Ensuring sustainability


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THE vision of sustainability has dramatically altered what the experts previously considered were ‘good’ city transport systems. No longer do concerns of transport operational efficiency trump all other parameters. If examined carefully, the concept of ‘solutions’ is linked to preconceived ‘obstacles’ to the achievement of specific goals/targets held by particular parties, stakeholders, vested interests as the main criteria for judging success and/or failure of urban transport systems. More importantly, not only do many of these criteria conflict, they are also ultimately linked to agendas that go well beyond concerns of local development.

The question then is: which agenda is to be given priority (and why)? And what to do first, invest in public transport in a manner that generates wealth and productivity or in a manner which enhances equity and reduces poverty? ‘Win-Win’ strategies of achieving both simultaneously are more difficult to achieve, especially where private sector investment is critical and where short term monetary targets prevail.

There is no doubt that the development circumstances of cities in low and middle income countries make the stakes of successful decision-making very high indeed on almost all fronts, both for the poor and the rich. These circumstances can contribute to a sense of desperation among the underprivileged, open up more opportunities for the exploitation of the poor and increase corruption practices in both the public and private sectors. Under these conditions, low-cost transportation investments that provide greater access to education, health and employment opportunities and, therefore, offer potential ‘hope’ to the underprivileged, can only be welcomed.

It is then somewhat puzzling why throughout the developing world, the international development banks have invested so little in the ‘lower-archy’ of transport infrastructure given its potential to support non-motorised movement to key opportunity areas, so important for the urban poor. Could this outcome possibly have something to do with the limited rates of return such projects offer these banks, suggesting that their international reports are suffused with a rhetoric unrelated to the reality of their project port- folios?


The rhetoric of the international development banks, however, is only part of the overall malaise that surrounds the urban mobility challenges in cities of the ‘so called’ developing world. It is more than matched by the rhetoric of the politicians who routinely promise a motorised vision of the urban future which is not only unaffordable in terms of the amount of infrastructure deemed to be required but also unaffordable (and unobtainable) in terms of the scale of energy levels needed to fuel such a vision.1

As if these handicaps were not enough for cities in the developing world, we have the ‘tyranny’ of experts – in the form of ‘advice’ and ‘guidance’ imposed by city and transport planners obsessed with the concept of transport operations efficiency, above all else, and with concepts of ‘orderly’ and highly controlled land use patterns which in reality are not only unachievable but which, many would argue, are undesirable. Such excesses have been reinforced by much of the traditional education and training such experts have received, the academic and professional literature they rely on, and the visions of development and ‘order’ their professional institutions aspire to.

This state of affairs has much to do with the bankers, politicians and too many professionals ignoring the ‘wisdom of crowds’.2 As a rickshaw driver once explained with frustration in the 1990s during a travel survey in Kanpur, ‘If the transport planners really wanted to find out what the needs of the transport poor are in Indian cities, all they have to do is to ask the rickshaw drivers. After all we are among the most underprivileged in Indian cities and know a great deal about the movement needs of others.3


The above described situation highlights the importance of ‘the specifics of place and time’ and ‘what are increasingly seen to be global needs’, set against an in-depth understanding of what is significant locally. It is critical to appreciate the impact of a place’s history on contemporary political and economic institutional arrangements and, especially, the ‘path dependencies’ created for physical infrastructure provision and institutional governance.

Many post-colonial cities of the developing world provide graphic evidence. Take the collision of technological and infrastructure heritages that hark back to the colonial past with contemporary infrastructure needs and technological changes, bringing such cities rapidly (sometimes rudely) into an increasingly globalized future. This is a future which is dramatically affected by fast changing information and transport technologies, and which we are told have the power to prevent the city from being ‘bypassed’ by the global economy.4


The laissez-faire model promoted by the international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank (IBRD) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which I refer to here as the AB model, seriously downplays the institutional governance dimension of development and the significance of local engines of change in favour of an ‘idealized global competitive market’, more virtual than real, and better described as more of an ideology.5

Setting markets against institutions and denigrating ideas of governmental intervention (as a means of correcting faulty markets) in favour of the acclaimed merits of the free market, has in the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st, fragmented communities, cities, city-regions, even nations. It has done this by, among other things, promoting infrastructure and services that make places, communities and economies increasingly compete rather than integrate, setting the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’ and creating new ‘winners’ and new ‘losers’ in a more uncertain and unsustainable future.

Any attempt in this context to confine urban public transport performance appraisal to fiscal rather than welfare concerns as well, together with the privatisation of public transport services without subsidy support for the urban poor or broader development concerns, is nothing short of an ideological move. The penalty for failing to recognize this can be immense, especially in cities where a significant number of inhabitants live below the poverty line or where a major section of its residential areas are poor. Providing profitable and efficient services along selected routes only to leave the ‘rest’ to their own devices – or worse still to the illegal sector – is to fail in innovative public focused thinking that could see the introduction of more affordable public transport services in collaboration with the informal sector.

Looking to the cities of the developed world for standardised ‘solutions’ of public transport provision for cities of the ‘developing world’ – be they bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail, metro and/or non-motorised systems – has three shortcomings: (i) It encourages silo thinking and sets advocates of one mode against another rather than looking at the merits of each and building-up an integrated multi-modal system where each mode is used to its optimum in light of the energy, financing and capacity advantages it offers; (ii) It takes on board (albeit perhaps unintentionally) the transport path-dependency and vision of the overseas city from which the systems model is mimicked rather than closely examine local needs as a priority; and (iii) It fails to take into account the management and institutional capacity prerequisites for such systems to succeed, which may or may not be present in the city.


