Public transport: The way forward

8th February 2021

Devin de Vries says sustainability means making public transport a commuter’s top choice

At both societal and individual levels, confronting climate change is a proactive choice. For the most part, the right methods to curb greenhouse emissions are well known. However, both basic economic theory (people respond to individual incentives) and experience (sales of fuel-guzzling SUVs continue to rise around the world) show that most people do what is cheapest and most convenient for them – not necessarily what is environmentally sustainable.

Transport is the world’s fourth-biggest emitting sector of greenhouse gases. To reduce this impact, it must be easier for people to make better choices. A huge first step would be to make public transport easy, reliable, and safe to use in cities across the globe.

In the UK, bus journeys release less than half of the carbon emissions from the average car journey. Even in the US, where buses typically run at just one-quarter of capacity, bus journeys still are more environmentally friendly than car trips.

There are many ways to make public transport a commuter’s first choice. Some are expensive, requiring investments in new rail or bus infrastructure, though every city’s infrastructure needs are different. Tokyo, with the world’s longest metro system, requires less new rail than Dhaka or Jakarta, which are both cities with more than 20 million people that are just starting to build metro systems.

In the meantime, every city in the world can make quick and relatively cheap gains through better information and digital tools. One important reason why public transport services are underused in most cities is the lack of useful, usable information. With good information about routes and services, everyone will be able to quickly see what their options are, and will be empowered with the information and tools they need to make good use of public transport services.

Local solutions for a global problem

In richer cities, public transport systems have made progress on digitalising their networks. Many have interactive maps with trip planning, real-time vehicle locations, and estimated arrival times. Yet there is still much progress to make for a single, seamless experience. For public transport networks, payment is not always integrated into mobile devices. Many cities offer bikeshare or other micro-mobility options, but don’t include them in app-based trip planning.

Competition has spurred public transport’s progress to date. When many commuters have cars, public transport must provide a solid offering. When ride-hailing services burst onto the scene last decade, they showed travellers that real-time information with integrated payments was possible – forcing public transport operators to innovate to retain users.

Until recently, emerging-market cities, with their 3.2 billion residents, lacked that competition. Traditionally, informal public transport – high-capacity vans run on semi-flexible routes – is dominant. In emerging-market cities, 85% or more of public transport services are informal.

Global economic progress means that competition is coming. Price-adjusted per-capita GDP in Mexico is now about the same as France in the 1960s. Real wages in emerging economies have recently grown by about 4% per year, and from 2008 to 2019, real wages in China doubled. Rising incomes mean more city-dwellers have the means to buy cars or use ride-hailing companies.

For emerging-market cities then, investment in better information technology for public transport is needed now – especially for the informal modes that make up the backbone of the systems for most cities. Even informal transport vehicles release 4–8 times lower emissions than a private car.

Making public transport easier, more convenient, and safer can prevent commuters from defecting to private cars as they get richer. Some smart planning can make, or keep, public transport the top choice for commuters in emerging markets.

Taken together, local public transport decisions will have a global effect on emissions, whether for good or for ill. In Manila, for example, preventing just 1% of commuters from buying a car saves 630,000+ tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That would offset annual emissions from about 110,000 people in the UK, where average annual emissions are 5.8 tonnes/year.

Londoners, Parisians, and New Yorkers have a stake in public transport not just in their own cities, but in Jakarta, Dhaka and Manila as well. For every city, the best bang-for-the-buck is in technology that maximises local assets, from sprawling rail systems to informal van networks. Providing travellers with knowledge, centred on the patterns of actual people, will better inform decision-making and make commuting more convenient, more reliable, and more accessible for millions.

Devin de Vries is CEO at WhereIsMyTransport


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