From myth to science

HERMANN KNOFLACHER

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IT sounds astonishing to talk about myths in a world dominated by natural science and rationality. It is even more astonishing that this should happen in the world of transport engineering and urban planning. Myths made an appearance in human history when the society was unable to understand or explain phenomena in its environment. Often, as natural science began to discover and explain the mechanisms behind these visible symptoms, such myths disappeared.

Settlements and cities did not just happen; nor were cities ‘founded’ by somebody as claimed in many textbooks on urban planning. The precondition for any built settlement was a society which had developed a level of social cohesion for common sense and a kind of developed social structure and social behaviour. The city is, therefore, the built expression of the social structure of the society that created it. Historical urban structures are the physical containers of knowledge of over ten thousand years of social development for the creation of a sustainable society. Many societies collapsed when they began overexploiting resources for the city population. These cities and their societies have disappeared over time.

For centuries, energy availability was limited by body energy and, therefore, only those cities that struck a balance between private and public space of and for the citizens were sustainable. Consequently, all sustainable urban structures have a fine-tuned public space, which we call the urban street network on a human scale of about 20 to 50 metres in width. It was the invention of the train and the car which allowed the city size to grow from the former limit of about 800,000 people to one million to ten million or even more. The car has today replaced human body energy for movement and put the driver in a convenient sitting position, giving him the impression that he can ‘fly over the ground’ effortlessly. This has promoted the myth of increased ‘mobility’, one dominating the thinking of traditional transport system planners and politicians.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon:

* The world view of transport engineers and experts: For over 50 years transport engineers were trained to optimize the transport system for car users, following the American bible for traffic engineering, the Highway Capacity Manual. Trained to build physical structures, engineers find it much easier to build a physical structure for car traffic than for public transport.

* The world view of economists: They are trained to optimize ‘individual benefits’ in a very narrow view. Everything which is outside of their view is called ‘external costs’.

* The world view of architects: They are trained to build houses as single elements separated from everything else.

* The world view of urban planners: They have followed the architecture based ‘Charta of Athens’ and separated urban functions without taking into account the effects.

* The politicians: They believe what these experts tell them.

* The investors: They look for short-term benefits, since nobody questions them about the ‘external costs’ of their activities.

 

Given the availability of public space in cities, transport engineers concentrated on providing the infrastructure for cars to help meet what was called the ‘travel demand’ of the industry and later, society, giving up on the multifunctionality of the urban road system to facilitate free movements of cars. The precious and high-value public space was downgraded for two purposes: driving with speed and parking without any compensatory payment to the society. Traffic engineers focused in a narrow-minded way on mechanical transport modes and nothing else, just as architects were educated to build houses without having to worry about the complex social structure of the urban body.

Since public space in a human scale city is limited, car traffic soon led to what we call congestion. So, engineers and architects began to transform cities everywhere without any idea about the effects their activities might produce on the environment, traffic safety and the society. Car drivers and politicians were of course happy and enthusiastic, since they belong to the car owning group having in general little idea about the complexity of a living body of a city. America was the continent in which inventions from Europe in the transport sector became an industrial product: the car.

Since the US had exterminated the native society of Indians, its countryside was rather empty with no historical urban structures at all. Car traffic soon began to structure settlements in the United States in a manner totally different when compared to previous human history. Though the new settlements were called cities, they were more like what we today call ‘urban sprawl’. Space had no value any more. There was plenty of space available to be paved with motorways and parking lots.

Saving time by increasing speed became the most important indicator for the calculation of benefits from investments in fast transport systems. Though for over 30 years qualified researchers and practitioners have known that in the transport system increasing speed does not necessarily result in people saving time, this relationship was never factored into transportation plans. Instead, they start travelling longer distances, though the travel time budget remains constant. Escalating speeds result in only increasing the distances people travel, in turn changing the urban structures. Increasing speeds, therefore, cannot be encouraged for ‘time saving’!

 

Urban multifunctionality and variety is only possible and sustainable in a transport system characterized by low speeds. Increasing the speed only destroys the sustainable urban structure, resulting in its replacement by urban sprawl. This ends up separating the location of housing and the concentration of economic activities – the latter chosen by the companies and not controlled by the society. Moreover, fast transport systems make urban and even country administrations helpless because people can move across large municipalities every day. Structures suited for high speeds primarily benefit the big corporations and centralized financial powers.

High speed individuals – if they are rich enough – as well as corporations or big companies get the opportunity of free choice of locations. Both society and elected bodies become powerless in controlling the destinies of their cities because their power is limited to their own administrative borders. If individuals or companies have access to a fast and cheap (paid by somebody else) mechanical transport system, they gain a degree of freedom which invariably exceeds that of their counterparts: planners, administrators and politicians. They can choose the places of living, working or leisure in or outside the administrative borders of the city. If city administration and politicians are really interested in a sustainable development of their society, they must attempt to regain a greater degree of freedom than the single constituent elements.

 

Mobility can only be defined if it is purpose related. Nobody leaves home without any purpose. The number of purposes has not changed with the changing transport environment. People go out to work, for education, for shopping, and for social contact. Usually the total number of trips over time remains the same – only the mode of travel changes. When car trips increase, all other kinds of trips decrease by the same amount. All we change is the kind of mobility, but not mobility itself. Usually when we say that mobility has increased, we are talking only about car and motorcycle trips.

