Q&A  | 

Cities and mobility, key to prosperity in the world, by Shahrukh Wani

"Greater Kampala losses $1.5 million every day due to traffic congestion. That is over 4% of the city's GDP."

Tags: 'Africa' 'Asia' 'megacities'


Reading Time: 6 minutes

Shahrukh Wani is an economist at the International Growth Center based at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He works with developing country policymakers to support better urban policy outcomes using economic evidence and analysis.

In a future where most of the world's population will live in cities, he says, mobility will be key: "If people can't move around with ease, it reduces their ability to buy and sell from each other, share ideas, and go to work. This is a massive lag in urban prosperity".

He also alerts about the importance of building upwards and also starting building basic infrastructure in the city's outskirts ahead of people settling. "The latter saves a lot of money: it can be three times more expensive to retrofit infrastructure than to provide it before the population settles".

Following the World Bank, 4,2 billion people live in cities nowadays, a population expected to grow by 2,5 more billion by 2050, thus accounting for almost 70% of the world's population. Why do people move into cities?

This urban growth is driven in three ways: first by people who actively move to cities, second by the natural population growth in cities, and third by smaller towns and villages growing and becoming cities.

The main reason people move to cities is because cities provide them with the surest way into prosperity. We can see this in real income gains: in Africa, a person can earn as much as 23% more in cities than in rural areas. Much of this is because of the economic benefits of living close to lots of other people: it makes it easier to share ideas; to choose between more employers to work for; to start a business because you have a market of people to sell your product to and lots of people to select your employees from.

My favorite feature of cities is how it enables people to share ideas. I like living in London because it allows me to be around many other people who I can learn from: I meet people while attending lectures at universities (there are at least 15 in London), at coffee shops, or through friends at parties. This would be less likely if I lived in a small town with few people. This has tangible economic benefits.

So, whether you’re looking for a job or starting a new business, it makes sense to do it in a city.

There are also other non-economic reasons why people move to cities. The main one is that when people live in cities, they can collectively afford amenities like museums and theatres. These have a high fixed cost, and it only makes sense if many people are willing to split the bill.

Where in the world will the cities' population grow more, and do you consider this to be a good trend?

Countries in Africa and Asia are driving this growth. In fact, over the next 15 years, all of the world’s ten fastest-growing cities will be in Africa. South Asia is likewise undergoing rapid urban growth: the region is on track to add 250 million urban residents between 2001 and 2030 – that is adding equivalent to 27 London’s. 

This is an inevitable trend. Countries go from rural to majority-urban as they economically grow. For almost every country, the path to economic prosperity has to pass through cities.

The fact that sets the current trend different from urbanisation in the past is that many of these countries are urbanising at a much lower-income level. In 1960, no low-income country had more than one-third of its population living in its cities – now nearly 40% of them do.

What this means for public policy is that countries have to govern large cities under extreme resource constraints. The downsides of density – things like congestion, crime, disease – undermine all the benefits of living in cities. It is the government’s job to reduce these downsides by making the right public investments: like building a bus system to reduce congestion; providing water and sanitation to reduce disease. Many countries are struggling to do this right now, mainly because the urban growth is so fast that they can’t keep up. The big policy challenge in Africa and South Asia today is to get urbanisation right.

Which will be the main challenges to be solved as a consequence of the previous?

There are three big challenges a consequence of this rapid urban growth.

First and foremost, a lot of cities don’t have devolved control. Cities are complex to manage as they are, in the most primitive sense, systems that evolve rapidly.

The best way to govern such complex systems is to allow each city to have enough autonomy to make rapid, context-specific decisions. Alas, many cities are governed by national governments who will never do justice to governance needs of each city.  

The second challenge is urban congestion which is a consequence of poor connectivity. Cities work best when people can get around the city easily. If people can’t move around with ease, it reduces their ability to buy and sell from each other, share ideas, and go to work. This is a massive lag in urban prosperity. My colleagues at the International Growth Center have estimated that Greater Kampala losses $1.5 million every day due to traffic congestion. That is over 4% of the city’s GDP. 

The third challenge is making space for future urban residents. As many cities are growing rapidly, they need to create more space for new residents. This includes building upwards (that is by increasing density) but also adding more space into the city.

A wise city would invest in both: it would make it easier for people to build upwards and also start building basic infrastructure in the city’s outskirts ahead of people settling. The latter saves a lot of money: it can be three times more expensive to retrofit infrastructure than to provide it before the population settles. Some countries like Ethiopia are already doing this.


Can cities have any sort of environmental advantage?

What we can say on a global scale is that cities can have two environmental advantages: they make it less necessary for people to own cars (because of public transport) or drive long distances to get to work, and it pushes people to live in smaller houses that need less energy. (Matthew Kahn and Ed Glaeser have done great empirical work on estimating carbon dioxide emissions in America). Cities that are dense and have good public transport links would be assets for a more sustainable future. 


Should alternative models of urbanisation be considered, and, if so, which ones?

It is always important to experiment with different policies. A lot of it will be specific to the city: how China urbanised can’t be replicated in Africa; what will make sense in American Rust Belt cities will be different than what Dhaka needs to do.

This is why cities need the power to experiment with what works for them. What we need at a global scale is helping cities share knowledge with each other.

Some projections say that by 2050 70% of the world's population will be living in cities. Hence, cities will be one of our legacies to future generations. Can the car dependency of big cities be part of that legacy? Do cities need to plan for a future of fewer cars?

As countries in Asia and Africa become more prosperous, more and more people will be able to buy cars. It is often hardwired into what prosperity looks like for many: owning a car. If this happens, cities will struggle to build enough roads. We might see what happened in America where they tore up parts of the cities to build massive highways. They literally gutted American cities to make space for cars.

In some developing country cities this is already happening. In Cairo, the government has been building bridges and flyovers cutting through the city to reduce congestion. It won’t work: roads tend to induce more demand for road-usage over time, so governments will have to keep expanding them to keep up with the demand. It is a vicious cycle best avoided.

Instead, it makes more sense to invest in collective mobility – busses and trains, chiefly. It is also much better for the environment. An excellent place to start for many cities will be building dedicated bus lanes along with more sophisticated bus rapid transit systems. These are cheaper than train-based transit systems and are quicker to build.

Do you consider car-free cities to be a viable solution, and which models of city transportation would you favour?

I don’t think most cities will ever be car-free. But cars shouldn’t be the primary way of getting around in a city.

Public transport combined with just walking or biking has to be the main way to get around. If everyone is going to travel by car, cities won’t be able to expand their roads fast enough. Many cities have realised this. London has a good public transport system, and those who want to travel by car can but have to pay a congestion charge when in central London. I would even like that congestion charge zone to be expanded and see that revenue to pay for even better public transport. Other cities can learn from this.

Some argue that the ’15-minute city’ model is the way of the future: that we will all be able to walk or bike to most places within a 15-minute reach. I have two thoughts on this model. First, I think this is a very much a rich country vision so far. I don’t see developing country cities being able to do this.

What developing cities have been able to do is creating car-free zones. Rawalpindi, my home city, is creating pedestrian-only roads in the city’s historical core: just a few roads, but it is something to start with.

Second, in rich cities, this is partly driven by the shift towards remote working. If this shift holds post-pandemic (it might), it makes more sense that people will mainly commute within their neighborhoods instead of going to core business districts for work.

My impression is that we might get a partial form of ’15-minute city’, in which people commute once or twice a week to work in core business districts but spend most of the week in a small radius around their homes.