How cities plan around mobility is central to sustainable urbanization, advocates say

As global leaders gather at this week’s Habitat III conference to adopt the New Urban Agenda, they are being urged to pay greater attention to transport.

The view from inside a Delhi autorickshaw. (Kaarthikeyan.SM/Shutterstock)

QUITO, Ecuador — As cities move from planning to implementation of a new global strategy on sustainable urbanization being adopted here this week, transport groups are stepping up commitments to decarbonize the sector — a commitment they hope to bring to the next climate talks, taking place next month in Morocco. They are also calling for greater focus on the issue from national governments.

The transport community has brought a notably strong voice to Quito for the U. N.’s Habitat III conference. The summit marks the one time every 20 years that world leaders meet to discuss cities; the four-day event will close Thursday with the adoption of what’s being called the New Urban Agenda.

That’s an issue around which the transport sector feels it needs to play a key part. A large number of groups are here to promote sustainable mobility as a solution to three global agendas — climate change, global sustainable development and urbanization. Nearly three-dozen transport events are taking place this week on the Habitat III sidelines.

“Sustainable mobility is at the forefront of linking the processes to enable transformative action on sustainable urbanization,” said Holger Dalkmann, board member of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCAT) and a director at the World Resources Institute.

The sector already contributes around a quarter of carbon emissions worldwide. Further, transport emissions are increasing faster than other sectors, even as a massive spike in urban population is forecasted for coming decades. SLoCAT is now lining up cases of good practices, solutions and tools for local leaders in tandem with voluntary commitments of members to provide tools and assistance so cities can cut down on emissions.

[See: The New Urban Agenda is not taking transport seriously enough]

The commitments are outlined in a document called the Quito Plan of Action on Sustainable Mobility that the group will present in Morocco next month for the follow-up on last year’s COP 21 summit on climate change.

Early details discussed here suggest the sector will work on a three-pronged approach: mobilizing finance, building local capacity and sustaining networks of partners for sustained cooperation. In addition, the group will seek to work with high-visibility figures to campaign for transport-related issues. U. N. Goodwill Ambassador and actress Michelle Yeoh, for example, urged city leaders to build safe roads, especially for children.

“Our cities are undergoing rapid urbanization and motorization but lack measurements to protect kids,” she said, speaking here Tuesday. “The New Urban Agenda calls for leaders who declare support for sustainable cities into action using simple means such as providing sidewalks.”

More than 80 percent of high-speed crashes happen because pedestrians are forced to walk in streets, she said. “City leaders must design streets for people.”

Funding mobility

Transport actors say the sector also needs urgent action from national governments, including around policymaking, financing, technical guidance and capacity building. And they’re pointing to the New Urban Agenda as offering new impetus in this regard.

On Tuesday, SLoCAT and others released a “call for action” to national governments, warning that, “A rapid expansion and transformation to urban mobility systems based on walking, cycling and public transport is required.”

“We support the vision for urban mobility set out in the New Urban Agenda — but it now needs to be implemented,” the groups state. “Without a significant step up in action and support by national governments on urban transport, cities will suffer from growing congestion, road deaths/injuries, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. While much action will be taken at the city level … they need national support and enabling frameworks for urban mobility to catalyze action.”

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

Development funders are increasingly placing priority on transport. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), for instance, increased funding for sustainable transport from nothing to 16 percent between 2010 and 2015. So far, the bank has approved 28 transport investment projects and 31 technical assistance projects, according to the bank.

Recognizing the vital role of sustainable transport for interconnectivity and revitalizing urbanization, ADB practice leader for transport Tyrell Duncan said the bank plans to funnel half of its total loans toward sustainable transport by 2017.

A key example of action from national governments also came this week, when the German government announced a EUR 1 billion grant for city mobility projects that seek to promote affordable, reliable and safe transport in cities of emerging and developing economies.

Tania Roediger-Vorwerk, with the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), said the grant aims to provide growing cities in Asia and Africa access to funds for projects on sustainable mobility. The funding will be complemented by technical assistance from BMZ’s project partners that include think tanks, academic institutions and development banks.

[See: Germany stepping up major engagement in Habitat III preparations]

The grant is part of the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI), a joint project of BMZ and partners — mostly transport actors — to provide financial and technical support to cities to implement bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, railways, cable cars and other forms of alternative transport, said Roediger-Vorwerk.

“We are not doing studies but project implementation that will accelerate mobility projects,” she said.

The TUMI group is drafting a mechanism to keep track of good practices, lessons as well as causes of failure, all aimed at speeding up capacity building in the sector and thus inform future initiatives.

Good cents

Part of the impetus for investing in sustainable public transportation sooner than later is financial, advocates say. “It makes good sense for city mayors of today to be forward-looking, because the investment will pay off well into the future,” said WRI’s Dalkmann. “Transport investments in compact, coordinated cities can save USD 3 trillion in terms of infrastructure cost.”

The added efficiencies of using active — walking and biking — and public mass transport can save 2 to 5 percent of a city’s gross domestic product, he added.

That’s particularly important for the 70 percent of cities in developing economies that are in the process of planning to build transport infrastructure, said Kulwant Singh, coordinator of the Smart Move High Level Group and a former UN-Habitat programme director in Asia.

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

Beyond the support for mass public transport, projects that help mainstream alternatives such as ecomobility or active transport solutions such as walking, cycling and mass transport will be given priority for the grant application.

The TUMI project will begin in 2017 with the development of bus lines, light rail and subway systems, as well as pedestrian and bicycle paths in developing economies. Over 1,000 leaders and urban experts also will receive training on building sustainable mobility systems for smaller and medium-sized cities.

With 1.4 million people moving to cities each week, the transport sector’s commitment will be put to the test when it presents its plan of action in Morocco next month and national leaders are able to see how it can provide concrete steps toward harmonizing the sector’s efforts at sustainable urbanization.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s newsletters, including daily updates this week from Quito. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary