Transportation – Part 2: Urbanization and Population Growth

Modern urban communities are knit together by transportation arteries. Some of these arteries are rail. Some are roads. Urban communities on rivers, lakes and oceans have the added advantage of waterways to provide connectivity. But the vehicle most responsible for modern North American cities is the automobile.

In the United States today that are close to 240 million automobiles on the road and 3 parking spaces for every car. That’s one for every 1.3 Americans and parking taking up an area half the size of the state of Belgium. And most of those Americans live in urban settings. I must confess that in Toronto, Canada, my family automobile usage is not too dissimilar to my American neighbours. Our ratio is 1:1.5.

I live about 2.5 kilometers from a subway and 350 meters from a bus stop. Automobiles are just too convenient and although much of my work is a virtual commute over the Internet, when I need to meet with clients face-to-face, I tend to take the car more than public transit. That is because the automobile has been a transformative technology, changing the urban landscape and human behaviour.

North American cities are not the only ones being changed by the automobile. In the 21st century the automobile will become as ubiquitous in the Developing World as it is today in North America. That means the same transportation challenges that North Americans face will happen globally. For non-North American urban centres there is the opportunity to change the structure and cut automobile dependence through better mass transit infrastructure. And in North America there is a rethinking of urban life in which modes of transportation play a signficant role.

We know what modern urban communities look like at the beginning of the 21st century. In Cliff Ellis’ paper, History of Cities and City Planning he describes cities as consisting of two defined areas: an inner core and the suburbs. In the inner core we find white-collar businesses focused on information, finance and administration. Urban arteries feed the inner core bringing employees to these white-collar jobs. These urban cores are dominated by tall buildings providing the massive amounts of office space to support their businesses. In the United States many urban cores have hollowed out with a flight to the suburbs by white-collar businesses. This has led to city governments reinvesting in city cores through urban renewal involving massive public works. As the 20th century came to an end many North American cities began building or renewing downtown neighbourhoods populating their city cores. The demographics of these new downtown dwellers has proven to be high-income or young urban professional.

The urban poor in 20th century cities have often found themselves caught between the inner core and the suburbs. In the United States in cities like Washington, D.C., low-income and high crime areas are in close proximity to the centre of government, the Smithsonian Museums, the White House and Capitol Building. This urban blight with inadequate housing and services characterizes many other urban centres. Where warehouses and manufacturing plants once stood, all that remains is empty shells, unemployment and neglect. The jobs that the urban poor and working class neighbourhoods counted on are no longer there, having moved out of the city entirely.

The suburbs are the direct result of the automobile. With the end of World War II North America began reinventing itself by building a gigantic highway infrastructure that facilitated easy access to urban centres through multi-lane roadways. People migrated from urban cores to the open land, single-family home world of the suburbs. The result, today, in most North American cities, particularly in the United States, the majority of urban dwellers do not live in the city’s core. Business has followed the roadways to the suburbs taking advantage of the migration of labour and transportation accessibility.

Ellis describes the late 20th century phenomenon, the megacity. cities that consist of urban cores and peripheral nodes as sub-urban cores providing a full range of services and business opportunity, making the suburbs more than just bedroom communities. The phenomenon of megalopolis becomes transparent when viewed from space. It is as we enter the 21st century no longer just a North American phenomenon, but global.

Urban intensification is the answer to urban sprawl. In North America, although cities continue to extend out into the suburbs, average lot sizes are smaller, while urban cores are replacing low-density living with condominium high-rise apartments. Los Angeles, probably the quintessential example of urban sprawl, has experienced a 25% increase in its population density over the last 50 years. In Toronto, the urban core population continues to climb as it does in cities like Houston and Dallas. Transportation networks are contributing to urban intensification with the building of mass public transit, reducing the reliance on the automobile.

In North America and Europe urban areas are in the 21st century beginning to display an equilibrium, higher core densities supported by bicycle lanes, and mass transit, but still accessible to road traffic through a supporting infrastructure. The key to 21st century cities is accessibility while maintaining a livable environment where humanity can thrive.

Paris is one city that has more and more exhibited the characteristics of a typical 21st century city in the Developed World. Parisians in the city core live in small apartments and use public transportation. Parisians in the suburban areas rely on a mix of urban arterial road access and public transit. The city is surrounded by sub-urban cores that provide Parisians with job centres as well as local infrastructure to support lifestyle and essential services.

China’s urban experience with 21st century cities is entirely different. China is building cities where none existed before. Pudong is one of them, a satellite urban centre of Shanghai. Pudong came into existence in 1993. By 2010 the city population and surroundings exceeded 5 million people. To encourage new businesses to locate in Pudong, the government designated it to be the financial centre of the  and offered duty-free and tax incentives to encourage financial institutions to set up shop there. Today Pudong hosts the Shanghai stock exchange comprising 87% of China’s market. The city infrastructure includes an international airport, major port facilities, a mass transit system that includes subways and a commercially operating Maglev commuter train linking the city to Shanghai.

Madrid with a current population of 6.5 million is another example of a city that has committed itself to mass transit. By mid-2011 the city-wide subway system included 12 lines, 296 stations and 294 kilometres of track. In addition Madrid offers a suburban rail service with a network of 199 stations, 9 lines and 386 kilometres of track. Greater Madrid public transit experiences 1.5 billion trips by commuters per year.

Another urban transportation phenomenon is the reappearance of the bicycle in North American cities. Whereas bicycles are a common site on the streets of European and Asian cities, they have been largely restricted in use in most North American urban centres. But that is changing rapidly as a way to ease traffic congestion and promote a more eco-friendly, healthy lifestyle for urban dwellers. Montreal, a city that wraps around a central mountain with lots of hills is a pioneer in developing the urban bicycle. Bixi is a rugged bicycle made with very few parts and includes a reliable docking system that minimizes vandalism and theft. While other cities have encouraged bicycle traffic and some like Paris have instituted sharing programs,  Montreal is the first city to build a turnkey, eco-friendly (every station is solar-powered), subscriber system. The results are very positive with Bixi being adopted by a number of cities including Ottawa and Toronto in Canada, Minneapolis, Boston and Washington in the United States, Melbourne in Australia and London, England. New York City and Portland, Oregon are looking to adopt this subscriber-based bike sharing system.

In describing cities with a 21st century perspective on urban intensification, mass transit, and sub-urban cores we have failed to look at those cities that are growing the fastest, the cities of the Developing World. It is these cities that will grow the most in the 21st century – urban centres in Africa, India, the Middle East, Asia and South and Central America. Population growth, war, food shortages, and the search for work are the main driving factors for urban growth in this part of the World. Urban planning remains a luxury for many of these cities. Lack of capital makes it increasingly difficult to address urban sprawl, inadequate transportation and a lack of basic services including clean water, reliable power, and sanitation. Addressing the challenges these cities face in the 21st century will increasingly occupy national governments as they seek to implement affordable and sustainable infrastructure.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...