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Revealed: the Best and Worst Cities for Commuting in the World

Two studies released this week, one global and the other covering the USA, reveal the best and worst in urban planning for sustainable commuting and make recommendations for how to achieve sustainable urban mobility.

The first, the Urban Mobility Index report looks at 84 major cities around the world. Of these, Hong Kong Hong Kong (right) was judged the best and most accessible city for people to get around, with an overall score of 58.2 out of a maximum possible 100. The full list of the top 11 is:

  1. Hong Kong: 58.2
  2. Stockholm: 57.4
  3. Amsterdam: 57.2
  4. Copenhagen: 56.4
  5. Vienna: 56.0
  6. Singapore: 55.6
  7. Paris: 55.4
  8. Zurich: 54.7
  9. London: 53.2
  10. Helsinki: 53.2
  11. Munich: 53.0.

These 11 cities are the only ones to feature in the top 20% of the score range. No cities in the Americas or Africa come anywhere near the top. The full list is here.

Hong Kong is still inadequate in terms of cycling past and are quality, but was judged to have "the most advanced urban mobility system in the world". It found that 38% of Hong Kong residents use a zero emission modes of transport such as cycling and walking.

Its railway system is highly regarded, but, amongst the top 10 cities, it came out the lowest for cycle path provision. "We shouldn't use the high ranking of Hong Kong as a reason for the absence of cycling," commented Hong Kong Cycling Alliance chairman Martin Turner. "However, it does have great potential to become a bicycle-friendly city because of its compact urban area." He called upon the government to stop treating cycling only as a leisure activity.

(If you're thinking of living there, however - and it is the world's most visited city - be aware that foreigners pay the amongst the highest rents in the world.)

Arthur D. Little`s report on the "Future of Urban Mobility", which contains the Index, uses 19 criteria to assess how easy it is for citizens to get around in the 84 cities examined. It also comes up with recommendations for what cities can do to better shape the future of urban mobility, which I examine below.

Europe achieves the highest average score of the six world regions surveyed, with an average of 49.8 points. European urban mobility systems such as that inStockholm (right), are found to be the most mature today and lead the way in mobility performance, according to Oleksii Korniichuk, Manager at Arthur D. Little and in charge
of the Urban Mobility Index.

Latin American and Asian Pacific cities are slightly below average but outperform other regions in public transport related criteria. They have an average score of 43.9 and 42.9 points respectively. Asian Pacific cities have the broadest range and performance. While Hong Kong and Singapore rate highly, the lowest is Hanoi with 30.9 points.

North America shows average performance with 39.5 points, due to their orientation towards cars, ranking bottom worldwide in terms of maturity. The report says they "show poor results with regard to number of cars per capita and CO2 emissions. New York leads the way with 45.6 points, closely followed by Montréal with 45.4 points.

Africa and the Middle East are the lowest performing regions with average point totals of 37.1 and 34.1 respectively. Being at the evolving stage still they have reached sufficient maturity yet and, if anything, are headed in the wrong direction as the proportion of car ownership increases.

While it is true that American cities ranked poorly they were not the worst in this study, despite having three out of the bottom 10 cities. Baghdad came bottom, followed by Hanoi, then Atlanta, Teheran, Lahore, Delhi, Dallas, Houston, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Urban mobility in American cities

The new report from Smart Growth America and the Metropolitan Research Center, Measuring Sprawl 2014 agrees that the metropolitan area of New York/White Plains/Wayne, New Jersey ranks the highest for urban mobility. The top 10 cities for being compact and connected, of which four are in California, are:

1 New York/White Plains/Wayne, NY-NJ: 203.4
2 San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City, CA: 194.3
3 Atlantic City/Hammonton, NJ: 150.4
4 Santa Barbara/Santa Maria/Goleta, CA: 146.6
5 Champaign/Urbana, IL: 145.2
6 Santa Cruz/Watsonville, CA: 145.0
7 Trenton/Ewing, NJ: 144.7
8 Miami/Miami Beach/Kendall, FL: 144.1
9 Springfield, IL: 142.2
10 Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine, CA: 139.9.

