Barter, P.A. (2000) Urban Transport in Asia: Problems and Prospects for High-Density Cities, Asia-Pacific Development Monitor, 2, 1,
Paper submitted to the Asia-Pacific Development Monitor, April 2000
Urban Transport in Asia: Problems and prospects for high-density cities
The SUSTRAN Network and Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP), Murdoch University
Recent decades have seen rapid change in the urban transport of many Asian cities. New transport
opportunities have emerged but so have great challenges. Certain cities in the region have been hailed as
success stories while in others transport problems are threatening environmental quality, safety, economic
performance and even development goals.
This has been in the context of rapid urbanisation and accelerated economic change generally for cities in
Asia (Drakakis-Smith, 1992; ESCAP, 1993; Forbes, 1996). The middle-income countries of Asia are in the
midst of the so-called urban transition and the populous low-income regions of South Asia, China and
Indochina are now also facing accelerating urbanisation (United Nations, 1993). The fact that Asia has
lagged behind most other regions in urbanisation rates means that as a whole it still has a high potential for
further large increases in urban populations. This is rapidly creating large numbers of significant cities in the
region, each of them facing considerable challenges and growing pains, not least in the arena of urban
This paper presents a spatial perspective on the main fundamental public policy choices faced by transport
decision-makers in Asian cities. It also takes a long-term and comparative view of the issue. Many Asian
cities, in common with others around the world, face a key dilemma, namely how to enhance “accessibility
for all” in the face of spiralling traffic problems, deteriorating public transport service and a lack of
investment funds. The results of a comparative analysis provide insights on several key public policy choices
for low-income and middle-income cities, particularly those that are motorising quickly from previously low
levels of vehicle ownership. For reasons that will be explained, the choices are often particularly stark in
Asia. Scenarios for the future of transport systems in such cities and relevant policy implications are
This paper is based primarily on research presented in “An International Comparative Perspective on Urban Transport
and Urban Form in Pacific Asia: The Challenge of Rapid Motorisation in Dense Cities”, PhD Thesis by Paul A. Barter
in the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP), Murdoch University, 1999
(http://wwwistp.murdoch.edu.au/research/pbarter/pbarter.htm). The work was part of a major team effort at ISTP to
collect urban transport data which has been published in Kenworthy and Laube et al. (1999). The cities included in that
study were as follows. Wherever regional averages are shown in this paper, these are the cities that are being referred to.
Asia: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Singapore, Surabaya, Tokyo.
Australia: Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney
Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
Europe: Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna, Zurich
United States: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland (Oregon),
Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington
Barter, P.A. (2000) Urban Transport in Asia: Problems and Prospects for High-Density Cities, Asia-Pacific Development Monitor, 2, 1,
discussed. Evidence is drawn from a wide range of cities but most especially from 9 cities in eastern Asia for
which very detailed data have been compiled as part of a large international study (Barter, 1999; Kenworthy
and Laube et al., 1999). Several contrasting urban transport models or “strategies” can be identified, each
representing fundamentally distinct choices with profound long-term consequences.
Regional Urban Transport Trends and Comparisons
This first section of the paper will put current transport patterns and trends in Asia into a wider historical and
international perspective in order to better understand the range of choices available.
Asian urban transport until the 1960s
To set the scene let us take a brief look at urban transport patterns in Asia in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. This is
based on a more detailed historical review in Barter (1999). During this period, in most Asian cities outside
Japan, the vast majority of residents were served by a mixture of bus and/or jitney-based
Non-motorised transport, including walking and increasingly bicycles and pedicabs in many cities, was
dominant for short trips of up to 5 km or so. Buses and/or jitneys were the main mode only for longer trips
but were very significant only in larger cities (of more than 500,000 people or so). Low-cost taxi-like modes
(either motorised or non-motorised) tended to provide feeder services to bus and jitney routes. Only a very
small elite group of high-income people owned private cars. Modest tram systems had existed in almost
every large Asian city during the early decades of the century but by the 1960s they had been removed
almost everywhere, in line with the international fashion (Rimmer, 1986). Suburban rail services were
significant only in certain Indian cities, primarily Bombay, and in Japan. The 1960s saw the beginnings of an
upsurge in vehicle numbers in many cities, but this had not yet created high motorisation levels by 1970.
Large Japanese cities differed from most other Asian cities by developing strongly rail-based transport
patterns (continuing a process that had begun before the war) with extensive tram systems (later replaced by
subways) and suburban railways. As a result, Japanese urban land-use patterns were strongly influenced by
railways, the dominant mode of transport (Cervero, 1998).
Asian urban land-use patterns
Most Asian cities were expanding quickly in the post-war decades and the urban land-use patterns that
emerged in these developing cities reflected the post-war transport patterns that helped to shape them.
Accordingly, by the 1960s key land use features of most developing Asian cities included: a) a centralised,
The word “jitney” refers to public transport vehicles operated by small enterprises or owner-drivers using minibuses,
minivans or similar vehicles on fixed or semi-fixed routes with little or no government regulation. Manila’s jeepneys
Barter, P.A. (2000) Urban Transport in Asia: Problems and Prospects for High-Density Cities, Asia-Pacific Development Monitor, 2, 1,
but not highly concentrated, distribution of jobs; b) generally high urban densities; c) mixed land use in most
areas; d) commercial activity in long strips along major roads; and e) a radius of at most 15 km or so. These
“bus, jitney and NMT cities” tended to have urban densities well above 100 persons per hectare over their
, although large areas devoted to institutional land uses and elite housing could give a
misleading impression of low density in parts of the cities. Overall, Asian urban densities were usually much
higher than those found in European cities and many times higher than the densities in American or
Australian cities. Central areas were not empty of population and often had as many residents as jobs. A
schematic map of the main land-use features of these cities is shown in Figure 1.
are perhaps the most famous example but similar services can be found in many countries and also operated in many
Western cities earlier in the 20
Urban density is calculated by dividing the population of the metropolitan area by its urbanised area, where the
urbanised area is the sum of the areas taken up by urban land-uses, including residential, industrial, offices, commercial,
public utilities, hospitals, schools, cultural, sports grounds, wasteland (urban), transport facilities, and small parks and
Figure 1 Schematic map of bus, jitney and NMT-dominated Asian cities
Source: Barter, 1999.
There were variations on these patterns of course, depending on local topography, the size of each city and
other factors. For example, Hong Kong developed exceptionally high densities as a result of a factors that
included a constrained site, a high role for ferries (which can cater to very concentrated flows of people) and
urban planning policy in the city.
Despite such variations, all large Asian cities outside Japan shared a number of characteristics that made
them vulnerable to serious problems later as vehicle numbers began to rise quickly. Firstly, almost all of the
developing Asian cities were highly dependent on bus or jitney-based public transport and lacked significant
traffic-segregated public transport, such as rail, that had been relatively common in large Western cities and
Japan. Secondly, most of the Asian cities had much higher urban densities than had been the case in most
Western cities at the equivalent stage in their motorisation. These factors made developing Asian cities more
vulnerable to the impacts of growing traffic than most Western cities had been earlier when cars began to
intrude in large numbers.
