Emergent patterns in nature and society

Cars: individual preferences and emergent patterns in cities

I spent today more than one hour in a traffic jam talking with my dad. We discuss the differences in transport systems between Stockholm and Bogotá, weather the city size would influence its efficiency and why people have so many cars in Bogotá. One hour of traffic jam is not enough to find answers and explore all conjectures you can rise on the topic. However, when finally I arrived home, surprisingly I found this post, from I quote:

The Future of Urban Sustainable Mobility: Go Beyond the Car | Sustainable Cities Collective.

Rates of vehicle ownership are increasing around the world. A recent report, the Latin American Green City Index, measured and assessed the environmental performance of select cites in South America. The report iterated a key challenge: while public transportation in Latin American is extensive and cities like Bogotá, Curitiba and Santiago boast some of the best systems in the world, rates of car ownership are still exploding. And the trend is not unique to Latin America. For example, in cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, the number of people riding motorcycles is very high and motorization is expected to increase with GDP. The study places per capita income between U.S. $3,000 and $5,000 as the threshold in the developing world for car ownership. Even as auto ownership parallels the rise in quality of life standards, there is a shift in the U.S., Europe and major cities around the world in the importance of owning and operating vehicles. Car ownership is expensive compared to mass transit; people see value in multitasking while commuting; and there are increasing options of temporary car usage such as options like Zipcar. (There are plans for Asia’s Car Club to expand beyond Japan to China and Korea.)

Establishing excellent mass transit and walkable, livable cities is another part of encouraging travel via public transit, walking and biking. And as Nicolae Duduta, Transport Research Analyst at EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) pointed out, “Europe has similar rates of car ownership as the U.S. but the car is used less often.” For example, a small portion of Europeans relative to Americans use their cars to get to work everyday. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tends to be a more accurate indicator of how far city residents are actually traveling to get places.

As we wrote, “It is possible for public transportation to thrive, even as there are more autos on the road” but it depends on “the cost and ease of car ownership and the quality and availability of substitute options.” In Europe, parts of Asia and even parts of the U.S., “auto ownership may be widespread [but] operating costs (specifically fuel prices, parking, and in some areas congestion pricing) are higher, parking is not as guaranteed and driving alternatives are more prevalent and competitive with driving.” These incentives for public transit and the availability of alternative options can actually reduce VMT. Households or people that own cars do not perceive driving as the only way of getting around but rather as one option among a menu of choices. People will likely choose the most appropriate and convenient mode for a given trip.


But still, according to the “Megacities on the Move” report, vehicle ownership currently stands at one billion cars and this figure is expected to grow to two billion in the next few decades. Smart growth patterns along with policy are needed to make driving more inconvenient and costly

The use of technologies obey path dependency dynamics which in a nutshell is the same as regime shifts. The typical example of path dependency is the more people used VHS back in the 80’s – 90’s, the less people used Betamax, even though the latter was more efficient. The same happen with configuration of transport systems, Apple vs PC, and so forth.

As people feel discouraged by their waste of time in the middle of traffic jams, they seek for alternatives both at the individual and collective level, from office colleagues to public policy making. As result, more people shift to biking, move closer to jobs, or change routines to avoid rush hours. At the end, the city system reorganize and some strategies prevails against others. Here is a summary of strategies that seems to be working, but at least in Bogotá, it’s not enough:

  • …bus rapid transit (BRT) uses existing road infrastructure for buses that run on dedicated lanes. This component of BRT makes the systems cheaper to implement, but also takes space away from individual vehicles and uses it for mass transit. If usage of BRT is high, this frees up more road space for cars.
  • The annual Park(ing) Day seeks to inspire people in cities to reconsider the amount of public space allotted to individual vehicles. For a day parking spots are transformed into temporary parks for the public good.
  • Making driving more costly and difficult has also been effective in a number of cities. Quito, the capital city of Ecuador and a city of 2.1 million residents, has seen a rapid rise in car ownership but has also created incentives for residents not to drive. The city has a BRT system with exclusive lanes that transport nearly a half a million people. In addition to mass transit, Quito has a comprehensive policy to reduce congestion in the city. Parking is restricted in some urban areas, lanes have been converted to exclusive biking corridors, and the city has occasional car-free days.
  • Plus, in 2010 Quito became the first city in Ecuador to restrict the number of vehicles coming into the city during peak hours on weekdays, following the example of São Paulo, Brazil and Bogotá, Colombia. The policy is called Pico y Placa. (“Pico” for peak and “placa” for license plate number.) During rush hours, certain license plate numbers are restricted, which means car owners are not allowed to have their cars on the road one day a week. Traffic during peak times has fallen by as much as 30 percent, the ultimate goal being to remove as many as 80,000 private cars off Quito’s streets. The result of the program has also been car-sharing behavior as people combine trips with neighbors whose licenses are not restricted. (For more information on these policies and initiatives in other Latin American cities, check out the Latin American City Index [pdf]).



One response

  1. Pingback: How to solve traffic jams « Critical Transitions

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