The Importance of Integration in Scalable Mass Transit Systems

By Ted Oberwager

The logic behind developing the world’s mass transit systems is obvious: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced dependence on gasoline, decreased congestion, job creation, and ultimately dollar savings for governments and consumers alike. The ramifications are huge both for the ~9,400 new cities that are expected support global population growth, but also for the many existing metropolises that will need to absorb additional headcount. With the United Nations predicting that cities will absorb the vast majority of the nearly 2.5 billion increase in the global population through 2050[1], I believe that scalability is the #1 issue facing mass transit today.

The question then becomes – how do we best scale mass transit systems in the cities of the future? Given the magnitude of our transportation needs, the answer cannot be found in any one solution. While many promote the virtues of one form of transit over another, there will not be a ‘silver bullet’ approach. Even the best constructed subway cannot solve a bustling city’s transportation needs in isolation. And creating a scalable system can be an issue of life or death proportions – just consider the news from India today where overcrowding in an Allahabad train station caused panic and stampede leading to the death of at least 37 people.[2]

Thus, I believe the answer must lie in a fully integrated approach across transportation modes. The public sector has many options to address its transportation needs – buses, trains, subways, aerial solutions, and even car sharing – and governments will need to use all of them going forward. The ability to connect and coordinate these alternatives will be the differentiating skill that makes a mass transit system truly scalable. It is not difficult to imagine a world where our smartphones tell us to ride the subway over the bus for our morning commute, or a software program with connection to all modes of mass transit helps city managers dynamically alter transportation prices to help balance loads and improve capacity utilization. We often think of the “smart grid” as an interconnected electrical grid, but that “grid” may soon be expanded beyond the electrical to include an integrated system of roads and rails and tubes.

How and when we realize this vision is unclear. As we saw in our Living PlanIT case, we are very much in the first inning of integrating our cities and making them truly “smart,” but the necessity of these innovations seems clear. And with companies like Cisco and Oracle attacking these issues head on[3][4], it can’t be too long before we rethink what it means to have a “smart grid” in the context of our public transportation systems, thereby making our cities truly scalable and efficient.

Providing Affordable Housing in Cities

By Atulya Mittal

With respect to housing for the poor, what are should be the objectives of government? What are the apparent of objectives of government? If there is a gap, how will it be reconciled?

Housing for the poor is an acute problem that we will face in the upcoming decades due to urbanization. The problem consists of providing affordable housing for people in cities, where huge demand combined with supply constraints usually results in high land prices and consequently high home prices. Lacking affordable housing, poor people live in poor conditions within cities in favelas and slums. These slums lack sanitation facilities and utilities and are run by slum lords who run a parallel government creating compounding problems related to health as well as law and order. Thus, the objective for government seems simple – provide low cost housing in integrated in existing cities with proper sanitation facilities and utilities.

This simple objective is complicated by a two major factors. Firstly, “government” implies a homogenous machine operating at all levels of the countries systems with aligned objectives. However, in reality the government’s objectives change depending on which part of the political machine is being assessed. The national government, for example, may have an objective of inclusive growth. On the ground, however, local politicians may want to avoid inclusive growth in order to keep their vote banks permanently under their thumb. This is a common problem in redeveloping slums in India that might result in the displacement of people out of particular constituencies and leading to the loss of a local politicians vote bank. Leaders who want to make cities more inclusive have to realize this problem and find a workaround, otherwise their best intentions and objectives will be fouled by people who have a shorter term view but a enough clout to stop them.

Market forces create a second complication. In a free market economy, it seems incongruous to provide an area of land for low cost housing surrounded by multi-million dollar houses and apartment buildings. The land could be better used to provide housing aligned with the market with increases in taxes and collections for the government without disrupting free market forces.

These two complications can be resolved if the government’s shifts its objective and views the problem from a different perspective. The problem of a lack of low cost housing is a symptom of a greater problem of inadequate supply of connectivity and infrastructure. Slums shoot up because cities are not expanding fast enough to accommodate all members of society. The lack of low cost housing is a problem of high cost land. Improved connectivity through roads, rail and other urban transport solutions would unlock larger parcels of land, which could be incorporated into the city. The result would be falling land prices, falling home prices and the availability of affordable homes. To an urban dweller, the actual distance in miles is irrelevant. What is relevant is how long it takes him to get to his place of work, his customers or his friends. By adopting the objective of growing cities faster, the government will automatically provide enough space for market-driven affordable housing.