Many Asian cities retain a rather high density character today, with some variations from city to city and
country to country (Table 1). Only Japanese and Malaysian cities have middle-densities in the same range as
European cities. Some of the highest urban densities in the world are to be found in Korea, Vietnam, China
and South Asia.
Table 1 Urban density in Asian and selected other cities, ca. 1990
Source of Data
Cairo (Egypt) ~400 ~10 ~1988 United Nations (1990)
Mumbai (Bombay) (India) 321 14.4 ~1991 WS Atkins at al. (1994)
Hong Kong (SAR, China) 301
5.5 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Hanoi (Vietnam) 256
1.1 ~1992 Padeco Co. Ltd. (1993)
Shanghai (China) 251
6.2 1990 Hu and Kenworthy (1997)
Seoul (Korea) 245
16.7 1990 Barter, 1999
Pusan (Korea) 245
3.8 1990/91 Seoul Metropolitan Government (1992)
Taipei (Taiwan, China) 230
5.9 1995 Data compiled by the author
Manila (Philippines) 198
7.9 1990 Barter, 1999
Taegu (Korea) 190
2.2 1990/91 Seoul Metropolitan Government (1992)
Surabaya (Indonesia) 177
2.5 1990 Barter, 1999
Chennai (Madras) (India) 172 5.8 1991 Pura Abdullah (1996)
Jakarta (Indonesia) 171
8.2 1990 Barter, 1999
Medan (Indonesia) 164
1.8 1988 Nippon Koei Co. Ltd (1990)
Guangzhou (China) 157 2.9 1990 Hu and Kenworthy (1997)
Mexico City (Mexico) 150
~17 1988 Bauer (1991)
Bangkok (Thailand) 149
7.5 1990 Poboon (1997)
Beijing (China) 141
5.6 1990 Hu Gang and Kenworthy (1997)
Kwangju (Korea) 133 1.1 1990/91 Seoul Metropolitan Government (1992)
Santiago (Chile) 100
~5 ~1990 Rivasplata (1996)
Taejon (Korea) 91
1.0 1990/91 Seoul Metropolitan Government (1992)
Singapore 87 2.7 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Vienna (Austria) 68
1.5 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Tokyo (Japan) 71
31.8 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Klang Valley/KL (Malaysia) 59 3.1 1990 Barter, 1999
Zurich (Switzerland) 47
1.2 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Paris (France) 46
10.6 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
London (UK) 42
6.7 1991 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Ipoh (Malaysia) 38
0.4 1985 Majlis Perbandaran Ipoh (1986)
Toronto (Canada) 26
4.2 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
New York (USA) 19
16.0 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Sydney (Australia) 17
3.5 1991 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Washington, DC (USA) 14
3.6 1990 Kenworthy and Laube et al, 1999
Asian cities tend to be densely settled largely because they mostly had low mobility until recently and
therefore needed to remain compact in order to maintain accessibility through non-motorised modes and
low-cost public transport. However, as we will see in the next section, rapid changes in transport over the last
decade or two have begun to create a traumatic and dangerous imbalance between new higher levels of
mobility, especially private mobility, and many aspects of the pre-existing urban fabric and transport
Asian urban transport trends since the 1960s
The timing of when the trickle of new vehicles into the cities turned into a flood has varied from country to
country in the region. Table 2 shows some data on this. For example, a brief upsurge in motorisation
occurred in the late 1960s in Hong Kong and Singapore, although these cities then took strong steps to slow
their rates of motorisation during the 1970s and 1980s. Vehicle ownership in Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan
surged quickly upwards from the late 1970s onwards. Both cars and motorcycles grew quickly in numbers
and Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan were among the first places in the region (or the world) to reach
extremely high levels of motorcycle ownership (well above 100 motorcycles per 1000 persons) in their
cities. Korea began a spurt of rapidly increasing car ownership from the mid-1980s as a result of rising
incomes and the relaxation of strict restraint on private car ownership that had previously kept car numbers
to extremely low levels. The 1980s and early 1990s also saw rapid rises in both car and motorcycle
ownership in Indonesia. Car ownership rose more gradually in the economically troubled Philippines until
the early 1990s when car numbers shot up sharply. Vietnamese cities have seen an amazingly rapid boom in
the number of motorcycles since the early 1990s (see Ho Chi Minh City in 1996 in Table 3). In the late
1990s Indian cities too have experienced rapid rises in both car and motorcycle numbers following economic
reforms and Chinese cities may be following soon.
Table 2 Growth in car and motorcycle ownership in Asian cities with other regional averages from an
international sample of cities, 1960 - 1993
(cars per 1000 persons)
(motorcycles per 1000 persons)
1980 1990 1993 1960 1970 1980 1990 1993
Hong Kong 11 27 42 43 46 1 4 6 4 4
Surabaya - 14 20 40 47 - 35 91 147 175
Manila - 38 55 66 79 - 6 4 6 8
Jakarta - 22 38 75 92 - 32 66 98 113
Singapore 39 69 64 101 110 12 51 49 45 42
- 6 16 83 123 - - 6 18 -
72 86 170 206 - 50 65 180 201
Bangkok 14 54 71 199 220 6 20 35 124 179
16 105 156 225 236 16 9 14 36 -
European 122 243 332 392 - - - - - -
Canadian 274 348 447 524 - - - - - -
223 321 443 491 - - - - - -
United States 376 460 547 608 - - - - - -
Sources: Barter, 1999 and Kenworthy and Laube et al., 1999.
a. KL’s 1970 figures are for 1972, Surabaya’s 1970 figures are for 1971 and Jakarta’s are for 1972.
b. The data in this table for Seoul are for Seoul City only.
c. Kuala Lumpur’s 1960 car ownership data is for 1963.
d. Tokyo’s figures are for Tokyo-to only.
e. The Klang Valley is the metropolitan area of Kuala Lumpur.
Table 3 shows the levels of vehicle ownership in a number of other Asian cities by about 1990. It confirms
that high rates of motorcycle ownership are common in Asia, especially in Southeast and South Asia.
Motorcycles are already significant in Indian and in Vietnamese cities, despite the low income levels of those
countries. It should also be noted that in most Asian cities motorisation continued to occur rapidly during the
1990s, with a pause or a slowing only since 1997 in those countries impacted by the regional economic
Table 3 Motorisation in other Asian cities, ca. 1990
City Cars per
GNP per capita
Taipei City (Taiwan) 157 219 403 1990 7,761
Taegu (Korea) 60 35 132 1990 5,400
Taejon (Korea) 52 32 117 1990 5,400
Pusan (Korea) 44 16 91 1990 5,400
Kwangju (Korea) 42 23 95 1990 5,400
Penang (Malaysia) 165 367 566 1991 2,320
Semarang (Indonesia) 42 147 215 1992 570
Medan (Indonesia) 38 134 ? 1989 570
Delhi (India) 32 81 127 1993 350
Mumbai (Bombay) (India) 21 18 49 1990 350
Bangalore (India) 17 67 94 1986/87 350
Chennai (Madras) (India) 17 52 76 1990 350
Lucknow (India) 14 104 129 1990/91 350
Varanasi (India) 10 106 150 1991 350
Hanoi (Vietnam) ? 116 161 1992 ? ~250
Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) 8 291 ? 1996 ? ~250
Dhaka (Bangladesh) 13 8 33 1992 210
Notes: 1990 National GNP per capita data are from the World Bank (1992) except for Taiwan’s which is from O’Connor (1994).
