We are fast on our way

Do you think traffic is bad in New York or London? They have nothing on Jakarta and Chongqing.

The top of TomTom NV & # 39; s ranking of the world's most overloaded places is dominated by emerging markets. Between the cities in rich countries, only Los Angeles is in the top 15, and then only just.

Some of the world's worst traffic sounds occur in South Asian cities that are not even included in the TomTom rankings such as Dhaka, Delhi and Karachi. Their problems are only getting worse, because the growing population and rising incomes so far have pushed the already congested transport networks to the limit.

In emerging economies, many cities have reached the point where the carrying capacity of roads is running out. There are approximately 40 registered vehicles for each kilometer of road in the United States, France, Russia and Brazil, based on analysis of the data from the World Health Organization and data from the Central Intelligence Service. This can be compared with Iran, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, which are all north of 200 vehicles per kilometer. It is no coincidence that traffic jams in Tehran, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta have become so legendary.

Two factors have made this almost manageable for the time being. First, fewer people have vehicles in poorer places: there are only 13 registrations per 1,000 people in Bangladesh, 30 in Nigeria and 44 in Pakistan, compared with more than 500 in most rich countries. And when people in low-income regions get their first vehicle, they are mostly motorcycles and scooters that take up less space than passenger cars.

Both mitigating problems are less helpful than they look. For starters, as the income rises, the ownership of the vehicle also does. Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have almost as many vehicles per capita as the United Kingdom.

For another, two-wheelers still need space to prevent collisions. Scooters and motorcycles in motion occupy about half the space of a car. That, in addition to the exhaust fumes that they spit out, they explain the engine bans that have already been implemented in parts of Jakarta and Manila and are planned for the entire city of Hanoi in 2030.

One way to combat this flood is to limit the use of vehicles. Rationing programs for the road, which forbid driving for certain cars on certain days, have been implemented in cities from Manila and Mexico City to Bogota and Beijing. London charges for access to the central city, which has a similar effect.

Alternatively, you can limit car numbers by imposing special car seat permits and using auctions or lotteries to allocate a fixed quota. These systems, which were first established by Singapore in the 1990s, have spread to more than six cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and even the relatively sleepy outpost of Guiyang.

Then there are more solutions for the free market that have attracted the most investment dollars and interest in recent years – ride-sharing and autonomous driving. It is unlikely that this will make a decisive difference. Studies of rite-dependent services such as Uber and Lyft suggest that they can encourage some people to surrender their own vehicles – but they also seduce riders away from higher-capacity public transport modes.

Autonomous vehicles could theoretically increase road capacity by using shorter braking distances than would be safe with human drivers. But for the time being, such technology remains science fiction, especially in the complex, dynamic streets of cities in the emerging world full of scooters, beach vendors, pedestrians, tuk-tuks and cattle.

The solution that is likely to be most effective in the long term is also the most far-reaching solution: an expansion of public transport – especially metro and suburban rail networks that completely eliminate traffic on roads.

Fortunately, that is already on the way. In the 10 years to 2022, the world will add approximately the same length of metro tracks as it has built in the 150 years since the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in London in 1863. The metro systems in China have grown at a rapid pace this century, and India is gradually catching up. Even laggards such as Dhaka, Jakarta, Lahore and Lagos are finally building special commuter rail networks. However, it is unlikely that it is enough.

Take Beijing. If a city should be able to meet the demands of transporting a fast-growing urban population, it is the flagship of the most ambitious infrastructure developer the world has ever seen. And yet the city is still bursting at the seams, despite the rationing of the roads; vehicle quota; a brand new metro system that transports more passengers than New York and London combined; and long-term hukou restrictions on residency.

City governments elsewhere in the Third World that are too poor, corrupt, or democratic to match Beijing's ferocious willpower will find it much more difficult to accommodate their growing populations without coming to a standstill. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot that runs on a brake pedal while it is stuck in traffic – forever.

(Corrects reference to U.S. in sub-header of Global Gridlock chart.)

Contact the author of this story: David Fickling at dfickling@bloomberg.net

Contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachel Rosenthal via rrosenthal21@bloomberg.net

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

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist for raw materials, but also for industrial and consumer companies. He was a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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