Different visions of transport in cities of the future

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Mayors from The Americas, Europe. Asia, Australia and Africa are competing for the annual World Mayor Award. More

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City mayors must innovate
where governments dither

By Tony Favro, US Correspondent

17 April 2007: Tired of inaction by the federal government, American cities increasingly are taking the lead on national issues. Global warming is one example. When the Bush administration downplayed the scientific evidence in support of global warming, Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols called on American cities to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. So far, more than 150 have done so. Innovation by cities, of course, is not unique to America. Cities around the globe use their ingenuity to develop model solutions to nation-scale issues.

Community policing, based on sophisticated data analysis and more effective use of community resources, has become the standard for local public safety in America. The American version of community policing originated in New York City under Mayor Rudi Giuliani. It began largely out of frustration with federal funding for traditional crime fighting programs and has been adopted by cities throughout the country.

American cities have also grabbed the initiative in creating affordable housing; reforming public education; banning public smoking; building citizen capacity and skills; promoting proper nutrition; ensuring drinking water supply and quality; and other responsibilities which traditionally were assumed by the federal government.

Innovation by cities, of course, is not unique to America. Cities around the globe use their ingenuity to develop model solutions to nation-scale issues such as public transportation (Curitiba); tourism development (Barcelona); traffic congestion (London); HIV-AIDS (Gejiu); peacemaking (Belfast); e-government (Taipei); among many others.

Many, if not all, of these urban innovations are the result of cities focusing their creativity on urgent present needs. Economist Lester Thorow once said famously, that “the role of government is to represent the future to the present.” But if one looks at much of what happens in city governments today, the focus instead is on representing the present to the present.

Part of the reason is political. Many mayors and other elected officials must keep at least one eye on the next election. Yet, given the complexity of the world in which we live, and the unreliability of national governments, city leaders may need to focus more than ever before on the future – not to predict it, which is impossible – but to understand the kinds of forces driving their constituencies so they can best respond to them.

Global Competitiveness Reports
In the 2004 and 2006 Global Competitiveness Reports of the World Economic Forum, economist Richard Cooper looks at what he sees as the key drivers affecting cities and nations in 2020, which is not that far into the future.

Cooper sees four key drivers: population growth; growth in income per capita; increasing global mobility among companies and individuals made possible and driven by continuing technological change; and the aging of political leaders “as well as everyone else.”

For example, the world will add about 1.5 billion more people by 2020, mostly in cities, and “more people means more demand for energy – for warmth, food preparation, illumination, motive power, and production processes; more demand for food, for fresh water, for housing, and other forms of capital.”

Combine this with the near-universal desire for higher living standards as we will have many more people demanding higher rates of consumption. Assuming a three per cent world growth rate, the world economy would be nearly 70 pe rcent larger in 2020 than in 2005. This means even higher demand for energy, housing, food, jobs, investment, and social stability, as well as greater pressure on the environment.

The third driving force, continuing advances in information and communications technologies, will have a profound impact not only on what we produce but where jobs are located, the mobility of workers, and the ability of governments to tax and regulate businesses.

By 2020, Cooper argues, the costs of computation and communications will have fallen by 90 percent, “making them nearly ‘free’ by today’s standards.” Industries will become even more footloose, shifting jobs and investments all over the world. Outsourcing will become much more important. Societies and companies must either compete at the leading edge of technology or on the basis of cheap costs – those that can do neither will be in real trouble.

As a result, suggests Cooper, there will be many more “Seouls” as developing countries move into higher-value activities. But there will also be more “Baghdads”, because the fourth driver – the aging of political leaders – may generate considerable instability in societies led by dictators, such as Cuba, Libya, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, in addition to problems of succession in states struggling to make the transition to democracy, such as Indonesia.

Cities and mayors of the future
The Global Competitiveness Reports deal primarily with global trends impacting national governments. But with national governments increasingly relying on cities for leadership and innovation, managing the unsettling trends identified in the Reports will certainly become major tasks for urban governments.

City governments – with or without the support of their national governments -- will be expected to provide adequately for needed physical infrastructure, as well as for a stable social infrastructure. If they are unable to do so, the resulting political instability would likely rattle the entire nation.

Mayors may also find that it necessary to create or directly support multilateral institutions to reduce poverty and slums, attract investment and development, and ensure a healthy environment. A stable, equitable world will likely require more and more-effective multilateral institutions. This may be the only way for many mayors to deal with many of the future problems and opportunities that affect their cities.

These are all big challenges. But what mayors are seriously thinking about these issues in a comprehensive way? Mayors and their staffs are understandably focused on the present. Unfortunately, the national leaders and political parties that compete for the attention and votes of city dwellers are also focused primarily on the present.

And this raises another question: are our existing political institutions, which go back far into the past, capable of handling the challenges of the future?

World Mayor Nominations