16 December 2005

A thousand pink elephants in the room? Should we be paying more attention to small and medium-sized cities?

Are we missing something by paying so much attention to large cities and megacities in urban transport policy for developing countries?

OK, it is currently a fact that a high percentage of the motor vehicles in low-income and middle-income countries tend to be in the largest cities (where the affluent people who can afford them live).

And sure, the big cities are the densely built-up places where motor vehicles (even in small numbers per capita compared with OECD countries) wreak the most havoc in terms of pollution, congestion, crashes, etc.

But I have been wondering if maybe we should be paying more attention to smaller and medium-sized cities such as those with populations between 100,000 and two million or so?

Here are a few reasons off the top of my head... thinking aloud here:

* A high proportion of the urban population is in small and medium urban areas. For example, Asia had just over 60% of its urbanised population living in urban areas with population 1 million or less. according to the UN World Urbanization Prospects 2003 Revision. By the way, this was not so much different from other regions and all regions are relatively stable over time in these proportions. Henderson and Wang in a work in progress on 'Urbanisation and City Growth' (download from here) say that in 2000 of all those people in significant urban areas (those of more than 100,000 people), 37.2% of them are in cities between 100,000 and 1 million and 28.9% of them are in cities between 1 and 3 million in population. So worldwide 66% of the people in significant urban places are in cities between 100,000 and 3 million. And they also argue that these proportions seem stable over time.

* It is harder to promote and improve public transport in smaller cities. Smaller cities lack dense corridors and face more difficulty building up their demand for public transport. On the other hand, Asia's big, dense cities probably have relatively limited options. Sooner or later they find that space constraints force them to bite the bullet and adopt policies to restrain private vehicles and promote the alternatives.

* The risk of an auto-oriented future seems greater for the small and medium cities. For those of us who think that ever-increasing motorisation is a threat to global sustainable development, smaller cities look like a tougher arena than big cities. They seem more likely than big cities to succumb to the temptations of accommodating private vehicles too generously. They are also more likely to 'get away with this' for a time. Many will muddle along, expanding roads and intersections, decongesting their centres and expanding car and motorcycle parking ... possibly until it is 'too late' and they have already 'built in' a dependence on private vehicles. In rich countries, the residents of small towns and cities are generally more automobile dependent than big city folks. Economic success in middle-income countries is likely to see motorisation in small cities catch up and overtake that of the megacities. For example, I am watching Malaysia closely on this. Kuala Lumpur's metropolitan area (with about 5 million people) is a very car-oriented place (considering its modest average income levels) but the public transport alternative is at least slowly improving. However, public transport is extremely poor in Malaysia's smaller cities, such as Georgetown, Ipoh, Seremban, Malacca, Kuching, etc. (as has been discussed recently in the msia-plan-transp yahoogroup).

But what are the keys to enhancing alternative to private cars and motorcycles in small and medium cities where sexy mass transit is clearly not an option?

And where will the political urgency for alternatives come from?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice site, and I couldn't agree with you more.

I have been looking at a system whereby a method used in other sectors for reviewing subjective information (such as the school inspectorate Ofsted in the UK) could be used to do a quick audit of traffic and transport in a second-order city.

One problem is that the web would be a good vehicle for this but it is changing faster than I can keep up. For example a wikipedia style audit including a lot of public participation would be good.