“Transport defines how the world looks”

an interview with Jonas Eliasson

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

Mr. Eliasson, as a transportation specialist you have spent most of your professional career thinking about what moves people and how traffic systems can be improved. To a lay person, transportation often sounds dry. What makes it exciting to you?

The word “transport” may sound technical and dry, yes, but if you think about it, modes of transportation are of central importance to how we live and how our world looks. Take the development of major cities as an example. About 200 years ago, there was a maximal size a human settlement could reach, and that size was clearly defined by the transportation possibilities of the time: walking and horseback riding. It was only in the late 19th century with the invention of the bus and the proliferation of the railroad that cities could expand and people could be transported over longer distances and live further from the city centers, thereby expanding the urban space. Likewise, when the elevator was invented, it suddenly became possible to build upwards. So transportation defines not only the way we move but also the layout of the cities we live in. Without modern transportation – metros, busses and private cars – it would have been hardly possible for cities around the world to grow to their present size.

At the same time, modern transportation comes with its own issues. Today many major cities are hampered by congested streets, fine dust pollution and sub-standard public transportation. Why has humanity not come up with better traffic solutions yet?

That very much depends on the kinds of cities we are talking about. In the United States, for example, cities like Los Angeles are fighting rampant congestion. However, that is not solely due to bad transportation management, but also goes back to history and the growth of the city. Most city planning in the US took place when the passenger car was thought of as the future mode of transportation. As a result, cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston were designed in a way that benefited cars, meaning they were spread out and didn’t provide much space for bike lanes and walkways. This historical reality is very difficult to ignore for traffic planners today. Even if you wanted to turn Los Angeles into a city for bikers and pedestrians and built it around public transport that would be very difficult to achieve due to the sheer size of the city. 

Does that also hold true for metropolises outside of the United States?

Not particularly. If you look at Europe, you’ll find that we actually have good preconditions for sustainable traffic solutions, because cities like Berlin and Paris have grown long before the advent of motorized transportation. Still, traffic modernization moves slowly, because we face issues of a different nature: Even though there is lots of money to be spent, the responsibility for infrastructure projects is often divided between the state, the regional and the local level. So transportation projects often become political and very complex. The opposite is true for big cities in the emerging world and especially in Africa. There, however, city administrations oftentimes don’t have a lot of power and centralized governments can dictate transport schemes. They lack the money, the political will and the proper institutional framework, like functional transport agencies, to move forward. That being said, you have to look at each case individually if you want to make sense of what is wrong with modern traffic. I would also suggest, however, that we shouldn’t only problematize things like congestion, but look at their positive side as well.

There’s a positive side to congestion?

Sure. If you look at congestion from the perspective of a traffic planner, you find that there is only congestion in places that provide high quality services, employment, culture and so on. That’s the reason why you wouldn’t be stuck in a traffic jam in an American or German village, while you would almost certainly get stuck in one in New York City or Berlin. The reward that modern cities get for good urban planning is urbanization, meaning people flock towards those cities which offer the best access to jobs and services. The penalty they pay is that by virtue of their success, they have to deal with more people, more traffic and therefore more congestion. In that sense congestion is a natural phenomenon and not necessarily a bad sign. And by improving  transportation we are not really getting rid of congestion, but making room for more people to move, which creates more congestion. So in every growing city managing traffic is a constant challenge rather than a “problem” that can be solved.

Still, in the future it might help to design cities in a way that facilitates smarter transport. If you were a city planner, what would your personal traffic paradise look like?

I think such a city of the future would have to have four distinct characteristics. First, it would have to be reasonably compact and relatively densely populated, because once you start spreading things out, issues of transportation become very difficult to solve. Second, the city would need to be “walkable”, meaning it would need to be possible for pedestrians to get around easily in the inner city. Third, it would need to have attractive public transportation, which is reasonably cheap, fast and reliable. And fourth, it would need to strike the delicate balance between good road transportation schemes and some reasonable restraints on private car travel. That is because the private car is actually a pretty efficient mode of transport. After all, it directly takes you from your starting point all the way to your destination and is comparatively cheap. However, if you don’t put some restraints on car travel, like fuel taxes or parking charges, then private car transportation often outgrows its efficient size. 

