The cheap, green, low-tech solution for the world’s megacities

Like most "easy" solutions, particularly Green ones, this idea has hairs on it. Making China of 1991 the model is in fact rather hilarious. To state the obvious:  Commuting via bicycle (as distinct from recreational riding) is only for the young and fit -- a minority in any population.  Electrically assisted bikes could expand the feasible age-range up a bit but even they  will impose a time penalty:  Most commutes will be time-limited.  They will be slow and will be limited to ones short enough to take only an acceptable time in traffic.  And I have't even mentioned the weather yet.

Yes.  It is true that traffic jams are a problem almost everywhere but modern governments can and do provide enough infrastructure to keep jams to peak hours -- as they have done in my city of Brisbane, where roadworks never cease, with a particular emphasis on tunnels. And the Brisbane conurbation is home to around 2 million people.  Yes.  I know about Boston's "big dig" but Brisbane's tunnelers have had nothing like the problems there.  Most tunnels have in fact have been completed on time.  And you can fly along in them at significant speed.  And a new tunnel was <a href="">provisionally opened</a> just a few days ago

And a major solution to traffic jams is already in  place in most Western cities -- decentralization.  There are large shopping and  business centres well outside the CBD.  A modern city is in fact a collection of mini-cities, with little need for most people to travel into the central area.  And that is a continuing trend.

And there is a big solution that lies within the power of the individual:  Move to a smaller city. I have family who live in Invercargill in New Zealand, where the rush hour lasts 10 minutes.  Yet with few exceptions they have there all the facilities they would get in a big city.  And my home state of Queensland has a long string of pleasant regional cities from Cairns to Gladstone.  I myself once contemplated moving to Mackay.  Some of the cities concerned are in fact significant tourist destinations so are pretty pleasant.  The big limitation of small cities is of course the lack of some specialized jobs but in the new era of working from home that looks set to become less of a problem

In a stunning photograph from Shanghai in 1991, clusters of cycling commuters stream across a bridge. The only motorised vehicles to be seen are two buses. That was China in the 1990s: a “Bicycle Kingdom” where 670 million people owned pushbikes. Chinese rulers were then still following the lead of Deng Xiaoping, who defined prosperity as a “Flying Pigeon bicycle in every household”.

Today China is the kingdom of eight-lane highways. Most lower- and middle-income megacities around the world have ditched the bike. But they now need to reclaim it. Modern “megacities” (defined as places with at least 10 million inhabitants) are the biggest human settlements in history, and growing every day.

The world had ten megacities in 1990, 33 in 2018 and will have 43 by 2030, says the United Nations. Over a third of their population growth will be in India, China and Nigeria. More cars will mean more traffic jams and more damage to people, the planet and city life. Happily, it’s perfectly feasible for these places to become bicycle kingdoms again.

For now, poorer megacities tend to be designed for rich people who can afford cars — which in India means one household in 12. Often mayors can find money for highways, but not for bike lanes or even pavements. In lower-income countries, bikes tend to be stigmatised as poor people’s vehicles, whereas in rich cities they get stigmatised as hipster toys. Many people in poorer megacities dream of living in Los Angeles and owning an SUV. For now, though, they can spend hours a day stuck in motionless status symbols that sometimes cost a third of their income, especially with soaring petrol prices.

In lower-income countries, bikes tend to be stigmatised as poor people’s vehicles. In rich cities they get stigmatised as hipster toys

The more cars, the less mobility. In Istanbul, the world’s most congested city according to satnav provider TomTom, the average person lost 142 hours a year in traffic, while Moscow, Bogotá, Mumbai and Delhi all topped 100 hours. The Mombasa-Nairobi highway in Kenya once hosted a three-day traffic jam.

Then there are the carbon emissions, the 1.3 million people killed each year in traffic accidents and the estimated 4.2 million who die prematurely from outdoor air pollution, most of them in poor countries. For comparison, the combined global annual death toll from homicides and armed conflicts is about half a million. Add on the terrifying numbers of people in car-bound cities who will die early because they hardly get any exercise: an estimated 77 million Indians are diabetics, and most don’t know it. Cars are serial killers.

Poorer megacities seeking to push out cars can seldom afford metro trains. London’s Crossrail, first mooted in 1974 and approved in 1990, a mere bolt-on to the existing Tube, has finally opened at a cost of £19bn. Paris is splashing out even more on its expanded metro. It would be cheaper to give every commuter a free electric bicycle.

Many poor cities, inspired by the bike boom in high-status western capitals, have recently drawn up cycling plans. But they are too scared of drivers to implement them, says Gil Peñalosa, an urbanist who helped bring bikes to Bogotá. Still, Nairobi, Jakarta, Addis Ababa and Beijing are among those cities that are now expanding cycle paths. The electric bicycle is a game-changer, much more significant than the overhyped, expensive and insufficiently green e-car: global sales of e-bikes are projected to reach 40 million next year, compared to 9 million for electric vehicles. Globally, most trips are less than 10 kilometres, which e-bikes can cover within half an hour, says the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

Many megacities are early enough in their development to avoid the wrong turn towards cars that European cities made after the war. Mayors should be building charging infrastructure for e-bikes, not more arterial roads.

In some cities, the heat discourages cycling, though the problem can be overstated: steamy Dhaka has long been the world’s rickshaw capital, most Indian households still own bikes, and Shanghai’s sweltering summers didn’t deter cyclists in 1991. Possible heatproof solutions could be to organise carpools, extra buses, or earlier working times in summer.

In crime-ridden cities such as Johannesburg, some people don’t dare cycle for fear of cycle-jackings. But many elsewhere yearn to get on their bikes. Just under half of Chinese people say they would like to use bikes for their daily commute, while another 37 per cent want to go by moped or electric scooter, according to a survey by McKinsey. The next step — as in high-income cities — is to replace delivery trucks with cargo bikes.

How often does a knot of problems have one cheap, green, healthy, low-tech solution? Smart cities will actually implement it.


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