Sources for motorisation data: Pusan, Taegu, Kwangju, Taejon: Korea Transport Institute (1993); Penang: Road Transport Dept.,
Malaysia; Chiang Mai: Padeco Co. Ltd. (1993); Medan: Nippon Koei Co. Ltd (1990); Semarang: China Engineering
Consultants (1995a); Ho Chi Minh City: MVA Consultants (1997); Hanoi: Padeco Co. Ltd. (1993); Mumbai, Delhi,
Chennai, Bangalore, Lucknow: UNCHS (1994); Varanasi: Elangovan (1992); Dhaka: PPK Consultants (1993); Mexico
City: Bauer (1991); Taipei City: Taipei City Government (1998).
Motorisation and income
It is often assumed that income levels can fully explain the variations in the levels of motorisation around the
region. Indeed, purchasing power is certainly an important factor. However, other factors must also be
important. Figure 2 shows for a sample of Asian cities that the relationship between income levels (indicated
by Gross Regional Product per capita) and the ownership and use of private motor vehicles is not as simple
as might have been expected. For example, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul and especially Hong Kong had lower
levels of private vehicle use than might be expected given their incomes. On the other hand, Kuala Lumpur
and, to a slightly lesser extent, Bangkok, had vehicle usage levels that were surprisingly high given their
relatively modest incomes in 1990. Jakarta, Surabaya and Manila all had low private vehicle use, which is
understandable given their lower-middle income levels. It is also noteworthy that European cities tended to
have lower private vehicle usage than would be expected according to their incomes and the American and
Australian cities had higher private vehicle use than their incomes would lead one to predict.
Figure 2 points to the influence on vehicle use of other factors in addition to that of income. These other
influences on vehicle ownership and usage besides income may include: fiscal measures that make vehicle
ownership or usage expensive; the influence of urban land-use characteristics; levels of road infrastructure;
levels of public transport service and infrastructure; and various other policies under the broad category of
transport demand management (TDM) (Newman and Kenworthy, 1995; Tanaboriboon, 1992).
Figure 2 Private passenger vehicle use per capita versus GRP per capita in an international sample of
Private Passenger VKT/capita (km)
y = 25.174x
Source: Barter, 1999
Note: Both axes are on logarithmic scales. Goods traffic is not included here.
Prior to the arrival of mass car ownership a high proportion of urban travel was on public transport in all
large cities of the industrialised world. This might lead us to expect public transport to be playing a very
large role in all Asian cities that still have relatively low levels of motorisation. When we examine the
available data we find that very high levels of public transport use have indeed been achieved in some Asian
cities but perhaps surprisingly not in all of them.
Figure 3 shows the relative importance of public transport (whether by rail systems or by road-based public
transport) in some Asian cities. Figure 3 also shows that there is often a high level of dependence on road-
based public transport in Asia. This highlights the vulnerability of public transport in these cities, and
therefore their whole transport systems, to the impact of traffic congestion. It also highlights the vital
importance of policy measures to provide on-road priority to buses in Asian cities and to develop segregated
public transport systems. It should also be noted that the importance of rail in Seoul, Hong Kong and
Singapore is relatively recent and buses remain very important in each of these cities despite the existence of
urban rail. Singapore’s mass transit rail system was only opened in 1987. Seoul’s first subway line opened in
1974 and most suburban rail development has also been since that time. Hong Kong’s mass transit rail
system opened in 1979.
Figure 3 Public transport usage (rail and buses/jitneys/trams) as a percentage of total motorised
travel in Asian and selected European cities in an international sample of cities, 1990
Public transport % of motorised passenger kms
Bus + tram
Source: Barter, 1999 and data from Kenworthy and Laube et al., 1999.
Note: Bus figures here include jitneys, such as Manila’s jeepneys or Jakarta’s Mikrolet.
Table 4 shows data on public transport in a number of other Asian cities. Public transport plays a very large
role in a number of cities, including several Indian and Korean cities. However, public transport use is
surprisingly low in several others, with Semarang, Denpasar and Ho Chi Minh City being the main examples
in Table 4. Interestingly, these cities also have rather high rates of motorcycle ownership. In fact, in the low-
income and middle-income countries of Asia, low public transport use seems usually to go together with a
high popularity for motorcycles. Other examples include Kuala Lumpur, Surabaya, Taipei, Penang, Medan
and, to some extent, Bangkok. It appears that the popularity of motorcycles may be partly a response to poor
public transport. Then high motorcycle ownership subsequently creates further problems for public transport
by competing for the same low-income and middle-income passengers.
Public transport usage is also surprisingly low in most Chinese cities, where bicycles are extremely
important (as was the case in Vietnamese cities and Taipei before their motorcycle influx). Public transport is
really significant only in the largest of the Chinese cities, Shanghai and Beijing, where public transport
ridership exceeded 400 trips per person per year. In most other Chinese cities, and even in the large cities of
Tianjin, Shengyang and Guangzhou, there were fewer than 200 public transport trips per capita per year in
1990 (Hu and Kenworthy, 1997).
Table 4 Public transport in other relevant international cities, ca. 1980 to 1990
% of all trips
% of Motorised
Rail % of public
Cities with a strong role for public transport
Chennai (Madras) (India) 1984
55 91 17
Bangalore (India) 1988
? 73 1
Delhi (India) ~1988
36 71 4
Mumbai (Bombay) (India) 1986
? 67 50
Taegu (Korea) 1990
? 55 0
Pusan (Korea) 1990
? 54 15
Cities with a low or moderate role for public transport overall
but a strong role relative to other motorised modes
Shanghai (China) 1990
33 89 ?
Dhaka (Bangladesh) 1992
13 69 negligible
Lucknow (India) 1990
16 54 0
23 53 80
Cities with a relatively low role for public transport - both overall
and relative to motorised modes
Semarang (Indonesia) ca.1990
? 39 0
Taipei (Taiwan, China) 1992
? 33 0.4
Denpasar (Indonesia) ca.1990
? 16 0
Ho Chi Minh City, 1996
? 3 0
Notes: *Keihanshin is the name of the metropolitan region that includes Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.
Sources: Keihanshin 1980: (City Bureau and Building Research Institute, 1990; Nagasawa, 1992); Pusan 1990,
Taegu 1990: (Korea Transport Institute, 1993: 99); Shanghai 1990: (Chen, ca. 1993); Semarang: (China
Engineering Consultants, 1995a); Denpasar: (China Engineering Consultants, 1995b); Delhi: (Gupta, Singh, and
Jain, 1996) citing Patankar, 1989; Mumbai 1986: (UNCHS, 1994); Delhi, Chennai 1984, Bangalore 1988,
Lucknow 1990: (UNCHS, 1994); Dhaka 1992: (PPK Consultants, 1993); Ho Chi Minh City 1996 (MVA
Consultants, 1997); Taipei 1992 (Institute of Transportation, 1992).
