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The Future of Cities and Transportation: Learning from the Parable of the Horse
Amanda Reed, 2 Aug 10

Bus rapid transit systems and "complete streets" are great. But to design urban transportation systems that are truly sustainable, we have to think much further ahead.

So writes Mathias Crawford at the beginning of his new post up at GOOD titled "The Future of Cities and Transportation," in which he explores how to plan future cities that both address current needs and are flexible enough to adapt to changing technologies and behaviors. As an example of the dilemma urban planners face, he shares the parable of the horse:

By the end of the 19th century, cities throughout Europe faced a crisis: They were literally drowning in horse manure. Thought leaders of the day knew it to be a forgone certainty that dealing with the waste of horses was going to be the most pressing concern for urban planners of the 20th century.

At the time this thinking made perfect sense. Horses had dominated commerce and personal mobility for centuries, and as the population grew, it was logical to expect that solving this looming infrastructural problem would demand larger amounts of intellectual and financial capital.

Of course, cars solved the horseshit problem.

The parable of the horse illustrates an inherent tension of futures thinking. While we must build towards a better world based on current problems, the future is almost certain to be radically different from what we plan for. This is why successful solutions to the complex problems faced by cities need to strike a balance between addressing current needs and building in flexibility that can accommodate future behaviors.

Crawford continues by pointing out that many cities are currently "facing important dilemmas about infrastructure," especially in regard to infrastructure that reforms "our resource-depleting, socially-isolating reliance on single-occupancy car travel." Solutions such as bus rapid transit or complete streets are well and good, but, for Crawford, they reveal a wide "mismatch between planners' assumptions and the uncertainty of future needs." For example, he asks: "Will Bus Rapid Transit make sense in a world without reliable oil supplies?"

The solution he suggests is at once simple and familiar: "While we are engineering solutions to current problems, we should also make sure that our cities are being designed for long-term resilience." Again, but how? Click here to read Crawford's full answer; he considers such approaches as how planners need to better understand and respond to the ways people move around cities (and the ramifications of Twitter mood maps), how transportation itself may change (he uses Citilab's concept of business meetings on train as an example), and how architecture can integrate life, work, commuting and recreation.

Mathias Crawford is a research manager at The Institute for the Future.

Worldchanging has covered a number of these topics before. Here are some highlights from the archives:

Bus Rapid Transit

Complete Streets

Resilient Cities

Planning for the Future

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