As the world’s biggest cities get bigger, logistics and transportation networks in them aren’t keeping pace.
Christopher Kennedy, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, has one suggestion for how the world can start to solve the problem of climate change: transform the world’s megacities.
Megacities are teeming metropolises that have populations of at least 10 million people.
They include Indian cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where transportation infrastructure is subpar.
“Same with Cairo,” says Kennedy, calling the Egyptian capital “the kind of place where you’ll see a four-lane road with five lanes of traffic on it.”
In 1950 there were just two megacities in the world – New York and Tokyo.
“Global urban culture is shifting east.”
We will likely see a great jump by 2050, with a projected 2.5 billion more people living in urban areas by then.
And the stakes are high, Laurence Smith writes in The World in 2050, a book that looks decades into the future to describe the impact of the population boom on the planet.
Smith, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), envisions population clusters in dense urban settings creating “mighty new poles of resource consumption” in China, India and Brazil.
Elsewhere around the globe, water is scarce. Mild winters encourage many humans northward.
Smith and other experts also note that global urban culture is shifting east.
The largest population increases are occurring in developing nations in Asia and Africa.
The trajectory of this big, big-city boom has the potential to change the world’s spheres of influence in profound ways.
Good and Bad News
There are advantages to such cities – most notably, the efficiencies that come with scale.
For example, Kennedy points out that cities require less base infrastructure per person as they get bigger.
Richard Holt, head of global cities research for Oxford Economics, adds that megacities are net positives for the world because of their density.
“It’s much more efficient than spreading things out more broadly,” he says.
The rise of megacities creates major challenges, though.
While it’s easier for affluent and more advanced metropolitan areas such as London and Tokyo to handle an influx of crowds, those at the lower end of the wealth scale like Lagos, Nigeria and the Pakistani city Karachi have their work cut out for them.
Their logistics systems and transportation infrastructures aren’t always suitable for growth.
More People, More Problems
Preparation for the rise of megacities is crucial, as potential consequences include damage to the environment, overtaxing of infrastructure systems and hard-to-control crowding.
“Every city has congestion … but when you talk about megacities, you’re talking about supersized congestion,” Kennedy says.
Peter Harris, director of sustainability for Europe at UPS, notes that blockages in transportation and increases in air pollution go hand in hand.
This is a major concern as most new megacities are projected to be in emerging economies, and the majority of these locales have limited public transit systems and air quality standards.
Private Businesses to the Rescue?
The dilemma is figuring out how to develop modern logistics and infrastructure that are flexible enough to accommodate swelling populations.
“Megacities are net positives because of their density.”
In countries where governance remains nascent, Harris sees a good deal of development being done by small organizations with relatively unsophisticated technology.
He says it is important for major companies like UPS to lead the way in “demonstrating how efficiency and alternative technologies can provide solutions. This can create an example for others.”
One solution that UPS has unveiled in the US is On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (Orion).
This uses monitoring technology and advanced algorithms to crunch data and provide drivers with routes optimized for efficiency. UPS has also incorporated modal shifting, which figures out the most fuel-efficient transport methods for any given shipment.
Internationally, UPS uses electric delivery vehicles and has launched an extended-range version of one of these in London.
It has also deployed electrically enhanced Cargo Cruiser tricycles in Hamburg.
A Brave New World
The strategy for how cities should invest in the future involves collective priorities – what the crowded metropolis ought to look like and how it should operate in the years ahead.
Cities of the world, especially the most populous ones, increasingly feel like giant urban magnets.
“What kind of world do we want?”
Yet Smith’s book cautions that numbers shouldn’t necessarily frame the academic exercise of planning and developing these population centers.
He concludes: “The more important question is not of capacity, but of desire. What kind of world do we want?”
Challenges for Megacities
While it’s easier for affluent megacities, those at the lower end of the wealth scale like Karachi, Pakistan – where the little girl pictured here lives – have their work cut out for them.
Governance: A McKinsey Global Institute report found that growing metropolises in Latin America have tended to overtake smaller neighboring towns.
This has resulted in fragmented political boundaries and urban management responsibilities, which can lead to blocks in planning and policy efforts.
The unknown: As cities become oversaturated, people will look to move to different areas, but it’s tough to manage places that haven’t been defined as cities.
Economist Michel Aglietta says that in the coming years, a few hundred million Chinese will bypass Beijing and migrate to cities that don’t exist yet.
Building for the future: It is important for organizations to push for better electrical infrastructure and greater renewable natural gas (RNG) availability.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian on March 24, 2016, and was republished with permission.
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