“Africa’s time for urbanisation is now. Let us get it right”

The executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority on the urbanisation of Africa.

No country in the world has ever developed without urbanising. This has been the case in Europe and North America, and in recent decades, cities provided the foundation of the so-called “East Asian Miracle”.

This week, the 9th World Urban Forum, the biggest global conference on cities, will take place in Kuala Lumpur. I will be there discussing why now is the moment for African cities to seize the opportunity to get urbanisation right.

Urbanisation is a positive force for growth – having people and firms located close to each other connects producers to consumers as well as their markets. It also provides firms their labour and the ability to source for inputs. The resulting connectivity makes people and therefore firms more productive. This is why urbanisation can provide the backbone of growth for national economies.

Density in a city, however, also comes with its downsides. In Kampala, we feel the effects of this on a daily basis with congestion. There are estimates that approximately 24,000 hours of labour per day are lost just by people sitting in traffic jams.

Density, if it is unmanaged, can take its toll on liveability in the city as well. This is particularly evident in densely packed slums that sprawl through our city. To help manage these downsides, prioritising urbanisation on the national agenda in order to make investments in sound public policy and adequate infrastructure is key.


The major challenge in this respect are that cities, like Kampala, are urbanising quicker than necessary infrastructure investments can be made. With the urban population growth rate estimated to currently be about 5.2 per cent, Kampala is projected to become a ‘megacity’ of over 10m people by 2040.

Furthermore, unlike in Europe and North America, cities in sub-Saharan Africa are urbanising in low-resource environments, making financing the necessary large infrastructure challenging. This is exacerbated by the fact that some estimates predict that retrofitting infrastructure investments, after the city has already grown, can be up to three times more expensive than at the beginning of a city’s development. 

Despite all these challenges, we have made great strides in managing our city in the last six years. We have improved our own-source revenue collection by 186 per cent. Part of this revenue is reinvested in infrastructure; the rest goes towards providing social services including education, healthcare, sanitation, and workspaces for the growing Kampala population. Through a loan from the World Bank, we have managed to reconstruct over 200km of roads in the city. Furthermore, garbage collection has increased from 16,000 to 31,000 metric tonnes.

We are also improving liveability in our city through other ways. In particular, through improving and increasing the number of green spaces as well as undertaking a number of beautification efforts, communities will increasingly be able to enjoy public space in the cities.

All these efforts have reinstated confidence amongst a variety of stakeholders in the direction that Kampala is taking. Most importantly, it has restored hope and provided a sense of direction for residents in the city and firms looking to invest in Kampala.

As countries in sub-Saharan Africa strive to become middle-income, cities like Kampala still have a major opportunity to provide the backbone for economic growth. This is because we are still at the beginning of our urbanisation journey, with nearly two-thirds of our cities still to be built.

Now is the opportunity to get urbanisation right and make it a force for productivity and change. As our urbanisation paths are very different from those taken by other cities in the world, we also need to build up our own evidence base and learn from each other.

This is why, together with leaders from other African cities and distinguished academics on urbanisation Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Sir Paul Collier and Tony Venables, both at Oxford University, I am spearheading a new initiative Cities that Work through the International Growth Centre.

With this initiative, we aim to provide the evidence-based support for urban policymaking in cities like Kampala. This policy support is, most importantly, based on our priorities. Given different policies are needed in varying contexts, the initiative also presents a menu of different policy options for people like myself who face tough decisions on a daily basis. We are growing our network of policymakers, practitioners, and academics because harnessing the opportunities of urbanisation requires the finest minds working together to provide innovative solutions to the challenges we face.

Uganda aims to become a middle-income country within the next decade. As history has shown us, this will not be possible without our cities. Now is the time to get urbanisation right.

Dr Jennifer Semakula Musisi is executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority, and a member of the “Cities that Work” council at the International Growth Centre. She is giving a keynote talk at this week’s UN’s World Urban Forum.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.