New Urban Transport Models Can Help Create Sustainable Cities

Shanghai, China encourages bicycle use to combat traffic congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Marko Simo / Flickr

Urban leaders from around the world are meeting in Quito, Ecuador, October 17-20, 2016, to set the global agenda for the future of cities at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, known as Habitat III. Through the World Resources Report (WRR) on sustainable cities, WRI offers real-world research that aims to convert plans into implementation to create cities that live, move and thrive. One section of the WRR is on sustainable mobility enabling better, safer, cleaner and affordable access for all, and will be presented at the WRR launch event in Quito October 16.

Emmanuel, a 40-year-old tailor in Awoshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana, is a good example of challenges that face commuters in cities around the world. He lives just 11 kilometers (about 7 miles) from his job in the central business district, but spends 15 percent of his household income getting there, mostly on trotro, a small van providing informal public transport service, similar to the magic in India, the daladala in Tanzania or the combi in Peru. Congestion in the city center makes bus drivers avoid it by taking circuitous, time-consuming routes that can more than an hour to commute, and more direct travel options are often prohibitively expensive.  The solution Emmanuel sees for his commuting difficulties would only make traffic congestion worse: he hopes to get his own car.

Making transport sustainable for all city residents is a prominent part of the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of Habitat III. This demonstrates the international development community’s recognition of how important mobility is for prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Making that vision a reality presents challenges to city leaders as they who struggle to address the immediate need to move people from homes to jobs with limited resources. In many cases, cities continue with old, unsustainable models that rely too heavily on cars and roads. And the problems of traditional transport – including traffic fatalities and the health effects of air pollution — will continue to be felt primarily by society’s most vulnerable.

Between 2000 and 2015 the use of motor vehicles worldwide jumped 67 percent to 24 trillion vehicle kilometers (15 trillion miles) from 14 trillion (8.7 trillion miles). During that period, the total number of vehicles on the road surged 49 percent to 992 million from 664 million, reflecting the growing urban middle class in developing countries. Electric vehicle stock grew dramatically, but still accounted for just 1 million in 2015, up from fewer than 20,000 vehicles in 2010. While new technologies such as e-hailing apps provide flexibility and convenience, these ad hoc private services further increase the focus on cars for mobility, rather than inclusion in a comprehensive transit plan that fosters the use of clean modes like walking and cycling.

Putting Cities in the Driver’s Seat

Addressing these challenges will be essential if cities are to achieve the New Urban Agenda’s sustainable transport goals. WRI’s World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City will examine this issue in a working paper that looks at the possible policies city governments can use to propel their communities towards sustainable urban mobility.

There are plenty of good examples on how to do this. There are currently more than 12,600 km (nearly 8000 miles) of metro or urban rail and 5,400 km (3,300 miles) of bus rapid transit (BRT), collectively providing 154 million trips a day in 250 cities. Walking and biking also are gaining momentum. In U.S. cities, for example, commuting by bicycle increased 62 percent between 2000 and 2013.  And some cities, like London, Shanghai and Bogotá, discourage excessive car use with congestion pricing, vehicle quotas or license plate restrictions as they work to tackle congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

WRR examines policies that have the potential to capitalize on that momentum. Noting that the most sustainable cities have high proportions of residents who walk, bicycle and use public transport, we look at policies that increase this behavior. These can include changes in land use, with a mix of residential and commercial use; dedicated pedestrian zones and bicycle lanes; and better planning and coordination of transit policies across metropolitan areas to ensure service covers all areas of the city.

Another challenge is the traditional focus of public finance on building highways rather than on more sustainable transportation options, as well as the lack of comprehensive mobility plans, especially in metropolitan areas where different municipal governments are not adequately coordinated.

New mobility solutions like e-hailing and car sharing can be a welcome part of the transport mix, but as a complement to a coordinated system. Cities need to be more in the driver’s seat instead of the passenger’s seat.

WRI’s World Resources Report will focus on challenges and solutions over the next year aimed at creating more equal cities. Future research papers will look at practical solutions to core services like housing, energy, and transportation as well as provide insights into the broader process of urban transformation. The WRI will launch the report Oct. 16 in Quito.

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