Increase in transport speed generally does not save time in the system, it only increases the distance, keeping time spent constant. A good urban structure can fulfil all duties of the society with a minimum of distances – this is the basis of good cities. The duty of urban transport planners is to therefore minimize trip lengths by creating a complex multifunctional urban structure with only a minimum amount of public space kept aside for movement while enabling a maximum of functionality in this public space. This becomes possible only if low speeds dominate movement in a city. Moreover, energy consumption increases with increasing speed, making cities and societies dependent upon energy imports, which will become increasingly expensive and, within a visible time period, finally impossible.

 

Situations in which the car is parked right next to ones home and the public transport stop is far away offer little freedom of choice. For the public transport system to be equally attractive, the physical distance between location of human activities like living, working, shopping and so on and the car parking space must be at least as much as the physical distance to the next public transport stop. This means that a responsible urban planner and politician has to change the existing parking regulations fundamentally by introducing an equidistance between parked cars and public transport stops, as well as introducing the principles of market economy in the transport sector. Anyone using more public space per capita, including use of road space, must pay more for it.

Private vehicle owners will use public transport only if the city introduces parking regulations which realistically factor in the real-life behaviour and preferred choices of car owners. Parking at home or at the destination should not be allowed. It should preferably be permitted only in parking garages and nowhere else. Under these circumstances private vehicle owners will have little reason to use the car for their normal daily trips, since it offers no better access than to and with the public transport. Public transport will then become the backbone of the transport system for longer distances between the different districts. Most of the roads can then be pedestrianized and made easy to use for cyclists. Under these circumstances the multiple business districts will very soon transform closer to a ‘normal’ city.

 

Can practitioners and urban decision-makers initiate a paradigm change to move away from the unsustainable path of urban destruction? This is a crucial question. In a society of addicts it is fruitless to leave the healing to them alone. Healing the people from ‘car addiction’ would lead to the healing of cities. This would demand changes in the environment to wean people away from their addiction. There are many examples showing that it is possible to escape this trap even in highly motorized societies, particularly where cities introduce structures for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists and prioritise public transport over cars. The pressure to restrict car use is continuously increasing in all cities struggling for survival. Logically, therefore, it should be far easier to introduce in countries where the degree of motorization is still low. India with its old urban culture and wonderful urban structures has more opportunities than even European countries to ensure a much brighter future for its society.

To realize alternative transport policies for personal and public transport, it is not enough to look for the so-called ‘best practice’ solutions, mainly because most of the current best practice solutions are only ‘better practice of the worst cases’. Only cities which need the minimum amount of external energy will survive the future energy crisis. Therefore, we need to prioritise pedestrianization, increase cycle use, and put public transport before individual mechanical driven modes. Yet, though everyone agrees that provision of public transport is the most important aspect of transportation planning, the bulk of investments only end up promoting personal transport and do not enhance choices for a majority of citizens. Clearly, a paradigm change though necessary is difficult.

 

A normal city provides society with a built environment that contains everything the people need with the lowest amount of physical transport needs. The basic needs of people are safety, health, subsistence, security, social integration and employment. A ‘normal’ city can grow up to about one million inhabitants if the environment is fertile enough to supply all the city needs, possibly even ten million without any problem in a still sustainable way, with the introduction of public transport, rail-based or not, using artificial energy (electricity, coal, gas, oil). Therefore, the motorization can be close to zero, if cars are used only for emergency purposes or for disabled people and – to a certain extent – for the transport of goods.

In a ‘normal’ city, the limit to motorization will be around this figure. European cities can exist without facing any serious problem and decreased quality of life with a degree of motorization between 50-200 cars per 1000 inhabitants (instead of 300 or more) if they have protected and modernized their historical urban structures.

What should a transport system look like for a sustainable, economically viable and socially agreeable city? The transport system has a service function and is a means, not the purpose. The purpose of the transport system is to serve the urban and human purposes: safety, security, economy, health and beauty of a city to be attractive for people living and working there, and for companies to locate their business. The city has to be attractive not only to people but also to companies, investors and tourists in accordance with its social structure and long term survival strategy.

The transport system cannot be a means to exploit the majority of people for the benefit of a few. It also cannot make people ill from noise and air pollution and exclude them from job opportunities. This is what a car-based system does. Despite all agreeing that provision of public transport is the most important aspect of transportation planning, the large investments invariably end up promoting personal car transport and do not provide choices for a majority of the citizens. So, what should the characteristics of a truly ‘public’ transport be?

 

Besides the ‘trivial’ engineering indicators like costs or space, the most important criteria is the acceptance or accessibility for the user, because the ultimate purpose of public transport is service for people. People’s behaviour is dependent on the energy amount needed for movement. Grade separated (underground or elevated) public transport stations reduce the catchment area of public transport substantially compared to a surface public transport situation. For people, surface public transport is therefore the ‘normal’ public transport in a ‘normal city’.

