Lessons for emerging cities from car-lite moves

Lee Meixian. The Straits Times AsiaOne 19 Apr 16;

At a time when cities are going car-lite for environmental reasons, it may be a blessing in disguise for developing countries that have yet to build their road and highway infrastructure.

This is because they have the opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the more advanced countries. Now, they can move directly into a car-lite, road-lite transport system, and leapfrog a whole era of car-driven environment degradation, said Gabe Klein, special venture partner at venture capital firm Fontinalis Partners. Mr Klein recently spoke to The Business Times.

The entrepreneur, author, investor and former government transport official in Chicago and Washington DC, was in Singapore at the invitation of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to facilitate a workshop with public and private stakeholders on creating car-lite cities. This included speaking at a lecture organised by ULI and the Centre for Liveable Cities, which was attended by 80 participants from the public and private sectors and academia.

Speaking to BT after the lecture, he said: "The problem is we get so focused on technology, and it's great that we have all this technology that we can use, but looking back at earlier times, perhaps we had some things right.

"Perhaps in simpler times when people primarily walked and cycled and took more rudimentary forms of transit - and I'm not saying as you scale up, you don't want to improve your systems, because you do - but we've used the idea of technology to build horrible monstrosities of freeways and cities."

Mr Klein vehemently believes in a utopian city in the future where traditional cars and roads have all but given way to sidewalks and bicycle paths, and people live in dense communities and work remotely, which minimises the need for travelling.

Every way he puts it, driving is bad - for the environment, for pedestrian safety, even for people's health and fitness. "It will kill you, your city, the air quality, the value of real estate, it will make people unhealthy and fat," he said plainly.

What has been the typical trajectory in many rapidly urbanising countries is that cities quickly become car-oriented, partly also because people see car ownership as a sign of affluence. "You see people in China and India wanting to have a car if the Americans do. Then they realise it's a mistake and they build transit, or a confluence of transit, roads and highways. That's where Singapore is."

Singapore is in the midst of going car-lite as well, in the footsteps of its Western peers. It is discouraging car ownership through high costs and taxes, ramping up its public bus and rail systems, encouraging cycling as a mode of transport to work, decentralising offices, and studying car-sharing schemes as well as the feasibility of driverless pods.

"We've made a tremendous amount of mistakes in the Western world, and a lot of other countries have copied our mistakes, including China. The price they face now is pollution and congestion," Mr Klein said.

Referring to a chart in his presentation (top right), he said: "So if you are in a country that is at the beginning of the curve, jump to here (City C), don't go through the curve of mistakes. It's a really important lesson. You'll waste billions of dollars making the mistakes."

Another mistake that many major cities have made is to create the concept of a downtown - where people work - and the suburbs - where people live.

This has resulted in droves of people mass-commuting across cities at peak hours of the day - something which didn't happen in the past because people had tended to live close to where they worked.

He said: "So what we fundamentally have are challenges of land use. If we have the right land use and the right density, the right services and amenities, and the ability to work close to where we live as we did 100 years ago, perhaps we don't need the advanced transportation system. Just a simple one that focuses on walking, cycling, some high quality transit to link our neighbourhoods and cities."

He continued: "We have gone from this era of hyper consumption in post World War II to people really being more concerned about a higher quality of life by being able to walk, bike, take transit within 5-10 minutes to everywhere they want and not necessarily feeling the need to own everything.

"In transportation, we are really moving from the 'me' economy to the 'we' economy."

And new business models are springing up - be it private-hire and limousine services such as GrabCar and Uber, or shared car ownership initiatives such as Zipcar.

He said: "The innovation is happening at private-sector speed, meaning the profits are driving it. And when you take that and combine it with the exponential rate of change in technology, you can see this (the disappearance of cars from roads) is going to happen very, very fast, before the end of this decade."

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this could take effect in Singapore as early as 2030.

Meanwhile, there has been debate in Singapore about whether the privatisation of public transport has led to its demise, as profit-maximising operators cut down on maintenance works to reduce costs.

To that end, the government is reportedly studying options for rail operator SMRT Corp to sell its trains to the government, so that SMRT can focus entirely on meeting service standards without being saddled with heavy capital expenditures.

This is something Mr Klein would agree with. He is in favour of the government owning the physical asset, with a private firm operating the asset under contract to the government.

That way, the private company has the benefit of experience; the state can do its checks and balances; and the customer benefits with lower costs and better services.

"Public-private partnerships are about a relationship. And you figure out contractually how much risks you want to maintain on the public side, and how much risks you want to transfer to the private side," he said.

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