The New Urban Agenda is not taking transport seriously enough

The global community has made a lot of promises about the importance of clean, safe, accessible transport in our cities. Habitat III is the time to deliver.

A tuk-tuk navigates a Bangkok street. (Panawut Pakkaro/Shutterstock)

Imagine all the people, living in … cities that are accessible, climate resilient and free of congestion and accidents, and enjoying clear, fresh air?

In fact, dramatically improved urban mobility, where everyone has safe, affordable access to all the great opportunities of urban life, is not so hard to imagine. It also could be delivered cost-effectively: We just need to scale up our efforts to transform urban mobility. And the upcoming Habitat III conference on urbanization, the U. N.-wide summit taking place in October in Quito, is just the place to start.

Urban transport systems are already under pressure, with most such areas experiencing growing levels of congestion. To cope with the additional 2.3 billion people expected to be living in urban areas by 2050 and the rising demand for transport per person, we need a rapid transformation in urban mobility systems and investment.

It’s true that much attention is already paid to reducing the negative impacts of today’s urban transport patterns. Nevertheless, cities throughout the world — rich and poor — are still increasingly clogged with congestion, filled with polluted air, and plagued by accidents and death on their roads.

[See: Habitat III can revolutionize urban thinking on health and well-being]

The irony is that we already have well-tested and broadly accepted solutions that can move large numbers of people safely, cheaply and efficiently. The problem is that these simply are not being implemented sufficiently at scale. The New Urban Agenda strategy that will come out of Habitat III, however, offers a key opportunity to start taking the steps necessary to do so.

There are several key ways by which urban mobility can be transformed. First, dramatically improved, mixed-use urban planning can ensure that people living in cities are near the goods and services they need. Indeed, such planning can stimulate vibrant local communities, thus further avoiding the need for much travel altogether.

Second, we need a widespread shift in transport toward more sustainable modes. For instance, good urban design and linked public spaces can encourage walking and cycling, and improve health. High-quality public transport can move people safely and cheaply, and make much better use of road space at peak times. Importantly, this also provides an opportunity to create socially integrated services for everyone — rich and poor, young and old.

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

Third, new technologies, fuels and business models can improve the performance of individual modes of transport, making them faster, quieter, safer and cheaper. In addition to improving quality of life, such improvements help to reduce environmental impacts in terms of climate change and air quality.

Equality strategy

Many cities, large parts of the transport industry, as well as the broader transport and development community are fully prepared to play their role in delivering on sustainable urban mobility.

“The weakest link for the broad transformation of urban mobility is the necessary support in national policy frameworks. Countries need to step up and provide the necessary coordination, leadership and resources to enable cities to deliver — before it’s too late.”

But the weakest link for the broad transformation of urban mobility is the necessary support in national policy frameworks. Countries need to step up and provide the necessary coordination, leadership and resources to enable cities to deliver — before it’s too late.

Cities provide access to economic opportunities, after all, and great cities need to have a great transport system. However, despite the fact that urban transport defines the experience of living in a city (for better or for worse), too little attention is paid to urban transport policy.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

In addition to addressing the environmental problems of rising greenhouse-gas emissions and noise and air pollution, urban mobility is central to tackling economic and social inequality. A lack of access to urban opportunities is often a major cause of poverty and inequality — and providing disadvantaged groups with better urban access, thus connecting them to opportunities and services, is a major strategy for overcoming urban inequality. The cost of transport and long journey times are a major problem for poor workers, who often live in isolated areas.

Providing efficient mass transit is the most cost-effective, cleanest and safest way to move people in cities, particularly at peak times — thus reducing transport costs and supporting economic development that can benefit all. There is no alternative to a broad transformation of urban mobility policy. No new technology or energy carrier alone can deliver the widespread benefits of truly sustainable transport.

Implementing past pledges

The transport and development community welcomes the “revised” draft of the New Urban Agenda, released 18 June. The new draft is clearer and more concise, and includes a number of important references to transport and mobility. The document also correctly highlights a number of generic enabling factors — planning, capacity-building, finance, etc. — that are necessary for sustainable urban development. (A new draft of the New Urban Agenda was released 18 July as this story was being published; it is available here.)