Motorised travel trends and evolution
In order to get a clearer understanding of passenger transport trends in Asian cities it is useful to present data
on private travel and public transport travel together on one graph. Figure 4 below shows how motorised
passenger travel has been changing in some Asian cities and in cities of some high-income regions of the
world. The trends in different regions and cities vary very widely. Notice the positions on the graph of Asian
cities such as Surabaya, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong in 1970 or 1980. These confirm
that most Asian cities had low levels of motorised travel until recently, whether by private vehicles or public
transport. It seems certain that other low-income cities around Asia also currently have low motorised
mobility levels and would appear in the lower-left corner of this graph along with Surabaya and Jakarta.
Figure 4 Trends in motorised travel (private versus public) in Asian cities and regional averages from
an international sample of cities, 1970 to 1990
0 1000 2000 3000 4000 5000 6000
Private Passenger kms per capita
Sources: Barter, 1999 and including data from Kenworthy and Laube et al., 1999.
Strong contrasts can be seen among the Asian cities in the time trends in Figure 4. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok,
Surabaya and Jakarta have seen greater rises in private travel than in public transport travel. In contrast,
Singapore’s public transport use almost kept pace with increasing private transport. In Hong Kong, almost all
of the increased passenger travel since 1970 was in public transport. Manila and Tokyo already had very
high levels of public transport use by 1980 but have seen faster growth in private transport since then. The
Indonesian cities can be seen to have unusually low absolute levels of motorised travel compared with the
other cities shown.
The United States, Australian and Canadian cities already had very high private and low public travel in
1970. On average, this pattern has increased further, with private transport increasing much faster than public
transport use in these regions, especially in the United States. European cities on average have seen moderate
increases in both private and public transport use.
Data on non-motorised trips must be read with great caution because of the often inconsistent methods for
dealing with such trips in surveys. Just one example is that many surveys exclude very short trips, which
therefore tend to especially underestimate the number of walking trips. Nevertheless, Table 5 provides some
data on walking and use of non-motorised vehicles in a number of Asian cities and a few others for which
such data were available in the literature. There is great diversity, especially in the levels of bicycle and
Table 5 shows the great importance of walking in many low-income cities, for example in Dhaka where
motorised transport accounts for only a small minority of trips. The significant role of bicycles in Chinese
cities and in some Indian cities is well known. Vietnamese cities also had a very high role for bicycles in the
1970s and 1980s, although no specific mode split data were available (Luu Duc Hai, 1995). Taipei, which is
now motorcycle-dominated, had a high level of bicycle use in the 1960s (McNeill, ca. 1977). Kuala Lumpur,
Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bangkok have seen drastic drops in the use of non-motorised vehicles since their
height in the post-war decades.
Even in wealthy Tokyo the great importance of non-motorised trips, including bicycle trips, is extremely
noteworthy, considering that this is an enormous urban area of more than 30 million very affluent people.
Japanese cities and a number of European countries demonstrate that high incomes do not necessarily
exclude the possibility of a large role for bicycles and for walking. By contrast, American and Australian
cities have low levels of walking and bicycle use, with an average of less than 5% of work trips by non-
motorised transport (Kenworthy and Laube et al., 1999).
Table 5 Non-motorised transport in Asian cities and other relevant cities, ca. 1990
Percent of all trips Sources
Walk Bicycle Pedicab NMT Total
Tianjin (China) 1990 11 75 ?
86 Liu, Shen and Ren (1993: 2)
Guangzhou (China) 1984 46 37 ? 83 Liu, et al.
Dhaka (Bangladesh) 1992 60 1 19
80 PPK Consultants (1993)
Lucknow (India) 1990 25 29 15
69 UNCHS (1994)
Beijing (China) 1986 14 54 ?
68 Liu, et al. (1993: 2)
Delhi (India) ~1987 49 9 ?
58 Gupta, et al. (1996: 67)
Jakarta (Indonesia) 1985 40 2.4 4.6
47 Barter, 1999
Amsterdam (Netherlands) ~1990 ~23 ~24 0
~47 Pharoah and Apel (1995: 254)
Tokyo (Japan) 1990 27 15 0
42 Barter, 1999
Madras (India) 1984 28 11 1
40 UNCHS (1994)
Munich (Germany) ~1990 ~24 ~13 0
~37 Pharoah and Apel (1995: 254)
London (UK) ~1990 ~34 ~2 0
~36 Pharoah and Apel (1995: 254)
Sao Paulo (Brazil) <~36 tiny ~0
36 Poole, et al. (1994: 57)
Surabaya (Indonesia) 1995 19.6 10.5 4.8
35 Barter, 1999
Manila (Philippines) 1996
30 in 1980 Barter, 1999
Stockholm (Sweden) ~1990 ~24 ~6 0
~30 Pharoah and Apel (1995: 254)
Zurich (Switzerland) ~1990 ~25 ~4 0
~29 Pharoah and Apel (1995: 254)
K. Lumpur (Malaysia) 1985 ~26 ~2 0
28 Barter, 1999
Singapore 1990 25 <1 tiny
25 Barter, 1999
Seoul (Korea) 1990 ? <2 0
? Barter, 1999
Hong Kong 1990 ? tiny 0
? Barter, 1999
Bangkok (Thailand) 1990 ~15 tiny tiny
15 Poboon, 1997
Challenges and Opportunities
The first section of this paper has placed the urban transport trends of Asian cities into historical and
international context. It also introduced some of the major urban land-use characteristics commonly found in
Asian cities. This next section now examines the implications of the existing transport and land-use
characteristics for the future. What challenges and opportunities do Asian cities face in trying to improve
their transport systems and in trying to provide adequate access for all of their residents and for the
economically vital movement of goods? The focus here is mainly on spatial issues that are extremely
pressing but which have been neglected in the literature on urban transport in Asia (Barter, 1999).
Spatial challenges for Asian urban transport
Spatial issues and their transport implications are central to an understanding of the transport and land use
choices that are open to Asian cities. High urban densities can be both positive and negative in their transport
implications depending upon policy settings and choices. High densities mean that urban road capacity per
person is inherently limited and that very high traffic intensities can emerge quickly, creating high levels of
Local impacts versus global impacts
The major negative local impacts of urban transport include air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution,
the severance of communities by roads or railways, transport accidents and congestion. Urban transport also
contributes significantly to a number of the important human impacts on the global environment. Prominent
among these is the build-up of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide (CO
), in the atmosphere. This
is a by-product of the burning of fossil fuels, primarily oil in the case of transport.
The variations from city to city and region to region of local negative impacts of transport are in stark
contrast to the variations in global impacts. This is shown in Figure 5 where an index of per hectare local air
from transport is used as an indicator of the severity of local impacts of transport and
per capita CO
emissions from transport are used to indicate global impacts. It turns out that local impacts
per hectare of urban transport are already very high in many Asian cities, despite relatively low levels of
vehicle use per capita and therefore rather low contributions per capita to the global problem of CO
emissions. Asian cities, such as Bangkok, Manila or Hong Kong, may be “traffic-saturated” but not
Data on emissions of four of pollutants (CO, SO
, and VHC) have been combined to calculate a simple index of
local pollutant emissions (Barter, 1999).
