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Slowing down to speed up: rethinking urban mobility for a sustainable future

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By Alex Hong

· 18 min read


The global development of urban populations poses a fundamental challenge: maintaining efficient and sustainable mobility within our cities. Traffic congestion, air pollution, and noise pollution are just a few of the negative effects of our present car-centric transportation systems, which endanger public health, environmental well-being, and overall quality of life. In this backdrop, an apparently contradictory strategy - reducing traffic speeds - is gaining support as a possible solution to these numerous problems. This essay examines the theory and successful applications of lowering speed restrictions, emphasising their surprising but clearly effective influence on urban efficiency, safety, and liveability.

The "slow is faster" concept questions the long-held belief that prioritising high travel speeds corresponds to effective urban mobility. Cities that install lower speed limits and traffic calming measures can reap a variety of benefits, including:

  • Reduced congestion: Slowing down by 5-10 km/h can enhance traffic flow by eliminating stop-and-go situations and delays. According to a research conducted by the Federal Highway Administration in the United States, reducing speed by 10% can result in a 35% reduction in traffic congestion. 

  • Improved safety: Lower speeds improve safety by reducing traffic accidents, especially for pedestrians and bicycles. According to a World Health Organisation research, a 1% drop in average speed reduces road traffic fatalities by 3%.

  • Improved air quality: Lower vehicle speeds lower emissions of pollutants including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, resulting in cleaner air and better public health. According to a research conducted by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency, a 10% drop in vehicle speeds can result in a 6% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

  • Increased liveability: Prioritising slower speeds can lead to more pedestrian-friendly and dynamic public spaces, improving liveability. This promotes walking, cycling, and other active forms of transportation, encouraging a feeling of community and healthy lifestyles.

These potential benefits are not just theoretical; they are being demonstrated in places around the world that have adopted the "slow is faster" approach. The following part will look at individual examples and their success stories.

Theory and history: challenging the speed myth

Examining the fundamental link between speed, capacity, and traffic flow explains why "slow is faster" is contradictory. At its centre is the concept of efficiency, which is defined not only by speed but also by the smooth and uninterrupted movement of vehicles within a network. 

Braess' paradox, a well-known occurrence in traffic engineering, exemplifies this contradictory relationship. It contends that adding capacity to a transport network can, in certain cases, exacerbate traffic congestion. This happens when cars, acting in their own perceived best interests, take the ostensibly faster route (the newly added lane), causing congestion on both routes and, eventually, a slower overall travel time for everyone.

Examining the fundamental link between speed, capacity, and traffic flow reveals the counterintuitive nature of "slow is faster". At its centre is the concept of efficiency, which is measured not just by speed but also by the smooth and uninterrupted movement of vehicles throughout a network.

Braess' paradox, a well-known phenomenon in traffic engineering, perfectly displays this surprising relationship. It contends that adding capacity to a transport network can, in certain situations, exacerbate traffic congestion. This happens when cars, acting in their own perceived best interests, use the ostensibly faster route (the newly added lane), resulting in congestion on both routes and, eventually, a slower overall travel time for everyone.

  • Reducing speed limits: Lower speed limits encourage smoother traffic flow and minimize the risk of accidents.

  • Prioritizing pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure: Dedicated lanes, crosswalks, and traffic signals create a safer and more inviting environment for walking and cycling, reducing reliance on cars. 

  • Introducing physical calming measures: Measures like speed humps, roundabouts, and narrower lanes physically discourage speeding and encourage more cautious driving.

The usefulness of these strategies is demonstrated by the success stories of cities that have implemented them. Amsterdam, a global leader in sustainable urban mobility, has set a citywide speed limit of 30 km/h and prioritised pedestrian and bike infrastructure. This has resulted in major reductions in traffic congestion, accidents, and air pollution, all while promoting a lively and liveable city centre.

Similarly, New York City has installed a variety of traffic calming measures, such as pedestrian plazas, dedicated bus lanes, and reduced speed limits in specified zones. These measures have proven improved traffic flow, increased pedestrian and cyclist safety, and created a more lively public space.

These historical examples demonstrate the usefulness of the "slow is faster" method in building more efficient, safe, and livable cities. The following part will look at how this method might be adapted and applied in ASEAN cities, which each face unique difficulties and opportunities.

