Clayton Lane is the CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, having joined ITDP six months ago after founding a Philadelphia-based car-sharing organization and a stint as Deputy Director of the WRI Sustainable Cities program.

Perspectives editor-in-chief Gabor Debreczeni had a chance to talk with Mr. Lane about the realities of transit-oriented development and gentrification in developing countries, how to convince cities not to relocate the poor to the suburbs, and about whether self-driving cars will cause cities to turn into heaven or hell.

GD: At Perspectives, we have a theme every year and we’re now focusing on migration and displacement. As far as new arrivals to cities, do you tend to think about first-time legibility of signs or of systems, and how populations that might not be used to the idea of transit might experience it?

CL: We do work on things like that, but the biggest thing to address, even before we get to legibility is just having access to basic, sustainable transport. The massive migration to cities has resulted in the need far outstripping capacity of cities to accommodate that. The symptoms that we see are things like in India, where 70% of all trips are on foot in cities, either to and from transit or just on foot, and yet 70% of transport budgets are dedicated to highways and automobiles, for the 10% who drive. As a result, there are no footpaths in most communities in cities of India, and where there are footpaths, they tend to be blocked by utility boxes and trees and cars parking on the sidewalk. This is a very basic, fundamental issue. There's a fundamental right that's not being addressed. Sidewalks are an economic lifeline for most people in India. So before we even get to issues like legibility of the system, we need to have a system, like that system of sidewalks, and good public transit to actually use. Yes, then legibility is also very important, but honestly most cities have not even gotten the first step done.

GD: That seems to then be a question of attitudes – is that a block you tend to find in particular at the municipal level, or...

CL: It’s both. I think there’s, if I can generalize, a cultural aspiration, by the people, by government officials, to have lots of cars in the future, and this is a very unsustainable vision. You look out the window if you’re sitting in Delhi or Mumbai or Guangzhou and you see a lot of congestion, and the very natural response of a public official is to expand the road, but we know that solution doesn’t work – it just induces more demand. The challenge is really to turn that whole paradigm upside down, and say that the pedestrian really should be at the top. Every great city in the world has a great pedestrian network. Cars are necessary, but they should be your lowest priority, not only because of equity issues but for the environment and economy.

There is definitely a cultural narrative that says: the cars are the direction we want to go, and we see that even in some social housing. They tend to be built with garages and lots of space for cars that these families don't own. This cultural narrative is showing up in budgets, it's showing up in the design of streets, it's showing up in housing policy. We really need to tackle this head on, to develop more sustainable cities.

GD: In comparing the metro approach and the bus rapid transit (BRT) approach, what do you see as the deciding factor between them? Obviously the cost is earth and sky, but how about for a city that would have money to do either?

CL: First, we see any form of high-quality transit as a good thing, so we are very supportive of any effort on either mode. It’s not actually the type of tire, whether it’s rubber tire or steel – the big difference is whether it has intersections, if it crosses intersections at grade or not. If it's fully grade-separated, the system can operate much faster, provide higher speeds and enable people to access things further away.

GD: I guess the distinction that I’m thinking about is more the under-ground, above-ground distinction. The type of conversations we’ve had at SAIS include: when deciding between high-capacity modes, are you thinking about land values, are you thinking about what riders are seeing, are you thinking “am I building a barrier that’s cutting this community in two?”

CL: First of all, a grade-separated system, whether it’s above-ground or below-ground, can operate much faster and provide better accessibility, but at enormously higher costs. There’s a factor of five to ten higher cost to have a grade-separated system. Doing it above ground or below ground is a similar issue; below ground is far more expensive than above ground, but eliminates some of the visual impacts of an above-ground system. We've seen many above-ground infrastructures, especially highways, virtually destroy communities. That is continuing to happen today. In many cities of India, flyovers are now being built. There was a lot of news recently about one that fell in Calcutta, but even the ones that stand produce social inequities for decades. If you look at the photos of these flyovers, they are like putting a second floor on Fifth Avenue in New York. You would split the city in two. Anybody who lives next to that would be disproportionately negatively affected by the noise, the pollution, the congestion that it would bring.

