June 30, 2006

Op-Ed: What the developing world can teach us about kicking oil addiction

In recent months it has become increasingly difficult for Americans to ignore two painful realities.  The first is the realization that climate change is less a theory to be debated and more a real threat that we can’t afford to ignore.  The second is that oil prices possess the same capacity to wreak economic havoc today as they did in the 1970s.

At a time when Detroit still relies heavily on profits from SUV sales, and oil riches enable Arab states to avoid the democratic reforms necessary to long term political stability, this is unsettling news.  Even more disturbing is that automobile use is skyrocketing in three heavily populated continents – Asia, Africa and Latin America.

What will happen to CO2 levels and the demand for oil if China continues to double their car traffic every five years, with India following close behind in the fast lane?

This is all very depressing if you believe that the proliferation of cars all over the world is unavoidable.  But what if developing nations could look forward to a prosperous future without focusing on the car as the primary means of getting around?  Impossible, you might say.

Well, take a look at Bogotá, Colombia, a city of seven million.  Plans for an eight-lane highway were scrapped and nearly 200 miles of bikeways were constructed. TransMilenio, a 21st century transit system, was inaugurated using high-speed buses that travel in their own separated lanes.  This bus rapid transit (BRT) system now carries more than one million passengers a day, 20 percent of whom have switched from driving cars.

As a result of the TransMilenio system and certain restrictions on auto use during peak hours, congestion has been reduced.  Bogotá’s buses alone are estimated to reduce 3.5 million tons of CO2 gases between 2001 and 2013.

Bogotá’s success has not gone unnoticed by other cities.  Jakarta, Indonesia, a city of 15 million, has recently constructed three BRT lines, with four more planned soon.  BRT is also providing a cost-effective alternative to more traffic and more pollution in spots as varied as Sao Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; Hangzhou, China; Mexico City; Brisbane, Australia and – surprise – Los Angeles.

Bike use is being promoted by elaborate new bikeways in places like Dakar, Senegal; Ahmedabad, India; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Seoul even tore down a highway running through its city center, resurrecting an underground river in its place complete with pedestrian walkways and links to an expanding network of bike lanes.

Of course, it’s not right to ask people in poor countries to compensate for our failings in responding to the green house effect and oil dependence.  But developing countries can avoid many of our woes by just saying no to oil dependence.  With oil prices soaring and traffic getting worse, is it really a sacrifice for such countries to replace fantasies stoked by automotive advertising with their own dreams of truly livable cities?

Bogotá and a growing number of cities around the world are embracing a new vision of urban life that offers people quick and comfortable travel by mass transit, and beautiful, tree-lined streets where pedestrians and cyclists are not second class citizens.  For the 80 percent of the world’s people that have no realistic hope of ever owning a car, this change in thinking is not just about the environment, it’s also about providing a more equitable way to get to jobs, schools and hospitals.

Here at home, politicians are reluctant to embrace an increased gas tax for fear of losing elections, and alternative fuels like corn-based ethanol are not yet broadly available.  Mayors and governors in many developing countries, however, are proving that reducing oil dependence can be good politics when it is not rooted in belt-tightening measures or technological fixes, but in working to achieve a fundamentally different vision of the kind of cities that we want to live in.

Walter Hook is executive director of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

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