Traffic stands at a junction on King’s Way boulevard while shrouded in smog at night in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The biggest problem facing the world’s transport planners and visionaries isn’t how to develop the most amazing new transport technologies — it’s how to fit our planet’s fast-growing population into the tight confines of its ever-growing megacities.

The world’s 25 largest cities will add about 113 million people in the 15 years through 2030, according to the United Nations Population Division. About three-quarters of that growth will come in 10 emerging-world centers: Delhi, Dhaka, Kinshasa, Shanghai, Lagos, Cairo, Chongqing, Karachi, Beijing and Mumbai. The least densely populated of that group already has more people per square kilometer than Paris, London, Tokyo or New York:

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

Another way of looking at this shift is to measure rising consumption of bitumen, the tarry oil residue that’s used to bind many sealed roads. About three-quarters of global bitumen usage goes into road asphalt, so the current and forecast increase in demand is a strong indicator of how we’re paving over the planet:

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

All that road transport comes at a cost, in the form of catastrophic levels of urban pollution. The most harmful varieties are particles less than one-twentieth the width of a human hair known as PM2.5. These can penetrate into the tightest spaces of the lungs, causing respiratory and other diseases. Levels in many global cities are well above those recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which stand at an annual average maximum of 12 micrograms per cubic meter for PM2.5:

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

Not all urban pollution is caused by vehicles, but getting travelers off the roads and onto dedicated and typically electrified rail networks is one way of reducing both congestion and noxious exhaust fumes. Luckily, the world is currently in the middle of a revolution in metropolitan railways, with about as many kilometers being built in the decade through 2022 as in the 150 years previously, thanks most of all to explosive growth of entirely new systems in Asia:

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

Congestion isn’t confined to the ground. As cities get bigger and the incomes of the people living in them rise, the amount of air travel between the world’s cities is set to increase, too. The most intense growth will be on the shorter- and medium-haul intra-regional markets served by the likes of the Airbus SE A320 and Boeing Co. 737 — but a crucial bottleneck will be the capacity of the airports that service this traffic:

The Future of Transport Is the Future of Cities

Since the globe’s urban population overtook that of rural areas in 2007, a further 777 million people have moved to the cities, based on World Bank data. How the world deals with the pressure, as urbanization pushes our biggest metro areas still closer to breaking point, will do more than anything to define the shape of transport over the coming decades. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

Elaine He is Bloomberg Opinion's data visualization columnist in Europe, focusing on business and markets coverage. Before joining Bloomberg, she was a graphics editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

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