Infrastructure in the air is very difficult to make well, no matter what the infrastructure is. We see it happening largely on highways, but it can also happen with metro or BRT if it’s not designed properly.

GD: Do you have approaches to mitigate that type of experience in BRT projects?

CL: Not specifically. What needs to happen is a detailed environmental review that looks at the impact on communities in terms of noise, pollution, congestion, and visual impact. We do those types of reviews in the United States now, but in most countries they’re still not done. 

There’s also a great way to provide these high-capacity systems along with other infrastructure. In Istanbul, they've developed a BRT that has the fastest operating speeds in the world and it’s on a freeway. They have managed to provide good pedestrian connections in most places and it carries 800,000 people a day, so it can work.

GD:  Why does it seem to be that building these high-capacity BRT systems is easier in developing countries?

CL: In the United States, we have a cultural bias against the bus. The bus is viewed by many, inaccurately, as being something “for the poor,” and that's not true at all. BRT and light rail can provide equal quality and comfort of service, but BRT can do so at a much lower cost and with a much shorter implementation period. This cultural bias has really pushed US cities to prioritize rail and light rail where it's not necessarily a better solution. Then, because of the much higher costs, we see that many US cities have not been able to implement anything. For example, in Jacksonville, Florida, I worked for many years on a high-speed BRT system for the whole city, but many folks in the community really preferred rail. It is now over ten years later and the city still hasn't built anything because it's very hard to justify investments in a light rail system, whose cost is so much higher and yet the ridership would be essentially the same. In fact, in the Jacksonville case, the light rail would provide lower quality of service because it would force transfers from local buses onto the rail, whereas the BRT could have buses on the BRT continuing directly into the communities. So, it is not a technical issue; it’s more of a cultural, political bias. 

That said, we do see many cities doing it. There are over thirty cities in the US now that are either operating or planning BRT. We've seen great impact in Cleveland for example where the [HealthLine] system only cost $5 million a mile and leveraged over $500 billion of investments in land around the corridor. BRT has shown even in the US that it can support TOD in a really cost-effective way.

GD: Speaking of the US, if you could dream up one ITDP project in New York, what would it be?

CL: There is really good work being done in New York. I think that what Janette Sadik-Khan did as the Commissioner of Transport here was really amazing – she's on the [ITDP] Board of Directors by the way – she has ushered in this vision of complete streets, making the city for people rather than automobiles. She's done, in many ways, what Robert Moses did for the car, but for pedestrians and cyclists. It has set a model for cities around the world that are coming here to learn from New York.

If we were working more in New York, I would do two things: I would focus even more on continuing Janette's vision of complete streets, and I would also focus on speeding up the bus system. The bus system carries millions of people a day in New York City, and there's so much opportunity to do simple things like off-board fare collection, having the bus stop only every few blocks and having a dedicated lane. Actually, Jeanette did some of this with the Select Bus system. Those improvements could speed up service, reduce the cost of operating the service, and the saved cost could be reinvested into the system to provide better buses and better service, so there's a virtuous cycle. 

GD: I’ve personally always been riveted by the idea of a BRT-style corridor connecting Brooklyn and the Bronx, across the boroughs. 

CL: That’s a great example, because BRT has lower cost than rail or light rail, so you economically justify providing a circumferential service. You know, you can invest into beautiful urban design around the BRT in the same way as you can around light rail transit (LRT). LRT has an association in the US of being very attractive. Developers like it, because of the pedestrian plazas and the beautiful connections, and the beautiful stations that are built. They are beautiful – as they should be. They should also be for BRT!

GD: Is there a new idea in transportation that you find yourself very excited about for the coming decade?

