“Accessibility is about how many near or far things you can reach. Mobility is about speed across the network,” argued David Levinson, a professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, at the Transforming Transportation conference held at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. “Access is opportunity: employment, shops and restaurants, healthcare, and the outside world.”
Levinson has analyzed over 80 cities, mostly in Europe and North America, to determine how many people can access jobs by foot, bicycle, car, or public transit in 30 minutes. He found that “city form varies by continent.” The European Union (EU) has higher walking access to jobs than North America. New Zealand and Australia are somewhere between the U.S. and Europe — they are denser but not as dense as Europe. The U.S. has better auto access to jobs than Europe but not as good as some European cities. For example, Amsterdam has better car access than Los Angeles. He concluded that larger cities have better access to jobs than smaller cities, and the EU has highest access overall.
The challenge for many cities in developing countries is where to focus resources to improve access: land-use development (new nearby neighborhoods or employment centers) or investment in public transit to reduce travel time between destinations. There are also questions of equity and distribution: to simplify, “is it better that two people can access one million jobs or one person can access two million jobs?” Still, the goal in most cities is higher levels of access, which explains why rent in Manhattan is many times more than rent in Winnipeg. “The theory is more access equals greater productivity.”
Conversations at Transforming Transportation, which drew 1,200 attendees over two days, then broadened the definition of access.
For Dagmawit Moges, minister of transportation in Ethiopia, the issue is access to markets. The country has a population of 100 million spread over 1.1 million square miles. 80 percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Many of the rural areas aren’t connected by roads to centralized markets. “Our country is very fertile. Farmers grow once a year, but they could be growing four times a year if they had access.”
Through the universal rural road access program, Ethiopia has connected 12,000 out of 15,000 rural districts. Some $2.7 billion in contributions in both cash and labor came from the rural communities themselves. “The collaboration was very high, but we still have disconnected pockets. We still have to import grain from other countries.”
For Etienne Krug, director of the department for management of noncommunicable diseases, disability, violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization (WHO), true accessibility will only be achieved when road deaths, which now average 1.35 million annually, are zero.
“Half of road deaths are from people using vehicles; the other half are people who accidentally got in the way. The number of road deaths for young children and adolescents is growing, but hardly anyone talks about it.” He called for safety to be a criteria in the planning and design of every transportation project. “And good public transit is the way forward.”
Pamela Smith, executive director of the Society and Disability (SODIS) based in Peru, said getting accessible public transportation systems built in developing countries can be a real challenge given the lack of understanding of the issues facing the disabled. For a new bus rapid transit system (BRT) in Peru, Smith’s group and others participated in a comprehensive public review process. Unfortunately, the resulting system had feeder buses with inadequate safety measures for wheelchair users. Only when a video of woman BRT rider falling out of her wheelchair spread did they update seat belts. “Accessibility impacts people on a daily basis.”
Furthermore, she argued that even if a station is accessible, the area surrounding a station may not be, so investment needs to be made at a system scale.
Lake Sagaris, a journalist and urban planner based in Chile, made an impassioned case for increasing access to walking and biking through complete streets around the world. In developing countries, “highways are an aberration; people walk or bike way more than they use cars. The basic building block of any transportation system must be the neighborhood; you can’t segregate walking and biking from vehicles.” What’s needed are streets with safe, accessible sidewalks and clear intersections with working traffic lights.
She imagined a woman living in a rural or suburban area who must walk half a kilometer to a transit stop, with children and groceries. That woman “needs an ecology of transit modes: walking, biking, bus; an inter-modal system, not a multi-modal one.” For Sagaris, bike share in developing countries could be the missing link.