When Hassam Ud-din started studying in Islamabad in Pakistan, he had a three-hour round-trip commute from his home in Rawalpindi. He hated sitting in traffic jams, breathing dirty air and burning up fuel and money. Eventually he moved closer to Islamabad but, not content with solving the problem for himself, he’s now come up with a fix to help others.
Ud-din has created an Internet tool that matches drivers with passengers looking for an affordable way to get to work or elsewhere. Called RASAI, the Urdu word for accessibility, the website and app aim to fill spare seats and empty trunks and create a more efficient travel system that offers low-income travellers more opportunities while also tackling pollution.
“I realized that people are limited in the opportunities they have by the radius of where they can go easily and cost-effectively,” said Ud-din, who has a passion for maps and route planning and studied transportation engineering.
In Pakistan, it is quite common to see people seeking lifts on the side of the main roads. After conducting a survey that found that more than 60 per cent of vehicles were using only half their capacity, Ud-din realized it would be possible to harness this tradition.
“It was already happening in an informal way so what we did was we gave people an option to digitize their daily route. People can go to our website or app and register their route with us and the timings and we can find them passengers to take on their way,” the 26-year-old said, noting that most people tend to use the website to set up monthly rides.
Only 17 per cent of Pakistan’s population of around 200 million own cars but the country’s cities are still blighted by congestion and foul-smelling fumes. The Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air report last year found that Pakistan, Bangladesh and India had experienced the steepest increases in air pollution levels since 2010.
Authorities are starting to act: for example, in 2020 Karachi will launch a zero-emission Green Bus Rapid Transit network, with 200 buses fuelled by bio-methane, or cow poo. However, the need for affordable transport is still great.
For Ud-din, the answer lies in the vehicles that are already on the roads.
“Our main aim was to create a virtual transit network … where you don’t have an infrastructure but the capacity on the roads is optimized for you and you are able to use it quite efficiently,” he says.
Around 1,400 vehicles are registered on RASAI’s website, with most customers setting up lifts on a month-by-month basis. Passengers who find a lift using RASAI usually pay a nominal amount to help cover fuel costs, but the trips are still more affordable than other methods.
Ud-din had to overcome people’s resistance to sharing their cars. Some were concerned about possible security issues or cultural differences. But Ud-din found a way to circumvent that hesitation by linking his service to the existing concept of pick-drop taxis.
“We need to be disruptive in the tech and the value proposition but it’s good to be conservative when you pitch it to the customer and try to relate it to something that is already there,” he said.
While one of Ud-din’s main priorities was to provide affordable transport for people on lower incomes, he also wanted to address traffic pollution.
“(RASAI) helps solve the pollution problem directly and indirectly: if four people go in one car instead of taking their own cars, that reduces emissions. Indirectly, if those cars are not on the road, that reduces both congestion and pollution.”
Ud-din’s innovation won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
Ud-din says the grant boosted his team’s morale, while the mentoring he received as part of the award allowed him to think more clearly about turning his idea into a viable business model.
“The financial support was crucial to hone the product and cover the expenses required. These kinds of startups require a lot of capital to start because they require a critical mass,” he said.
Commenting on the winners of the challenge, UN Environment’s Acting Executive
Director Joyce Msuya said the innovations were just the latest examples of a long history of ingenuity in the region.
“The four billion inhabitants of Asia and the Pacific have seen both sides of the development ledger more vividly than most. Standards of living have skyrocketed as traditional consumption and production models have gone into overdrive,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece.
“Yet, environmental debt accrued by these global habits is increasingly obvious: climate change, pollution, habitat loss and ecosystem destruction. If we continue to make the same choices, our future looks bleak.”
The innovative spirit shown by inventors like Ud-din will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March, where the motto will be to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
For Ud-din, who spent a year in Silicon Valley as part of the Global Cleantech Innovation programme, technology will play a critical role in finding new solutions to environmental challenges, just as it has enabled on-demand services to facilitate our increasingly digital lives.
“Tech allows us to leverage resources that we might not even have known we have. Take Airbnb: people had spare rooms and the tech allowed them to make them available on a platform, and now it’s a valuable company,” Ud-din said. “In the same way, we are saying that if you are driving somewhere and you have spare capacity, that’s an asset you can leverage.”
The living air purifiers cities need more of
In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.
Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.
But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.
The cooling effect of trees
Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.
“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.
Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.
Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.
Building the Great Green Wall of Cities
Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path.
An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries.
On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.
“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”
Let the stones gather some moss
In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.
“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.
“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.
Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.
New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability
Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.
The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.
One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.
Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.
Make Dhaka Walkable
When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.
Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.
The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.
One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South. The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.
Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.
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