In an effort to become economically sustainable in an increasingly globalized and uncertain world, global corporations such as IBM have of late learned that potentially the most innovative thinking takes place within less structured and smaller units of the economy, and that notwithstanding their size and informal nature, these units can prove critically important to the success of the larger highly structured units.6 This mode of thinking, I would advocate, is most suited to land use planning and urban management, multi-modal public transport planning, and integrated land use/transport planning in cities of both the developing world and the developed world.


With this perspective in mind, the ‘tyranny’ of the transport experts – who impose highly structured motorised transport systems on very unstructured urban land use patterns – could be seen to represent the imposition of a particular highly formal order onto an extensive informal one, which ultimately it displaces or overrides. What is ironic about these developments is that this newly introduced ‘higher’ order rarely leads to the idealised overall structure the city and transport planners originally envisaged in their master plans, but instead develops7 a new ‘emergent order’ that represents almost an organic attempt by the city to adapt to the new reality.8

The premise is that if we were better able to understand the ingredients and dynamics of this ‘emergent order’, we would become more effective planners and proficient in providing enhanced and more appropriate housing, transportation and other city development services. Significantly, this way of thinking flies in the face of the idea that nothing can improve unless everything improves.


The interaction of land use and transport has long been recognised to be a complex relationship.9 Despite the pretence of some acclaimed simulation efforts in modelling, and the rhetoric of the planners in their claims to be able to integrate land use planning with transportation planning, the reality is that it remains a poorly understood relationship and, therefore, an inadequately managed/planned one in cities of both the developed and developing world.10

If this relationship was considered complex and unmanageable in the 20th century, then the rise in importance of the third dimension, environment, can only make the relationship ‘ultra complex’ in today’s 21st century. What climate change and carbon emission concerns associated with cities and their transportation activity have done is to make how we tackle our urban movement problems locally highly significant globally, and in so doing, place a great deal more pressure on public transport systems and public transport providers to deliver more sustainable solutions.

The fact that the global externality costs of motorised urban transport have become irrefutable worldwide – as has the need for international, national and local agencies and governments to introduce intervention measures to bring trends within manageable levels – should make it easier at the local level for externality concerns to now be incorporated within a broader formulae of deciding what is a ‘successful’ public transport system. However, the simultaneous greater reliance on private sector capital to build, operate and finance fast rising urban transport infrastructure and service needs, especially major urban public transport projects, not only opens the door to increased privatisation and raises expectations by global investors of quick high financial returns, it also reveals their unwillingness to take on long term risks without government guarantees.11

The call for more sustainable futures, cities, transport systems and lifestyles, promises to place these visions in collision with the current ideology of globalization, based as it is on competitiveness (rather than collaboration) and on the AB model. The growing army of global infrastructure investors and public transport providers are at present typically ‘regulated’ by weak public sector institutional agencies too coy to challenge the exploitative ‘private finance initiatives’ (PFIs), ‘public-private partnerships’ (PPP) and ‘build-operate-and-transfer’ (BOT) practices of such companies for fear that they (the global investors) may not invest in their projects but in a competitor’s instead.

These circumstances highlight the need for a strong and competent public sector to enable a vibrant and competent private sector to prosper.12 The absence of strong public sector institutions is the Achilles heel of all places if they are looking to attract effective global investment. Unfortunately, this is a conclusion that is poorly understood, much to the detriment of all parties involved in urban public transport and the economic development of cities worldwide.



1. J. Adams, ‘Can Technology Save Us?’ World Transport Policy and Practice, Vol. 2/3, 1996; H.T. Dimitriou, ‘The Undeliverable Vision: Problems and Prospects of Motorisation in Asia’, Competition & Change 5(1), 2001.

2. J. Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds. Little Brown, London, 2004.

3. Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, A Sustainable Transport Strategy for Kanpur. Final Report to World Bank , UNDP and ESCAP, Urban Transport Study of Middle-sized Cities in the Asia Pacific Region, Department of Engineering, IITK, Kanpur, 1996.

4. M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society. Blackwell, Oxford, 1996.

5. H.T. Dimitriou, ‘Globalization, Mega Transport Projects and the Making of Mega-Places’. Unpublished paper presented at 84th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington D.C., January 2005.

6. IBM, IBM’s Deep Dive Strategy Development Process, Section II, Corporate Strategy Board. Corporate Executive Board, London, 2000.

7. C.F. Kurtz and D.J. Snowden, ‘The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex-Complicated World’, IBM Systems Journal, Fall 2003, pp. 1-23.

8. M. Batty, Cities and Complexity: Understanding Cities with Cellular Automata, Agent-Based Models and Fractals. MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2005.

9. R.B. Mitchell and C. Rapkin, Urban Traffic: A Function of Land Use. Columbia University Press, New York, 1954.

10. H.T. Dimitriou, Urban Transport Planning: A Developmental Approach. Routledge, London, 1992.

11. H.T. Dimitriou, op. cit., 2005.

12. The Economist, ‘The Good Company: A Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility’, The Economist, London, 22 January 2005, pp. 3-17.