Photograph by Greg Girard, National Geographic
Published July 10, 2013
City dwellers accustomed to regular traffic jams and road rage may shudder at the prospect of the world's urban areas getting even more crowded.
Nonetheless, such growth is assured: The percentage of people living in cities is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050, and roadway occupancy levels could increase sixfold in some countries, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The energy needed to move all of those people around will double, the agency says in a report released Wednesday, and managing the negative environmental and economic effects of this growth could cost countries billions of dollars.
There is, however, another way forward. The IEA report, titled "A Tale of Renewed Cities," recommends several proven strategies for enhancing the energy efficiency of metropolitan transport systems. Drawing from examples in more than 30 cities around the world, the report details a three-pronged approach to managing transit amid ever-growing urban populations. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Cities and Energy.")
"Avoid, Shift, and Improve"
Global transportation accounts for 20 percent of the world's energy use, and 40 percent of that consumption occurs in cities. "The need for efficient, affordable, safe and high-capacity transport solutions will become more acute," Maria van der Hoeven, IEA director, said at a press conference that was webcast live from the Paris office of the agency, which was created in 1974 to promote energy security. "Urgent steps to improve the efficiency of urban transport systems are needed not only for energy security reasons, but also to mitigate the numerous negative climate, noise, air pollution, congestion and economic impacts of rising urban transport volumes."
The IEA report calls for incentives to reduce regular travel, increase use of non-motorized or mass transit, and boost the use of cleaner, energy-efficient vehicles. This "avoid, shift, and improve" strategy could, between now and 2050, help cities save at least $70 trillion because of reduced spending on petroleum, roadway infrastructure, and vehicles.
Walter Hook, director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a New York think tank that promotes environmentally sustainable transportation, said the IEA report's recommendations were similar to the ITDP's. "We agree with the 'avoid, switch, improve' approach, also," he said. While the $70 trillion savings figure might be somewhat "volatile," Hook added, "if anybody knows the fuel ramifications [of urbanization] it would be the International Energy Agency, because of what they do."
The IEA report highlights the fact that urban travel has become overly reliant on automobiles. In 2000, there were around 625 million passenger cars on the world's roads; as of 2010, that number had grown to 850 million. The growth in car ownership has, according to the report, "led to significant shifts away from non-motorized transport and public-transport modes, even in dense areas." (See related story: "Delhi Offers Cleaner Auto Rickshaws, But Residents Choose Cars.")
That trend is continuing. The IEA projects that the world's stock of motorized vehicles will double by 2050, stoking roadway occupancy levels. Beyond the high economic costs of time spent not moving in traffic jams, the IEA said, the growing number of cars is negatively affecting the environment and the health and safety of city residents. For instance, the World Health Organization says that road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Overall, traffic mishaps cause 1.3 million deaths a year and cost more than $500 billion. (See related pictures: "Cars That Fired Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fuel.")
Policies designed to help residents avoid inefficient travel include the promotion of telecommuting and carpooling, and construction of high-density, mixed-use developments that enable residents to live, work, and indulge in leisure pursuits in one area. The "shift" part of the strategy involves policies that promote affordable and efficient mass-transit systems, parking restrictions, congestion-zone charges, and dedicated lanes for buses and bicycles, all to encourage a switch away from private cars. (See related stories: "To Curb Driving, Cities Cut Down on Car Parking" and "City Bike Share Schemes Shift Into High Gear.")
To improve the use of cars still on the road, the IEA argues for tougher fuel-economy standards, fiscal incentives to encourage greater use of hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles (EVs), and planning for EV charging stations. (See related story: "China's Electric Car Drive: Impressive, But Not Enough.")
No Magic Bullets
The report, however, noted that while policies aimed at getting more fuel-efficient cars on roads can cut energy consumption and emissions, they're not terribly effective when applied by themselves, because they can also encourage more travel and car ownership. "Consequently, it is preferable to pair 'improve' policies with 'avoid' and 'shift' measures to ensure that gains from vehicle and fuel improvements are not lost to increased motorized travel," it said. (See related stories: "Bikes and Buses Propel Mexico City to Prize in Sustainable Transport" and "Green Moves: Medellin Cable Cars, San Francisco Parking Reform.")
The IEA report largely takes a best-practices approach, and includes a large number of successful policies that have been implemented in cities ranging from Nashville to Shanghai to Lagos, Nigeria.
- New York City introduced express bus services that within a year cut travel times by 11 minutes, which helped increase ridership.
- Seoul reformed a bus system that had rewarded drivers who allowed overcrowded buses and drove recklessly. The improvements led to increased ridership, and faster and safer journeys.
- Belgrade, Serbia, tripled its urban rail system's passenger numbers within six months of a major overhaul of the network.
- Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, which use bus networks that are akin to light-rail systems but at a fraction of the cost, have proved to be big hits in cities such as Lagos, Buenos Aires, and Guangzhou, China.(See related story: "Guangzhou, China, Wins Sustainable Transport Prize.")
- Bus-only lanes have helped ease congestion in many cities, too, including Buenos Aires and Shanghai.
- San Francisco implemented in 2011 a digital, real-time pilot parking management system to ease congestion. It's being tested on 7,000 metered spaces. SFpark, as it's called, tells motorists where parking is available, and uses demand-responsive pricing to cut demand in crowded areas.
The report also stressed that there are few one-size-fits-all solutions, and placed cities into four different categories—developing, sprawling, congested, and multi-modal—each requiring a different mix of remedies. What works in New York City would not necessarily work in Seoul, Didier Houssin, IEA director of sustainable technology policy, told the press conference. (See related pictures: "Twelve Car-Free City Zones.")
How likely is it that the world's city planners will heed the report's recommendations? ITDP's Hook said that the chances are good. "Most cities are moving in this direction anyway, though not necessarily for fuel reasons. Most do not want people to live in traffic-congested, air-polluted cities," he said.
And even though too many fast-growing cities in India, China, and Africa are still headed the wrong way, toward the old car-oriented paradigm, Hook said, "some are trying to respond intelligently" by overhauling creaky mass-transit systems or building new, improved ones. (See related photos: "Amazing Transportation Inventions.")
"The Nature Of Cities" follows the journey of Professor Timothy Beatley as he explores urban projects around the world, representing the new green movement that hopes to move our urban environments beyond sustainability to a regenerative way of living.
Recent Energy News
Project Liberty is the first of three commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants opening this year.
In western Myanmar a Chinese-backed energy and trading hub is taking shape on a remote island.
As a judge faults BP for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, we ask an expert to explain the wide-reaching consequences of the verdict.
The Big Energy Question
Join the debate over whether we should view natural gas as a transitional fuel that eventually gives way to renewables, or whether it is blocking the way forward.
From better mass transit to a stronger mix of renewable energy, what is the most important thing we can do to make cities smarter when it comes to energy use?
As shipping and energy activity increase in the region, what do we urgently need to learn more about? Vote and comment on the list.
The Great Energy Challenge
The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.