New ways to navigate the city

By Fritz Vorholz
Urbanization is a worldwide megatrend. However, as irresistible as the appeal of big cities may be, living together at close quarters entails social challenges. Some of the major ones revolve around hauling people and goods. Here are some examples.
© Getty
Challenge: New ways

People have been attracted by cities ever since the beginning of industrialization. Many would find work there but they’d be living in miserable dwellings, breathe industrial air and hardly get to see any green. Influential urban planners and architects counteracted those developments with the “Athens Charter” published in 1933. Their idea was to physically separate the areas dedicated to dwelling, working and recreation. To connect those functional areas, the concept of the automotive city was created – featuring road axes up to and including freeways. The consequences included air and noise pollution – plus automobiles increasingly encroaching on public space. The time had come for a mobility transition. In 2020, the EU ministers responsible for urban development agreed on the “New Leipzig Charter.” It says that urban mobility systems should be “multimodal,” that more people should be using public transportation, walk or ride bicycles, emphasizing the “compact city.” Some cities have already begun to implement this concept. They include Portland and Houston in the United States, Bogotá in Columbia, Melbourne in ­Australia, Shanghai in China and the European metropolises of Barcelona and Paris. The term “15-minute city” has been coined for them: residents are supposed to be able to access the most important daily necessities and services within 15 minutes on foot or by bicycle. Not everything but many things are supposed to be available practically “around the corner.”

70 %

of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide currently emanate from cities, a third of them from means of transportation that today are powered near-exclusively by engines burning fossil fuels.

Challenge: Becoming greener

© Ivo Christov/Speedpool

While urban transportation decisively contributes to climate change cities are also particularly affected by its consequences. Not only do they have to cut emissions quickly but they must also adjust to climatic changes that have already become inevitable. Torrential rain and heat waves being the relevant threats. Rainwater on roofs, streets and squares cannot seep into the ground. Instead it flows into sewers whose capacities soon reach their limits in the event of heavy rain, subsequently flooding streets and basements. In addition, rising temperatures turn cities into heat islands. The extent of “overheating” compared to surrounding regions may amount to as much as six to eight degrees centigrade (12–16 °F). One of the reasons is that buildings and streets absorb solar radiation, store the energy and then release the heat again. Green and blue infrastructures promise to provide some relief: planting of trees and bushes, plus ponds, lakes and canals. Urban planners gain the requisite space for all this by repurposing traffic areas.

80 %

of the vegetables it requires: that’s how much a city like Berlin could cultivate itself if flat roofs, parking spaces and other traffic areas were used in addition to existing grassy areas, according to a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Challenge: Economic and social participation

Chinese researchers have investigated urban growth in the Pearl River Delta with the fast-growing metropolises of Guangzhou, Shenzen and Zhuhai. They wanted to find out how the quality of the transportation system impacts the economic development of megalopolises. The results published in 2022 confirm that prospering areas can promote the economic development of surrounding peripheries when powerful road axes accelerate the flow of goods and labor.

According to the United Nations World Cities Report 2022, cities are recording massive growth especially in poorer countries, at a rate of 65 percent by 2050 compared to just twelve percent in countries with tendentially medium and higher incomes. Especially in Africa, urbanization processes are taking place at a pace that has never been seen on other continents either. That growth occurs in uncontrolled ways and is typically horizontal resulting in a high demand for mobility. However, short-haul public transportation enabling affordable locomotion and thus upward mobility is in short supply particularly in those areas due to lack of funding. No money, no public transportation. No public transportation, no affordable mass mobility. Private-sector sharing taxis often provide the only opportunity to cover longer dist­ances in the metropolises of the Global South, but many people don’t have the means to pay for them. People having to spend 20 to 50 percent of their income on commuting, which applies to considerable parts of the population in the ­Global South, can at some point no longer afford going to work and will drift further into poverty.

66 %

of the urban space that Africa will have in 2050 does not exist yet today, according to a forecast of the “Africa’s Urbanisation Dynamics 2022“ report.

Challenge: Funding

A metropolitan area not only has to want a public transportation system but must be able to afford it. In Germany, for instance, revenue covers only around 75 percent of the costs. Profits cannot be generated anyway or only at the expense of reliability, headway and safety. A worldwide study conducted by the British University of Greenwhich concluded that an efficient public transportation system cannot be operated without government-controlled grants.

