Scientific American had an article a few days ago about recent ideas about the future of “megacities.” Especially in the developing world millions upon millions of people are moving from the farm to the city. As these cities grow one of the big concerns is that the cities will build themselves so that high carbon transportation (a.k.a., automobiles) will be the only feasible way to get around. Los Angeles is the prototypical American city built almost exclusively for auto travel. For decades mass transport was rejected in LA in favor of spending the money on more freeways to accommodate the sprawl. Now mass transit is pretty much out of the question. If the rest of the growing world cities go down that road decreasing emissions will be nearly impossible.
Urban areas already account for about two-thirds of world energy use, and they’ll hit 73 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The cities of the future will be bigger, and there will be more of them. According to the United Nations, there were 21 “megacities” in 2009 — urban agglomerations whose population exceeds 10 million. By 2025, there will be 29 — and they’ll hold one-tenth of humanity.
One group of thinkers has pegged four scenarios for urban development:
Sprawlville: cities do everything to accommodate cars in the city and to and from the burbs. But in the end the heart of the city simply succumbs to impenetrable gridlock.
Planned-opolis: where government does everything to automate commutes with self-driving cars and to computerize work so many people can work from home.
Renewabad: where cities build very dense centers with a lot of public transit.
Communi-city: in which city centers die and are replaced by lots of peripheral neighborhoods where people live and work. You can ride a bike to work.
The scenarios leave people unclear about what version or mix or versions will emerge.
But coincidentally two researchers (Adam Millard-Ball and LeeSchipper) published a preliminary copy of a paper titled: “Are We Reaching a Plateau or ‘Peak’ Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Six Industrialized Countries.”
In the last several years in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan and Australia there seems to be a plateau of travel.
Since 2003, motorized travel demand has leveled out or even declined in most of the countries studied, and travel in private vehicles has declined,” the authors wrote in their study. “Car ownership has continued to rise, but these cars are being driven less.
There are several factors that probably play a role: car market saturation, the recession, the price of gas, and aging population. But they assert that the main factor may be road congestion.
The researchers think that the biggest factor of the travel plateau may be traffic congestion. As Schipper said in an interview with Miller-McCune, “My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road.’ You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem. Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”
It could be that some problems work themselves out in the long run. The solution may not be what anybody wants, but it’s what you get when you hit the wall. Auto transport may just grind to a halt in the megacities mentioned above, opening the door to other alternatives.