Successful use cases: putting "slow is faster" into action

The potential of "slow is faster" is not limited to known bicycle destinations such as Amsterdam. Cities around the world, facing similar urban mobility difficulties, are applying these solutions with proven favourable results.

Guadalajara, Mexico, a city once known for traffic congestion and air pollution, instituted a 30 km/h speed restriction in 2017. This daring decision, combined with investments in public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure, resulted in a 21% decrease in traffic accidents, a 17% rise in public transit ridership, and a considerable improvement in air quality.

Seoul, South Korea, another thriving metropolis, faces the issue of combining economic expansion and environmental sustainability. In 2016, the city established a congestion pricing system, which charged drivers who entered designated zones during peak hours. While initially met with hostility, this project resulted in a 20% drop in traffic volume within the defined zones, a 10% reduction in bus travel time, and a noticeable improvement in air quality.

These examples demonstrate the various ways cities might take within the "slower is faster" framework. While Guadalajara concentrated on lowering speed restrictions and encouraging other modes of travel, Seoul tackled the problem through demand management. Both approaches, however, show that prioritising efficiency and safety over raw speed results in beneficial consequences for urban mobility and sustainability.

The impact goes beyond basic statistics. Cities such as Guadalajara and Seoul are promoting a more liveable and dynamic urban experience by prioritising slower speeds and developing safer, more pedestrian-friendly environments. This includes:

  • Increased opportunities for walking and cycling: Lower speeds and specialised infrastructure promote active modes of transportation, leading to healthier lifestyles and lowering dependency on private vehicles.

  • Enhanced public spaces: Pedestrian plazas and car-free zones provide opportunities for social engagement, community development, and economic activity.

  • Reduced noise pollution: Lower speeds and traffic calming methods help to create a quieter, more pleasant urban environment.

These real advantages in public health, environmental quality, and overall quality of life demonstrate the revolutionary power of the "slow is faster" strategy. The next section will look at the unique obstacles and potential for applying this approach in ASEAN cities.

Applicability in ASEAN: embracing “slow is faster" for a sustainable future

Cities across ASEAN face a multitude of challenges related to urban mobility, including:

  • Chronic traffic congestion: Rapid urbanisation and increased car ownership have resulted in gridlock in several ASEAN cities, causing major economic losses and dissatisfaction among inhabitants. According to a World Bank research, traffic congestion costs ASEAN economies billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and fuel.

  • Air pollution: Vehicle emissions are a major source of air pollution in ASEAN cities, posing a considerable risk to public health. The World Health Organisation reported that air pollution causes over 400,000 premature deaths in Southeast Asia each year.

  • Limited public transport: Inadequate public transport infrastructure and inconsistent services discourage locals from utilising sustainable alternatives to private automobiles, worsening traffic and pollution problems.

These challenges need a paradigm change towards environmentally friendly and effective urban mobility systems. The "slow is faster" concept has great promise for ASEAN cities, notably through the same but contextualised implementation of previous discussed measures such as:

  • Implementing traffic calming measures: Reducing speed limits, installing roundabouts, and establishing designated pedestrian zones can improve traffic flow, increase safety, and encourage walking and cycling. Singapore’s road pricing system is one such way of reducing traffic flow during peak hours and has an effect moving majority of commuters towards efficient rail transportation.

  • Promoting public transport: Investing in extending, modernising, and integrating public transportation networks may provide citizens a dependable and cost-effective alternative to private automobiles. Indonesia Woosh, is a prime example how Indonesia choose to invest in their future at some expense with its growing rail network including ASEAN’s first High Speed Rail (HSR). 

  • Encouraging cycling and walking: Building dedicated bike lanes, enhancing pedestrian infrastructure, and promoting cycling culture may all help to make active transportation safer and more appealing. Contextualisation can include to implement new buildings codes to have shower facilities and safe storage for bicycle commuters at commercial buildings.

Several ASEAN cities are already taking moves towards implementing these methods. Hanoi, Vietnam, has launched a trial programme to lower speed restrictions in selected zones, while Jakarta, Indonesia, is investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and encouraging bike-sharing schemes. While these efforts are still in their early phases, they illustrate the region's growing acceptance of the "slow is faster" strategy.