Leveraging Transit toward a Strategy of Anticipatory Urbanization

By James Cody Birkey

Most human geographers predict an unprecedented pace of urbanization to occur over the next half-century. This is a result of a broad set of convergent factors, one of which is the migration of poor rural populations to urban areas. This rapid growth has placed particular demands on cities, especially in the developing world. Very often, cities and governments either ignore these communities, or see them as a problem. It is hard to say which is worse.

As response to the development of slums, many national and local strategies try to “deincentivize” their growth. The assumption is that by intentionally disenfranchising these areas by limiting access to urban services, rural-urban migration might be kept at bay.

Billy Cobbett, head of Cities Alliance at the World Bank, explained recently at Harvard not only how pervasive this stance is in the developing world, but how unbeneficial it is. He argued for the inevitability of the trend of urbanization, and that it ought to be harnessed rather than distained. Assuming he is right, what kinds of tools might governments and the private sector have to approach this phenomenon constructively?

To pair this notion of a city that “anticipates” the inevitable influx of population with some of the financial efficaciousness of transit systems like the BRT might open up some very interesting possibilities. Transit has the power to drastically shape economic geographies of cities precisely because cost (in time and money) of commuting overwhelmingly shapes land values. Therefore, in cities struggling to dictate urban form in the face of growth of unserviced slums, could a BRT-linked land development strategy positively incent growth in currently undeveloped areas best for the city as a whole?

In the United States during the early 1900’s, large-scale landowners struck deals to bring trolleys out to lands they owned on the edge of the city. In a time when most people commuted on foot, a transit offering drastically changed the value and urban relevance of a parcel of land, and these new “suburbs” developed rapidly. Using the same principal, is it possible to coordinate with local entities to stretch BRT—which is much less expensive than trolleys or subway—ahead of time out into areas the city ought to grow? Is it possible to do this in a coordinated fashion, such that financial opportunities exist for private enterprise to engage cohesively or even take the lead? Perhaps governments could agree to build systems like this in trade for certain percentages of inclusionary housing, or other strategies that might engage the poor.

Doubtlessly, dealing with urban growth, especially regarding economically-constrained populations, is multi-faceted and will require a broad set of tools. However, this idea—particularly with transportation—to move ahead of growth rather than simply to respond to it, might open up doors to much better-planned transit systems in the long term, as well as unlocking newly valuable land at a price that can be attainable for the populations that will inevitably move in.

Sustainable Southern Systems: Developing Mass-Transit Solutions for the American Southeast

By John Clayton

The Southeastern US continues to see significant population growth, clustered not just in large cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, or Houston, but increasingly in mid-scale cities such as Charlotte, Austin, and the Research Triangle region. Migrants to the region are pulled by a relatively high quality of life at a low price tag, fueled by large inventories of cheap housing. When coupled with a lack of natural land barriers, denser development is inherently discouraged in favor of massive urban sprawl. As the attached graphic shows, Atlanta is home to a population roughly equivalent to Barcelona’s, yet has a 20x larger geographical footprint. Raleigh has an average density of 4 people per square hectare compared to Barcelona’s 176 people. Given such sprawl, what type of transit solution could possibly work?

As we discussed in the Bogota TransMilenio case, large metros work well and can be sustainably financed in a handful of mega-cities (Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore), particularly when strong government can derive additional funding sources from rising land values around metro stations. BRT systems offer less capital-intensive solutions, but may be less palatable to a population with high car ownership rates. Light rail is a lower-cost alternative to heavy-rail systems in major urban areas, both less expensive than traditional metro systems yet differentiated enough from existing transit options to convert drivers.

