What do you love about the city you live in?
Your answer may be a combination of the following: ease of travel and access to many jobs using high quality and low cost public transit; livability as measured by the availability of green or community space such as parks, schools, cultural or shopping centers; ease of walking and biking encouraging active living and an engaging community; and an idea of what the city would look like ten years from now.
As more and more people live and work in a neighborhood with a limited land area, it becomes increasingly challenging to drive around without encountering congestion or to find a parking space easily. In this situation, public transit and non-motorized transport (NMT) become attractive alternatives for people who otherwise are reluctant to give up the comfort and flexibility of driving.
Conversely, as street blocks get bigger, people may find it takes too long to access public transit stations, which discourages the use of public transport facilities.
As straightforward as the logic may sound, the nature and magnitude of such influence are yet to be evaluated with solid empirical evidence. To take a closer look at the linkages between land use and travel behavior, I decided to study the case of Boston in the United States. I chose Boston because it boasts an effective public transit system, and was one of the first American cities to embrace transit-oriented development (TOD), an urban planning approach that promotes compact and mixed use development around public transit facilities.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Singapore Urban Week along with other colleagues from the World Bank Beijing office, as well as delegates from China’s national government and participating cities. For all of us, this trip to Singapore was an eye-opening experience that highlighted the essential role of integrated urban planning in building sustainable cities, and provided practical solutions that can be readily adapted to help achieve each city’s own development vision. A couple of key lessons learned:
Putting people at the center of development strategies
This is only possible when planners always keep in mind people’s daily experience of urban space and invite them as part of decision-making process through citizen engagement.
For instance, in many cities, public transit has been perceived as a low-end, unattractive option of travel, causing ridership to stagnate despite severe traffic congestion. But in Singapore, public transit accounts for 2/3 of the total travel modal share in 2014. Moving around the city by metro is comfortable and efficient because transfers between different modes and lines are easy, with clear signage of directions, air-conditioned connecting corridors, and considerate spatial designs and facilities for the elderly and physically-challenged users. In addition, metro stations are co-located with major retail and commercial activities and other urban amenities, significantly reducing last-mile connectivity issues.
Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/Flickr
I like to think of Singapore as the Pelé of urban design. The city regularly appears in the top ranks of globally livable, connected and competitive cities. Pelé once famously said, "Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do”. There is no doubt that Singapore’s accomplishments have been made possible by the hard work, perseverance and far-sightedness of its policy makers.
A 2013 speech by Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, outlines the careful thought, planning and attention to detail behind Singapore’s urban policy, particularly the decisions, influence and foresight of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew over the decades of development. One astonishing success has been the provision of affordable housing and the care with which each neighborhood has been designed, taking care of the smallest details, in order to ensure social cohesion and a sense of community. These details include provisions for hawker centers and high quality public green spaces.
It is well known that transit-oriented development, or ToD, is a high-value complement to mass transit development. Compact, mixed-use, high density development around key mass transit stations can have the dual benefits of creating a ridership base that enhances the economic and financial viability of the mass transit investment and compounding the accessibility benefits a mass transit system can bring to a city’s residents. This is not to mention the intrinsic value in creating vibrant social gathering places for communities at strategic locations.
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