I've been thinking about how we can use our knowledge of plants as a model for urban transportation systems. It's a tantalizing concept. Plants, like cities, are open systems that interact with their environment. Taken from that commonality there's a lot we can learn from plants about how to plan urban transportation systems.
What are some of the goals for transportation systems? Efficacy of movement, low emissions, energy efficiency, safety, low noise levels.
Think about the city. Tens of thousands of people move in and out of the city every day. Inside the urban boundaries they circulate in large and small arteries, pause, and continue on their journey. Along with the people there is the movement of vehicles that carry them or, in the case of bicycles, which they propel themselves. The city also imports all kinds of materials into itself day and night. All of the imports (and exports) are carried in vehicles of every sort. They are taken to nodes, points of activity, and they are processed there.
Plants import countless molecules of water and nutrients every day. These molecules circulate and are utilized inside the plant body through transportation, change, and excretion. Molecules of various sizes are imported, organized, stored, and built into larger (or smaller) units. All of this happens "passively," that is, there's no noise, no emission, and no use of energy outside of sunlight or the breakdown of molecules like starch that are the products of photosynthesis.
Plant transportation systems have evolved for hundreds of millions of years so that the plant body, the analogue of the urban area, is built elegantly, minimally, and conservatively. Growth for its own sake never occurs on without the concomitant development of an infrastructure.
Plants are well known for their efficiency in retaining resources like water in dry climates. In addition, plants are built to withstand physical, chemical, and mechanical emergencies like flooding, freezing, and breaking. These are the kinds of emergencies we may be seeing more in our urban areas as climate change continues. How can we develop urban transportation infrastructures that utilize these models?
One objective is to recognize diversity. How many types of transportation actually exist in the city? What do they accomplish? What infrastructure is needed to maintain them while ensuring the goals of safety, efficiency, and other desirable "quality of life" features?
Another objective is to encourage smart development, not just growth. Do new areas of growth go along with new developmental moves? For example, is infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation like pedestrians and bicycles in place? Are there limits to scalability? For example, can goals like safety and efficiency be met or exceeded even as capacity for transport expands?
Finally, how can we improve accessibility and efficiency for every part of the city and every population? How can we improve emissions standards? Lower energy use? And how to maintain or improve convenience of movement and transfer of people and materials?
A closer look at plant anatomy, and a study over a range of different kinds of plants, would inform these questions and I think, lead to creative new solutions for transportation problems.