Here's how the Swedish capital changed the debate on urban transportation

Stockholm's city hall. Image: Martin Savén.

There are already more people living in urban areas than in rural ones; the UN Population Division predicts that almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will crowd into cities by 2050. How can these urban centres remain liveable and attractive without razing buildings and parks to make way for ever wider highways? 

Part of the solution is changing the perspective of the public debate. The example of Stockholm holds insights which can be applied to other cities facing similar challenges.

In 2013, the Swedish capital adopted a new urban transport strategy called the Urban Mobility Strategy, as a part of the policy initiative to tackle increasing congestion. It attempts to move away from a traffic-planning system centred on automotive transport, to one that takes into account other modes of transports, such as buses, trams, a subway system, bicycles and walking. 

Over the past six years alone, Stockholm’s population has grown 16 per cent to just shy of one million – a figure demographers in 2007 predicted would only be reached only by 2030. With forecasts now moved forward by a decade, Stockholm faces a difficult challenge to retain a high level of urban mobility.

The city has already implemented some progressive measures to reduce congestion, but it is hardly enough to keep up with the growth figures.  Some 80 per cent of commuters into the city centre use public transport during peak hours. The implementation of a congestion charge since August 2007 continues to effectively reduce traffic and commuter delays. But despite such policies, the city is seeing increasing congestion.

Increasing mobility, not increased traffic

Stockholm is working with both supply and demand of mobility to mitigate congestion. First, by planning the city more densely, Stockholm aims to reduce the demand for transportation, while maintaining the advantages of living in a city with an attractive offering of employment, housing and recreation. With more of these offerings more compactly co-located, other modes of transport than the space-demanding car become more attractive: in particular cycling and walking, which require less space and have a high capacity.  

An extract from the English version of Stockholm's Urban Mobility Strategy.

Secondly, the city’s goal is to make the transport infrastructure more efficient, by transporting more commuters and deliveries on the same road infrastructure: in essence, it's increasing the supply of mobility. 

The city’s Urban Mobility Strategy began by asking: what do Stockholm’s inhabitants need as they go about their daily lives? Their answer: urban transportation for commuting to work, school, recreation, as well as allowing for deliveries so that there is food in the grocery store and paper in the office. Speed, reliability, and commuter comfort are important aspects that need to be taken into account when choosing how to manage urban transportation. But not every journey has the same needs.

When the efficiency of different modes of transport is compared, cycling, walking, and public transport win out over cars in terms of capacity and road-surface. This is especially true if there is only one person in the car, as is often the case in Stockholm and many other cities of the world. The UMS, accordingly, gives priority to these more efficient modes of transport. The aim has been to shift the focus from a mode-of-transport oriented focus to a mobility-oriented focus: that is, from what can be supplied to what is demanded.

Political landscape, process and implementation

Cycle lanes, parking fees, and bus lanes create excited debate as soon as change affects people’s everyday lives. As soon as it’s a question of “my” commute, voters and politicians have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. As a framework, the UMS has helped facilitate the political public discussion, shifting the debate from one particular mode of transport to the more general questions of mobility. Most citizens use many different modes of transport, juggling different identities. They are cyclists, drivers, public transport passengers and pedestrians all at once. 

The UMS structures the discussion by looking at the “exchange rate” at which road surface is traded between different modes of transport, i.e. as the number of people transported per unit of time. In turn, the debate has become more focused on the distribution of capacity rather than the specific advantages of one mode of transport over another. 

The distinction is crucial. The UMS has reshaped the debate on urban mobility by changing the public discussion and helping to explain and convince the people of Stockholm what measures need to be taken for the city to continue to thrive and develop. Stockholm's experience with the UMS shows that communication and dialogue are important tools when cities around the world tackle the challenge of congestion and urban mobility.

Martin Savén has previously worked as an advisor to the Mayor’s Office in Stockholm, and is now studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 

The Blavatnik School of Government exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” on 11-12 December will explore new ideas to tackle the impacts of rapid urbanization across the world.

 
 
 
 
 

Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.


New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.