The need to transform mobility for liveable and social cities

Sustainable urban mobility always involves several trade-offs: between comfort and pollution, between private and public transport, and others. A comparison of four Asian cities highlights the similarities, differences, and possible lessons learned as each tries to improve the transport options for its citizens.

Trade-offs are a key challenge of planning urban mobility. Although transport serves as a lifeline for the city inhabitants, the transport sector is one of the main contributors of CO2 emission. The conflict between private transport in meeting the gap for public transport and being the problematic child of pollution and traffic chaos are evidenced in Bengaluru, Hanoi, Jakarta and Manila. A series of four FES case studies analyse urban mobility and development in these cities.

Like many Asian cities, Bengaluru, Hanoi, Jakarta and Manila experienced political, economic and social transformation within the last half century. A striking manifestation of this on the streets is a proliferation of private motorized vehicles. As all have a large and dense population, their transport planning requires a coordinated effort to address local mobility issues and the implementation of best practices, both of which are currently deficient. Correspondingly, these cities score low on liveability, further exacerbated by poor land-use planning, weak governance, and lack of a strong mobility vision or public participation. Caught in the grip of traffic chaos, decision-makers urgently need to act now to change the status quo, or in some cases reverse years of development efforts.


Public versus private transport

Investigation of these four cities exposes the quintessential urban mobility problem - public versus private transport. Motorcycle and car ownership continue to increase due to the rise in personal income levels and easing of market policies. Typically, for Asian cities it is estimated that each car demands seven to ten times the space of a motorcycle. Hanoi is a glaring example where motorcycles have outnumbered any mode of transport, but the car is overtaking as the aspirational mode of transport, although current capacity of the traffic systems are not designed for their increasing numbers.

The long-term mobility vision of these cities has cast public transport as the main mode of transport, yet its share of overall mobility in the cities (Bengaluru 33%, Hanoi 12 %, Jakarta 30% and Manila 20%) is low compared with other major Asian cities (Taipei 49.4 %  or Seoul 65%), and exceptionally low in Hanoi due to the high number of motorcycles.

Throughout these cities, transport managers have provided incentives and subsidised fees to make public transport cheap and affordable, but unfortunately services remain substandard, inaccessible, unreliable, and unsafe, which are the main reasons for private transport being the preferred choice but only accessible to a privileged part of society. Limited spatial coverage of bus and metro routes is another issue, with lack of first- and last-mile connectivity thereby excluding people at the margins from this infrastructure. The opportunity to close the ever-widening gap of mobility inequality depends on better public transport services and public transport services are yet to fully cater to the people with disability, gender and all walks of life.


Taming the two-wheelers

The increasing numbers of private motorized vehicles is a cause for concern as the volume is not suitable for dense cities, and local authorities have made considerable efforts to resolve this burgeoning problem. But getting rid of motorcycles is not the right solution and will not be easy, as it has become an integral part of mobility. Moreover, they are filling the gap of public transport and proven to be effective in implementing social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic. They could therefore be the solution to first and last mile connectivity gaps backed by an appropriate policy. These cities have an opportunity to demonstrate the viability of a unique combination of individual and collective mobility in a thriving and densely populated city, if done right. Doing right would first and foremost include an affordable and accessible public transport system which offers an efficient and attractive alternative to private vehicles.


Long way forward

Sustainable mobility planning is crucial to city liveability. A strong mobility vision and collaborative effort from key players and service users is key to achieving this. Engaging in dialogues and discussion with city authorities, civil society, students, academia and community in projects implementation and vision formulation would be effective to ensure no one is left behind including women, children, elderly, disadvantaged socio-economic groups and persons with disabilities.

Long-term perspective for mobility must go beyond new aspiration and consideration of potential climate change events. Recent technological innovations like electric vehicles, sky trains or ride sharing options are attractive, but it won’t make public mobility systems sustainable unless a correct policy is in place. These policies need to safeguard that transportation changes occur in a path dependency towards social and ecological urban planning, creating bridges between ministries and actors. The transition from private motorized vehicles to public transport is going to need a major policy shift and behaviour change in addition to a strong cohesive planning and collaboration by all the actors and players.


Sarah Remmei is an Urban and Environmental Planner with a Double Master’s degree from India. She is currently the Regional Manager at Spatial Decisions, Vietnam, and her work covers sustainable urban planning, climate resilience, liveable cities, and ecological land use planning. She was an active participant of the community of practice for urban climate resilience (URC-CoP) under the Vietnam Urban Forum (VUF).

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