Urban transport: How to set up effective authorities?

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Rush hour on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit network. Photo: Richard Lee/Flickr
Rush hour on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit network. Photo: Richard Lee/Flickr

The World Bank is regularly asked by client countries to help improve the coordination of urban transport at a metropolitan level and provide technical assistance to create an Authority.

Such is currently the case in Algeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Peru, Kenya... The issue is complex because of the numerous stakeholders involved (Ministries, municipalities, agencies, the traffic police, etc.) and their frequent unwillingness to share or lose power to a new institution.

In developing countries, laws were often passed to create Authorities but rarely  fully implemented.

How then could we help client countries to move forward?

First how were authorities created where they exist? It was often a decision of the central Government (UK, France, Dubai, Singapore), or of the regional one (Spain), the competences given to the authority were clear and not shared with preexisting institutions. The authority was either created from scratch or from preexisting entities that were expanded (Dubai, Singapore).

It seems to me that two sets of steps need to be taken in parallel to create an authority:


1. Give elements to our client countries to support the creation of the authority

One major element is to highlight the cost of inaction. A recent World Bank study in Cairo found that congestion costs each year between 3 and 5 percent of the country's GDP. In the European Union, estimates are around 2%. In improving the congestion situation by rationalizing the use of available infrastructure, for example, an authority can bring a decided plus in this matter.

It is also important to highlight that the benefits of creating an authority extend far beyond the transport sector. What is at stake is the efficient working of the city, and as such the success of the major public policies of access to job opportunities, health, education... in short, the quality of life of citizens. Mobility is the policy that enables other policies.

Using benchmarks such as London, Paris or Singapore can help convince deciders that a major city needs a well-coordinated transport system with one single authority at the helm. However, benchmarks also have a limited value as authorities in developed countries were created and evolve in contexts far different than those prevailing elsewhere. This is too often overlooked.


2. Empower the transport authority

The following steps should be taken:

  • Choose competent project manager/director who has already worked in a transport authority, as was the case for Lagos, would be an ideal first step. To achieve this, a headhunter could be commissioned to look for a candidate, including foreign nationals (Birmingham and Sydney have foreign directors). Choosing the director very early on will enable them to take part in the creation of the authority right from the design phase and through all subsequent phases.
  • Give clear competences to the authority. The objective of its creation is to improve governance. As such it should have its own competences and not share it with other institutions. If a law has already been passed a detailed chart of who does what should be drafted rapidly to identify potential overlaps and fix them.
  • To build support and credibility, prepare a robust communication plan explaining the role and value added of the authority,.
  • Allocate the authority its own resources. Ideally the Authority should be the one financing transport investments and operations, and as such the one having the budget for this.
  • Enable the authority to recruit its staff and pay them well to attract competent professionals.
  • Entrust the Authority with a project it can implement on a short-term basis so as to give it credibility and visibility (single fare card, BRT, new bus offer, …). A transport project can also be the starting point of an Authority creation.

To support the creation of the authority, some ways could be explored:

  • Have an existing authority from a developed country twinning with one in creation. 
  • Organize a twinning via the association of European transport authorities, EMTA.
  • Set up a European Union twinning. This State to State twinning is used today in Algiers where a EU resident advisor is helping the recently created urban transport authority (AOTUA) to develop.


Each country can get inspiration from international examples but will have to invent its own model in the end. Key success factors, as stated in the World Bank toolkit “Institutional labyrinth” will be for the authority to generate public value, to have internal capacity and have external political support. The legal framework should be flexible enough that the competences of the authority can be adjusted as needed. This is particularly true at a time when new mobility solutions are developing quickly.


Thierry Desclos

Senior Urban Transport Specialist, Middle East and North Africa

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