At the other end of the scale, this is the bottom 10, the worst cities in America for urban sprawl, noting that only one of these is in the bottom 10 of the other study:

212 Kingsport/Bristol/Bristol, TN-VA: 60.0
213 Augusta/Richmond County, GA-SC: 59.2
214 Greenville/Mauldin-Easley, SC: 59.0
215 Riverside-San Bernardino/Ontario, CA: 56.2
216 Baton Rouge, LA: 55.6
217 Nashville-Davidson/Murfreesboro/Franklin, TN: 51.7
218 Prescott, AZ: 49.0
219 Clarksville, TN-KY: 41.5
220 Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Marietta, GA: 41.0
221 Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, NC: 24.9.

Why is sprawl bad?

Sprawl isolates households, does not foster a sense of community, means that people spend more time in their cars, increases greenhouse gas emissions, creates poverty and poor health.

The researchers find that inhabitants of cities with less sprawl have a higher quality-of-life.

In general, people have greater economic opportunity in compact and connected metropolitan areas. They spend less of their household income on the combined cost of housing and transportation, have a better sense of community, have greater number of transportation options open to them, and those who live in compact, connected metropolitan areas tend to be safer, healthier and have longer lives than those in suburbia.

In fact a new British study, "Poverty in Suburbia", has just found that the suburbs are home to some of the poorest people in the country and the report, by the Smith Institute, calls for a drive to tackle "the suburbanisation of poverty".

What do cities need to do?

The Smart Growth America report notes that: "As residents and their elected leaders recognize the health, safety and economic benefits of better development strategies, many decisionmakers are reexamining their traditional zoning, economic development incentives, transportation decisions and other policies that have helped to create sprawling development patterns."

It says that the solution is to "create more connections, transportation choices and walkable neighborhoods in their communities" and looks briefly at four case studies: Santa Barbara, CA; Madison, WI; Trneton, NJ; and Los Angeles, CA.

While the Urban Mobility Index report notes that there is a clear trend towards shared mobility with cars and bikes being shared in cities, both via peer-to-peer and business to consumer models, it cautions that many of these concepts haven't yet managed to take off.

The reason it gives is that urban mobility is one of the toughest system-level changes for cities, and is actively hostile to innovation. The report identifies that what is needed to forward the developments advocated by the Smart Growth America report is "system level collaboration between all stakeholders of the mobility ecosystem to come up with innovative and integrated business models".

Many of the poorly performing cities lack a clear vision and strategy on how their mobility systems should look in the future. Different strategies would be appropriate to different cities according to their level of maturity:

  • Cities in mature countries with a high proportion of motorised individual transport need to become more public transport and sustainability oriented.
  • Mature cities with a high share of sustainable transport modes need to fully integrate the travel value chain to foster seamless, multimodal mobility.
  • For those cities in emerging countries with partly underdeveloped mobility systems, they must establish one or more sustainable mobility cores with the ability to satisfy short-term demand at reasonable cost and avoid replicating mistakes from the early history of cities in Europe and America.

These cities have the opportunity to take advantage of the best planning developments in the world, even those in developing countries such as Curatiba, Brazil. "There is now a real window of opportunity to drive innovation in urban mobility" says Alain Flausch, UITP Secretary General.

Funding progress in urban mobility

Devising the appropriate funding mix for public transport is crucial.  Revenue streams do not always evolve in line with costs, and so imaginative solutions are required to generate revenue, such as sponsorship and the aggregation of third-party services that appreciate from the indirect benefits of public transport and cycle routes, such as improvements in air quality and health which reduce health costs in the city and economic losses due to days off work.

Reductions in journey time also have a knock-on effect on economic performance. Economic models for supporting sustainable transport developments should be designed to reflect this.

City size does not have a significant influence on the mobility score. However, city prosperity and the prevalence of public transport do have a significant influence on the mobility score: the richer the city and the lower the share of individual transport, the higher the score.

One thing is for sure: all cities need to innovate to improve their performance.