In case you haven’t heard, plastic straws are bad news for the planet. This much was made clear over the summer as a surge of anti-straw sentiment spread across many countries. News channels all over the world highlighted how this small and light piece of hollow plastic has been contaminating the oceans and posing a risk to the environment. Outcry was swift and decisive. Practically overnight, countless individuals vowed never to use them again. Even beverage industry giant Starbucks decided to eliminate plastic straws by 2020!
Interestingly, straws make up a fairly small share of the overall plastic pollution in our oceans, especially compared to other sources of plastic waste such as fishing nets and gear. Still, every small piece of plastic that does not end up contaminating the environment is a win. But what’s truly remarkable here is how the global community rallied behind a simple and impactful change, and then followed through with it.
The whole campaign about plastic straws and the quick reaction that ensued got me thinking about what a “plastic straw moment” could look like for the transport sector. What small change can we all take to get the world to rally behind transport?
Not a day goes by without a new story on how technology is redefining what is possible for transport. A futuristic world of self-driving, automated cars seems closer than ever. While the ongoing wave of innovation certainly opens up a range of exciting new possibilities, I see three enduring challenges that we need to address if we want to make sure technology can indeed help the transport sector move in the right direction:
The focus is still on car-centric development
The race towards incredibly sophisticated and fully automated cars is well underway: companies like Google, Uber, Delphi Automotive, Bosche, Tesla, Nissan Mercedes-Benz, and Audi have already begun testing self-driving cars in real conditions. Even those who express concern about the safety and reliability of autonomous vehicles still agree that this innovative technology is the way of the future.
But where is the true disruption? Whether you’re looking at driverless cars, electric vehicles, or car-sharing, all these breakthroughs tend to reinforce a car-centric ecosystem that came out of the industrial revolution over a hundred years ago.
The answer, unfortunately, is not very. The world is off track to achieving sustainable mobility. The demand for moving people and goods across the globe is increasingly met at the expense of future generations.
That is the verdict of the Global Mobility Report (GMR)—the first ever assessment of the global transport sector and the progress made toward achieving sustainable mobility.
The report defines sustainable mobility in terms of four goals: universal access, efficiency, safety, and green mobility. If sustainable mobility is to be achieved, these four goals need to be pursued simultaneously.
The transport sector is changing at breakneck speed.
By 2030, global passenger traffic is set to rise by 50%, and freight volume by 70%. By 2050, we will have twice as many vehicles on the road, with most of the increase coming from emerging markets, where steady economic expansion is creating new lifestyle expectations and mobility aspirations. Mega-projects like China’s One Belt, One Road could connect more than half of the world’s population, and roughly a quarter of the goods that move around the globe by land and sea.
These transformations create a unique opportunity to improve the lives and livelihoods of billions of people by facilitating access to jobs, markets, and essential services such as healthcare or education.
But the growth of the transport sector could also come at the cost of higher fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, increasing air and noise pollution, a growing number of road fatalities, and worsening inequities in access.
Although these are, of course, global challenges, developing countries are disproportionately affected.
While the case for sustainable mobility is evident, the sector still lacks coherence and clear objectives. There is a way forward, but it requires pro-active cooperation between all stakeholders.
That’s what motivated the creation of Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All), a partnership between a wide range of global actors determined to speak with one voice and steer mobility in the right direction.
SuM4All partners include Multilateral Development Banks, United Nations Agencies, bilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, and is open to other important entities such as national governments and private companies. Together, these organizations can pool their capacity and experience to orient policymaking, turn ideas into action, and mobilize financing.
Bogotá has received a lot of attention for its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, known as Transmilenio. Today, many cities are looking to replicate the Transmilenio experience, and an extensive body of research has documented the impact of the system on users and on the city as a whole, highlighting benefits such as: significant travel time savings; more affordable commuting options, particularly for low-income users now pay a single fare for their trips; and an overall decrease in congestion, pollution, and accidents.