But how are cities supposed to fill their public transportation coffers? A few ideas suggest how: London, for instance, invests in public transportation revenues from the congestion charge for passenger cars that was introduced in 2003, with additional emission taxes now complementing those revenues. Fines, parking fees, car and mineral oil or carbon taxes can be used as funding sources for public transportation as well. Cities like Mumbai, New York, Osaka and Barcelona require real estate owners to help defray the costs. In Brazil, every company with more than ten employees must pay a per-capita contribution into a public transportation fund. This model is based on a World Bank recommendation that says, “those who profit must pay,” which applies to passengers who pay through their ticket prices as well as to indirect beneficiaries such as retailers, event organizers or employers. Since the government also profits due to the social benefit of a functioning public transportation system a contribution by the treasury is justified too.

Challenge: Gender justice

© Ivo Christov/Speedpool

Women navigate cities in different ways than men. Men typically go to work in the morning and home at night. Women move around in more complex ways. They shop on their way to work, take children to school or family members to doctor’s offices. They walk or use public transportation more frequently than men, according to a comparative investigation conducted by Danish consultancy Ramboll. However, in the planning stage of the current transportation infrastructure, the “bread winner’s mobility,” i.e., the commutes of men and thus use of roads, was given priority.

But it’s not just the lack of suitable mobility options that limits women’s opportunities to move around and thus their social participation. Safety plays a role as well. Women fear assaults while walking and using buses and trains and are afraid of sexual harassment and attacks especially at night. In Latin America, six in ten women have already been attacked physically. In Germany, only one in three women feels safe using public transportation at night, according to a Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) study; consequently, more than one in two women avoids riding buses and trains at night.

Challenge: Delivery vehicles

© iStock

In 2003, London, suffering from massive congestion, was the first western metropolis to introduce a congestion charge. Even so, London is in the top spot of the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard congestion ranking 20 years later. How could that be? In addition to the approximately 15,000 classic London taxis, more than 80,000 cars from private chauffeuring services such as Uber inundate the streets of London, but the decisive congestion factor is delivery vehicles. In London just like in other cities in the world. According to some estimates, the number of delivery vehicles in the 100 biggest cities worldwide will see a 36-percent increase by 2030.

Potential countermeasures are centered on the idea of concentrating delivery transactions. That may be done at city terminals, i.e., larger ­handling areas preferably provided with siding tracks. Equally required are micro depots, i.e., smaller handling areas for instance in vacant retail shops in which goods are collected for hauling on the last mile. The ultimate destination can then be reached in eco-friendly and space-saving ways using cargo bikes.

It’s also possible that drones will be used for last-mile hauling in the future. They have the advantage of not having to struggle with ground-bound obstacles – and faster delivery processes promise to save costs. According to some estimates, around 80 percent of all domestic parcel deliveries are theoretically suitable for airborne transportation using drones.

4.8 billion

kilometers (2.98 billion miles) per year are covered by the delivery vehicles traveling on London’s road network with a length of nearly 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles).

Challenge: Electrification

Motorized personal mobility will have a place also in urban mobility of the future. How­ever, in view of climate change, only if privately owned passenger cars – just like shared and delivery vehicles and buses – emit neither toxic pollutants nor greenhouse gases. That the worldwide sale of electric vehicles has gone up by some 60 percent in 2022 gives rise to optimism. But electric vehicles are no cure-all either. They congest our streets and require parking spaces as well.

Electric mobility is ­picking up pace in many countries and metropolises of the south as well – albeit more often on two or three wheels than four. Mopeds, motorcycles and three-wheeled tuk-tuk auto rickshaws have played an important part in the economic development of many Asian megalopolises. They’ve traditionally been powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs) but electric versions have been available for some time now as well. Accounting for more than 56 percent of new registrations in India in May of 2022, more electric three-wheelers were sold than those using ICEs. The African market for such low-cost vehicles is large as well.


and, therefore, in the price range of an ICE version: that’s how much the Roam Air electric motorbike costs that has been developed and is being built in Kenya for the African market.