However, successful implementation requires overcoming certain challenges:

  • Lack of awareness and public buy-in: Shifting mindsets away from car-centricity and towards other forms of transportation necessitates ongoing public awareness efforts and community participation. There is still a notion that sustainable transportation is not pro-business and will drive up costs. 

  • Limited infrastructure: Creating dedicated bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and enhancing public transit infrastructure necessitates substantial investment and long-term planning.

  • Policy and regulatory hurdles: Streamlining regulations to encourage sustainable mobility choices while discouraging reliance on private automobiles is critical for building an enabling environment.

Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of "slow is faster" for ASEAN cities are undeniable. By embracing this approach, ASEAN can create:

  • More efficient and decongested cities: Reduced reliance on private vehicles and improved traffic flow can lead to significant economic benefits and improved quality of life for residents.

  • Cleaner air and improved public health: Lower emissions from reduced traffic congestion and a shift towards active travel can significantly improve air quality and public health outcomes.

  • More liveable and vibrant cities: Prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists fosters a sense of community, encourages social interaction, and creates more attractive and engaging urban spaces.

  • Sustainability as a long-term revenue stream: There is much evidence that giving more opportunities for cycling, pedestrian and mass node-based transportation can free up land and resources for economic use. The uptake in health (mental and physical) will have a positive effect on the country’s efficiency, and reduce spending on healthcare. 

The next section will delve into the crucial role of electric and human-powered bicycles in enhancing urban mobility and reducing pollution within the ASEAN context.

Challenges and opportunities: electric and human-powered transport

While the "slow is faster" approach focuses on reducing vehicle reliance, it also supports the use of alternate forms of transportation, notably electric and human-powered bicycles. These approaches have tremendous potential to reduce congestion, emissions, and noise pollution in ASEAN cities. However, various problems prevent its wider adoption:

  • Lack of dedicated infrastructure: Many ASEAN cities lack designated bike lanes and secure parking facilities, shower facilities (necessary in our humid and tropical environment) deterring potential riders owing to safety and inconvenience.

  • Safety concerns: Sharing roads with high-speed cars poses a huge safety risk to cyclists, especially in the absence of adequate infrastructure and awareness efforts.

  • Limited awareness and perception: A lack of public understanding about the advantages of cycling, along with unfavourable views of safety and convenience, can stymie widespread adoption.

Despite these challenges, opportunities exist to overcome them and unlock the potential of electric and human-powered bicycles in ASEAN:

  • Investing in dedicated infrastructure: Prioritising the creation of protected bike lanes, allocated parking spaces, and cycling-friendly infrastructure would improve safety and increase ridership.

  • Public awareness campaigns: Launching focused programmes to educate the public on the benefits of riding, address safety issues, and promote appropriate cycling behaviours can help to develop favourable attitudes and increase adoption.

  • Incentives for adoption: Implementing financial incentives such as tax exemptions or subsidies for bicycle purchases, along with employer-sponsored programmes, can make cycling a more appealing and accessible choice.

Examples from throughout the world demonstrate the efficacy of these solutions. Copenhagen, Denmark, a global pioneer in bicycle infrastructure, has a network of over 350 kilometres of protected bike lanes, leading to a cycling modal share of more than half. 

Similarly, Bogotá, Colombia, adopted a programme that provided free bicycles and dedicated riding lanes, resulting in a considerable increase in cycling ridership and reduced traffic congestion.

By addressing the problems and adopting efficient solutions, ASEAN cities may realise the enormous potential of electric and human-powered bicycles. This transition, paired with the "slow is faster" strategy, has the potential to lead to a more sustainable, efficient, and liveable urban future for the region.

Last-mile solutions and reduced congestion: optimizing delivery for sustainable cities

The "slow is faster" strategy and the promotion of alternate forms of transportation are critical steps towards achieving sustainable urban mobility. However, a substantial factor to urban congestion and emissions is sometimes overlooked: the "last-mile" difficulty. This is the final leg of a delivery route, usually from a distribution hub to the end customer's doorstep. 

