Roads are the arteries through which the economy pulses. By linking producers to markets, workers to jobs, students to school, and the sick to hospitals, roads are vital to any development agenda. Since 2002, the World Bank has constructed or rehabilitated more than 260,000 km of roads. It lends more for roads than for education, health, and social services combined. However, while roads bring economic and social benefits, they can also come with social costs such as pollution or deforestation. The Amazon rainforest is crisscrossed by almost 100,000 km of roads—enough to circle the Earth two and a half times. And the transport sector accounts for about 23 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and a significant share of local particle pollution. Such tradeoffs need to be weighed when planning any intervention.
The Creative Wealth of Nations is a series of blogs related to Patrick Kabanda's forthcoming book on the performing arts in development.
It was a scene I still can’t forget.
A few years ago on a busy Kampala intersection, cars zoomed by while pedestrians braced themselves to cross a road. They lurched back and forth, like a fence being blown hither and tither by heavy winds. In frustration, a voice of a woman with a baby tucked on her back cried out: senga no wabawo atusasira. “I wish someone would be kind to us.”
Under-investment in infrastructure can cripple lives. Across the world, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity, 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation, and a further 2.5 billion rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking. Building adequate infrastructure is a vital tool of social development. But it is also a crucial underpinning of economic growth. McKinsey estimates that the world needs to invest $57 trillion in infrastructure between 2013 and 2030 simply to keep up with projected global GDP growth. That’s more than the total estimated value of the infrastructure already on the ground today.
Traffic congestion, air pollution, accidents – the negative externalities from car transport are not just a popular field of economic research, but also a daily arduous reality for millions of commuters around the world. However, there is more: carbon emissions and climate change may be a less visible externality from road transport, but the economic and social costs will be substantial and borne at a global scale.
When dealing with such externalities, pricing instruments (such as carbon or fuel taxes) are the policy response favored by economists: if car users paid the full cost of driving, they would adjust their driving practices and thus reduce the negative environmental and social impacts.
In 2000, Port-au-Prince and San Juan accounted for 62 percent of the urban population respectively of Haiti and Puerto Rico. Though they tied for number one in the world rankings as those urban agglomerations that had the highest percentage of their countries urban populations, they were by no means exceptions. Luanda had 57 percent of the urban population of Angola, while Brazzaville had 54 percent of that of Congo. The list goes on to include many developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
These remarkably high concentrations of urban populations in one dominant city were a long time in the making. Around 1930, when developing market economies had an average level of urbanization of 13 percent, 16 percent of their urban population lived in fourteen large cities (cities that had populations of more than half a million). Such high urban concentrations in the developed world had been attained in 1880, when its average level of urbanization stood much higher at 23 percent. The number of the large cities in the developing world as well as their share of the total urban population increased dramatically between 1930 and 1980, by which date they had 43 percent of the urban population, a number which paralleled that of the developed countries. However, the level of urbanization in the latter stood at 65 percent whereas developing market economies had an urbanization level closer to 30 percent.
Urbanization deserves urgent attention from policy makers, academics, entrepreneurs, and social reformers of all stripes. Nothing else will create as many opportunities for social and economic progress. The urbanization project began roughly 1,000 years after the transition from the Pleistocene to the milder and more stable Holocene interglacial. In 2010, the urban population in developing countries stood at 2.5 billion. The most important citywide projects -- successes like New York and Shenzhen -- show even more clearly how influential human intention can be. The developing world can accommodate the urban population growth and declining urban density in many ways. One is to have a threefold increase in the average population of its existing cities and a six fold increase in their average built-out area. Another, which will leave the built-out area of existing cities unchanged, will be to develop 625 new cities of 10 million people -- 500 new cities to accommodate the net increase in the urban population and another 125 to accommodate the 1.25 billion people who will have to leave existing cities as average density falls by half.
The recently launched report by the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda puts forward that the post-2015 agenda needs to be driven by five big, transformative shifts. The first one it highlights is that the new agenda should leave no one behind. It states that:
“We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities. We should design goals that focus on reaching excluded groups.”
Clearly, the world will have to pay particular attention to slum-dwellers, who are left behind in many areas of development and in the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The world reached 50 percent urbanization some years ago. By 2020, the less-developed world will have followed suit. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s vivid 2011 paperback “The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier” leaves no doubt about it. Cities set in motion a virtuous machinery of agglomeration economies, with economic growth and happiness following suit.
Not so fast, argue equally many learned scholars! Didn’t Vernon Henderson, another acclaimed urban economist, report in the Journal of Economic Growth that higher levels of urbanization are not necessarily associated with higher rates of economic growth. And, hasn’t Africa been urbanizing rapidly over the past 15 years without much poverty reduction?
As the world turns to ending extreme poverty and fostering shared prosperity, the impact of urbanization, and different urbanization patterns, on poverty and inequality, clearly requires more attention. Can urbanization, for example, occurgo too quickly, inducing poverty to urbanize, instead of to declininge? Or can it be too concentrated geographically, generating faster growth (from larger agglomeration economies and economies of scale), but also higher inequality? Or is maximizing poverty reduction from urbanization simply a matter of smart urban management?