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Making Tomorrow's Cities Less Car-Dependent

Urban Age Institute's Gordon Feller offers retrospective insights on Meeting of the Mind's conference.

By Bill Moore

China astutely leapfrogged the copper wire age of telecommunications by building cellular phone networks instead.

Sadly, it hasn't been as wise when it came to the automobile.

With an economy racing along at a breathtaking 10% growth annually, this nation of 1.3 billion souls is building the equivalent of a city of one million every two months. Unfortunately, it is also following -- for now -- the American template of cars and sprawl. But China's leadership may be rethinking that model with the help of organizations like Urban Age Institute, a nonprofit group that was originally founded as a unit of the World Bank.

The Institute recently convened, with the help of U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and Toyota, the first Meeting of the Mind's conference to start a high-level dialogue on the future of personal mobility in the cities of the future. The central question being, How do you provide the individual with the freedom of mobility we all need and desire without fostering the host of societal and environmental burdens to which our automobile-dependent culture now finds itself shackled?

Two weeks after the conference, I asked the event organizer, Gordon Feller, to share with EV World his retrospective insights into what the conference accomplished. You can listen to that 35-minute conversation by using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page or by downloading the 8.05MB file to your computer hard drive for transfer to and playback on your favorite MP3 device.

IN BRIEF: Synopsis of Gordon Feller Interview

  • Originally founded in 1992 at an internal unit of the World Bank, Urban Age's mission was to find, evaluate and, where feasible, interject new ideas and thinking into urban projects in the 130-some countries in which the bank operates.

    The institute spun off as in independent, nonprofit some nine years after its formation and is based in the United States. It is currently involved in projects in Asia, Europe and Latin America. It's mission today is to facilitate the implementation of sustainable urban mobility. It continues to have ties with the World Bank.

    In a reversal of roles, the Meeting of the Mind's conference sought to bring examples of sustainable urban mobility home from abroad and introduce them here in America.

  • Currently, the Institute is working with the World Bank to get the major development investors in China to make project loans that promote sustainable, high-density cities and transportation, instead of those that promote sprawl and ever-greater-dependence on the automobile.

    The consequences of following the U.S. model are seen in Beijing where the government has lost control of development and sprawl is spreading, leading to even worse air pollution, traffic congestion and lost worker productivity.

    Feller characterized China's rethinking on its development strategy as a "desperate search for a new model" in which he and other urban planners are assisting through work with the China Development Bank and others, including the German government. He points out that money speaks as loudly in China as it does here in America.

  • The Meeting of the Minds conference was an outgrowth of a long standing relationship and dialogue with Toyota Motor Co. and a recognition that carmakers have to become involved in the urban planning process, as well. The "evil intent" of process was to get both the urban planning community and auto industry to realize that the longer why don't engage each other, the wider the gap becomes in finding sustainable solutions. Toward that end, the Institute facilitated a meeting between the Dean of the College of Environmental Design and Toyota.
  • The Institute is planning a series of follow-on events and is hoping to engage the rest of the automotive industry, as well as Toyota, in the discussion. Events are being planned later this year and next for Portland, Oregon and San Diego, California. The focus of these events will be on local/regional needs, as well as the larger global context.
  • The big question on the table is how do we develop sustainable, energy efficient, environmentally-benign cities while maintaining the dynamism made possible through the freedoms guaranteed by personal mobility?

    To the question of cities someday being "car-free", Feller sees that someday city governments, in China for example, may be compelled for environmental reasons to issue edicts that would effectively make their communities car-free, but he would prefer that it be done as a conscious, intentional design choice if appropriate for that city.

    He sees the "creative" cities of the planet moving away from promoting the automobile to encouraging multi-modal forms of transportation from walking to bicycling to small, efficient tricycle-type motorized vehicles and on up the vehicle spectrum. He sees many of these being plug-in electric powered.

  • Multi-modal transportation at its very worse in downtown Shanghai where pedestrians are forced to share streets with bikes, motorscooters, passenger cars and electric city buses.

  • As in the West, the purchase of an automobile in China is viewed as a status symbol and sign of one's economic progress. In China, as the economic lot of the individual improves their first two purchases are a refrigerator and a color television set, followed by a motor vehicle, usually a car, if they can afford it.

    The entire world needs to radically alter this model so that individual automobile ownership no longer has the cache it has had traditionally. Within the next ten years, we'll need to make sharing -- either ride sharing or car sharing -- the accepted norm.

  • In America's case, where sprawl has been the pattern of growth for half a century, the issue is how do we promote a return to the city center and high density living, which seems so contrary to the long-held belief in the "American Dream" of a house in the "burbs" and multiple cars in the garage?

    Feller agrees and said that we need to find small, affordable, incremental means of re-linking suburbia and exurbia with the city core that doesn't involve massive investment in subways and light rail, and yet isn't dependent on individual car ownership.

    One possible solution is the melding of Internet-based social communities with ride share programs like Go Loco. Using a travel matching program, for example a couple interested in driving into the city center for dinner or a concert might link up online with another couple planning to do the same thing. Instead of taking two cars, they would use one.

  • Other policies including higher parking fees and congestion charging can help alter consumer habits, reducing single occupant trips.
  • The purchase of an automobile is not only viewed as a necessity, but also a status symbol across ethnic and political borders. It is a manifestation of a very real human desire to make a statement about oneself and therefore it is a as much a problem of buyer psychology as a technological one. Feller sees it also a marketing, advertising and sales issue that requires a change consumer perception and values. We can make it "cool" to value other things than automobile ownership.
  • Feller is more optimistic about the future of the city than "The Long Emergency" author Jim Kunstler. While no single model has emerged for how we will redevelop our cities in a the post-petroleum age, he believes that multiple models may, in fact, evolve beyond the "cookie cutter" tract home in the 'burbs' of the last 50 years.

    Some signs of hope for him is the amount of venture capital funding that is going into clean tech. He thinks the pace of VC funding will increase and that we're lucky that we aren't dependent on Energy Department funding.

    Rather than being a technological optimist, Feller considers himself a human ingenuity optimist, seeing our ability to adapt and innovate as being the most important factor in change.

  • For Gordon Feller the vision of a sustainable city is one where all of the major and minor buildings make use of renewable forms of energy including wind, solar, biogas digesters/batteries. It's a city where plug-in, vehicle-to-grid, electric cars are the norm and are part of citywide car share programs. Many of the workers in the city -- following South Korea's lead in broadband telecommunications deployment -- don't have to physically commute, but can telecommute, instead.

    He asserts that virtually all of the technology to make this happen is now available. What is missing is the political will to pass policies and author incentives to encourage change.

    Besides policy incentives, fear as a result of shortages or the perception of shortages will also play a role in stimulating change. One of those drivers will, in all likelihood, be the implementation in the next U.S. presidential administration of a carbon tax.

  • Globalization will continue to be a factor in the future, but we will also see increasing localization of both energy and food production.
  • Three key lessons came out of the Meeting of the Minds conference, which involved some 200 participants:
    • The necessity to continue and expand the dialogue between planners and the auto industry.
    • More time is needed for the dialogue, so more events are being planned, including regional meetings in the US.

      The Meeting of the Minds also will be going international starting with holding a similar event in Yokohama, Japan at the invitation of that city's mayor. Leaders from 60 southeast Asian communities will be attending.

    • Because national governments aren't willing to act in a timely fashion, communication between officials at the city-to-city level are needed to expedite information sharing and encourage change.
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    Times Article Viewed: 9093
    Published: 10-Oct-2007


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