Traditional last-mile delivery depends mainly on individual delivery trucks, which frequently travel short distances with partial supplies. This leads to the following:

  • Increased traffic congestion: A large number of delivery vans driving through crowded urban streets contributes greatly to traffic bottlenecks and inefficiency.

  • Higher emissions: The stop-and-go aspect of last-mile deliveries, along with the usage of conventional cars, contributes to increasing air and noise pollution in cities.

Addressing the last-mile dilemma necessitates new solutions that optimise delivery operations while minimising their environmental effect. These solutions can complement the "slow is faster" approach, resulting in a comprehensive strategy for sustainable urban mobility: the stop-and-go nature of last-mile deliveries, as well as the usage of conventional cars, contribute to increasing air and noise pollution in cities.

  • Consolidation centres: Creating strategically situated facilities where many supplies are consolidated and filtered for further distribution utilising smaller, more efficient trucks can drastically reduce the number of individual delivery trips.

  • Cargo bikes: Using electric or human-powered cargo bikes for last-mile deliveries in authorised zones, particularly in city centres, provides a sustainable and efficient alternative to traditional delivery vehicles, decreasing traffic congestion and emissions.

  • Electric delivery vehicles: Replacing traditional delivery trucks with electric alternatives can considerably cut pollution, especially in densely populated cities.

Several cities have used similar ideas, with good results. London, UK, has developed low-emission zones that allow only zero-emission delivery vehicles, promoting the use of sustainable alternatives. Berlin, Germany, has seen an increase in the usage of cargo bikes for last-mile deliveries, which has helped to alleviate congestion and improve air quality.

Cities that adopt these creative ways may divorce delivery efficiency from transportation congestion and pollution. This not only helps to create a more sustainable urban environment, but it also enhances the efficiency of the distribution process, potentially lowering costs and improving delivery times.

The next part will look at the larger sociological and policy reforms needed to fully realise the potential of the "slow is faster" strategy and create truly sustainable and liveable cities.

Mindset shift for liveable and sustainable cities: embracing a "slower is better" approach

The "slow is faster" strategy contradicts a strongly held belief: that prioritising high travel speeds corresponds to efficient and effective urban mobility. However, the research given in this opinion shows that focusing primarily on speed can be counterproductive, resulting in congestion, pollution, and a reduction in general quality of life. 

A fundamental adjustment in mentality is required to fully realise the possibilities of this strategy. This shift includes

  • Prioritizing system efficiency over individual travel speed: Recognising that smooth traffic flow and efficient movement of people and products, rather than individual journey times, are critical components of a well-functioning urban transportation system.

  • Embracing liveability and sustainability as core objectives: Moving beyond the narrow focus on traffic flow and congestion, we acknowledge the need of developing lively, healthy, and ecologically sustainable communities for all citizens.

This shift in mindset requires action from various stakeholders:

  • Individuals: Embracing sustainable commuting choices such as walking, cycling, and public transit, pushing for change in their community, and travelling with more mindfulness.

  • Policymakers: Implementing policies that encourage sustainable behaviour, such as congestion pricing, refreshing building codes/recommendations, car-free zones, and investments in public transit and bicycle infrastructure.

  • Urban planners: Implementing policies that incentivize sustainable choices, such as congestion pricing, car-free zones, and investments in public transport and cycling infrastructure. Node-based integrated transportation employs systems thinking to enhance transportation effectiveness. 

This transition relies heavily on public awareness initiatives. By properly explaining the benefits of the "slow is faster" approach, resolving concerns, and advocating sustainable alternatives, these campaigns can help to encourage a cultural change towards a more balanced and people-centric approach to urban transportation.

Examples from throughout the world demonstrate the good effects of this mentality adjustment. Copenhagen, Denmark, a global pioneer in sustainable urban transportation, has prioritised pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, resulting in a major decrease in vehicle reliance and a more dynamic and liveable city core. Similarly, Medellin, Colombia, developed a comprehensive public transportation system and pedestrianised zones, which resulted in better air quality, more public space use, and a stronger feeling of community.

These examples show that prioritising slowness over speed may result in a more efficient, egalitarian, and sustainable urban future. Individuals, lawmakers, and urban planners may work together to develop cities that are not just functional and efficient, but also healthy, lively, and pleasurable for all citizens.