“There is no alternative to a broad transformation of urban mobility policy. No new technology or energy carrier alone can deliver the widespread benefits of truly sustainable transport.”

Still, we have significant concerns about where this draft stands today. Despite the considerable effort and resources invested, there is a great risk that the final text will not be an action-orientated agenda for delivering the change so badly needed. Indeed, the New Urban Agenda stands as an important opportunity to put into action some key pledges that the international community has made in recent years.

[See: After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon]

U. N. member states have already unanimously recognized the importance of transport issues on multiple occasions. In the 2012 “The Future We Want”, the outcome document from the U. N.’s major Rio+20 summit, governments recognized “the importance of the efficient movement of people and goods, and access to environmentally sound, safe and affordable transportation as a means to improve social equity, health, resilience of cities.” They further noted “the importance of mixed-use planning and of encouraging non-motorized mobility, including by promoting pedestrian and cycling infrastructures.”

The end result of the Rio+20 talks is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 15-year global framework that went into effect in January. One of the targets for these goals pledges governments to “provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons” by 2030. Another pledges them, by 2020, to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents”.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

The most recent major global agreement was struck in December, when U. N. member states finalized the Paris Agreement on climate change. Delivering on that accord will now require the decarbonization of urban transport in the coming decades — certainly by the time we meet for Habitat IV, in 2036.

Tool for delivery

If the New Urban Agenda is to put us on the right path, then, it will need strong and specific language on the action that member states will take to deliver on these past commitments. The Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport, which represents over 90 key actors in the transport and development community, has reviewed the revised draft agenda of 18 June and is calling on U. N. member states to make the following improvements in order to make the New Urban Agenda a tool for delivery.

Urgency: The current text does not sufficiently emphasize the urgency of the paradigm shift required. To cope with the widely predicted urban challenges we will face in the coming years, we need a massive increase in accessible walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure and services.

[See: Idea exchange: What Singapore is learning from Copenhagen on bicycling]

Climate change: The Paris Agreement on climate change, through its ambitious target of moving toward a 1.5 degree Celsius maximum global temperature increase, makes clear that transport will need to largely decarbonize by 2050. It is generally accepted that urban transport will need to be in the lead on this, and several countries and cities have already announced major policy initiatives in this respect. The New Urban Agenda should now strengthen the links between climate action and urban mobility to ensure broad action and, based on the Paris Agreement, set urban transport firmly on a decarbonization pathway.

Planning to minimize transport demand: The New Urban Agenda text focuses too strongly on supply-side interventions, including public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure, to the detriment of a stronger advocacy for demand-management solutions — in particular, dramatically improved planning to minimize the need to travel. Explicit reference to the need for “sustainable urban mobility plans” should be restored in the text.

Focus on the needs of vulnerable groups: The text lacks focus on the needs of vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, the poor and people with disabilities. Making transport safer, cheaper, more accessible and cleaner disproportionately benefits vulnerable groups.

[See: India’s Jugnoo is like Uber for auto rickshaws]

Freight: The text also overlooks the key role that freight, the moving of goods, plays in enabling economic development. It is important to promote the sustainable growth of freight transport, but this will require differentiated response strategies for the movements of goods versus people.

Technology enabling change: The text recognizes the role of technology as an enabler of shared mobility services, but these can also be used to ensure user fees and charges reflect the marginal social costs and provide new sources of financing to further encourage a shift toward more-sustainable modes of transportation.

[See: Reconnecting urban planning with health and well-being]

Without strong action at all levels, including from member states, the promise of cities as attractive and successful places to live in the 21st century will not materialize. Without a dramatic change in direction, cities will become increasingly congested, road collisions will kill and maim millions more, and billions will be forced to breathe polluted air.

Cities and the transport and development community are ready to act. The question that needs to be answered in Quito is: Are the U. N. member states prepared to provide the necessary leadership and focus in the New Urban Agenda to deliver on their past commitments and transform urban mobility?

It’s easy to imagine a great future for cities — now it’s time to make it a reality.

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Cornie Huizenga

Cornie Huizenga is the secretary general of the Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), which represents over 90 key actors in the transport and development community, and advocates for the integration of sustainable transport in the global development processes.