Most of the world's 6.9 billion people live in cities. City dwellers consume about three quarters of the world's energy and generate most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
If we are to resolve some of the serious issues around pollution, climate change, human health, and energy consumption, we must look to cities for solutions. As the world's population continues to grow, a shift back to rural living is unlikely. So, what can we do?
Progress in my home city of Vancouver gives me hope — but even here we have a long way to go. The most important move urbanites can make is to get out of their cars. But governments must encourage this with better community design and investments in public transit and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.
Cycling is the fastest growing method of travel in Vancouver, thanks in part to a municipal decision to expand bike routes, especially into downtown.
Walking is also becoming more popular, with the number of walking trips up 44 per cent since 1994. And increases in the number of people taking public transit are outpacing those in all other urban Canadian centres, with a 20 per cent rise in ridership over the past decade — although government investment in the system has not kept up with this demand, hampering its potential.
Making cities more sustainable isn't just about shifting from car-centric to human-centric planning. Providing incentives to retrofit older buildings or design newer ones to be more energy-efficient, encouraging economic activity that doesn't cause a lot of pollution, and creating more parks and green spaces are all essential to making cities more livable and less polluting.
But steering society away from cars is essential. In his book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World, UBC professor Patrick Condon points out that "Thirty per cent of the world's carbon dioxide production comes from the United States and Canada, where only about six per cent of the world's people live. Of this amount, about a quarter comes directly from transportation — and the bulk of that from single-passenger automobiles."
On top of the environmental problems, cars kill. Even though accident rates are going down, thanks in part to technical innovations and regulations around speeding and seatbelt use, cars are a leading cause of death for Canadians, especially young people. According to Statistics Canada, 32 per cent of the 44,192 accidental deaths in Canada between 2000 and 2004 were from motor-vehicle accidents — 70 per cent in the 15 to 24 age group.
Transforming cities doesn't have to be overly difficult. In Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa made great strides as mayor from 1998 to 2001. By increasing gas taxes, restricting car use during rush hour, creating more parks and bicycle routes, and improving public transit, he helped make the crowded and once-polluted city far more livable.
The biggest challenges to transforming cities include the entrenched belief among many North Americans that cars are an absolute necessity and the failure of many people to see the benefits of a balanced transportation system. The backlash against a few bike lanes in Vancouver has been strong, even though the lanes have done little to hinder traffic or business.
Vancouver was able to avoid many of the problems other cities face, thanks in part to a decision in the late 1960s (spurred by activists) not to expand freeways into the city and to instead focus on a balanced transportation system where walking, biking, and transit are viable options. Statistics Canada reports that Vancouver is the only major Canadian city where commuting times decreased between 1992 and 2005. Cities that focused on expanding roads have seen more traffic and gridlock. As well, Vancouver's transportation emissions, which were once on the rise, have been arrested.
Unfortunately, Metro Vancouver still risks repeating the mistakes of other cities, as provincial pressure to expand freeways is ever present. We really need to be more forward-thinking.
Professor Condon sums up the opportunities well: "If we change the way cities are built and retrofitted, we can prevent the blackest of the nightmare scenarios from becoming real and can create the conditions for a livable life for our children and grandchildren. It is not apocalyptic to say we can save their lives."