LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Across the world, cities are making their transport systems more environmentally friendly. They are revamping bus services to be faster and more reliable, introducing bike-sharing schemes, putting in cycle lanes and reducing the number of cars on the road.
At the same time, the world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. For the first time ever, more people now live in cities than in the country. A larger urban population requires more and better public transportation, and improved road management.
Some cities do care about their carbon footprint and are thinking about its effects, both now and in the future. But even in urban areas that do not follow a sustainable political agenda, similar changes are taking place.
“The word sustainability can often be very political,” said Raksha Vasudevan, an associate with the National League of Cities, an American advocacy group. “You’d be surprised how many cities are doing what we might consider sustainable transportation without even calling it that.”
The transport sector was responsible for 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004, and transport energy use is projected to increase 80 percent from 2002 to 2030, according to a flagship 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet even if the idea of sustainability doesn’t attract all city leaders, many realise that reforms towards “sustainable” transport have other benefits besides reducing emissions, Vasudevan said.
People are settling in cities only to discover they have become congested with traffic, are hard to get around and highly polluted. As a result, cities are turning to sustainable transport options for reasons beyond being greener.
“If we’re interested in the wellbeing of cities, surely we should care how it feels to move through them,” Montgomery said in an interview.
Sustainable transport reforms often focus on managing how much people drive in cities, to reduce the severe traffic congestion that plagues many urban centres.
As well as polluting the air, traffic increases the time people spend commuting, and there is plenty of research showing that this makes us unhappy.
“In general, the longer your commute, the less time you have for friends, family and recreation” - one of the biggest determinants of people’s happiness, Montgomery said.
He argued that, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work can boost their happiness as much as finding a new love.
Cornie Huizenga, joint convener of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, which advocates for sustainable transport internationally, said that in the quest to reduce congestion, cities now realise more roads are not the answer.
Instead, they charge for using roads at peak driving times when traffic is worst, and put quotas on how many licenses are issued every year.
After Singapore’s success with the first such programme in the late 1970s, other cities have followed suit, including London. It saw 60,000 fewer cars and delivery vehicles entering its busiest zone after the first six months of introducing congestion charging in February 2003.
PUBLIC AMENITIES, BETTER BUSES
Some cities are even swapping highways for more enjoyable public amenities. Huizenga pointed to Boston, which buried its highways underground and replaced them with pedestrian greenways, and Seoul, which got rid of a main road altogether in exchange for a stream with a riverside walk.
And in nearly every city, inexpensive public bicycle schemes are “popping up left, right and centre”, Huizenga added.
“There is a quiet revolution of rediscovering public space,” he said. “It’s part of a movement to somehow humanise the cities again.”
Still, author Montgomery said it is wrong to suggest people should not drive at all. “What we need…is more freedom for people to move about the cities any way they please,” he said. It is up to cities to make the most sustainable choices the most appealing, he added.
Many cities are doing that by devoting their best and fastest roads to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, where designated lanes and stations make the buses more reliable, faster and pleasant to use.
“It represents all the provisions of metro systems at a fraction of the costs,” said Michael Replogle, founder of the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP).
In cities like Bogotá in Colombia and Cape Town in South Africa, BRTs have given poorer people more mobility. In Cape Town, that means people who were segregated during apartheid now have access to new job opportunities, Replogle said.
That kind of economic development - rather than sustainability - is what drives most cities to invest in public transport, he said.
“Nobody invests in better public transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Replogle said, calling for the link with development to be made clearer. “We really need to align sustainable transport with sustainable development goals,” he added.
Even though cities are starting to adopt greener ways for their residents to get around, Replogle and Huizenga both said sustainable transport needs to be higher on the international agenda.
Transportation “has to be part of the process” of reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, in order to curb global warming, Huizenga said.
Replogle argued that sustainable transport systems offer “opportunities for a win-win situation” of limiting emissions without sacrificing initiatives for economic development.
Despite transport’s relatively low position on the political agenda, both Replogle and Huizenga identified a “new paradigm” of people wanting cities with better access to more efficient transportations than the congested urban centres of the past.
“The situation is not good,” Huizenga said. “But the good news is people are aware that things are not good, and we’re starting see changes at the institutional and global level.”
Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.