In a jam: how traffic slows urban economies

As more people flock to cities, congested roads, expensive commutes and a lack of reliable transport options are disrupting urban economies and affecting quality of life.

india hyderabad traffic
Road traffic in Charminar, Hyderabad. Image: Indi Samarajiva, CC BY 2.0

Spiralling traffic and poor urban planning could rob developing countries of opportunities and jam economic progress in fast-growing cities, a study published on Thursday found.

As more people flock to cities, congested roads, expensive commutes and a lack of reliable transport options are disrupting urban economies and affecting quality of life, said a report by the World Resources Institute, a global research organisation.

“Cities need to shift from a primary focus on moving traffic faster and accommodating more vehicles to prioritising access for all,” said Anjali Mahendra, the report’s co-author.

“This demands much stronger integration between transport planning agencies and land developers.”

The report found 56 per cent of people in Mexico City were under-served in terms of their ability to reach job locations, against 42 per cent of residents in Johannesburg.

“Everyone is affected by it (traffic) in some way,” said Alina Rocha Menocal, a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a global think tank.

“We all confront this challenge of having to get somewhere and being stranded,” she said. “Whether you’re in a comfortable car or on the back of a bus.”

Cities need to shift from a primary focus on moving traffic faster and accommodating more vehicles to prioritising access for all.

Anjali Mahendra, director of research, WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities

Gridlock 

Traffic is a “chronic” problem in many developing cities, said Menocal, with economic growth often prioritised above planning and the fallout most heavily felt by poor communities.

With urban areas set to suck in 55 per cent of the planet’s population - a figure the United Nations says will rise to 68 per cent by 2050 - cities are seeking new ways to cope with modern-day pressures, from rising migration to creaking infrastructure.

On Thursday, ministers responsible for transport from 60 countries were set to launch a declaration at the International Transport Forum promoting connectivity and social inclusion.

“Safe, secure, economically efficient, and well connected transport plays an important role in facilitating individual mobility and trade flows, both of which are essential for the sustainable development of regions,” the declaration said.

But according to Menocal, a new mindset is just as vital to improve congestion and the quality of life in cities.

“In Mexico city, car ownership is an extremely valued asset because it also has class connotations,” she said, while politicians must equally shun the “quick wins” of building a new road and instead focus on improving underlying traffic systems.

Nearly 1 billion people lack adequate road networks, which hinders their access to basic services and can deepen social inequities, according to the United Nations.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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