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Reflections on the 8th International Congress on Sustainable Transport

Who said urban transport was boring? Certainly not the 1,100 people who recently gathered in Mexico City at the 8th annual International Congress on Sustainable Transport. The event, organized by colleagues at EMBARQ Mexico, brought together leading government officials, practitioners, academics, and other professionals to explore lessons and find new solutions to global transportation challenges. I was amazed by the energy and excitement that pervaded the event and by the ideas and innovations emerging in this field.

I had the pleasure of addressing the plenary on the bigger context for urban transport in today’s global society. With nearly a billion people being added to the world’s cities in the coming decades, how transport systems are designed will be pivotal for livelihoods, society, and the global environment. Transportation goes to the heart of how we live and what kind of future we want.

The State of Global Transportation

This year is the 10th anniversary since the founding of EMBARQ, WRI’s sustainable transport center. EMBARQ’s flagship project is the bus-rapid-transit (BRT) system, a concept that was born in Curitiba, Brazil, largely from the vision of Mayor Jaime Lerner (who is now a WRI board member ). What began as a single BRT line in a small Brazilian city has spread to more than 146 cities – from Mexico to Turkey to China. BRT systems have provided transportation to nearly 2 billion people, saving time and cutting pollution along the way.

Yet today, hundreds of millions of people are still wasting time and money by sitting in traffic. According to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, drivers in 400 U.S. cities spend 4.8 billion hours in traffic per year, causing a whopping $101 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel. In Lima, Peru, drivers lose four hours each day in traffic, costing approximately $6.2 billion U.S. dollars each year, or around 10 percent of the country’s GDP.

Improved transport goes beyond time and money, too. At its core, transportation is a massive public health issue. Road accidents are the 10th-leading cause of mortality worldwide—and rising. Around 50 million people are injured and 1.27 million die from road accidents each year. Ninety percent of these incidents occur in low and middle income countries.

The number of vehicles is on the rise. It’s expected there will be around 2-3 billion vehicles will be on the road by 2050. An ever-growing presence of cars and trucks will create even more congestion, pollution, and accidents.

New Solutions Needed

What’s clear is that despite progress in some areas, our current systems are not meeting the scale of the sustainability problems. International cooperation is vital, but as we found out at Rio+20, many of today’s leaders are moving too slowly and are lacking ambition to meet the challenges. We need to expand our approach and look to new partnerships to find innovative solutions.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Consider the recent historic breakthrough on light-duty vehicle emissions standards in the United States, which came through an agreement among automakers, government, and environmental groups. These standards are expected to save drivers $1.7 trillion while cutting emissions by 6 billion tons and cutting U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels by 2020.

For inspiration we can also look to one of the bright moments at the Rio+20 summit. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg led a delegation to Rio from the C40, a coalition of mayors from around the world who are working to address climate change. In Rio, Mayor Bloomberg announced that C40 cities will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 248 million tons by 2020, and could reach 1 billion tons in cuts by 2030, or the equivalent annual emissions output of Mexico and Canada combined.

Likewise, from the beginning, EMBARQ has sought to bring together unusual partners to develop innovative solutions and put them into practice. EMBARQ has benefitted from the strategic collaboration and generosity of partners such as the Shell Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It has also engaged in strategic thinking with its partners in the private sector, like FedEx and Caterpillar. And, of course, EMBARQ works closely with government officials at the national and local levels to better understand conditions on-the-ground and put sustainable transport solutions into action. That’s how EMBARQ has grown from one center in Mexico to a global network today.

The Road Ahead

Clearly, we understand many of the solutions. Now, we need to build on this knowledge to scale up sustainable transport and improve urban development for the future.

For example, sustainable transportation needs to be fully integrated by applying best practices from BRT to other transportation systems, like auto rickshaws in India and other developing countries. We also need to ensure that urban planning is comprehensive – looking beyond vehicles and roads to planning and design. By focusing on transit-oriented development, we can make sure that residential and commercial construction is done near easy-to-access public transportation routes and transit hubs.

I was inspired by the recent event in Mexico City, but I can’t forget that we live in perilous times. To meet today’s challenges, the transportation community needs to continue to expand its network to bring in even more people and more ideas. We need to build on the silent revolution that’s taking place as we transform our approach to transportation, cities, economies, communities, and our future. Doing so will lead to happier and healthier lives for us all.

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