New ways to navigate the city© Roam
Challenge: Engaging citizens

The call for fair distribution of space poses a risk to privileges for people’s privately owned vehicles, which provokes resistance. “The automobile is an important element of social participation,” says traffic psychologist Wolfgang Fastenmeier. That explains the fear of loss. Even so, in a (non-representative) survey asking about examples of good transportation policy in ­European cities, Copenhagen, Vienna and Zurich each took one of the top ten spots although all three of these big cities widely use restrictive parking space management and urban transportation policy grants public transportation and bicycles priority over personal automotive mobility. In 2013, Suwon, South Korea, hosted the first EcoMobility World Festival: in one of the big city’s districts, IC engines were banned in the streets for one month. Initially, there was major resistance against the ban but then people began to also see the benefits: sidewalks were widened, flowerbeds planted, street lamps installed and opportunities created for children to play. Shuttle buses ran every 15 minutes. The noise level dropped and quality of life increased. Although the project is deemed to be a resounding success, the execution of a parallel project failed in Berlin in 2015 due to lack of acceptance. “The car-free month was not seen as an opportunity but as a threat,” it says in a brochure published by the German Federal Environmental Agency. The lesson to be learned from that is that it’s difficult to take something away from urbanites without engaging them – without providing them with the prospects of personal benefits: better bicycle and pedestrian paths, shorter headway schedules for public transportation, less noise, more safety.

Challenge: Rail vs. rail vs. rail

© Ivo Christov/Speedpool

In 1863, London was the world’s first metropolis to shift some of its transportation infrastructure below the ground. The subway mobility concept went on to become a global success but it’s an expensive one. A single kilometer (0.62 miles) can cost as much as 300 million euros. Due to that price tag and because the soil in many areas does not permit tunneling, another classic on rails has been experiencing a revival: the streetcar, the oldest means of public transportation that has even been propelled by electric power for more than 140 years. After having been displaced by seemingly better and more advanced means of transportation, i.e., the automobile and the subway, it recently started seeing a second spring, from Addis Abeba to Wuhan. France, where completely new streetcar systems have been established in more than 20 cities, pioneered this revival. The rediscovery of the tram is no accident: streetcars are city-friendly and efficient. They have high hauling capacity but require lower capital expenditures than subways. However, trams compete with pedestrians, car drivers and green areas for scarce public space. That’s where another alternative for urban public transportation systems comes into play: cable cars. Although every single car can accommodate only few passengers cable cars, due to short frequencies, enable high hauling capacities. They can overcome obstacles without major investments in construction measures while the capital expenditures per kilometer (0.62 miles) are on the level of streetcars but personnel and energy costs are lower. Even so, they’re not commonly found in urban public transportation yet. Most of them are in South American cities, in Caracas, Cali, Medellín and La Paz. Cable car engineers are already thinking beyond the purely suspended operating mode. That, however, has the disadvantage of poor cornering ability. The plan is for the cars to be forwarded – at a station – to an autonomous vehicle that will continue to travel with them on a dedicated track that’s also routed around corners.

4.5 km

(2.8 miles): That’s the length of the distance to be covered by Câble 1, a cable car in Paris that connects a suburb to the metro network serving five stations and has a hauling capacity of 1,600 passengers per hour. The cable car is planned to start its service in 2025.

Challenge: Use of digital opportunities

There’s no way around digitalization and automation of transportation. While partially automated driving is already part of everyday life, automatic parking, braking or accelerating are just the beginning. What sounded like science fiction until recently is going to radically change road traffic in a few years from now: autonomous driving. People will then only be passengers. Autonomous vehicles may make road traffic safer – and faster. The reason is that the gaps between vehicles in moving traffic can be cut in half as a minimum just like the time gaps between vehicles approaching intersections. That means that clearly more vehicles could be traveling on roads without causing traffic jams. Researchers think that a 40-percent capacity increase is possible. Even so, autonomous vehicles will more than likely provide relief to congested cities only if they’re shared and if their utilization is integrated with the utilization of other means of transportation. In any event, there’s agreement among traffic experts that integration of an increasingly modular transportation offering in big cities must – and can – be enhanced. Systems operating as isolated solutions hardly have a future. An app enabling users to tap in their departure point and destination and immediately providing them with the optimal mobility mix available, preferably updated in real time, is deemed to be ideal. The app would also automatically handle the billing process for the means of transportation the user chooses.


Fritz Vorholz
Author Fritz Vorholz
Berlin-based journalist Fritz Vorholz has been writing for more than 30 years, 27 of them as an editor of the weekly paper DIE ZEIT, about topics relating to environment, energy, climate and natural resources. In summer 2016, he joined the Agora Verkehrswende (Agora Transportation Transition) initiative where he was responsible for strategic communication for four years. Since 2020, he has been working as a freelance writer and consultant in the extensive field of “new mobility.”