CL: One is equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD), and the second – it’s very unfortunate that it’s still a new idea – is providing good pedestrian and cycling space in cities. The solution has existed for decades, but it's still a very new idea in cities of Africa and Latin America and India and China where good pedestrian facilities are nonexistent in most parts of the city. That's a big new idea we're keen to work on.

GD: I see on the whiteboard behind you that you’ve been thinking about something you call eTOD. What is the distinction between TOD and eTOD?

CL: The “e” is equitable. We see that where TOD happens, it tends to raise land values and dissipates the poor. We know that compact cities consume less energy, produce fewer GHG emissions, requires less travel, and require less motorized transport, but if the poor can't live there, and they have to be two hours outside the city, that's still not a sustainable city. We want to actually embed equity in the definition of TOD and then advise cities on how to do this right.

GD: This is something we have substantial interest in at SAIS, the idea of: how do you actually provide transit access and mobility and access to poor communities without eventually pricing them out?

CL: It is a huge problem and we see that housing policies in country after country basically require the poor to live way outside the city in places that are very inaccessible for jobs. Cities need to be thinking very proactively about having transit-oriented development where there is a mix of incomes, jobs and services, and which minimizes economic and physical displacement.

GD: What kind of strategies are you recommending as far as keeping the mix of jobs and the mix of housing?

CL: It's having an inclusive housing policy associated with the TOD. It's making sure that the people who are currently living in that future TOD have the opportunity to continue living there, [and that there is] retail and jobs that serve all types of people. That mix of incomes is important not only so that the poor have direct access to services, but also because the poor have better outcomes in a mixed-income environment, in terms of length of life, education, and jobs that they end up getting. So, having that diversity is really important.

GD: I would love to hear your description of what an eTOD project would look like in a low-income country. What kind of people would be approached? What kind of area would be targeted?

CL: A great example is in Tangxia urban village in Guangzhou. We helped the city design a BRT – it’s the highest capacity BRT in the world, so we're very proud of that. The city decided that it would destroy Tangxia Village and redevelop it, as many cities in China do. Tangxia has about 350,000 residents in 0.3 square kilometers – very dense – and yet, it's only two or three stories tall, and two-thirds of the population is undocumented migrants. The city, with our urging, decided to upgrade that neighborhood in place. We helped the city design and implement high-quality pedestrian facilities inside of the neighborhood, upgrade the visual appeal of some of the storefronts, and improve the pedestrian connection to the BRT. The city also improved security and sanitation in the neighborhood. We also helped design a few public plazas inside the neighborhood, and if you visit there today you'll find it – even as a visitor – to be quite an attractive and pleasant environment. 

Obviously, most people who live there are still of lower income so they still live in quite small spaces, but we're proud to say 70% of the trips that exit that neighborhood today are using the BRT system, and that would not have happened if the city had leveled and redeveloped. So we consider this to be an example of equitable TOD, where they are now within a half-mile radius of the BRT station. There are many low-income people in this community, as well as high-income people in some of the other developments that have sprung up around the BRT. The low-income community has been retained and there is a mix of jobs and services that you can work at and shop at no matter what income you are. We'd love to see more of this in cities around the world. We do see many cities trying this now, in Brazil and Mexico, but unfortunately, it’s not the standard practice.

GD: Has the coming age of self-driving cars entered conversations here at all?

CL: I am very concerned about the potential impacts of self-driving cars. First, there is an irrational euphoria around automated vehicles that we haven't seen since highways were invented. You hear the same thing, that this new technology is going to save us from congestion and it’s going to lower the cost of transport, reduce congestion, improve safety, reduce emissions – basically solve all of our transport problems. What I'm concerned about is that some of that will be true, and it will reduce the cost in time of travel so much that it is likely to have the same impacts as a huge highway expansion, where people can live much, much further from work, and their cars could become a more standard way of getting around. We could end up even more with sprawling cities that produce higher GHG emissions, require more energy, separate the poor from the wealthy and suck the energy out of vibrant urban spaces.