However, much less is known about the impact of the Sistema Integrado de Transporte (SITP), a more recent reform to modernize and integrate all of the city’s bus services, eliminate the old, sometimes unsafe traditional buses, and put an end to the guerra del centavo—a phenomenon whereby drivers aggressively compete for passengers at the expense of everyone’s safety. The reform introduced a number of sweeping changes:
The multitude of small private operators were required to form companies and to formalize their drivers and maintenance personnel
Services were contractualized via concession arrangements
The overall number of buses on the roads was reduced
Bus routes were reorganized
Old buses were replaced with a more modern fleet
Cash payment gave way to a smartcard system
The city applied stricter quality control, regulation and enforcement.
To implement this model, Bogotá opted for a gradual roll-out of the SITP, as opposed to the “Big Bang” approach followed in other cities like Santiago de Chile.
Every day around the world, millions of people rely on buses to get around. In many cities, these services carry the bulk of urban trips, especially in Africa and Latin America. They are known by many different names—matatus, dalalas, minibus taxis, colectivos, diablos rojos, micros, etc.—but all have one thing in common: they are either hardly regulated… or not regulated at all. Although buses play a critical role in the daily life of many urban dwellers, there are a variety of complaints that have spurred calls for improvement and reform. For users, the lack of information and visibility on services has been a fundamental concern. Having to pay separately for each ride disproportionately hurts the poor traveling from the periphery, who often have to catch several buses to reach the center. The vehicles are old and sometimes unsafe. Adding to concerns about safety, bus drivers compete with each other for passengers in what is known in Latin America as the “guerra del centavo” or “penny war”. Non-users, planners, and city authorities also complain about the pollution and accidents caused by these drivers as well as the congestion generated by the ‘wall of buses’ on key city arterials.
To address these issues, cities have attempted to reform these informal bus services by setting up concession contracts and bring multiple bus owners and operators together under formal companies (refer to the attached note: Bus Reform in Developing Countries—Reflections on the Experience thus Far). But even though some of them have made great strides in revamping their bus services (particularly by implementing Bus Rapid Transit systems), the overall success of these attempts has been limited, and unregulated buses remain, in countless cities, a vital component of the urban transport ecosystem.
However, we are now witnessing a different, more organic kind of change that is disrupting the world of informal buses using ubiquitous cheap sensors and mobile technology.
Differentiating between effective and nominal access
A couple of months ago, one of our urban development colleagues wrote about the gap between effective and nominal access to water infrastructure services. She explained that while many of the households in the study area were equipped with the infrastructure to supply clean water, a large number of them do not use it because of its price. She highlighted a “simple fact: it is not sufficient to have a service in your house, your yard, or your street. The service needs to work and you should be able to use it. If you can’t afford it or if features—such as design, location, or quality—prevent its use, you are not benefiting from that service.” To address this concern, the water practice has been developing ways to differentiate between “effective access” and “nominal access”—between having access to an infrastructure or service and being able to use it.
In transport, too, we have been exploring similar issues. In a series of blog posts on accessibility, we have looked at the way accessibility tools—the ability to quantify the opportunities that are accessible using a transit system—are reframing how we understand, evaluate, and plan transport systems. We have used this method that allows us to assess the effectiveness of public transport in connecting people to employment opportunities within a 60-minute commute.
Incorporating considerations of cost
Yet, time is not the only constraint that people face when using public transport systems. In Bogota, for example, the average percentage of monthly income that an individual spends on transport exceeds 20% for those in the lowest income group. In some parts of the city, this reaches up to 28%—well above the internationally acceptable level of affordability of 15%.
Next week, the international community will gather at Habitat III - the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development - to discuss important urban challenges as the world’s cities grow at an unprecedented rate.
Today, 54% of people live in cities and towns. Cities can be magnets for population growth and offer opportunities for jobs and social empowerment; but they can also be a source of congestion, exclusion and impoverishment. Which path of urban growth will prevail depends, in large part, on the quality and availability of mobility solutions. Transport is a structuring element of cities.
The reality of mobility in today’s cities is alarming— especially when measured against the four criteria that define sustainable mobility.