Figure 5 Global impacts versus local impacts of transport: CO2 emissions per capita from transport
versus local air pollutants from transport per hectare for Asian cities and regional averages in an
international sample of cities, 1990
Transport CO2 per capita
0 100 200 300 400
Pollutants per hectare index
It must be acknowledged that high emissions per hectare do not always translate into a major air pollution
problem, since this also depends on other factors, such as climate, prevailing wind patterns, the layout of the
city, topography, etc. Nevertheless, these data do show that dense cities face an inherent danger of direct,
severe local emissions impacts from traffic.
Traffic per hectare or traffic intensity
The findings above on local air pollution per hectare relate to the fact that a number of these cities have high
levels of traffic per hectare (as measure by vehicle kilometres travelled or VKT per hectare), despite low
levels of vehicle travel per person (Figure 6). Low quality fuels and the polluting vehicle fleets found in
many low-income or middle-income cities are only partly to blame. A high level of traffic per hectare is the
more fundamental reason and is at the centre of the spatial challenge for transport in dense Asian cities.
Notice in Figure 6 that the two highest density cities in this group, Hong Kong and Seoul, with almost the
lowest vehicle kilometres per capita in the whole sample of cities, had almost the highest levels of traffic per
hectare. The American cities had relatively low vehicle use per hectare, despite their very high rates of
vehicle use per person. This is related to their low urban densities, which also explains the fact that the
Australian cities have the lowest traffic intensities of all of the cities in the sample, since their densities are
similar to US cities, but their VKT per capita figures are lower.
Figure 6 Traffic per hectare compared with traffic per person in an international sample of cities, 1990
VKT per hectare ('000 km)
VKT per capita (km)
VKT per hectare
VKT per capita
Note: These vehicle kilometres of travel (VKT) data include on-road public transport vehicle kilometres.
Road expansion is no panacea
Traffic congestion is another obvious impact from transport. It is felt by those in private vehicles and even
more so by the goods transport industry and by bus or jitney passengers and operators. Some commentators
argue that too much attention is focused on solving congestion at the expense of other transport costs and
problems that may be more significant (Litman, 1995; McNeill, ca. 1977). Perhaps congestion is best viewed
as a symptom of deeper problems rather than as the primary problem to be tackled directly. In any case, there
is considerable evidence (some of it anecdotal) that congestion is a particularly serious problem in Asian
cities, especially those middle-income cities that have been experiencing rapid motorisation. Bangkok’s
traffic nightmare is now legendary with speeds having reached extraordinarily low levels in the early 1990s
Some authors attribute this problem primarily to low levels of road infrastructure in Asian cities (Bodell,
1995; Midgley, 1994; Tanaboriboon, 1993). This diagnosis and the strong popular focus on congestion as a
problem tends to encourage road expansion to be seen as the main solution. However, the issue is not so
It is true that many Asian cities do indeed have low levels of road length per person, and main road length
per person, relative to cities in Europe, Australia or North America (Figure 7). However, it is too simplistic
to blame traffic problems only on a lack of road space. The problem is in fact more fundamentally a spatial
one, related to the high densities of development of most of the Asian cities and to the rapidity of
motorisation, which have meant that both the road network and the land use patterns of most Asian cities
remain highly unsuited to mass use of private cars.
In fact, high-density urban form is the central underlying reason for the low road provision per person in
dense Asian cities. Road space is inherently a scarce commodity in dense cities. In fact, logically ANY
measure of road capacity per person
will necessarily be low in a dense city unless road capacity per hectare
can be made unusually high. Figure 7 illustrates these points by showing the main road length per person
against the main road length per hectare in a range of cities. Asian cities do NOT have unusually low road
network densities (or road length per unit of urbanised area). If anything, the higher density Asian cities
tended to have slightly higher arterial road densities than others (the Asian cities’ average was 29 metres per
hectare, while for the non-Asian cities in Figure 7, the average was 18 metres per hectare). However, high
urban densities mean that these dense road networks amount to rather low levels of road length per person. In
fact, a city of 150 persons per hectare (common in Asia) would have to provide 10 times more road capacity
per hectare than a city of 15 persons per hectare (like many American cities) in order to achieve the same
road capacity provision per person.
Figure 7 Main roads network density compared to main length per person in Asian cities and a
number of other cities in an international sample, ca. 1990
0.1 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.8 1.0 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.5 1.7
Main road network density (metres per ha)
Main road length per capita (metres)
Main road network density
Main road length per capita
Sources: Barter, 1999 and Kenworthy and Laube et al., 1999.
Notes: a. Tokyo’s arterial road data are for Tokyo-to, not the larger Tokyo Metropolitan Transportation Area (TMTA).
b. It is difficult to consistently draw the line between “main” and “local” roads with available data. The street types that have
been included in the definition of main roads in each case are:
Hong Kong (all major roads as defined in traffic census);
Seoul (includes avenues >~40m width, streets 25~35 m, roads 12~20 m, excludes “paths” <~10 m);
Jakarta (“arterials” included. “local” roads excluded);
Bangkok (“expressways” and “main roads”, excludes “local” streets);
Surabaya (all “arterials” and “collectors”);
Tokyo (all categories except local “shi” and “gun” roads);
Singapore (includes “expressways”, “major arterials”, and “collectors”, excludes “local” streets);
Kuala Lumpur (“expressways, primary distributors, district distributors, local distributors”);
London (“classified roads”);
Paris (all roads except ordinary departmental roads);
Sydney (includes “main roads”, excludes “local” streets);
Adelaide (includes “arterial roads”, excludes “local” streets);
New York (includes “freeways and arterial”, excludes “local”);
Washington (excludes only “collectors and local streets”);
San Francisco (excludes “city streets”);
Detroit (excludes “local roads”);
Denver (includes “freeways, expressways” and “arterials”).
Perhaps Asian cities could substantially expand road capacity through extraordinary measures such as smart
highways, and multilevel or underground roads and parking stations (indeed many are trying to do so).
However, the fact that some Asian cities already have very high traffic intensities suggests that this might be
a disastrous strategy. Further expansion of road capacity will of course allow increased traffic volumes and
hence increased traffic intensity (unless such cities rapidly reduce their density). Very dense cities, perhaps
more so than any others, do not have the choice of building enough roads to satisfy demand. Simple
calculations reveal that this would destroy the fabric of the city long before the demand for private travel
could be satisfied (Zahavi, 1976). In fact, a case can be made that even in lower density cities, the burden of
attempting to cater to the full demand for roads is overwhelming (Goodwin, 1991). Furthermore, major road-
building programs can directly undermine the alternatives to private motorised transport as well as indirectly
starving them of investment.
Spatial opportunities for better urban transport in Asia
This section turns to some of the opportunities presented by the dense land use characteristics that are
common in Asian cities.
It is well known that high urban densities (of population, jobs and services) provide an opportunity for high
service levels of well-used and potentially profitable public transport and for a significant role for non-
motorised modes of transport (see for example Pushkarev and Zupan, 1977). The case of very dense and
wealthy Hong Kong, with 82 percent of all motorised passenger kilometres by public transport and with 570
passenger boardings of public transport per person per year, best exemplifies the opportunity that high urban
density presents to public transport.