GD: Hollow the cities out all over again.

CL: Exactly. I am very concerned about that, but a very exciting thing that automated vehicles offer is a better opportunity to share them. I think if we can get automated vehicles to be shared – meaning that they’re accessible to everybody, that we all pay by the mile – we’ll all make more rational, judicious choices about how we get around. 

The problem with owning a car is that with the car almost all the costs are sunk upfront and it's rational to drive after that, because the marginal costs are very small. [Today,] if you drive a lot, it makes sense to own a car, economically, but with automated vehicles, it will make sense, even if you drive a lot, to pay by the mile.

I think there’s a heaven and a hell scenario, where the hell scenario is: We all own automated cars. We send them out to do our errands. They pick up our groceries for us. They circle the block so that they get to pick us up because they don’t need to look for parking. We live 100 kilometers from our work. The heaven scenario is: We don’t own them; they are a service to us. They provide convenient access to everybody. We pay by the mile to get where we need to go. We all use them instead of owning cars, and therefore we all walk, bike, and take transit more because we pay by the mile and we make more judicious choices to drive very occasionally.

GD: That is a really interesting point, that in the heaven scenario the per mile cost for even very heavy drivers will be lower, just because the efficiencies will be so extreme. 

CL: Exactly, because that shared vehicle can be so productive with eight or ten trips in a day whereas with car-sharing today get maybe three trips a day. With one-way car-sharing you get more. 

GD: Do the one-way car-sharing systems have a huge rebalancing problem the same way bike-sharing systems sometimes do?

CL: They do. In fact, the one-way car-sharing systems have not shown to be a reliable form of transport. They're more of a backup transport system because they have such imbalances. The imbalance is so great that it's not fixed through rebalancing. Basically, the companies just wait for the next cycle and for the natural system to rebalance the cars. One-way car-sharing makes it easier to not own a car in the city, but you need other ways to make that trip happen. You need transit, cycling, bike sharing, and walking. You need all these other modes, and maybe one-way car-sharing is a backup.

GD: Lastly, I’ll ask you about ITDP – when you begin to think about projects, do you tend to approach cities, or do they tend to approach you?

CL: We see both happen. We originally approached Rio de Janeiro, for example, and over time we’ve built a great relationship and we’re now working with Rio on cycling, TOD, and BRT. Our strategy is to try to demonstrate good practice and replicate through knowledge-sharing research and events. We end up getting a lot of exposure through that replication process. Then other cities approach us, and they say, “Hey, can you help us do that idea in depth in my city?”

GD: In Rio, is this work in the new downtown harbor quarter the city is developing for the Olympics, or is your work more citywide?

CL: It’s citywide. We are working a bit on that. Our influence there has been to ensure that affordable housing is incorporated into the planning for that port redevelopment. Across the city, we are working on cycle tracks, and on housing policy to co-locate transit with affordable housing. We've introduced this metric called “population near transit,” (PNT) to help the city understand the impact of displacing the poor to distant, transit-inaccessible locations. The city has actually adopted a target, an aspiration, to have 90% PNT by 2050. We're counting only the metro and BRT in that metric.

GD: What range are you counting around the stations?

CL: We’re looking at one kilometer. Rio is today much, much lower, something like 20-40% PNT. So this metric of PNT has been instrumental in bringing visibility to this issue. The next step is developing the land use and transport plans and to actually achieve that target.

GD: Has this PNT idea been confined to Brazil or are you considering expanding it?

CL: We’ve done it at the local level in Rio, and also at the national level, where the Minha Casa Minha Vida housing program, the next phase of which will accommodate six million people in affordable housing, has draft regulations which currently include PNT. At the international level, the Sustainable Development Goals are also considering PNT for all cities. It’s been our initial foray into this topic and we’ve seen a lot of strong traction. We’re eager to roll this out to more cities.