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Eureka: The science of transportation
by Jay Gutman
2016-12-22 12:23:29
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Historically, most cities were located either at the sea-level or on a navigable river. Cities like Rome or Jerusalem were distanced from the ports mainly for safety reasons, so that if someone invaded by the sea they would have to give a battle on the land before they get to the temple or the king.

transport01_400More recently however, railways, highways and airlines have enabled cities to blossom out of virtually nothing. For example, in South Korea, the cities of Daejon, Daegu and Busan were quiet villages before transit railways were established, creating jobs, leading Daejon to become a city of 1.5 million in less than 50 years, Daegu a city of 2 million and Busan a city of three million. Go around those cities asking elderly people where they were born and virtually all of them will say they were born in surrounding villages but moved to the city at some point.

Daejon, Daegu and Busan are examples of cities that were created and blessed by transportation. But the first rule when building complex transportation systems like subway systems is that they have to beat the traffic. In cities like Daejon or Daegu where traffic is not really heavy and where busses and cars run fast, I’m not sure what the point was building a subway system, other than mayors getting reelected perhaps.

The opposite can also be true. In traditionally quiet but administratively important cities where due to war, famine or other disasters suddenly people start flowing, transportation systems can be a real headache. An example could be the city of Algiers, the capital city of Algeria.

In Pépé Le Moko’s time, Algiers was a port city where most people lived in the Casbah, which was basically all there was in the city. The Muslims traditionally lived South of the Casbah, and the Jewish population lived North of the Casbah, by the port. Europeans then came to the city and built areas surrounding the Casbah, but mostly near the port, a town today known as Bab-el-Oued. Then those who made fortunes at the port moved further from the port, building quiet houses and very narrow roads to access them. That’s how chic residential areas started emerging, connected by narrow roads.

The war of independence when many Algerian Muslims’ villages were bombed, then the 1990s civil war meant that people from areas surrounding Algiers started moving to Algiers, where the chic residential areas were rebuilt and tall buildings were being built instead. The roads however remained the narrow ones, leading to lots of congestion ever since the economy started picking up in the 2000s and people started buying cars. The same could be said about cities like Bangkok or Hanoi or any large city in Latin America where there’s so much congestion that you’re better off driving a motorcycle or scooter.

This phenomenon or sudden rapid urbanization makes it difficult for such cities to build efficient transportation systems. The other factor is the geographic factor, where for example the hills and cliffs of Algiers make it difficult to connect the city with subway systems, where traditionally only rich people assembled in the cliffs for seclusion purposes.

The South Korean model and the North African, Latin American or Southeast Asian model are two distinct models. The South Korean model is one where supply of transportation created demand of residency, the other models are ones where supply of population is creating a demand for public transportation. Furthermore the Korean model is one where economic activity is centered around the cities, whereas in North Africa or Latin America economic activity is mostly in the deserts or mountains whereas the population lives in the cities, further blurring the supply and demand lines as high unemployment means most people, especially the younger ones are secluded in their homes and often do not need public transportation to go around. Lack of economic activity in such areas also means high crime rates, where public transportation is often avoided due to the risks involving crime.

So what are effective remedies for such transportation banes. One way to look to is Tokyo, where a deliberately complex and overpriced public transportation system reduces the crime rate to a minimum. Another way to look at is New York City, where virtually anyone can drive a taxi, the oversupply of taxis leading fares to be deflated and taxis available almost anywhere at any time, although taxis there do no spare the congestion.

The main prerequisite for any city to have an efficient public transportation system is to have maps. As it may surprise you, and it does surprise me, many cities around the world have not yet mapped their roads, streets, avenues, highways, freeways or expressways. This can lead to a certain degree of confusion when setting up a public transportation system.

The next prerequisite is to have different bus sizes depending on the distance and streets where passengers are being transported. Smaller busses or mini busses for narrow streets, large busses for avenues or highways where the bus travels long-distance.

As for subways, underground trains and tramways, these demand a considerable amount of building and maintenance to operate, and demand a lot of discipline when operating. Several options are available. Kuala Lumpur built an overpass train system where all the tracks are elevated over the city, making it an “overground” rather than an underground. This was a considerable investment, but one that paid off, making KL go from a conservative city to a modern, liberal, consumption-oriented city. However, Malaysian media campaigns have more or less convincingly portrayed KL as a city to stay out from if you don’t have a university degree to prevent a “gold rush” from other areas.

A few cities have tested automatically-operated electric trains. Line 14 of the Paris metro and the Gimhae Light rail transit in the Korean city of Gimhae come to mind. The Gimhae LRT was particularly successful in creating an overpass train system in a long but narrow city, connecting the main points from the North to the South of the city. However, the relatively small population of Gimhae and few economic opportunities meant that the city failed to attract the consumers it wished to attract, mainly because there is no dominant industry in the city of Gimhae other than textile. The LRT was also an attempt to boost tourism in the city, and despite being a very pleasant and historic city, I don’t think I ever came across a tourist, mainly because of the city’s image as a suburb of the port and beach city of Busan rather than a historic independent city. Line 14 of Paris, which was an attempt to boost tourism by connecting the line to several historic sites also failed, because very few tourists visit every touristic site in one sitting. 

A final aspect when designing transportation networks is the privacy factor. In some cities I have travelled to, you come across virtually the same faces every morning when you take public transportation. That perceived gray zone between privacy and anonymity can make passengers very uncomfortable, as ideally passengers do not want to recognize people when they are taking public transportation.    

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Emanuel Paparella2016-12-22 13:42:42
The customary but necessary other side of the coin:

A simple comparative parallel may do it for this topic: Positivist approach: Mass Transportation is needed to move millions of people around and the logistics needed to accomplish the feat need to be identifyed/The Journey of Humankind toward its destiny and the visions needed to get to it. One may call the former useful and pragmatic within a utilitarian empiricist philosophy, and the latter poetical but ultimately more realistic within a vision of humankind on a journey, within a deontological philosophy. However, one without the other calling the other useless, will insure that it remains incomplete.

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