One of the secrets for the success of good public urban transport is the visibility of public transport vehicles in the public space. If public transport is not visible and present in the public space, it will not be present in the brain and minds of people. Therefore, cities with a visible public transport have a much higher share of public transport trips, compared to cities with a ‘hidden’ and expensive underground system.

 

Transport policy has also something to do with clear signals. Only a public above ground transport system can fulfil this function; it is also cheaper and more efficient. A preponderance of underground or elevated public transport indicates that the battle of the city against the terror of car traffic has been lost. There are many reasons why ground level public transport in urban areas is more successful than elevated or underground solutions:

Economic: Public transport on the ground in form of buses and street cars is cheaper to build, maintain and to operate.

Efficiency: Public transport is one of the most efficient modes with respect to energy consumption, use of space and safety. Therefore, there is no reason to remove it from the road surface. The indicators of good organized public transport system concerning use of space are similar to that of pedestrians and cyclists. They are ten to fifty times better compared to car traffic.

Accessibility: Efficiency of public transport is dependent on its accessibility. Accessibility is dependent on the acceptance of walking distances to and from public transport stops. A one metre movement in the vertical direction is equivalent to about fifteen metres in the horizontal. If public transport customers have to overcome six metres in height, the catchment area of a public transport is reduced by at least 100 metres in the radius. Elevated or underground public transport, therefore, loses half or even two-thirds of potential customers compared to street level public transport modes. Further, if public transport is separated from the street level, it becomes necessary to build and operate escalators, lifts, etc. This enhances the costs of construction, maintenance and operation. Public transport on street levels is easily accessible for the elderly and handicapped people, for children and customers carrying goods.

Security: The entire transport system on the street level is under public social control and is, therefore, much safer. There is an inter-relationship between public transport system users and shop owners, residents, pedestrians and cyclists since they are able to view each other and assess the transport system.

Urban economy: Street level public transport is good for the urban economy. The experience of European cities shows that replacing street level public transport by underground systems has a negative effect on local shops. Underground systems like metros change the economic structure of a city. Shopping streets between the metro stops slowly die out and become concentrated primarily around metro stops. In contrast, streetcars or buses are in total accordance with the needs of local shops/urban life and maintain the balance between mechanical transport modes and people’s needs. Underground or grade separated public transport systems increase both disparities and the need for longer travel.

Structural: Public transport on street levels keeps people moving without fundamental changes of urban structures. Grade separated infrastructures in public transport have a strong influence on the structure of the city. The winners are landowners around public transport stops; the rest of the city are the losers.

Urban vision: The visibility of public transport on streets is an excellent ‘picture postcard of a future oriented, environmental friendly human scale city’. If public transport doesn’t appear on postcards, it also doesn’t appear in the mind of people. It is also crucial to integrate public transport in the mental map of people and visitors. Public transport on the streets tells the people that it is a socially balanced city, and that agreeable modes are available, easily accessible and integrated in the urban body for everybody.

Environmental: Finally, there are environmental gains if public transport is operated on cleaner energy. Public transport on the street level serves as an indicator for an environment friendly transport policy of the city. Environmental doesn’t mean only the natural but also the human environment, which has to be integrated and not separated from public transport. To integrate public transport in the human society it is necessary to keep it on the road surface instead of the sky or underground.

 

Fortunately, some of these lessons are now beginning to be learnt. Building upon the latest developments in communication technology and innovations in road design, the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) also called the High Capacity Bus System has slowly started spreading around the world, including India. The BRTS involves physically separating an exclusive bus lane from other motorized vehicles. It is a near ideal system as it is surface-based, prioritises public transport and keeps commuter safety and convenience in focus. Further, it is flexible and amenable to design change to accompany changes in city form and technology.

Finally, what explains the failures of the past: Is it the professional experts or decision-makers, the politicians, who drive our policies? Far too often, when the system does not work as expected, experts blame the politicians. The fact is that both feed into each other, without sufficiently realizing that a motorized transport system designed around the motor car only reduces the variety in environment. As proof, we only need to look at the negative impacts of elevated motorways, flyovers or motorway inter-sections, all professionally designed interventions in the living urban body.

 

It is obvious that traditionally educated ‘experts’ have not understood the system principles in such a way that they can regulate the development of the city or even the transport system. They are essentially treating symptoms or trying to control the unregulated system through laws depending on the judicial decisions, both costly and to an extent unfair. Instead, we need to look to the degree of freedom in the different systems. If two systems each with different degrees of freedom are in interaction, the system with the greater degree of freedom is more likely to control the system with a lower degree of freedom. In practice it is therefore obvious that it is the urban system, and not the experts and decision-makers, that is the regulator.

In the transport system, traditionally educated experts are obviously slaves or servants of the regulator, eigendynamik of the car traffic. If city administration and politicians are really interested in a sustainable development of their society, they must regain a greater degree of freedom than any of the single elements. This is possible only if they make the parking regulations which separate parking from human activities. If they are not able to implement and monitor these principles, they can only treat symptoms as much as they want, but without any success, either in urban development or for traffic solutions. They will be controlled by the eigendynamik which is stronger than any regulatory power, since it is driven by the deepest levels of human evolution.

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