Figure 8 illustrates that a very high role for public transport is possible in high density cities, even in those
with high incomes. However, the examples of Bangkok and Surabaya and the wide scatter of points on the
graph suggest that high density does not necessarily guarantee success for public transport and that other
factors, such as service quality and the competitiveness of public transport speeds with private transport,
must also be important.
Figure 8 Public transport percent of total motorised passenger kilometres versus urban density in an
international sample of cities, 1990
Public transport % of pass. km
25 50 75 100 125 150 175 200 225 250 275 300
Urban density (pph)
y = 39.870LOG(x) - 41.773 r
A number of mechanisms explain why there is at least the potential for high levels of public transport in
dense cities. In high density environments there will be large numbers of potential customers within the
catchment of most public transport services. Another mechanism is that dense areas can be effectively served
by space-efficient but high-capacity public modes (Bruun and Schiller, 1995). Third, high density makes it
easier to provide highly accessible public transport. For a given level of service kilometres per person,
service kilometres per hectare (and hence ease of access to public transport) will be higher in a higher
density city. The tendency for high density cities to also have mixed land use encourages demand for public
transport to be well spread throughout the day, as many trip purposes will be served within a small area.
Finally, high density, mixed land uses generate sufficient demand to justify high-frequency public transport
service, which further strengthens the convenience of public transport for passengers, especially by making
transfers between services easy. An integrated network of high frequency services can unleash the benefits
for passengers of the network effect to make all parts of the urban area accessible to all and allowing public
transport to serve random trip destinations and actually compete with the convenience of private vehicles
(Laube, 1995; Mees, 2000).
Another opportunity presented by the high urban densities found in many Asian cities is the possibility that
many trips can be short and therefore easily made on foot or by non-motorised vehicles. Mixed land uses,
that are often associated with high densities, also encourage short trips and non-motorised transport by
allowing a diversity of destinations to be available within a short distance.
The potential should be high, in theory, for non-motorised transport to play a very large role in dense Asian
cities. Even in large Asian cities with rather high levels of motorisation, such as Bangkok, high proportions
of trips are still within non-motorised range. In Bangkok in 1989, according to a JICA study, about 51% of
motorised trips were less than 6 kilometres. This implies that if non-motorised trips are included, then
approximately 60 percent of all trips in Bangkok were less than 6 kilometres in length (Poboon, C., August
1996, pers. comm.). However, high density again does not guarantee that non-motorised transport will play
an important role. For example, Bangkok seems to have remarkably little walking or cycling to work despite
its high density. The levels of non-motorised transport in high and very high-density Asian cities are often no
higher than levels found in many middle-density European or Japanese cities (Table 5). The hostile street
environments for pedestrians or cyclists in many Asian cities can negate the potential provided by the land-
It would appear from this very brief investigation of opportunities that many Asian cities are not fully
exploiting the potential that their high urban densities present to encourage flourishing public transport and
non-motorised transport. This is particularly apparent with respect to non-motorised transport. Nevertheless,
there is no doubt that the land-use characteristics of the Asian cities mean that they have a high inherent
potential for these modes of transport to do well. Policy settings that work with this opportunity are likely to
reap rapid and significant rewards for dense cities. This is primarily because the local negative impacts and
the spatial demands of public transport and non-motorised transport are much lower (per kilometre travelled)
than those of private cars or motorcycles (Bruun and Schiller, 1995; TEST, 1991).
Choices and Visions for Better Urban Transport
This final main section of this paper now turns to an investigation of the principal transport choices that are
available to Asian cities by looking in some detail at the alternative development paths that have been
followed by a number of cities and which might provide lessons for others.
Walking cities, transit cities, bus/jitney cities, auto cities and motorcycle cities
It is possible to apply transport-based descriptive labels to different types of city. These labels can be used as
a short-hand to describe in general terms both the transport systems and the land-use patterns that typically
go with them, making it easier to describe the evolution of transport and land-use systems. This is possible
because historically distinctive urban land-use patterns have tended to arise in association with each new
important and dominant transport mode. For example, all cities prior to about 1850, relied primarily on
walking, with small contributions from animal drawn vehicles and water transport in some cities. This city
type has been called “the walking city” or the “pre-public transport city”, or the “foot city” (Hall, 1983;
Newman and Hogan, 1987; Shaeffer and Sclar, 1975). A walking city cannot be anything but compact and is
generally unable to extend more than about 5 kilometres in diameter (meaning that all destinations can be
reached within about a half-hour walk).
The importance of bicycles, trams and urban rail between 1860 and 1920 allowed “public transport cities”
(or “transit cities”) to emerge, at least in high-income countries. These generally spread 10 to 20 kilometres
along rail and tram corridors and could have lower densities than walking cities (of between 50 and 100
persons per hectare) (Newman and Hogan, 1987). Transit cities tended to have important, concentrated
central business districts (CBDs), which emerged as a result of the accessibility pattern created by the mainly
radial public transport. The “bus, jitney and NMT city” (or bus/jitney city) shown in Figure 1 could be
viewed as a variation on this transit city type. The bus/jitney city is also very similar to the “low cost” urban
transport and land-use strategy described by Thomson (1977).
Finally, in many wealthy Western cities, diesel buses, mass car-ownership and widespread road building
after the Second World War facilitated the extreme dispersal of development up to 50 kilometres from the
centre and with densities of only 10 to 20 persons per hectare. The car became the mode of transport that
shaped new urban development and allowed the emergence of a new city type, called the “automobile city”
by Newman and Hogan. One perspective on modern cities is to see then as hybrids, having elements of two
or more of the “pure” types.
A further speculative city type is proposed here, namely the “motorcycle city”. Motorcycle cities seem to be
a new phenomenon and thus were not observed by Thomson or by Newman and Hogan. An increasing
number of Asian cities that previously depended upon non-motorised transport, are apparently now moving
directly to motorcycle-oriented transport, without any intervening period with a significant role for collective
public transport. Examples include Denpasar, Chiang Mai, and Ho Chi Minh City. It is not yet clear whether
motorcycle domination will persist for long in any particular city. Furthermore, if it does persist, it is also not
clear what land-use characteristics will emerge in such cities. For the moment, they can perhaps best be
understood as being part of a more general low-cost city type that takes in both bus/jitney cities and
motorcycle-oriented cities. Over time, a truly motorcycle-oriented city could probably have a more dispersed
pattern of activities than a bus city. On the other hand, a motorcycle-oriented city can probably cope with
higher densities than are possible for a car-oriented city due to the more modest space demands of
motorcycles (especially for parking space).
Figure 9 shows a schematic plot of how various city types can be interpreted in terms of a graph showing
travel by both private and public transport (of the kind in Figure 4). It represents this author’s assessment of
where the various city types would approximately lie on such a graph of private versus public travel.
Figure 9 City types on a plot of private versus public motorised travel per person
Source: Barter, 1999.
