On the move: Advancing sustainable transport – getting from here to there
Mayors play a pivotal role in creating sustainable, livable cities. Photo by Tommy Vohs /Flickr.

Catalyzing action on sustainable transport initiatives will take innovation and action. Photo by Tommy Vohs. All Rights Reserved.

This is the tenth and final post of the “Sustainable Urban Transport On The Move” blog series, exclusive to TheCityFix. Preparation of this series was possible thanks to a grant by Shell Corporation. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors.

The past entries of the On the Move series analyzed the adoption of sustainable urban transport solutions worldwide that create more inclusive and prosperous cities. We find the global progress inspiring, especially in light of how quickly some of these ideas have evolved from concept to widespread adoption across geographies.

At the same time, we are not alone in recognizing the need to actively promote sustainable transport measures, including those analyzed in this series. Last week’s C40 Cities Mayors Summit positioned sustainable transport as key to making cities more livable while reducing their carbon footprint. The Climate Action in Megacities 2.0 report suggests a paradigm shift towards such measures, highlighting the 1,534 actions C40 cities took to address urban transport (out of roughly 8,000 total), including 186 actions to develop better walking and biking infrastructure and 29 to build or improve bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.

However, urban society as a whole is still far away from achieving what we need. Only a radical departure from business-as-usual can expand access to opportunity for urban populations while reducing the transport sector’s contributions to air pollution, traffic fatalities, deteriorating public health, and climate change. These issues indicate both the progress still necessary within the transport sector, and more importantly the crucial role policymakers, city officials, business leaders, and other change agents can play in advancing sustainable transport measures that combat these epidemics. This final post will delve into the solutions we need to get from here to there.

What we need: Bring emerging cities into the conversation

The sustainable transport measures discussed in this series are far more common in the developed world. The usual suspects like New York (pedestrian plazas), Paris (bike-sharing), and London (congestion pricing, low emission zones) are among the most commonly cited examples. However, growing mid-size cities in emerging economies are the key to a sustainable future, as they have the opportunity to leapfrog car-dependent urban development and build mass transit systems that integrate land use planning, support public space, and connect people to goods and opportunities in cities. It is time to catalyze action in these cities.

Adoption of sustainable transport measures by region. Photo by EMBARQ.

Adoption of sustainable transport measures by region. Table by EMBARQ.

What we need: Scaling up smart solutions

In terms of the number of cities where implemented, the graph below shows that car-sharing and bike-sharing are the fastest growing sustainable transport solutions. However, the impact of both measures is still relatively modest: car-sharing schemes operate in more than 1,000 cities, but global membership is only 2.5 – 2.8 million. By contrast, high impact solutions usually face larger obstacles to adoption. Metro rail and congestion pricing, for example, require greater institutional capacity and financial resources. Identifying and scaling the smart solutions – those with both high impact and relatively low strain on institutional and financial resources – is the key to achieving widespread implementation of sustainable transport measures.

A wide variety of sustainable transport trends have emerged and flourished between 1960 and 2010. Photo by EMBARQ.

Graphic by EMBARQ.

What we need: More integration

On the Move revealed that there is an increasing supply and diversity of sustainable urban transportation options across cities, but shifting consumer behavior to actually utilize these options takes time.

Advancement in information technology and data processing can accelerate multimodal integration, helping to integrate ticketing and leverage the growth of trip-planning mobile applications. Urban planning, infrastructure design, and city policy must be undertaken with an eye towards creating integrated, user-oriented transport systems across modes.

How can we get from here to there?

Three key factors enable the adoption of sustainable transport measures: iconic, pioneering cities; national policies; and the unique qualities of transport solutions themselves.

Pilot iconic cities: Few cities have the international reputation and credibility to catalyze the widespread adoption of sustainable transport measures. Cities like Paris, London, and New York exert a global influence in the same way “influential” individuals set trends. This is reflected in the rapid growth of bike-sharing worldwide following Paris’s implementation in 2007 and the spike in pedestrian and bicycle facilities following New York City’s pedestrianization of Times Square, despite earlier (less influential) adopters of each practice.

National policies: National and regional policies set the context in which ideas and innovations travel from one city to another. The appropriate policy context can accelerate the implementation of new measures. For example, the scaling up of low emission zones in Europe has benefited from the fairly strict air quality standards adopted in the European Union, and the rise of metro in China is related to the nationwide recognition of metro as a modern and high-quality transport alternative.

Unique sustainable transport solutions: As discussed, different sustainable transport measures carry with them different public and political opinion as well as financial and technical requirements. Cities are more inclined to introduce high impact measures with relatively low technical, infrastructural, and financial barriers – the smart solutions. BRT, for example, has gained popularity in the last decade due to its low cost and rapid implementation as compared with metro. Effective leaders are inclined to choose options that are within the city’s financial constraints and whose results are seen within their term in office.

Of course, cities are unique and these solutions cannot be “cut-and-paste”. Change agents – policymakers, planners, city leaders, and catalyzing non-governmental organizations – must develop localized strategies to make these solutions actionable. This can come via adapting existing ideas to local context, or by developing new, localized solutions. The latter is the case with the Rickshaw Rising Challenge, which calls on local entrepreneurs to innovate and improve intermediate transport systems in India. Developing attractive, localized solutions is perhaps the most challenging piece of the puzzle, but also the greatest opportunity for collaboration among local policy-makers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and action-oriented organizations like EMBARQ to create real change.


Dario Hidalgo, Heshuang Zeng, Akshay Mani, and Ryan Schleeter also contributed to this post.

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