Published in the Ecologist, December 2010. To view the article in its original format, click here.

A new Forum for the Future report outlines radical ways in which British – and worldwide – cities need to reinvent transport infrastructures to deal with excessive populations

A report released today by sustainable development think-tank Forum for the Futurecalls on cities worldwide to ‘radically re-engineer’ their transport infrastructures amid fears that a burgeoning global urban population will put intolerable strains on resources and create dysfunctional societies.

By 2040 two in three people will live in cities, while the number of megacities continues to grow, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. London is expected to grow by the equivalent population of Leeds in the next few years.

The electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system as featured in Forum For The Future's report. The lower level of the bus is open, straddling the road to act like a tunnel that cars can drive through

The electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system as featured in Forum For The Future’s report. The lower level of the bus is open, straddling the road to act like a tunnel that cars can drive through

‘We are seeing the largest migration to cities in history,’ said Peter Madden, CEO of Forum for the Future. ‘How those cities develop today will lock in behaviour for decades to come. The future wellbeing of billions of people depends on the action we take now. The global race for sustainability will be won or lost in the streets of our megacities.’

The report, ‘Megacities on the Move’, draws on innovative new technology – presenting solutions such as stackable, electric cars available to hire on-demand in a similar way to the recent bike-hire scheme launched in London, electric buses with open bottoms to enable cars to drive underneath them like a tunnel, and ‘telepresence’ technology that projects 3D high-definition images to make virtual meetings feel real – as possibilities for the sustainable transport of the cities of the future.

‘We need to think creatively about solutions and new technology has a role to play in this,’ said Richard Hebditch, campaigns director for the Campaign for Better Transport. ‘Cities won’t be able to cope with increased population if it means increased car use and ownership, so if we want decent cities to live in, we must invest in public transport and making it easier and safer to walk and cycle.’

The consequences of inaction, according to the report, could include extreme deprivation, food, water and energy shortages and increased vulnerability to impacts of climate change such as floods and heat waves.

Challenge for UK cities

The urban ‘population explosion’ will play out in developing countries as people continue to migrate from rural areas to rapidly expanding cities. But nine out of ten people in the UK already live in towns and cities, Ivana Gazibara, senior strategic adviser at Forum for the Future and an author of the report, points out.

The critical challenge for UK cities is to maintain quality of life for a predominantly urban population – including providing efficient, low-carbon, affordable mobility in the face of global challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity, as well as an era of spending cuts, Gaziabara told The Ecologist.

Current spending cuts may inspire new approaches rather than simply pose problems, according to Hebditch. ‘The spending cuts are a real threat to the progress we’ve seen but city authorities shouldn’t just freeze in the face of cuts. Instead they should see this as an opportunity to reassess how they manage transport in their areas.’

‘Central government still too often looks to fund new road schemes as the answer to transport problems rather than supporting behaviour change programmes or support for public transport,’ he added.

The need for behaviour change and integrated transport systems are the key messages for UK cities from the report, said Lena Tochtermann, analyst at urban policy think-tank Centre for Cities. ‘This is an area where UK cities – with the exception of London – lag behind their European counterparts. In West Yorkshire alone, for example, there are over 30 bus operators currently with different types of tickets, routes, timetables etc.’

The report points to examples of where such implementations have been effective, such as Vancouver where pedestrian crossings have been widened, more cycle lanes have been built and cycle racks provided on buses, enabling people to make smooth transitions between several modes of transport in one journey.

But transport minister Norman Baker told The Ecologist that while integration is needed, action should come at a local level. ‘Action at a local and city level has the potential to significantly increase the sustainability of our existing transport systems. Measures could include encouraging walking and cycling, initiatives to improve integration between travel modes and end-to-end journey experiences, better public transport and improved traffic management schemes.’

‘It will be for local authorities – working in partnership with their communities, with neighbouring authorities, transport providers and transport users, health service organisations, environmental groups and local people – to decide on the right solutions for their area.