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Live from Transforming Transportation 2017: What’s Next for the Sustainable Mobility Narrative?

Andrew Steer, CEO and President of World Resources Institute, and Laura Tuck, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, opened Day 1 of Transforming Transportation 2017 with moderator Melinda Crane. Photo by Luca Lo Re / WRI.

Transforming Transportation (#TTDC17) is the annual conference co-organized by the World Bank and the EMBARQ mobility initiative of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. This year’s conference is themed Beyond Commitments: Sustainable Mobility for All, and takes place on January 12 and 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #TTDC17, by following @WRIcities and @WBG_Transport on Twitter, and tune in live for video streaming of select sessions.


Why do some issues rise to the top of the global agenda while others struggle to become part of the mainstream? Look at climate change, which has taken center stage through the COP process and played a role in local and national elections throughout 2016. What did the climate community get right?

As Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute, explained, a lot of this has to do with the clarity of the narrative and the extent to which its messengers have pushed its message to the public and onto the international agenda. We can learn from the successes of climate negotiations, but so far transport hasn’t been able to rally around a common, compelling narrative. The evidence is there—1.25 million people die from traffic crashes per year, 23 percent of all GHG emissions come from transport—and the commitments have been made—the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and more—but we need to be politically and psychologically smarter. Only a radical shift in the discourse will get us to a tipping point for transformative change.

Key Leadership in Changing Transport Trends  

The first plenary session highlighted the importance of leadership in catalyzing transformation within the transport sector. “This is a moment of unique responsibility for political leaders,” said Jose Viegas, Secretary-General at ITF, “countries have the right to say what they want to do on transport.” Through each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions, national governments have the great opportunity to dictate how to shape their national agendas. In addition to national leadership, “local governments are more in power than ever, for transport,” said Secretary General of UITP Alain Flausch. Due to heightened technological advancements, city authorities have access to real-time, robust datasets on mobility. Through analyzing this data, local governments can take action through regulation, engaging governments on all levels.

While the opportunity for strong governmental action resonated throughout the panel, Mayor of Santiago Carolina Toha also directed attention to everyday citizens. “It is a priority to view transportation through the eyes and hearts of the people,” she said. After all, residents have the power to drive change in the transport sector; people elect how they move about their cities. Mayor Toha emphasized the need to get the minds people on board to achieve city goals. Similarly, Patrick Oliva, Senior VP of Michelin Group, turns to the people for results: “If you want to achieve something, you need to know where you’re going, and then you have to unleash the creativity of the people to meet the objectives.” By syncing the transport agenda with the needs of its residents, cities can build efficient, connected and sustainable cities. “If we have serious politicians and goodwill, we have a chance,“ said Alain Flausch, “we need goodwill.”

Cities Must Leverage Private Funds to Have a Voice

Financing is one of the greatest challenges for urban mobility worldwide. The problem, however, does not result from the lack money, bur rather from the proper investment and application of those funds A business as usual model creates significant economic costs that could be applied to other sectors. Research from the New Climate Economy indicates that investment in public transit can save $11 trillion in energy savings by 2050.

Liberating the transit sector from the status quo requires action. “Transit solutions will never pay for themselves through the fare box,” said Chief Economist and Senior Vice President at the World Bank Paul Romer. What must be prioritized, described Laura Tuck in her opening statement, is increased private funding, which requires immense changes in the financial sector and mobilizing private finance at scale. But how do cities leverage private funding? According to Carlos Mier Y Teran, Director of Ports, Airports and Gas Pipelines with Banobras-Mexico, if a project is well planned, there is lower technical, environmental, economic and social risk, and therefore, banks will feel more comfortable providing funding. This financial shift is imperative for cities to transform their transportation sectors. For now, however, “if they don’t have access to finances, cities won’t have a voice,” said Mayor Toha.

Moving the Narrative Forward on Road Safety

What needs to happen to move the narrative forward for road safety, a health crisis taking the lives of 1.2 million people a year? David Ward, CEO of Towards Zero Foundation, put it directly, “we need to stop blaming the victim. This isn’t about human error—this is about a failure of the system.”

The safe systems approach to road safety is all about flipping this line of logic and making road safety a shared responsibility. The safe systems approach emphasizes designing roads to be safer in the first place rather than relying on behavioral measures like education and enforcement. But as Soames Job, Director of Global Road Safety Facility at the Work Bank, explained, “road safety advocates have not done a good job of communicating this approach to non-road safety advocates.” The next step in updating the narrative will be about mainstreaming this message.

So how can low- and middle-income countries—where 92 percent of fatalities are concentrated—leapfrog the problems experienced by developed countries? Too often the true social costs of the road deaths are not factored into the financial costs of road projects, noted Walid Abdelwahab, Director of Infrastructure Department at the Islamic Development Bank. This leads to investors and decision makers choosing the road that’s cheaper in the short term, but costly in the long term in terms of fatalities and social costs. Updating the global road safety narrative means also mainstreaming an approach to cost accounting that takes into consideration the full costs.

Lastly, panelists discussed the need to move people into safer modes of transport like mass transit instead of onto roads. Motorcycles, which move at high speeds in congested conditions, are on the road in many cities around the world. A comprehensive, safe systems approach to road safety needs to address this trend and push for a fundamental paradigm shift. As multiple speakers concluded, we can’t settle for reducing or even halving fatalities—zero is the only acceptable number.

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