This post is co-written with Jose Luis Irigoyen, director for the Transport, Water, and Information and Communications Technologies Department in the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) of the World Bank.
Cities are the world’s engines of economic growth. Yet many have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring safe and affordable access to jobs, education, and healthcare for its citizens—in part because their transport systems are inadequate and unsustainable. This weakness is visible in packed slums and painful commutes in cities that fail to provide affordable transport options.
Inadequate transport comes with other costs related to air quality and safety. Beijing, China, battles dangerous levels of air pollution due in part to motor vehicle emissions. Major Indian metropolises like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai are growing out instead of up, contributing to increased travel distances and an estimated 550 deaths every day from traffic accidents. And across the globe, cities are the locus of up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions driving climate change.
Poor transport systems not only hinder the public health and economic growth of cities, they can spur civil unrest. More than 100,000 protestors, for example, gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on one night in June 2013 to express a wide range of grievances, including transportation fare hikes, poor public services despite a high tax burden, and other urban issues.
But in these challenges lie significant opportunities – particularly for the business and transport sectors at the city level.
Better Cities, Better Business
High-quality and affordable public transport systems make a city attractive to investors and thereby create more job opportunities. Reliable public transport systems also promote inclusiveness and allow all residents to benefit from the economic growth potential of a city.
This week, EMBARQ – the sustainable urban transport and planning program of the World Resources Institute (WRI) – and the World Bank will co-organize Transforming Transportation with a team of partner organizations. Transforming Transportation is a two-day event that will bring together business leaders, policymakers, and city and transport officials. This year’s theme is “Better Cities, Better Business.” By convening this diverse group of stakeholders, we hope to share ideas and spread the message that the business and transport sectors can work together to improve the world’s cities – to benefit themselves, as well as millions of urban residents.
Businesses have not traditionally been seen as critical to improving urban areas, but they should be – 25 major cities account for approximately 50 percent of the world’s GDP, and improving cities is beneficial and rewarding for businesses and urban residents alike. Globally, cities are home to more than 3.5 billion people, more than half the population of the planet. People migrate to cities at the rate of tens of millions per year because cities reduce the physical distance between people and companies. Home to some of the poorest on the planet, they offer the most opportunities to raise oneself out of poverty. Companies are often located in cities for the same reason: proximity.
In a global race to attract and retain talent, cities and businesses must partner to create attractive, dynamic places to live and work. One immediate way businesses can help improve cities is by engaging with the transport sector. Consider the following opportunities:
In Mexico City, Mexico, traffic congestion forces 20 percent of workers to spend more than three hours commuting to work each day. Meanwhile, chronic traffic congestion in Cairo is estimated to cost up to US$8 billion per year -- about 4 percent of Egypt's GDP. Sustainable transport solutions can help recover the financial value of lost productivity– Line 3 of Mexico City’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Metrobús, has saved US$142 million in travel time alone.
Similarly, investing in sustainable transport infrastructure improves road safety for users across all modes of transport, including passengers on public transport, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Because traffic crashes currently claim 1.2 million lives every year and are predicted to become the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030, investment in pedestrianization and cycling infrastructure could be a game-changer. The vastly publicized pedestrianization of Times Square has also benefited businesses by increasing foot traffic. Times Square has become one of the 10 most successful retail destinations in the world since the beginning of its transformation. What has been good for residents has been good for the city and businesses at large. From Buenos Aires, Argentina’s famed Florida Street to the Pandara Market in Delhi, India, pedestrian areas make commercial sense: they attract tourists, shoppers, and workers on their lunch breaks.
Working Together for Sustainable Urbanization
In today’s increasingly globalized, interconnected world, we can’t operate in silos – whether in the business, transport, or development sectors. Truly improving cities for the benefit of all requires concerted, cross-sectoral action and seizing all sorts of opportunities—from advances in technology to climate finance to shifts in the global development agenda. We also need to follow the example of recent innovations—like the rapidly expanding car-sharing industry or auto-rickshaw fleet reorganizations—and think outside of the box. The most effective solutions may not necessarily be high-tech, but they will certainly require creative, collaborative thinking.
Several major milestones loom ahead: the 20th and the 21st Conferences of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima in 2014 and Paris in 2015, as well as the definition of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These key events will set the framework for global action after 2015. Transforming Transportation offers a unique opportunity for businesses, transport experts, and policymakers to raise the right questions and hone in on issues that will take center stage in upcoming international summits. These discussions will help shape economic, environmental, and social sustainability for decades to come.
- LEARN MORE: To find out how better cities can lead to better business, stay tuned for our ongoing coverage of Transforming Transportation this week. You’re also encouraged to engage and raise questions on social media using #TTDC14 throughout the conference, follow @EMBARQNetwork and @wbsustaindev on Twitter for real-time updates, and tune-in to the Transforming Transportation website and World Bank LIVE for video streaming of select sessions.