its efforts to reduce deforestation – the average rate of clearance decreased 70% between 2005 and 2014. However, deforestation in Brazil jumped during the last officially recorded period, between August 2012 and July 2013, marking the first increase since 2008. Satellite analysis from Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, also indicates a 190% surge in forest clearing this August and September when compared with last year. See the animation above, showing tree-cover loss equivalent to an area almost five times the size of New York City.

In January and February of this year, when rain is usually abundant in central and southern Brazil, the flying rivers failed to flow south, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The animation of tree cover loss alerts from Global Forest Watch is meant to be illustrative only. The exact science of how forest clearing affects the performance of the Amazon’s “hydrological pump” is still emerging, and further analysis is needed to determine how the timing and location of forest loss affects precipitation elsewhere. The “Flying Rivers Project,” an effort by Dr. Nobre and other Brazilian scientists to quantify the dynamics of atmospheric water vapor and forests in Brazil, provides some of the most robust data on the subject, including real-time and historic maps of air flows and water vapor in the region.

A need for action

This drought’s effects on Brazil will be complex. And the effectiveness of the country’s water management will deeply impact its energy, agricultural and industrial sectors, as well as its growing population. São Paulo’s ongoing emergency offers an extreme example of how dangerous a supply change can be, even in an environment with low to medium water stress in normal years.

In response, experts from NGOs – including WRI – formed an “Alliance for Water,” which proposed hundreds of short – and long-term measures to adapt to the current crisis and prevent future emergencies. WRI is also working with IUCN, the Atlantic Rainforest Restoration Pact (PACTO), government representatives, and civil society leaders on building landscape restoration strategies to help re-establish environmental services where they are needed most, like the São Paulo watersheds.

But as the drought’s impacts continue to ripple throughout the country, it’s clear that more work is needed. Decision-makers across the country must learn from the lessons of this drought and increase water-use efficiency, enhance water-storage capacity, and halt deforestation in the Amazon.

This article also appears on WRI InsightsRachel Biderman, director of WRI Brasil, also contributed to this blog post.


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