Call to action: rethinking urban mobility for a sustainable future

The "slow is faster" method provides a convincing and evidence-based answer to the complex difficulties of urban transportation. Cities that prioritise efficiency, safety, and liveability over sheer speed may build a more sustainable and fair future for their citizens. However, attaining this goal will need a collaborative effort from citizens, legislators, and urban planners.

Individuals can have a critical role in:

  • Embracing sustainable transport options: Walking, cycling, and taking public transit wherever possible not only cuts individual carbon footprints, but also contributes to a broader shift in commuting habits.

  • Advocating for change: Participating in community conversations, supporting projects to improve sustainable mobility, and holding local governments accountable for enacting successful policies.

  • Spreading awareness: Sharing knowledge about the advantages of the "slow is faster" strategy and encouraging others to adopt sustainable commuting practices.

Policymakers must take decisive action by:

  • Investing in sustainable infrastructure: Prioritising the construction of dedicated bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly pathways, and efficient public transportation networks.

  • Implementing supportive policies: Encouraging sustainable choices by implementing policies such as congestion pricing, car-free zones, and incentives for adopting alternate means of transportation. Efficient sustainable transportation is an iterative process and its “solutioning” will involve multiple stakeholders. Patience, resourcefulness and systems thinking will be much appreciated.

By working together, individuals and policymakers can create a powerful force for change. Urban planners also have a crucial role to play by:

  • Prioritizing pedestrian-friendly design: Creating lively public areas that encourage walking and cycling while smoothly integrating several forms of mobility into the urban fabric. Planners need to be participate and experience from a users perspective in order to contextualise the problem statements and collaborate with others for solutions. 

  • Promoting mixed-use development: Encourage the creation of walkable communities with easy access to critical facilities, hence reducing dependency on private automobiles. Self-contained communities and the 15-minute city mindset will reduce unnecessary transportation and logistical requirements. 

  • Collaborating with stakeholders: Working with communities, governments, and other stakeholders to develop a common vision for a sustainable and livable urban future. Be humble enough to investigate and ask questions. Be empathic enough to understand the underlying causes. 

The "slow is faster" approach is more than just a technical answer; it symbolises a fundamental shift in how we see and interact with our cities. By adopting this approach and working together, we can build cities that are not just functional and efficient, but also healthy, lively, and pleasurable for all citizens. Let us all choose a slower pace for a quicker, more sustainable future.

Conclusion: embracing slowness for a sustainable urban future

The goal of speed has always been central to the urban mobility narrative, sometimes at the price of efficiency, safety, and general quality of life. This opinion has questioned this long held belief by investigating the paradoxical yet undeniably successful technique of "slow is faster." 

Cities that reduce speed limits, adopt traffic calming measures, and prioritise alternative forms of transportation can unleash a number of advantages, including:

  • Reduced congestion and improved traffic flow

  • Enhanced safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers

  • Improved air quality and reduced noise pollution

  • More vibrant and liveable public spaces

  • Creating new opportunities for development, innovation and entrepreneurship 

Examples from throughout the world, including Amsterdam, Seoul, Guadalajara, and Hanoi, demonstrate the approach's practical and revolutionary potential. However, accomplishing this goal necessitates a collaborative effort and a shift in perspective.

Individuals may support sustainable transportation alternatives, lobby for change in their areas, and raise awareness about the advantages of slowing down. Policymakers must prioritise investments in sustainable infrastructure, establish supporting regulations, and adopt a "slow is faster" mindset in their planning and decision-making. Urban planners play an important role in building pedestrian-friendly areas and promoting mixed-use development.

This concerted engagement (coordinated coordination) among citizens, governments, and urban planners is critical to ensuring a sustainable and liveable future for our cities. While individual responsibility is important in implementing sustainable behaviours, extensive governmental reforms are required to establish an enabling environment and encourage wider adoption.

By embracing the "slow is faster" concept, we can reclaim our cities from auto culture's domination and establish spaces that prioritise people over vehicles. This path towards a slower, but more efficient and ecological future necessitates dedication, teamwork, and a willingness to reconsider our relationship with urban mobility. Let us choose slowness not only for efficiency, but also to create cities that are healthier, happier, economically rewarding and more pleasurable for everyone.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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