Don’t panic


”Don’t Panic” is the phrase on the cover of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. This is possibly the best advice that can be given to mankind, according to the author Douglas Adams

“Don’t Panic” is also the title of a recent documentary made with Dr. Hans Rosling. The message is that we are facing severe challenges, but simultaneously, there is also a flicker of hope with our slow and steady progress in the right direction. This is something that most of us, particularly who have not recently gone to school, need to be updated on.

I had mixed feelings after the ”Transforming Transportation” conference in Washington DC in January. On the one hand, I could feel the determination and passion of the delegates to make a change to reverse the increasing trend of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but on the other, a sense of frustration near to panic crept into my mind.

The growth of population in combination with increasing urbanization is a major concern.  This also affects the ever growing demand for transportation. In 1950, the global urban population was 750 million people. Today, the urban population has increased to 3.7 billion people. This means that the population in cities has had a fivefold increase in 63 years!

Table: World population and urban population

 Year Global
Global urban
















Like always when forecasting future developments, the information is not 100% reliable. However, when studying the most accurate data available (from the UN), we can find that population growth is actually forecasted to slow down compared to past trends. The second derivative is negative, today!

I plotted the graph below to analyze the relative growth development of the urban population. If the global urban population has grown fivefold in the past 63 years, my analysis indicates that in the next 86 years we can expect a 2.4-time increase of the urban population. Yes, in absolute numbers the growth is actually higher than the past 63 years.

If the assumptions are right, it shows that from a “relative change perspective”, we are over the worst part!

Figure: World population and world urban population versus time.

Figure: World population and world urban population versus time.

Now, note that there will certainly be a very wide distribution function in the growth of cities. Some cities will actually shrink, while other cities will increase 10 times their size. If we ask the political leaders in each city, it seems that most cities have the ambition to grow more than the median/average. This will of course not happen.

The most tricky part is to forecast urbanization in a developed country. If we assume that by 2100 world trade has evened out most of the local differences, the natural conditions for agriculture, mining and urban activities will determine the degree of urbanization in each part of the world.

With the help of Gapminder, I chose some reasonably developed countries with a normal trade balance like the United States of America, United Kingdom and Ireland. It seems that any number between 60% and 90% of urbanization is identified as normal.

Urbanization is, however, also strongly affected by fashion. With the risk of over simplifying reality, it seems that today’s preference is to live in big cities (we know this by studying how much people are prepared to pay for their living). This may change in the future. Clean, cost efficient and silent electric hybrid buses may be an enabler.

Figure: Historical development of the urbanization from 1984 to 2011, in some selected countries.

Figure: Historical development of the urbanization from 1984 to 2011, in some selected countries.

There are still some severe challenges ahead of us, but there is no reason to panic. Considering that mankind actually has gained a lot of experience from city planning and public transportation in the last 63 years, I feel that we are creating a lot of good examples of efficient cities, new and old, to learn and develop from.


Population data and forecasts

Forecast of population 2050

About volvobuses

Adjunct Professor of Catalysis at Chalmers University of Technology. Lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, with my wife and three daughters born in 1991, 1994 and 1997. Is a passionate runner.
This entry was posted in City planning, sustainable transport, Urbanization and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t panic

  1. Daniel says:

    the author is Douglas Adams not Arthur C. Clarke

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