"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Thursday, August 9, 2007

My contribution to urban development

For this mini project, I have chosen creative solutions in urban development to help address the many problems faced in urban areas, particularly the use of bicycles as a green public transit. First, I will highlight the problems most urban areas around the world face. Then I will move on to my social responsibility to recognize and address these problems. And finally I will introduce a green transit model as the first step to approach these issues.

Urban population has been increasing at a steady rate around the world, this is a natural progression of our society. By staying closer to each other, human beings in urban areas are able to interact with each other more efficiently. 50% the world population is already living in urban areas, this percentage is only expected to increase in the future. And by 2050, about two thirds of humanity will dwell in cities. In the past, urban planning and development was important, this trend in growing urban population will make it even more significant.


A toxic environment that is condensed with people, that's not how I want to imagine the city of the future. So what are the underlying issues in a city? First of all, staying in a condensed concrete jungle affects our spirituality. Not only does it disconnect a person from nature, it also places tremendous psychological strain on a person. In addition to this, abundant noise and air pollution in a city also affects our physical and mental health.

Almost every major city in the world is swamped with noise and air pollution. Pollution introduces a variety of physical and mental health complications to the population. These complications vary from common respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, to stress-related illnesses. The main source of the pollution is none other than our automobiles. For instance, transportation in Canada contribute to about a quarter of its total green house gas emission.

Pollution in the city is a constant reminder of the fact that more and more people are moving into an unsustainable environment. More cars are sold everyday, more waste is being dump everyday. It would only be a matter of time before air quality reaches a tipping point, when it actually becomes hazardous to human health. In fact, this phenomenon is already occurring in many cities in the developing world, due to much higher urbanization rates.

For positive change to happen, we need to shake off the old concept of reduction, it no longer applies in the 21st century. Slowing pollution doesn't stop it, it only slows it. Therefore radical change is need.

Mission and Vision

My ideal vision of a city is of course, a fully sustainable one. I think with the right technological innovations we will be able to halt or even reverse the deterioration of our environment. To fulfill my my vision, I will like to focus on transportation.

Transportation is critical in an urban setting. People seek the quickest mode of transportation, often it is without regard to the environment or the cost of operation. My main goal is to implement a paradigm change in transportation within the city.

Contribution – Green transit

The idea of “green” commuting has been around for a while. It usually involves the use of a human powered transports such as bicycles. Theoretically, mass implementation of green commuting can bring significant improvements to our pollution problems. But in reality, it is difficult for human-powered transports to match a car in terms of speed and coverage, unless everyone becomes a Lance Armstrong over night.

Nevertheless, the advantages of green commuting cannot be ignored. For example, traveling by bicycle over relatively short distances is often the most efficient method of commuting in the city. A cyclist doesn't have wait in a traffic jam, or for a bus to appear. During rush hours, cyclists can just zip through traffic and not worry about beating the crowd in the Metro station. Apart from being efficient, cycling cycling is also a good cardiovascular exercise. It has been known to build up immunity against the harmful effects of air pollutants.


To promote the use of bicycles I have done research on past campaigns to encourage bicycle commuting. There were many interesting campaigns, all with varying degrees of success. My favourite is Vélib', which is a bicycle rental program in Paris. The program has been running for close to a month now with incredible success. The system is simple, about 20 000 bicycles are distributed in automated stations located every 300 metres around the city. To use this system, all that is needed a valid pass (cost about a euro for a day, 39 euros a year). This pass allows bicycles to be rented from any of the 750 automated stations. Users can cycle to their destinations and deposit the bicycles at the closest automated station. Rental is free for the first 30 minutes of riding, and it increases every 30 minute period subsequently. The system also has a good system that discourages thefts, 150 euro will be deducted from the user's credit card if a bicycle is not returned in a day. So far only 2 missing bicycles have been reported.

Implementation in Canada

The Vélib' model is currently being implemented in a few other European cities. My strategy is to initiate a similar model in other cities around the world, by adapting the system to the characteristic and people of the city. To start off, I have decided to apply this model in major Canadian cities. The first step in developing such a project is to study the fundamental differences between Canadian cities and European cities.

I think the population in Canada can develop the same level of appreciation for bicycle commuting as in Europe. The huge potential can be seen in the availability of bicycle trails in most major Canadian cities. For instance, the island of Montreal has over 300 kilometres of bicycle trails. In addition to this, the road systems are designed to very well, bicycles usually have more than enough room to travel with other road traffic.

One major difference between European and Canadian cities is the population density. A typical European city tends to have a much higher population density (Paris – 24, 783/km²) when compared to its Canadian counterpart (Vancouver – 5, 039/km² , Montreal – 4, 439/km²), although certain urban areas such as Vancouver's West End (20, 068/km²) does have comparable population densities. I think lower population densities shouldn't be an obstacle in implementing such a system, it just means each station will have less bicycles.

One other factor to consider when adapting this model in Canada is the climate difference. Montreal and Toronto both have more extreme temperatures in comparison to Western European cities. Additional measures such as better snow and ice removal will have to be taken if this system is to be implemented in the winter. On the other hand, Vancouver which has a much more moderate climate would be able to adopt the system with relative ease.


While Vélib' is operated by Paris city officials, it is financed by JCDecaux, one of the largest outdoor advertising company company. Advertising on the bicycles can be potentially be very lucrative for investors. Bearing that in mind, I think it is possible to initiate a project of this magnitude without relying on just government and public funding.

First of all, I plan to start a little committee of McGill Faculty of Management students. The goal of this committee is to come up with a business proposal for private investors. There are many potential companies in the private sector, namely CBS Outdoor Canada, which is one of the largest outdoor advertisement agencies in Canada whose clients include the Société de transport de Montréal and Toronto Transit Commission.

A separate proposal to city municipal councils of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver will also be drafted by another committee of students from the Faculty of Engineering and Science. Major highlights in this proposal will include a detailed analysis of the effects on green house gas emission and how it will benefit Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. The goal of the this proposal is to convince municipal councils to offer their expertise and financial support to implement this project.

As for recruiting students, I think a good way to get students involvement is by integrating it into classes. From the my courses in Marketing and Communications in Engineering, I have seen some very high quality proposals and business plans. I would like to recommended my idea to the course instructors so they can suggest the idea as one of the possible topics for the student group projects in these course. By working closely with these students, I hope to make bicycles as green transits a reality.

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