It’s not easy to categorize Jacqueline Klopp. She studied physics as an undergraduate, then earned a PhD in political science. Now she’s co-director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and an affiliate of the Data Science Institute. Her research — perhaps unsurprisingly — straddles a variety of disciplines.
Klopp investigates the intersections of sustainable transportation, land use, data and technology. Recently she has been exploring ways to improve public transportation in Africa and around the world, and is beginning to explore work on climate adaptation in New York City.
We chatted with her to learn more about what she’s working on, and why urban development will play an essential role in building a sustainable future for our planet.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
What project are you most excited about right now?
One of the most exciting projects that I’ve been working on for many years, which is really coming to fruition now, is called Digital Matatus. In this project my colleagues and I from the University of Nairobi and MIT have been using cellphones to collect and share data on public transport in Nairobi. The idea is to use the data to catalyze new planning conversations on how to improve public transport systems. Right now, Africa doesn’t generate a lot of carbon emissions, but it is already suffering from climate change-linked impacts and is facing problems of air pollution and high crash fatalities because of the kind of car-oriented transportation infrastructure that exists and is getting built in its cities. In addition, the continent is growing rapidly and in the future it could contribute a lot of greenhouse gases. African nations are building their cities now, and so it is really important to support high quality public transport as a backbone for equitable, healthy, efficient and low emissions growth. To do that, city officials, planners, and residents need to better understand the existing transport system, which is largely a minibus-based system in many places, and to have good data that helps plan forward.
Imagine a complex city of around 4 million people like Nairobi, where we first started this project. There was skeletal information on Word documents about where bus stops are and where some of the routes are supposed to be. We had to figure out, from scratch, how to map this system out. We started with an app that was developed to help joggers trace their paths and see how far they were running. We had students and volunteers use that app and get on buses at strategic locations in Nairobi and trace out the route and stops. We had them go to the main transportation nodes and figure out which routes are coming out of each terminal. The transit system doesn’t have very formal routes, and sometimes the stops vary. Despite that variability, we proved we could get high quality data. After we mapped Nairobi, it was amazing to watch minibus mapping projects take off across the continent and other parts of the world with minibus systems.
We’ve since worked to draw key policy actors including a growing number of African cities, the French Development Agency, World Bank and UN-Habitat into a collaborative platform called DigitalTransport4Africa.org. The idea is to ensure that we share high quality data, create a network for others to do this type of work, and share and build knowledge and open source tools. Once you have the data, you can catalyze innovation and do research you couldn’t do before for example, on network optimization and accessibility. So now we’ve gone from a situation where cities had very little information about public transit, to a movement of techies, planners and urbanists who are building apps and maps to provide passengers information, doing novel research, and finding new ways to make public transit better. We recently launched a similar platform for South America, and are planning another one in India. So our proof-of-concept in Nairobi has become an inspiration for a lot of other urban activists and cities, and it’s really turned into a vector for policy change.
How does this kind of data help to build more sustainable transit?
What’s really important is that all cities need seamless multi-modal networks — in other words, you should be able to go from a bike to a train to a bus to a carshare pretty easily. In order for mass transit to improve public health and the livability of bigger cities, you need to be able to connect these different modes seamlessly with mass transit as the backbone. And if you don’t have information or data, you can’t create those connections that you need to have. What sometimes happens is you have these big investments in public transit projects, but they’re not connected to the rest of the system — you can’t get off the train and have an easy transfer to a bus, for example. So you end up, as a government in Africa or India, spending a lot of money on a system that people aren’t using.
We’re really in a race with time on climate change. If public transit systems get built poorly or not at all in rapidly growing African cities, then that’s going to be an enormous cost in terms of public health, productivity and greenhouse gas emissions and hence our planetary future. If we don’t try to reshape the investments around a well-connected public transit backbone, then there’s really no hope for these cities to be sustainable and inclusive.
How did you originally get interested in this line of research?
I’m a political scientist by training, focusing on land politics and democracy, but I was connected to these issues through [urban planner/economist and CSUD co-director] Elliott Sclar. He was starting a project in Nairobi, and he drew me in because of my experience in Kenya. But the more I looked at these issues and understood that carbon emissions and many critical sustainable development problems are concentrated in cities and connected to urban development, I saw how important it is to come up with strategies to improve cities. Highways, for example, are not just about movement they shape cities in a way that tends to cut urban fabric and generate sprawl and force people into cars. Really understanding how transport infrastructure fits into the future forms of cities, and how we impact the planet through the ways we live in cities, became very compelling to me. I’ve been working on that now since 2005.
What are some of the biggest challenges to making cities more sustainable?
One of the biggest challenges is about power and politics and paradigms. Thinking outside of the box or changing the paradigm takes a lot of work. There are entrenched interests around building roads and highways through cities, and using carbon-based fuels, and those interests operate across the globe. There are also a lot of folks who see car-based travel as a status sign a way of life and a symbol of liberty. These forces combined mean there’s a lot of resistance to change, even though evidence shows that if you make cities more dense and walkable, create great public transport, and have mixed-use buildings, you can improve the quality of urban life. You save people time, and you reduce a lot of very serious and costly public health problems, such as air pollution, crashes and obesity. It is all win-win so the challenge is the political pathway to realizing what we know works in cities.
What keeps you going in the face of those challenges?
Anyone paying attention to climate change and the high costs of poor urbanization realizes we don’t have the luxury to give up. It’s too important. I sometimes get frustrated with the slow pace of change, and the resistance, but one thing that keeps me going in particular is to see my colleagues in Nairobi who face much greater challenges than I do at every level. They’re in a struggling democracy, they’ve lived under very difficult political conditions, there’s been even more injustice in recent times, and yet they continue to mobilize and do research and collaborate. They keep me grounded and make me realize how privileged and fortunate I am, to be able to try to support their work and be part of a global network for change.
I also see a lot of progress. What I’m seeing more and more across the globe is mobilized citizens who are trying to take back their cities and make city planning more focused around people, safety, health, fairness and reducing carbon emissions. It’s really encouraging. Is it fast enough for the change that needs to happen? I’d say no, not yet, so we still have a lot of political work to do.
I also teach in the Sustainable Development program now, and I have the most wonderful group of young students who come up with brilliant projects and engaged research. I’m proud to be able to support them as the next generation that is applying their brains and knowledge and creativity to solving these pressing global problems.
Just for fun, what’s your favorite form of transportation?
I love to ride a bicycle when there’s wonderful infrastructure for it. The other day, I went down the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway on a Citi Bike and it was magnificent.