The Future of Cities Lies in Their Veins: Public Transportation, Zoning, and Innovation

Globalized trade is driving urbanization at an unprecedented scale.  From 1980 to 2007, China’s population shifted from being 20% to 45% urban.  McKinsey recently reported that by 2030, India will have shifted from being 30% to 50% urban.

Yet, the inability to keep up with the pace of economic growth, skewed incentives that encourage unnecessary sprawl, and a preference for regional transportation projects over local public transportation have led to inequitable and inefficient outcomes.  Residents face increasingly concentrated slum housing, commuters deal with overcrowded and infrequent bus systems, and motorists sit in congested traffic

Furthermore, as wealth and income increase in high growth countries, more people want to purchase personal vehicles both for practical purposes and as a means of conspicuous consumption.  China and India have been increasing their vehicle fleet by an average 13% and 7% per year, respectively.  In 2006, the U.S. was already responsible for 45% of the world’s auto emissions.

Since vehicle emissions represent more than 15% of global CO2 emissions, public transportation must be a central component of any environmental-urban planning framework.

The challenges of urbanization and climate change present opportunities for urban planners and entrepreneurs to alter the trajectory of urban development, but will require innovation on both their parts:

Focus on Local Commuter Transportation over Regional Commuter Transportation

Commuter High Speed Rail – especially of the magnetic levitation variety – sounds very sexy, but it serves a small proportion of the total distance that populations need to commute on a given day.  At the same time, high speed rail systems are extremely expensive.  Some estimate that the planned California high speed rail that will travel from Northern to Southern California will cost as much as $1,000 per inch.

This money could have a greater economic impact if invested in a system of natural gas, electric, or biodiesel buses that serve communities that commute to and from work every day.  In addition, a system of bus-only lanes would facilitate bus frequency and speed.

That said, high-speed regional rail would benefit commercial freight a great deal, especially in China, which recently faced a traffic jam that lasted for weeks, mostly filled with freight cargo.

Focus on Intensity Based Zoning over Usage Based Zoning

Segregation by usage causes people to segregate their activities.  In the U.S., we live in one area and have to travel to another to work or shop.  This kind of use-segregation not only encourages personal vehicles over public transit, but also leads to income-segregation, the concentration of poverty, and has the effect of draining the life out of sections of the city at different times of the day.

Los Angeles and some other municipalities are beginning to experiment with intensity based zoning that is defined by the volume of usage (e.g. high, moderate, low) rather than by the quality of usage (e.g. industrial, commercial, residential).  In this model, light manufacturing, commercial, and residential units are allowed to exist in proximity to each other so that workers are able to live close to their employment and residents are encouraged to walk to go shopping.

Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

Public transportation problems present a plethora of opportunities to innovate for both for-profits and social businesses.  For example:

  • New public transportation designs;
  • Signal systems that precisely track train/bus locations and allow them to travel faster and closer to increase capacity;
  • Energy management products that match the timing of electrical supply and demand more efficiently; and
  • Community transportation projects that encourage biking or flexible car usage through car sharing

Although urban planning is often regarded as a top-down discipline, entrepreneurial and community leadership from the bottom will provide the direction and, ultimately, the outcome of its efforts.  If our visions are guided by a focus on sustainability, equity, and innovation our cities will be on the right path.

Stephen Huie is a first year MBA at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.  After receiving his B.A. in Sociology from Pomona College, he worked in nonprofit social services, education, community organizing, and grant making.

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.