“Our organisation consists of more than 80 cities, encompassing everything from mega-cities such as Mumbai to smaller ones like Oslo and Copenhagen. What they all have in common is their search for a way of improving and simplifying life for their populations.”
Gunjan Parik is Head of Transportation Initiatives at C40, an organisation that brings together over 80 of the world’s major cities so they can learn together how to improve the quality of life for their populations. This includes, not least, ways of dealing with the chaotic traffic situation that strangles many cities.
“As things are at the moment, a million people move to urban centres every week. If they are to have a decent quality of life and not spend all their time in traffic queues, the way we provide transport must change,” she says.
And this is something that is happening, step by step all across the world. Like in Buenos Aires, where two lanes in the city’s central artery were closed off and reserved for BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), a measure that cut travel time on this route from 44 to 14 minutes.
“It was a very courageous decision, because although the car causes a lot of problems, we human beings are very attached to it and regard decisions that favour other transport methods as negative. If we are to be able to make the necessary changes, we will need more people who dare take such tough decisions.”
Buenos Aires did not stop with BRT – the city has also invested heavily in cycle lanes and on safe pedestrian routes.
“There’s no likelihood of one single magical transport method that completely replaces the car; instead, we are going to have to find a range of alternatives that together create a seamless travel experience.”
The ultimate solution according to Gunjan Parik would be population-dense cities where people have everything they need within walking distance so they do not need to move long distances in their everyday routines. She draws a comparison between Barcelona and Atlanta, two cities with roughly the same total population but where the average person’s travel releases 7.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in Atlanta, compared with 0.7 tonnes in Barcelona.
“For one thing Barcelona has more BRT than Atlanta does, but what is truly decisive is that Barcelona has a higher population density, which drastically reduces the need for long transport routes.”
Not all cities are as densely populated as Barcelona is, and infrastructure made of steel and concrete cannot easily be moved. Gunjan Parik notes that instead of demolishing everything and restarting from scratch, the challenge is to take existing structures and let them work for us. She sees three main challenges in the drive to achieve a sustainable transport system.
“Firstly, reducing private car use and switching to public transport, walking and cycling. Secondly, ensuring that those vehicles that are being driven are efficient in terms of environmental properties and passenger capacity. And last but not least, drastically reducing all travel in cities that does not take place by bicycle or on foot,” she says.
Because although Gunjan Parik is convinced that buses and rail-bound traffic will be an important part of the future of transport, cyclists and pedestrians also have an important role to play.
“The absolute majority of all urban travel is shorter than five kilometres, a distance that is ideal for cycling if only we develop the necessary infrastructure. This is a transport method with zero emissions, and we really have to make the most of it,” she points out.
However, even if cycles, buses and trains are made more accessible, just how do we get people to actually leave their cars and cycle to the bus station?
“It’s all a matter of carrot and stick. We can see clear examples among our members where a combination of the two delivers results. You have to offer good alternatives to private car use, but you must also provide other incentives than mere altruism in order to get people to actually change their patterns of behaviour.”
Like in Milan, where road tolls were introduced in 2012 in the city’s centre, leading to an almost 30 per cent drop in private cars entering the zone over the following three years.
“If it becomes more expensive to drive a car, for example through costlier parking and road tolls, at the same time as good public transport is provided, then people’s interest in the latter will increase.”
Words Karin Aase
Photo Steve Forrest