Cities are locked in and looking for the key

“Many cities are locked in. Both in terms of environmental responsibilities, and in terms of issues of equity,” says Cem Kayatekin, a professor at the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid, in a guest column. He uses that phrase – “locked in” – several times in his op-ed, and it has been popping up quite a bit on my radar lately, mostly from people using it to describe the relationships between cities and the fight against climate change. As we all know, climate change touches every aspect of life, and every aspect of life is in some way contributing to climate change, so whether they realize it yet or not, cities are “locked in” to their infrastructural design and planning like never before.

Take, for example, how we move. “Transportation is one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution worldwide. Given the role that cities play in climate change, we need to re-think and plan for a future in which cities work intentionally to direct change,” says Shauna Brail, an Urban Studies Program associate professor at the University of Toronto in her recent article for The Conversation. As she points out, 64 per cent of all vehicle kilometres travelled on a global basis are in cities, and this is anticipated to grow exponentially. “To address the stubborn challenge of reducing transportation-based emissions, cities need to lean on car-free alternatives such as public transit and active transportation,” she says.

Cities are waking up to the realization that “this means implementing mobility solutions that are accessible, autonomous, connected, electric, and shared,” says Rod Schebesch, who leads Stantec’s international Smart Mobility Program. It also means finding solutions to the transportation landscape we already have. Researchers at the University of British Columbia recently published results of a study that provocatively suggest living near major roads or highways is linked to higher incidence of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Just as REN21’s report that I referenced in my last column show that it is cities driving the transition towards renewable energy, a similar drive has to happen on the transportation front. “Communities can achieve the greatest gains by considering the entire range of smart mobility options,” says Schebesch. “Getting the mix right will mean helping everyone move about in the way that’s right for them.” But in a place like Canada, where cities rely on complex funding arrangements between higher levels of government in order to invest in major infrastructure projects, this is far from easy. The share of municipalities’ funding from the federal and provincial governments has decreased from nearly 50 per cent in the 1970s to 12.3 per cent in 2018, making it difficult for municipalities to invest in major infrastructure projects without partnering with other levels of government or private investors.

Ultimately, it will be partnerships that will make or break urban mobility. Cities “need to effectively engage with private firms to leverage disruptive transportation technologies, such as ride-hailing apps,” says Brail, acknowledging that there is tension amongst urban pundits about these technologies and their usage. “Only with intentional and strategic effort can we hope to move the needle on transportation-based emissions while also ensuring that people have access to the mobility resources they need.”

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