Land-use considerations or spatial constraints cannot be ignored when we consider what will happen as the
transport systems in a city change. For example, it has been demonstrated in this paper that serious problems
arise if significant numbers of cars quickly enter dense cities that were previously dominated by non-
motorised vehicles, buses or motorcycles.
Alternative paths of Asian urban transport development
A schematic diagram, Figure 10, illustrates the main potential alternative paths of evolution between the
different Asian city types and some of the key choices that play a role in influencing these paths. Many of the
urban transport trends described earlier in this paper can be interpreted in terms of the paths in Figure 10.
The conclusions that are summarised in Figure 10 are based on a detailed review of events and detailed
policies in nine Asian cities over recent decades (Barter, 1999). It concluded that an important turning point
arrives when a bus/jitney city is in the early stages of an upsurge in vehicle numbers and the extent to which
private cars are either welcomed or discouraged at that time appears to have an important long term impact.
Option 1: Restraint of cars and promotion of public transport
Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore seem to have followed the path portrayed on the right-hand side of the
model in Figure 10, from bus/jitney cities towards “modern transit cities”. In each case, this evolutionary
path involved early policies that discouraged the ownership and use of private vehicles. Hong Kong,
Singapore and Seoul have long had policies restraining private vehicle ownership and/or use, and have
fostered high quality public transport. Expressway networks in each of these cities are relatively modest
relative to population (Barter, 1999). In South Korea, restraint of car use and ownership was achieved
through high gasoline prices, a high yearly car ownership tax, and low availability of credit for private
consumption (World Bank 1986; Kim 1991). Car ownership stayed very low in Seoul until the mid-1980s
In Hong Kong and Singapore, restraint on private car ownership began in the early 1970s in response to
upsurges in traffic. Usage restraints soon followed, such as increased petrol prices, area licensing (in
Singapore), and parking restrictions. Decision-makers recognised that they could ill-afford the spatial
demands of many cars. In both Hong Kong and Singapore, restraint measures have been strengthened several
times since they began (Pendakur, Menon et al. 1989; Phang 1993; Hau 1995; Ang 1996). These policies
dramatically slowed motorisation in the two city-states, despite tremendous increases in incomes. It is
important to note that in Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore restraint on cars began early in the motorisation
process. All began restraint before car ownership reached 70 cars per 1000 people. This may have been one
factor in making the restraint policies more politically palatable.
The slowness of their motorisation helped these cities to retain high ridership on buses and then eventually to
invest in mass transit. Restraint of private transport in Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore has been helpful by
discouraging middle class customers from deserting buses, thereby maintaining the customer base and
reducing the impact of traffic congestion on buses. Until relatively recently, Seoul, Hong Kong and
Singapore had bus-dominated public transport, but all have now built very significant mass transit systems
At that time the cost of driving in Seoul suddenly decreased just as incomes continued to increase. By 1990/91, the
real price of gasoline in Korea was less than half of its levels in the period, 1975 to 1985 (World Bank 1995). However,
a congestion crisis in Seoul is forcing it to renew efforts to restrain traffic, to enhance bus priority and to expand urban
rail (Lim 1993; Chae, Kim et al. 1994).
It is important to point out that Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong traffic restraint began BEFORE mass
transit was built
. The actual building of mass transit systems came rather late in Singapore, Hong Kong and
Seoul, and was not the initial impetus behind their “transit-oriented” paths. In fact, it seems that traffic
restraint policies in these cities had the effect of ‘buying time’ that allowed them to later be able to afford
world-class public transport systems, the viability of which was not threatened too soon by rising private
vehicle ownership. Public transport in these cities was able to retain the middle class as customers and cater
to their rising aspirations for mobility by improving services gradually and eventually with urban rail
systems. Private vehicle ownership remained below 150 vehicles per 1000 persons by the time mass transit
systems could be completed in these cities. The metro systems in Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul as well
as their overall public transport systems have among the highest cost recovery rates in the world (Allport
1994; Kenworthy, Laube et al. 1999).
Option 2: Unrestrained motorisation
By contrast, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, among others including Taipei and recently also Jakarta and
Manila, have not yet restrained private vehicle ownership or usage and to a greater or lesser extent have
become “traffic saturated”. Most of these cities (with the exception of Kuala Lumpur) have not yet
fundamentally altered their urban form or transport network characteristics sufficiently to cope with cars.
They have thus become “traffic-saturated bus cities” as shown in the centre of the diagram in Figure 10. The
emphasis of urban transport planning in both Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok has long been on efforts to
increase the flow of traffic (Spencer 1989; Jamilah Mohamed 1992; Poboon 1997). Vehicle ownership
restraint has been rejected in both places and proposals for traffic limitation measures for congested central
areas were seriously considered then dropped by both in the 1980s (Spencer 1989; Tanaboriboon 1992).
Public transport and non-motorised transport have been neglected (Barter 1996). Since the 1970s the Kuala
Lumpur metropolitan area has been pursuing probably the most ambitious program of expressway
construction in Asia and has achieved by far the highest figure for length of expressway per million people
among the Asian cities in the sample (Barter, 1999).
In Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Taipei, Jakarta and Manila public transport was very slow to improve and
remains much slower than private transport (Barter, 1999). Rapid motorisation made the improvement of
public transport particularly difficult. As congestion crises emerged in the 1990s in each of these cities,
public transport failed to offer a viable alternative to the cars and motorcycles of the emerging middle-class
(even if the cars could only move at a crawl). Significant urban rail investments have generally occurred
recently only after motorisation reached rather high levels and large road investments have continued in
competition with the new urban rail. There was no bus priority in Kuala Lumpur until 1997, contributing to
the decline of patronage as buses came to be a “mode of last resort”. Bangkok had some success with giving
Seoul’s first subway line opened in 1974 but the system remained small until 1979. Hong Kong’s MTR opened in
1979. Singapore’s MRT did not open until 1987, whereas traffic restraint started in the early 1970s.
buses priority but did not persevere. A network of bus lanes in Bangkok was successful in the early 1980s
(Marler 1982) but by 1990, just as congestion was making the lanes more and more crucial to maintaining
the viability of the bus service, the network had become largely ineffective due to lack of enforcement
Urban traffic restraint and the enhancement of public transport are intimately linked. Allport (1994) argues
that much of the importance of mass transit investment is in making traffic restraint politically palatable. A
major reason for Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok’s rejection of traffic restraint in the 1980s was the argument
that public transport must improve first (Spencer and Madhaven 1989). Similar arguments have been used in
Jakarta (Forbes 1990). However, the argument that mass transit must precede restraint is not really supported
by the evidence from Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore where restraint began much earlier than urban rail
investment (although the circumstances in those cities may be difficult to reproduce elsewhere). In the
absence of traffic restraint, motorisation may quickly reach high levels as incomes rise, before improved
public transport can be put in place. This is especially likely if cheap motorcycles find a ready market as they
do in many Asian cities. In Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei, private vehicle ownership, including
motorcycles, passed 400 per 1000 people soon after 1990, before any significant mass transit was opened.
Except for the few contra-flow lanes, which are self-enforcing. No-one wants to run head-on into a bus.