Applying light rail transit systems to less dense cities, however, is tricky: it requires connecting existing higher-density nodes (universities, shopping complexes, downtowns) with green- or brownfield spaces that can channel future high-density development. Charlotte’s new Lynx light rail system offers an excellent example of the ideal mix of transit stations: it connects highly-trafficked areas such as Uptown, the convention center, and Southpark Mall, with previously undeveloped tracts of land; it then worked with developers to incentivize the construction of residential, commercial, and retail units around each station.

Assuming a city finds a suitable transit system, the most significant obstacle still remains: the financing hurdle. Faced with a populace generally skeptical of increased taxes and local government largesse, cities should turn to innovative financing schemes to help offset the infrastructure and operating costs. As our discussion of Hong Kong’s system highlighted, planned urban infill offers three key benefits: 1) it builds city density, thereby reducing sprawl; 2) it clusters residents around the transit stations, diverting more traffic and increasing ridership rates; and 3) it causes land values in surrounding areas to appreciate.

To harness this financing opportunity, cities should design transit systems that both connect high-traffic areas and traverse undeveloped land tracts, then enter into public-private partnerships with developers to build high-density mixed-use neighborhoods. Such collaboration would not only allow governments to capture a slice of increased land values, but also directly influence features such as below-market housing units and city infrastructure such as schools.

Of course, such a partnership would have its share of skeptics. Many Southerners are skeptical in general of government involvement in projects and unfamiliar with PPP schemes, and could perceive a government conflict of interest in development promotion. These concerns could be assuaged by a public relations campaign and consultations with PPP experts. Coupled with long-term development plans that continue to prioritize smarter, higher-density development, Southern cities from low-density sprawling giants to sustainable transit meccas.

Clayton Atlanta Barcelona


Comparison of the geographic footprint of Atlanta and Barcelona (source: Alain Bertaud,

Connectivity is Needed in Smart Cities

By Michael Landerer

In our class on Living PlanIT when we dove into what the actually characteristics of a smart city were, I was amazed by the omission of “connectivity”.    Further, in looking at definitions of “smart cities” defining them as cities that exhibit smart economy, smart mobility, smart environment, smart people, smart living, and smart governance, smart connectivity is hardly mentioned. [1]

Based on the way people live their modern lives, the first thing that I thought would be a characteristic of a smart city would be connectivity.  Connectivity at a basic level could consist of universal WiFi and superior mobile coverage.   Beyond municipal Wifi smart connectivity can include a wide array of features greatly enriching the lives of residents.

A great model for such connectivity is right under our noses, Harvard University.  Not only is the Harvard Campus wired, but Harvard has the ability to communicate easily with all of its students.  It is able to email students about upcoming events or contact them in the case of service interruptions or a power outage.

Related to connectivity, there are various other aspects of HBS that could be integrated into a small to mid-sized urban environment that could be greatly beneficial to citizens.   At HBS, we have Classcards that allow us to see who our peers are and connect with them.   Security concerns aside, a level of transparency into who the other residents of a city are could have the potential to enrich the lives of its residents.  It could allow people to identify relevant business contacts or find people who share an alma mater.

The Harvard Mobile Application also provides numerous tools that could be transferred to cities.  Real time transit updates and tracking, listing of community events, listing of hours of operations for various facilities, and providing news are all things city apps could do.

How have cities succeeded in being connected?  Various cities have made efforts in terms of connectivity.  Beyond municipal WiFi networks, a few cities stand out.  New York City’s Big App contest has provided city data to citizens in a contest to create apps that have the potential to improve city lives.[2]  Xinjiang, China, a remote oil town has made considerable connectivity strides.  People have access to considerable transit and traffic application providing exact arrival times of transit and video from city traffic cameras.  Homes are equipped with panic buttons for emergency response.  The government even knows real time employment information for citizens allowing quick response to economic needs.[3]

There are undoubtedly numerous aspects that can make a city “smart”.   To me however, a city cannot be smart unless it is connected.  A connected city runs intelligently and enriches the lives of its residents.


[1] Fast Company, The Top 10 Smartest Cities in North America

[2] Fast Company, The Top 10 Smartest Cities in North America

[3] Freshome, 10 Most Impressive Smart Cities On Earth