Are there any major cities that come close to this utopia today?

I don’t think that there is one single city that unites all of these four characteristics today, but there are a number of cities that excel in certain areas, because of their specific topography and history. Hong Kong and Tokyo, for example, have marvelous public transportation systems. In Hong Kong’s case that is because the city borders on China and has to make its traffic work within a very limited space. And in Tokyo’s case, the fact that much of the city was destroyed by American bombs during the Second World War gave city planners the opportunity to build a public transportation system from the ground up and then just plan the city around it. So in this sense, good cities often make the best of their surroundings and their history. They build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are great examples for that as well. There you have average public transportation, but great potential for cycling because the cities are mostly built on flat land. 

Another city that is being constantly lauded for its innovative infrastructure is Stockholm, where you helped introduce a congestion pricing system as far back as 2006. Should cities around the world look at the Swedish capital for inspiration when it comes to traffic planning?

What we did in Stockholm is to try to reduce inner-city traffic via a car fee. We made people pay one euro for entering the inner city with their car and two euros during rush hours. In that way we immediately reduced general traffic by twenty percent, which was more than we had actually hoped for. The system was later introduced in Gothenburg as well and has, via a small change in traffic planning, reduced congestion there considerably. So I believe congestion pricing can be one of many instruments to develop smarter strategies to manage inner city traffic and yes, Sweden has been very innovative in that respect. However, one should acknowledge that traffic planning only ever really succeeds when a number of smart strategies work well together. 

Do car sharing-, city bike- and e-mobility-concepts that are on the rise in many places fall into that category in your opinion?

All of those concepts are good ideas on a theoretical level, but when you have worked in transportation you know that they have to be thought out very carefully when it comes to implementation – and that none of those ideas will solve traffic issues single-handedly. Take electric car sharing models, which are pushed by politicians in many places. They sound like a great idea in theory, but if you start subsidising them too much, then you might actually unintentionally worsen inner city traffic in practice, because people who never even thought about taking a car to work, suddenly start using car-sharing just because it becomes the cheapest option available. Add the fact that much of our electricity is still generated from coal and you have suddenly created a catastrophic mix both in terms of traffic planning as well as in terms of climate policy. 

What would be a smarter way to go about it?

In my mind, politicians and traffic planners shouldn’t work towards coercing people to use this or that mode of transport, but simply to make a good mix available. It is useless to tell a car driver that he has to take an e-scooter to work every morning from now on. Instead it is much smarter to make it more expensive for the car driver to get to work in his car – for example via congestion pricing and parking fees – and then leave it up to him how he wants to adapt to that new situation. He can now choose to make fewer trips, take a bike, go by metro, share a car with a colleague or just pay the price. And he will most likely choose the most efficient option. So in a way, smart traffic planning is about providing a diverse infrastructure that people can use in whatever way they see fit. Against this background, I believe that cities of the future will need to boost their public transportation systems, meaning metros and buses should be complemented by more options for walking and biking and park and ride possibilities.

None of those ideas seem very futuristic though. However, it seems that when it comes to transportation, we are always waiting for a big technological revolution: the hoverboard, the flying car, the supersonic passenger aircraft. Do you think it likely that there will be an invention that completely disrupts the way we travel in the near future?

When it comes to inner city traffic, I don’t see anything truly game-changing coming. Our challenge is about trying to work within a finite amount of space. Just look at pictures of cities of about a hundred years ago: They pretty much look the same! There are some people walking, some biking, some in private cars and some in cable cars, but we haven’t come up with anything completely different. But when we talk about intercity transportation, and improving connections over large distances, that’s a wholly different story. There, high-speed trains and self-driving cars might be a game changer and there’s great economic potential as well, because driving from one city to another for four hours in a car is very inefficient compared to sitting in a self-driving vehicle while being able to work. Also, a self-driving car that goes back and forth on the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Berlin would be much easier to compute than one which has to navigate inner city traffic.

an interview by Kai Schnier

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