Figure 10 Simple generic model of urban transport and land-use evolution in developing cities
(or low-cost cities)
Automobile cities Modern transit cities
Spectrum of city types between
automobile cities and transit cities
motorisation; very high
investment in road
Early restraint of
very low accessibility,
pollution, urban decay
bus cities and
and vehicle use;
invest in public
transport and NMT;
prevent car oriented
restrained vehicle use;
moderate road building
Continued motorisation; do
Low investment in
become the norm;
investment in NMT
becomes “built in”
Investment in mass transit
Note: This scheme is intended to describe the paths taken or potentially to be taken by cities that are in the so-called
developing world or which were in the “developing world” until the 1960s or so.
Traffic restraint and equity
Importance has been attached here to the potential of restraint policies aimed at slowing motorisation and at
discouraging rapid increases in private vehicle use. Wherever transport demand management (TDM)
policies are proposed they always generate considerable debate. In particular, mistaken equity arguments are
often heard over TDM. It may seem on the surface that policies that increase the price of private car usage
Transport Demand Management (TDM) includes such policies as car parking limits or taxes, parking “cash-outs”,
road pricing, fuel pricing, congestion pricing, distance-based insurance and many other related tactics. TDM can
increase occupancy of vehicles and shift travel to public transport, to off-peak times or to less congested routes.
are unfair. In fact, the opposite is true (Litman, 1996). Among the reasons for this are that car users,
especially those who use their vehicles the most, are generally in the highest income groups. This is
especially so in low-income cities where cars are owned only by the rich. The earlier in the motorisation
process that traffic restraint policies begin, the more equitable they are. Conversely, in low-income cities,
policies that subsidise private car use (eg gasoline subsidies) are extremely inequitable, since they help rich
people much more than the poor. The economic burden of TDM-related charges, such as road pricing, fuel
taxes or parking surcharges, depends greatly on the availability of alternatives, especially good public
transport and a safe environment for cycling and walking. These alternatives will wither away unless there is
a financial incentive for middle-income travellers to use them, at least occasionally. In cities with successful
public transport, such as Zurich, Seoul or Hong Kong, it is used by upper-income, middle-income people and
the poor alike. The equity impacts of TDM-related charges also depend very much on how the revenues are
used so it is important that any such revenue be used to benefit lower-income households, either by
improving travel alternatives or in some other direct way.
The simple generic model of Figure 10 also includes possible future paths for Asian cities. Which of these
paths is chosen will depend upon the outcomes of debates (whether public or among decision makers) in
each city. It is hoped that the framework developed in this study can help to inform such debates. The
conditions that led Bangkok to face such extreme transport-related problems are widespread among large
cities in the developing world. Any such city with high urban densities and a bus-oriented, non-motorised or
motorcycle-oriented transport system and a high rate of economic growth must consider the “Bangkok
syndrome” to be an imminent danger unless the growth of private vehicle ownership and usage can be
In the dense, traffic-saturated bus cities, continuing on the current path of allowing unrestrained motorisation
is an extremely problematic choice. Nevertheless, it is a choice that some cities may make. The result of such
a choice is depicted on the generic model as “Traffic Disaster”. This scenario is likely to be associated with
chronic pollution, urban decay and possibly even economic stagnation for the city. Small motorcycles may
continue to proliferate in such cities as the only mode that remains viable. Activities and land-use patterns
would most likely continue to disperse and gradually make the option of turning to the transit-oriented
strategy more and more difficult. For dense, middle-income, traffic-saturated bus cities with modest financial
resources, road investments are unlikely to be sufficient to allow the cities to spread out rapidly enough to
relieve the pressures of pollution, congestion and traffic impacts generally. Such cities can apparently
continue to function, but an unpleasant scenario emerges. Traffic will tend to dominate every public space,
the city will expand outwards at upper-middle or high densities but with centres of activity widely scattered,
traffic speeds will be low and conditions for walking or cycling will be unpleasant. Public transport will
become increasingly unattractive due to low speeds and poor service levels. This kind of city will have
moderate levels of mobility but a very low level of accessibility. Unfortunately, this description can already
be applied to Bangkok today.
Despite this gloomy scenario, there is still hope. Traffic-saturated bus/jitney cities, such as Bangkok, have
not yet substantially reoriented their urban fabric towards the needs of private cars, and it is considered that a
transit-city path still remains an option for the future. However, such a path will only be possible if the
choice is taken to embark vigorously on new policies that restrain and slow further motorisation and vehicle
use, and which increase investment in, and priority for, public transport and non-motorised transport.
Curitiba in Brazil is one such city that has managed to turn away from a disastrous path of traffic growth
with vigorous public policy and a determined low-cost approach (Cervero, 1995). Lower-income cities,
many of which are apparently following paths similar to Bangkok’s, can turn away from the path towards
“traffic disaster” by adopting vigorous policies aimed at switching to a transit-oriented path. The chances of
success in improving public transport in lower-income cities would be greatly improved by traffic restraint.
For some cities with relatively higher incomes, moderate densities and smaller population sizes, it may be
possible to make high investments into roads and low-density suburban development and hence to allow a
car dependent city to emerge (possibly accompanied by some investment in public transport aimed at
maintaining access to older central areas). The signs are that Kuala Lumpur’s metropolitan region, the Klang
Valley, is following just such a path with its continued very high rate of motorisation growth and with huge
investments in urban expressways (Barter, 1999). It is a high-cost strategy that depends on continued very
high investment in transport infrastructure. It is a path that ultimately leads to a city with many of the same
accessibility and environmental problems of “automobile dependence” that are seen in Australian and
American cities today.
It is more difficult to speculate on future possibilities for cities in which non-motorised vehicles or
motorcycles are currently predominant. The prospect of an influx of cars into such cities, which now have
very limited public transport, is a relatively new phenomenon. There is an urgent need to examine the
question of which choices can best contribute to sustainable, equitable and efficient urban transport
development in such cities in the future, especially as incomes rise further and bring car ownership within
the reach of even a small part of the populations of these cities. Like the large bus/jitney cities that have been
a focus of this paper, non-motorised vehicle cities and motorcycle cities tend to be dense or very dense.
Therefore, these cities face severe spatial constraints to the widespread use of four-wheeled private vehicles.
In many cities of this type, public transport plays a small role and will be difficult to improve quickly.
A key argument in this paper has been that rising incomes do not necessarily mean that a traffic-dominated
urban transport future is inevitable. Urban decision-makers need to be aware that there are effective public
policy levers that can have a major influence on transport trends and that they will have most success if
policy is made with a keen awareness of the high density urban land-use patterns that exist in most Asian
cities. The high urban densities of cities in Asia are best served by high levels of public transport, walking
and cycling. The same density factor means that it is physically difficult to accommodate many private motor
vehicles. It is not possible to provide the same level of road provision in dense cities as in lower density
cities. Bangkok illustrates that a ‘traffic disaster’ can arise very quickly as motorisation increases in a dense
city. The high densities of most Asian cities provide transport planning with both challenges and
opportunities. There are challenges because such cities are vulnerable to traffic saturation, but there are
opportunities because land-use patterns in Asian cities are potentially highly suited to the non-automobile
modes of transport. Policy settings aimed at exploiting this opportunity are likely to reap rapid and
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