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Megacities provide new benefits to humanity – and pose unique challenges

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Megacities are transforming global logistics. But are we prepared to keep pace?

Christopher Kennedy, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, has one suggestion for how the world can start to solve the problem of climate change: transform the world's megacities.

The trajectory of this big big-city boom has the potential to change the world's spheres of influence in profound ways.

Megacities are teeming metropolises that have populations of at least 10 million people. They include Indian cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where transportation infrastructure is subpar. "Same with Cairo," says Kennedy, calling the Egyptian capital "the kind of place where you'll see a four-lane road with five lanes of traffic on it."

In 1950, there were just two megacities in the world – New York and Tokyo. By 2010, there were 27, and researchers expect the number to rise to 32 by 2020. We will likely see a great jump by 2050, with a projected 2.5 billion more people living in urban areas by then.

As the world's biggest cities get bigger, logistics and transportation networks in many of them aren't keeping pace, leaving the public and private sectors racing to identify solutions. And the stakes are high, Laurence Smith writes in "The World in 2050," a book that looks decades into the future to describe the impact of the population boom on the planet.

Smith, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), envisions population clusters in dense urban settings creating "mighty new poles of resource consumption" in China, India and Brazil. Elsewhere around the globe, water is scarce. Mild winters encourage many humans northward.

Smith and other experts also note that global urban culture is shifting east. The largest population increases are occurring in developing nations in Asia and Africa. 

The trajectory of this big big-city boom has the potential to change the world's spheres of influence in profound ways.

Good and bad news

There are advantages to such cities – most notably, the efficiencies that come with scale. For example, Kennedy points out that cities require less base infrastructure per person as they get bigger.

Richard Holt, head of global cities research for Oxford Economics, adds that megacities are net positives for the world because of their density. "It's much more efficient than spreading things out more broadly," he says.

The rise of megacities creates major challenges, though. While it's easier for affluent and more advanced metropolitan areas such as London and Tokyo to handle an influx of crowds, those at the lower end of the wealth scale like Lagos, Nigeria, and the Pakistani city of Karachi have their work cut out for them. Their logistics systems and transportation infrastructures aren't always suitable for growth.

Preparation for the rise of megacities is crucial, as potential consequences include damage to the environment, overtaxing of infrastructure systems and hard-to-control crowding. 

"Every city has congestion … but when you talk about megacities, you're talking about supersized congestion," Kennedy says.

Peter Harris, director of sustainability for Europe at UPS, notes that blockages in transportation and increases in air pollution go hand in hand. This is a major concern as most new megacities are projected to be in emerging economies, and the majority of these locales have limited public transit systems and air quality standards.

Private businesses to the rescue?

The dilemma is figuring out how to develop modern logistics and infrastructure that are flexible enough to accommodate swelling populations. Kennedy and Holt say coordination by governments is paramount in building the megacities of tomorrow.

In countries where governance remains nascent, Harris sees a good deal of development being done by small organizations with relatively unsophisticated technology. He says it is important for major companies like UPS to lead the way in "demonstrating how efficiency and alternative technologies can provide solutions. This can create an example for others."

One solution that UPS has unveiled in the United States is On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (Orion). This uses monitoring technology and advanced algorithms to crunch data and provide drivers with routes optimized for efficiency. UPS has also incorporated modal shifting, which figures out the most fuel-efficient transport methods for any given shipment. Internationally, UPS uses electric delivery vehicles and has launched an extended-range version of one of these in London. It has also deployed electrically enhanced Cargo Cruiser tricycles in Hamburg.

A brave new world

The strategy for how cities should invest in the future involves collective priorities – what the crowded metropolis ought to look like and how it should operate in the years ahead. Cities of the world, especially the most populous ones, increasingly feel like giant urban magnets. And the more they draw more people in, the more they keep growing.

Yet Smith's book cautions that numbers shouldn't necessarily frame the academic exercise of planning and developing these population centers. He concludes: "The more important question is not of capacity, but of desire. What kind of world do we want?"

This article first appeared in the Guardian and is reprinted with permission.

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