Unlocking Resilience: Systems Thinking in Urban Transport Planning


Framing urban transport as a system is crucial for understanding the complexity of urban mobility challenges, and for finding opportunities to increase resilience.  

Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving and understanding complex phenomena by analysing the interactions and interdependencies among various components within a system. It involves considering the relationships between elements and understanding how changes in one part of the system can affect the entire system. Cities can be thought of complex system of systems, with the urban transport system being one of the sub-systems.

Urban transport is a system comprising interconnected elements that work together to facilitate the movement of people and goods within a city. The main elements of the urban transport system include:

  • Infrastructure: Roads, bridges, public transit systems, and other physical structures, including informal settlements, that support transportation.
  • Vehicles: Shared minivans, rickshaws, buses, trams, bicycles, and other modes of transportation used within the urban environment.
  • Operations: Traffic management, scheduling, and coordination of various transport modes, including para-transit services, to optimize efficiency.
  • Users: The individuals and businesses that rely on the transportation system for daily activities and economic purposes, including low-income populations, informal workers, and marginalized communities.
  • Regulations and Policies: Government policies, regulations, and urban planning strategies that influence how the transportation system functions. In the Global South this needs to include policies that recognize and integrate informal transport services into the formal system. Addressing affordability and accessibility challenges faced by vulnerable users.
  • Technological Systems: Intelligent transportation systems, data analytics, and emerging technologies that enhance the efficiency and sustainability of urban transport.

Systems thinking allows for a holistic understanding of the urban transport system, considering the interconnectedness of its components. This perspective helps identify potential points of vulnerability and cascading effects that may impact the system during climate events or other disruptions. 

If we assume that an urban system just comprises these 6 components, although there could be many more ways of deconstructing or defining the sub-components of the urban transport system, there are nearly 60 possible interactions. Here are some of the issues that surface when thinking of the interactions of the components of urban transport systems: 

Infrastructure and vehicles: Incorporating climate-resilient materials and design in roads and bridges can enhance their durability against extreme weather events, reducing damage and maintenance costs. Similarly, promoting the use of electric or hybrid vehicles reduces greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change mitigation.

Infrastructure and operations: Implementing smart infrastructure that supports real-time traffic management can help reroute traffic during extreme weather events or emergencies, reducing congestion and improving overall system resilience. Alternatively, if there is a lack of regular maintenance for the transportation infrastructure (e.g., roads and bridges), it can lead to deteriorating conditions. Without proper upkeep, the infrastructure becomes more susceptible to damage during extreme weather events.

With thoughtful urban mobility planning, the interactions between the components can be resilience-enhancing.  For example, designing low-tech, low-cost pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as walkable pathways and safe crossings, encourages sustainable modes of transport, reducing reliance on individual cars and enhancing the overall resilience of the system. For cities with access the required capacities and technologies, the integration of intelligent transportation systems and data analytics can improve the system's adaptive capacity, enabling real-time responses to changing weather patterns and traffic conditions. Utilizing advanced technologies for efficient traffic management and scheduling can enhance the system's adaptive capabilities, ensuring timely responses to disruptions caused by climate-related events.

Treating urban transport as a system and applying systems thinking provides a comprehensive framework for addressing the complexities of transportation in urban environments, especially in the context of climate change and the unique challenges faced by cities in the global South. More importantly, systems thinking facilitates the development of adaptive strategies, allowing urban areas to respond proactively to changing environmental conditions and unforeseen disruptions, ultimately enhancing the resilience of the urban transport system.