The Smart City: Designed for People

New faculty member Prof. Karel Martens

By Gail Lichtman

Are our cities fated to have more traffic congestion, noise, pollution, and parking problems in the future?

Not necessarily, according to Prof. Karel Martens who joined Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning this academic year, where he holds the Leona Chanin Career Development Chair.

“For years, we have lived with the doctrine that building roads is good for the economy,” explains Martens. “As a result, we have designed cities for cars. This is a fundamentally wrong starting point. We need to design cities to serve people. In the smart city of the future, people will be the focus and all will be able to get around easily, using fewer resources, thus enabling cleaner air and a more pleasant city.”

For Martens, transportation, planning, and justice are interlinked. “People need to get around,” he notes. “The easier it is to travel, the more convenient our lives and the more we can accomplish. If we cannot get around easily, life not only becomes more complicated, but it can actually imply that we cannot do the things we need to do. Poor transport may prevent us from getting a job, from taking up a study, or from visiting family members. Poor transportation limits options, sometimes to the extent that it excludes people from full participation in society. So transportation accessibility is an important dimension of justice. And transportation planning is fundamentally about justice.”

Martens notes that it is government which determines transportation planning, both with respect to private and public transportation, and which ultimately determines accessibility. Roads require land and it is impossible to obtain land in modern societies without government-approved appropriation of land. Likewise, well-functioning public transportation requires government licensing, approval and often subsidies. “So, there is really no such thing as private transportation,” he remarks. “This concept is an illusion. We are all dependent on each other for our mobility and thus accessibility, whether we own a car or not.”

“Transportation accessibility is an important dimension of justice. And transportation planning is fundamentally about justice.”

According to Martens, there are two main transportation issues today. The first is that transportation needs to be much more environmentally sustainable to improve the quality of life in cities. “We have to move around using less fossil fuels and creating less pollution,” he states. “This has to be done. The only disagreement in developed countries is on the solutions.”

The second issue - which has received much less attention in public debates - is that transportation systems have to serve all. “Right now, these systems are designed mainly for people who drive cars. Transportation planners often forget those who do not or cannot drive. In many places, there are often no good alternative modes of transportation for non-drivers,” he relates.

Over the past decades, Israel has set out policies that are fundamentally incompatible. Its urban planning is promoting high-density land use patterns. Transportation investment priorities still highly favor road building, in spite of the light rail projects in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the extension of the railway network. This simply does not work: “A transportation system based on cars functions well under conditions of low densities and dispersed destinations. But Israel has exactly the opposite: high urban densities and a high concentration of employment in the country’s core.” Cars simply need lots of space to move around efficiently - space that is not available in Israel, certainly not in the country’s populated center.

“Building more roads also doesn’t create a pleasant urban environment,” Martens says. “Take a look at Tel Aviv on any given day. It is gridlocked, noisy, and polluted. And the situation will only get worse, because of the road building that is happening on the outskirts of the city, making the car more attractive for residents living in the suburbs. People vote with their feet. When governments build more roads, we end up with more cars and more congestion, leading to calls for even more road building. This is a vicious cycle.”

Martens believes that “government has to change its priorities and policy. It has to realize that it is responsible for providing a transportation infrastructure that serves all people. The car can never serve everybody.”

“Israel is perfectly suited for super-efficient public transportation systems,” Martens states. “Public transportation should be given priority. Every main street should have bus lanes, providing a comfortable solution for people without cars and an attractive alternative for households with cars. This high quality public transport system should be supported by pleasant urban environments that are attractive for cycling and walking.”

“We design cities for cars. This has to change. We need to design cities to serve people.”

Parking is another nightmare for urban dwellers. “I believe that a lot of parking problems are the result of bad policy and poor public transportation,” he notes. “Even if there are free places in parking lots or garages, people often search for an on-street parking place because it is provided for free or for a symbolic payment. There needs to be proper parking management, but most cities are afraid of charging more for parking, in spite of the excellent results booked in other countries.”

Martens says, “My role as a professor is to challenge deeply held assumptions about the design of transportation systems and cities if they are at odds with empirical evidence and with the duties of government. My role is to present alternatives that are in line with that evidence and match the responsibilities of governments. The insights I develop in this way, I pass on to the next generation of transportation professionals, architects, and civil engineers in my teaching. My ambition is to show them how to make our cities and neighborhoods suitable for people and how we can design transportation systems that can serve all citizens.”

From 2000 to 2002, Martens was a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning. He subsequently was a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and executive director of Transport Today and Tomorrow, an NGO promoting sustainable transportation in Israel. In 2006, he moved to Radboud University in the Netherlands where he is an associate professor at the Institute for Management Research. He was elected Transport Professional of the Year in the Netherlands for 2014.

Martens returns to Technion with substantial international experience in transportation planning and policy. At the request of the Israel Ministry of Transport and Road Safety, he drafted detailed guidelines on transport equity assessment. Together with a team of international colleagues, he initiated an EU COST Action on Transport Equity Analysis. The project brings together European experts in order to develop a novel approach to the assessment of transport projects and programs.

“In the smart city of the future, people will be the focus and all will be able to get around easily, using fewer resources.”

He has published extensively on the nexus between transportation and justice and recently completed a book titled Transport Justice: Designing Fair Transportation Systems.

So how does a Dutch transportation expert end up in Israel? “I came here for love,” Martens confesses. “While I was doing my PhD at Radboud, I met a lovely Israeli student also doing her doctorate.”

Seventeen years and three children later, the Martens family is settling into life here. “Israel is a really nice place to live - if you ignore the transportation and parking problems,” he notes with a smile.

Or you could look at it another way - Martens has his work cut out for him in changing transport policy and design in Israel.